Adventures in the Realm of Ideas (1947)

by Victor S. Yarros (1865-1956)

[Chapter 1]
Adventures in the Realm of Ideas

ARI-1.1 To die ignorant, said Carlyle, that is the real tragedy. To live without what the Germans call a Weltanschauung – a philosophy of the world and our place in it – is just as tragic. Life without ideals and general ideas is certainly not abundant: it is drab, trivial, petty, almost sub-human. This is why John Morley advised young people to attach themselves as early as possible to a cause or movement worthy of the deepest devotion. [Online editor’s note: British Liberal politician John Morley, 1st Viscount Morley of Blackburn, 1838-1923. – RTL] Spinoza, long before, had given the same advice.
ARI-1.2 Ideas evolve. Philosophies grow and undergo modifications, but in my case, at any rate, the same essential philosophy has been operative and dominant all through a long life.
ARI-1.3 At the age of 17, I was drawn into the Russian revolutionary movement, joining a provincial branch of the party which had for its slogan, “Land and liberty” – land for the peasants, liberty for all. We regarded ourselves as Socialists in economics and liberals in politics. We worked for the Four Freedoms. We read forbidden, underground literature and knew the elements of Socialism as expounded by Fourier and Marx. We leaned toward Marxism, as it seemed less Utopian and more scientific.
ARI-1.4 Two years later, in America, under the influence of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, Most, and others, whose books and pamphlets criticizes Marx and emphasized libertarianism, I became a Communist-Anarchist, though Communism was only an ideal. The nearer goal was Socialism, but Socialism without the State. Statism was “the enemy.” Since power corrupts, a strong state meant a tyrannical and corrupt state. Hence society was conceived in terms of free, autonomous, and federated communes.
ARI-1.5 Five years later, meantime having studied Mill and Spencer, I was attracted by the so-called Boston School of Pacific and Philosophical Anarchism. This school stood for the gradual abolition of the State, its definition of the term State being aggression upon the non-consenting, non-invasive individual who fully respected the equal liberty of others but demanded recognition of his right to ignore the government, to refuse to pay taxes, or to perform military service, except on a strictly voluntary basis so fas as he was concerned. These ideas were in part Spencerian and in part Proudhonian. They were described as unterrified Jeffersonian democracy and consistent, logical individualism as taught by Thoreau and Emerson.
ARI-1.6 The individual, according to this school, was the sovereign, and not any accidental majority. Majority rule, it held, was as vicious and irrational as minority rule or the rule of an autocrat or oligarch. In the words of Proudhon, order was “the daughter, not the mother of liberty,” and social cooperation in a variety of desirable and proper forms could best be developed without any element of compulsion. People, the argument ran, were reasonable enough to work together for such ends as police and fire protection, traffic regulation, flood control, sanitation and hygiene, and the like, and also reasonable enough to pay fair rates for such services. The systems of voluntary insurance were striking instances of cooperation without compulsion, and these systems were capable of indefinite expansion.
ARI-1.7 The Boston Anarchists were opposed to violence and advocated passive resistance to the exactions and encroachments of the State. They proposed strikes against taxes and against rent. They favored propaganda by such strictly passive methods, including going to prison for violations of the laws they condemned on moral or practical grounds.
ARI-1.8 In their economic teachings the Anarchists were Marxists. They considered, with Marx, interest, rent, and profits as forms of surplus value, or plain robbery sanctioned by plutocratic lawmakers. In politics, they followed Proudhon and the Syndicalists, boycotting elections and the ballot boxes.
ARI-1.9 Here was an appealing and logically unassailable gospel. Its lineage was distinguished, its chief apostles, past and present, were intellectual and moral giants. For nearly two decades I actively preached this consistent, lofty gospel. The doubts and misgivings began to trouble me. Logic is not test of truth. Life is not a laboratory. Human nature is not simple. Progress is not certain, steady, uninterrupted. Is not Philosophical Anarchism too logical? Does it not rest on dubious assumptions concerning human nature and human conduct? Are men always reasonable, and is it possible for order, justice, and progress to dispense entirely with the element of compulsion or coercion? Men are not wholly selfish, but are they not selfish enough to evade responsibilities and obligations imposed not arbitrarily by other men but by the very conditions of life in society, a nation, a federated commonwealth? Can the majority in any community be expected to tolerate non-cooperation on the part of obstinate, perverse, recalcitrant minorities and confer substantial benefits on them without obtaining any return? An individual may be non-invasive and yet thoroughly unsocial, parasitic, undesirable. What community would permit him to indulge his notions of an ideal State?
ARI-1.10 Granted that some day, in the distant future, a society may come into existence which will fulfill that exalted ideal, the ideal of complete, voluntary altruism, what relevance has that remote possibility to the needs, problems, and burdens of our time and our imperfect society? The Philosophical Anarchists forgot the present and dwelt mentally in a theoretical future. They reckoned without time, space, and circumstances.
