Morris Hillquit.

Socialism; promise or menace? online

. (page 12 of 20)
Online LibraryMorris HillquitSocialism; promise or menace? → online text (page 12 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

conduct of individuals, classes, and nations are primarily
determined by material conditions, which exist inde-
pendently of the personal will and inclinations of man.
Self-preservation is the supreme law of nature for
nations as well as individuals. The conditions of such
preservation depend upon the material surroundings,
and nothing short of a change of these surroundings can
alter human habits and notions. The man-eating cus-
toms of certain savage tribes and their practice of killing
their feeble and aged members are not to be ascribed
to a savage predilection for murder, but to scarcity of
food among them. As soon as such tribes develop to the
point of increasing their food supply by artificial means,
they begin to realize that cannibalism and the killing of
parents are immoral.

Socialism aims to establish an order of society based
on cooperative effort and collective enjoyment in place
of the present individual competitive warfare. The
Socialists also maintain that all modern nations are
economically self-sufficient or nearly so; that inter-
national wars have ceased to have the justification of
necessity, and are now conducted mainly in behalf of
the profit-seeking capitalist classes for the conquest
of new markets. The introduction of the Socialist
order would put an end to the perennial economic and
social strife between individuals, classes, and nations,
and would for the first time in history create an economic
order in which the welfare of each individual would be
truly linked with that of all of his fellows, or society at

The reason why the abstract principles of Christian
ethics have been preached for well-nigh two thousand


years with so little practical success is just that they
have been preached in the abstract, and have failed to
take into account the impelling power of material con-
ditions and needs. Socialism endeavours to lay the solid
economic foundation upon which alone the sublime moral
doctrines of the Nazarene can be actually realized.

In spite of the fact that Socialist morality may thus
be said to be truly "Christian," my distinguished op-
ponent rejects it in every part and phase.

Modern science regards the development of the moral
sense as a part or phase of the general process of human
evolution. As the advance of human civilization is
signalized by ever improving methods of wealth produc-
tion, by ever increasing efficiency of social and political
organizations, and by the ever growing keenness and pro-
fundity of the individual human mind, so is it accom-
panied by an ever rising level of human morality, or
sense of duty of man toward man.

The Socialists accept this theory as modified and sup-
plemented by the economic interpretation of history.
They recognize that ethical notions are subject to
changes and development, but they hold that such de-
velopment is primarily determined by economic condi-
tions, i.e. that a low economic order will result in poor
ethics, while improved economic conditions and rela-
tions are conducive to better morals.

Dr. Ryan grows morally indignant over the theory
that "the rules of morality are neither eternal nor im-
mutable," and that "moral rules are temporary and
variable." According to his notion, this theory leads to
the principle that "murder, lying, theft, rape, treachery,


and 'disobedience' may be morally good at some time
and in some place." My esteemed opponent seems to
confound a mere objective and dispassionate statement
of fact with a declaration of a principle or conviction.
Evolutionists in general and Socialists in particular do
not approve of the horrid string of crimes enumerated
by Dr. Ryan. But they cannot shut their eyes to the
notorious fact that these crimes have been considered
moral or indifferent "at some time or in some place"
in the past, and that they are still so considered in some
forms and under some conditions.

Dr. Ryan's own view of the nature of ethics is ex-
pressed in the following language :

"Moral laws are unchangeable because they are based
ultimately upon the unchangeable nature of God, and
immediately upon the unchangeable elements of human
nature. In other words, they are the rules of conduct
which God necessarily lays down for the guidance of
beings whom He has made after the human pattern, just
as physical laws are the rules by which He directs the
non-rational universe."

The statement is emphatic, but unfortunately it is
somewhat lacking in meaning and can hardly be squared
with the known facts and conditions.

Dr. Ryan is too keen a thinker to ignore the dis-
crepancy between the theory of "immutable" rules of
ethics and the history of constant changes in the moral
conceptions and practices of men ; and in an attempt to
reconcile the contradiction he advances a very subtle
metaphysical theory. The failure on the part of men
to recognize the eternal and immutable ethical truth,
he argues, does not prove the non-existence of such truth


"any more than the universal ignorance of the helio-
centric theory proves that the earth first began to travel
round the sun in the days of Copernicus."