ARI-1.11 True, if this was pointed out to them, they assured you that they were not Utopians; that they knew very well that progress toward their goal would be slow, perhaps very slow; and that they rejoiced in small steps toward their goal. For example, they believed in free trade but realized that the masses were oppos[e]d to that policy, and therefore they would welcome moderate reductions of protective duties. Again, they believed on free banking but knew that they could not prevail upon any congress to repeal all the restrictions upon banking and, therefore, would be grateful for the repeal of the high tax on notes issued by the state banks. They believed in private police systems, but admitted that the police function of government would be the last to go in favor of privately supported police forces, and meantime they were willing to pay taxes calculated to maintain an efficient police system.
ARI-1.12 These, of course, were sensible compromises with necessity. But the Philosophical Anarchists insisted that no measure be passed which in any degree extended the sphere of government or compulsion. Thus they objected to laws favoring trade unions, to laws shortening the hours of labor, regulating wages, or protective of women and children. These statutes were paternalistic and tended to intrench and strengthen the State. The slogan, they held, should be repeal, repeal and repeal; reduce government to a minimum. This attitude, far from being progressive, was in effect utterly reactionary. It played into the hands of the Bourbons and Tories. It gave aid and comfort to plutocracy. It was severely logical, at first sight, but it was not rational.
ARI-1.13 As a matter of fact, too often the defenders of plutocracy and monopoly have talked and written exactly as the Anarchists have. The Plutocrats hate government when it makes too many concessions to labor or to progressivism, or undertakes to curb greed and tyranny on the part of capital and finance. To special privilege, of which capital and Big Business are the beneficiaries, there is never any objection from that quarter.
ARI-1.14 The principal mistake made by the anarchists was in their treatment of the State as such. They held, with Spencer, that the State was “conceived in aggression and maintained by aggression.” If the State was a class institution, and the government was, as Marx put it, “the executive committee of the ruling clique,” then, clearly, no good could ever be expected of it. But, whatever the origin of the State, it was absurd to assert that it was always and inevitably the instrument of privilege and monopoly, and must remain such under all conditions. The evidence glaringly contradicted that conception. The democratic governments have increasingly yielded to the pressure of farmers, wage workers, and middle-class reformers.
ARI-1.15 The hatred of our plutocrats and reactionaries for the New Deal is alone sufficient to dispose of the charge that the State is simply the tool of the economic oligarchy. In the past, the same interests bitterly fought Woodrow Wilson’s reform program, and fought in vain. Under Cleveland the same interests were denounced by the President as “the communism of pelf” and in several clashes between the government and Big Business the latter suffered reverses and the cause of democracy scored victories. In short, the Marxian idea of the State was never valid, and in recent decades its arbitrary and fallacious character has been repeatedly demonstrated.
ARI-1.16 Where democracy is strong and mature, the State serves the interests of the masses, not of the classes. There is no reason to fear that this trend will be reversed in the future. Social and economic reforms demanded by an alert and intelligent electorate will be achieved through the State, despite the rage and clamor of the economic Tories.
ARI-1.17 These considerations and facts have radically altered the attitude of many former Anarchists toward legislation, the ballot box, and democratic government. These thinkers are fighting plutocracy, not the State, and are working for substantial reforms in the existing system side by side with Socialists, advanced liberals, and Communists of the evolutionary school. Some of them, like this writer, call themselves Democratic Collectivists and Humanists. They are not indifferent to liberty, but they do not agree with the timid and doctrinaire liberals who tell us that more collectivism means less freedom for labor and the individual citizen. Government acquisition and operation of the public utilities and essential industries need not entail intellectual slavery or suppression of civil rights and freedom. The State as employer, it must be recognized, is not as a rule more benevolent than a corporation for profit, or a private monopoly, but means and techniques have been devised – and more are sure to be devised with the accumulation of knowledge and experience – with the definite view of preventing government despotism, bureaucratic arrogance and conservatism, and resistance to new ideas. The opponents of more collectivism in industry and commerce have not have not evinced proper appreciation or comprehension of the important new techniques of modern democracy. They are too prejudiced to draw the right inferences from the remarkable success of the T.V.A., for example. Fear and dislike of bureaucracy and centralization prevent clear thinking on the vital question: How can we sue government in new, constructive, and socially beneficial ways without inviting the abuses and evils long associated with dictatorships, military cabals, oligarchies, and aristocracies? Power is dangerous – but so is freedom, so is religion, so is virtue.