The comparison is not very happy. The immutable
law of planetary rotation always expressed itself in the
uniform conduct of the heavenly bodies. The earth
revolved around the sun at all times and under all con-
ditions even before Copernicus first perceived it, but
the moral notions and moral conduct of men always
varied in spite of the alleged immutable ethical law, i.e.
rule of human conduct.

"Just as the race varies and grows in its comprehen-
sion of speculative and physical truth, so it makes prog-
ress in its perception of ethical truth and principles,"
concludes Dr. Ryan. This is a very substantial conces-
sion on his part. For if it be admitted that the human
race gradually improves and changes its notions of right
and wrong, and fashions its conduct accordingly, it
matters but little if we assume for our amusement or
solace that at the same time there always exists an
abstract, inactive, and ineffective code of final and im-
mutable ethics, illegibly written somewhere "in the hu-
man heart." The changes in moral notions and moral
conduct, which are thus recognized by both of us, con-
stitute the essence of "variable ethics."

Another theory which provokes my opponent's in-
dignation is that morality is concerned only with man's
social relations.

"If purely individual conduct is outside of the moral
law," he exclaims, "then it follows with absolute logical
rigour that the rational part of man is not essentially su-
perior to his animal nature, that soul is not intrinsically


nobler than sense, that man has no more duties to him-
self than has a pig."

Dr. Ryan wastes his good rhetoric on this proposition.
Without assuming to pass upon the respective rank or
degree of nobility of man's "rational part" and his
"animal nature," his "soul" and his "sense," and with-
out attempting to defend the deplorably low state of the
ethics of the pig, I will say that the Socialists do not
neglect or underestimate the spiritual side of man's

Socialism aims at the highest development of all hu-
man capacities, physical, mental, spiritual, aesthetic, and
moral. But the mere enumeration and differentiation
of these attributes shows that they belong to distinct
and separate domains. The physical health, intellectual
attainments, and aesthetic sense of the human being are
his individual attributes ; his moral notions and con-
duct pertain to his social relations. We strive for per-
fection in all spheres of human existence, but nothing
can be gained, save confusion in thought and action, by
an attempt to throw them all within the one sphere of

The second half of Dr. Ryan's paper is devoted very
largely to the criticism of the Socialist attitude toward the
family. Let us examine his objections under that head.

One of the gravest counts in the Socialist indictment
of the prevailing order is that it poisons the purity and
destroys the sanctity of family life among all classes of
society. The working-man's "household" is in a vast
number of cases miserably shattered by the precarious
condition of its material foundation. When the man's



earnings are insufficient for the support of the family, the
wife and mother is inevitably driven from her "womanly "
functions at the fireside and in the nursery into the coarse
atmosphere and exacting toil of the factory room. The
"home" degenerates into mere night lodgings where the
mates meet for short intervals, mostly in a condition of
physical exhaustion and in a gloomy, irritable mood.

And the children ? They grow up as best they can in
the streets and gutters while they are very young,
and they follow their parents into the factory the
all-powerful and all-absorbing temple of Capitalism
before they are strong enough for continuous physical
work. This is the typical working-man's "home" as it
exists in the slums and tenement districts of our large
and numerous industrial centres it is vastly different
from the sentimental picture habitually drawn by the
complacent moral philosopher.

Among the "middle classes," in which the woman as
a rule does not work, and is entirely dependent on the
man for her material needs, being married is her sole
gainful occupation. Marriage is at least as often a
matter of business as it is a matter of love, and the poor
feminine victim of our irrational social system is often
tied for life to a man repulsive and disgusting to her,
but indispensable as a provider for her needs.

Among the classes of the wealthy, on the other hand,
the women can often indulge in the luxury of purchasing
in marriage a foreign title attached to a dissipated and
dilapidated specimen of mankind, while the men can
afford to support hosts of mistresses.