ARI-1.18 It has been apparent for many decades that the capitalistic order is breaking down and that the next order, after the destruction of the malignant and utterly dishonest and savage substitutes for order, namely, Nazism and Fascism, will be largely socialist in essence and principle. Democratic Collectivism has evolved in the course of the last quarter of a century in response to the demand for a system designed to promote economic security and economic prosperity without sacrificing liberty and human dignity. The solution is not complete, but it is infinitely superior to any other proposed and advocated by conservatives, laissez-faire liberals, or orthodox Socialists. Take the position of those who favor what they call the mixed economic system, a system in which free, competitive enterprise flourishes side by side with regulated public utilities, state-operated industries, cooperative plants, and the like. In England, the same school uses the phrase “half-way house” for this sort of system, to distinguish it from total, or 100 percent, Socialism. The mixed economic system, the argument is, will preserve the freedoms we cherish and serve as a check on the ambitious and power-drunk state. But just how much free enterprise is requisite for the end and purpose in view? No one suggests a ratio or limit. Would 20 percent free and competitive enterprise do? Would 40 percent be sufficient? Again, little has been said or written about the giant corporations, or near-monopolies, which have not been regulated or controlled in the past, and which often defy the government and force it to deal with them on their terms. There are many such powerful monopolies in the highly industrialized countries, and particularly in the United States. “Little” business is dominated by them and obeys orders from them. The traditional legislation against monopolies has notoriously failed to arrest their growth or seriously affect their policies toward labor, production, quality of product, or patent manipulation.
ARI-1.19 Finally, as to the public utilities so-called. We are supposed to control and regulate these natural monopolies. Is the control effective and the regulation real and adequate? No independent and progressive governor of any of our states would answer this query in the affirmative. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York he found the control nominal and illusory. He urged more and better control, but the legislature paid no heed to him. Many of the lawmakers were, had been, or expected to be, employees of these utilities. The corporation lawyers opposed further legislation in the interest of the consumers, of labor, or of the small investors. Regulation by means of lawsuits is a mockery and a snare. The utilities and the corporations spend millions where the states or the Federal government can spend thousands. Delays, trials, appeals, obstructive tactics, technicalities, consent decrees honored in the breach, all these devices and stratagems, familiar to intelligent newspaper readers, practically nullify the statutes enacted since the late eighties of the last century at the demand of the public for protection against the exactions and abuses of monopoly. The champions of the half-way house, therefore, are champions of half-hearted, futile half-way measures instead of vigorous, radical and well-conceived measures designed to curb monopoly.
ARI-1.20 Another major depression entailing unemployment for millions of men and women able and anxious to work and produce would cause the collapse of our system. Even the industrialists and financiers know and say that this is morally certain. In that event little will be heard about a permanent half-way economic house, or mixed system. It is wiser to plan now to avert a catastrophic crisis and proceed to build a sound and stable system on a basis of justice, reason, and democracy. Is there any alternative to Democratic Collectivism? If there is, the engineers, the scientific economists, the progressive managers should be challenged to present that alternative. There was, indeed, a period during which an American school of thought, namely that of Henry George, asserted that its middle-way solution happily reconciled freedom and security, individualism and reasonable equality. The one tax on land values, values attributable to social progress, or growth of population and industry, was to cure all our economic ills – abolish unemployment and poverty, restore opportunity, prevent gross and harmful inequalities in income and fortunes, and render socialist regimentation totally unnecessary. Some small groups may still cling to that notion. But the Single Tax movement is dead beyond resurrection. Monopoly, finance-capitalism, the giant corporations, technological developments have killed it. Land is important, and monopoly in it will have to be done away with, preferably through a tenure based strictly on occupying ownership and proper cultivation. But no form of taxation will solve our financial and economic problems. There is no panacea, no single, simple remedy for our economic, political, and social ills.
ARI-1.21 Whether or not we are taking to heart, collectively, the lessons of the past 30 years and are resolved to attack our problems – which are also world problems – with boldness, vision, method, sincerity, remains to be seen. If the reactionaries, the shortsighted men of affairs, and the partisan politicians have their way, we shall once more limit ourselves to makeshifts, quarter-measures, treatment of symptoms, and thus invite disaster. There can be no enduring and sound peace under economic chaos and violent civil conflict. International problems cannot be solved if internal economic and political problems of the gravest character remain unsolved. If, then, our civilization is to be saved and revitalized, we must seek peace at home and abroad in Democratic Collectivism or liberal Socialism. The Communists, the Syndicalists, and the Philosophical Anarchists must renounce their respective Utopian goals and resolve to work together for a feasible, attainable, reasonably satisfactory system. Nineteenth century movements have historical significance. We live in the middle of the twentieth century, and our age has its own climate of opinion and its own plans and techniques.

[Online editor’s note: see commentary. – RTL]

Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library