Marriage and marital cohabitation thus become
unhappy partnerships in economic misery, business


arrangements, purchases, or sales anything but unions
of love. Of course, there are still very numerous cases
of marital happiness based on genuine mutual affection,
but such true unions persist in spite of the prevailing
social and economic conditions, not because of them.

Socialism will vastly raise the economic level of the
masses and will put an end to the material dependence
of normal adult human beings on others. It will thus
remove all sordid mercenary motives from marriage, and
will naturally leave but one basis of marital union
mutual love. It is a logical corollary of the proposition
that a union based on love can only endure so long
as love continues. Most Socialists therefore favour
dissolubility of the marriage ties at the pleasure of the
contracting parties.

Dr. Ryan may call this doctrine "pestiferous," but I
hold that marital cohabitation without love is positively
immoral and quite akin to prostitution. He maintains
that "the theory of economic determinism logically re-
quires a new form of domestic society under Socialism."
It would be more correct to say that Socialism would
introduce a new type of marital relations the type of
actual and lasting monogamy. Just because under
Socialism marriage will be based on true love rather than
economic considerations, the chances are that it will
endure in undimmed and lifelong purity in a much
larger number of cases than to-day.

Nor do Dr. Ryan's fears that the Socialist state would
monopolize the rearing and education of the children
seem to me at all well-founded. A Socialist administra-
tion would certainly provide an ample number of ade-


quate and efficient public schools for all grades and
kinds of instruction, and would retain and extend the
system of compulsory education ; but there is absolutely
no warrant in the Socialist programme or philosophy for
the assumption that the government would withdraw
the education of children from the control and super-
vision of the parents, or interfere with any desire on the
part of the latter to give their children the benefit of
supplemental private or school instruction in any subject
they may choose.

Dr. Ryan's final attack is aimed at what he conceives
to be the practical code of Socialist ethics. He main-
tains that in the Socialist view " all actions which further
the overthrow of Capitalism . . . are reasonable and
good. The grossest deeds of violence against persons
and property, the crudest confiscation of capitalist goods,
are morally justified if they are really conducive to this

As to the bugaboo of "confiscation," the subject has
been fully disposed of in the third chapter of this book,
and as to "deeds of violence," it is sufficient to state
that the International Socialist movement is clearly and
emphatically committed to the view that they are not
"conducive to the overthrow of Capitalism."

Socialism is an evolutionary philosophy. It affirms
that great social changes can only be brought about
when all social factors required for the change, i.e.
economic conditions, popular opinion, organization of
the masses, etc., have fully matured. Violence cannot
hasten the process of social development, and if adopted
as a method of the Socialist propaganda, it could only
result in confusion and demoralization within the ranks


of the active Socialists, and in strengthening the position
of their opponents.

Dr. Ryan quotes my good friend John Spargo as pray-
ing for the courage to do sundry violent and desperate
things, if by doing so he could bring about the social
salvation of the working-class. But my opponent neg-
lects to inform the reader that the blood-curdling hypo-
thetical prayer of the "usually mild and soft-spoken"
Socialist author is only a rhetorical introduction to his
very emphatic assertion that violence cannot accom-
plish anything good, and that if applied by the working-
class it would only leave it "more hopelessly enslaved
than ever" and would "destroy its morale as a fighting
force." In fact, Spargo's entire book from which the
disjointed passage is quoted was written in defence of
lawful methods in the struggle for social betterment.

The Socialist movement has always fought the anar-
chists and advocates of violence within the labour move-
ment as it fights the more numerous and dangerous
anarchists and perpetrators of violence within the ranks of
the capitalist class. The international Socialist conven-
tions admit no organizations whose programmes are not
based on the peaceful methods of working-class politics,
and the Socialist Party of the United States has formally
adopted a rule providing for the expulsion of any mem-
ber who may advocate violence in connection with the
Socialist propaganda.

"But," says my opponent, "these actions are based
on mere considerations of expediency and not on moral
grounds." To this I can only answer Blessed is the
movement whose practical notions of expediency coincide
so well with the abstract precepts of the highest morality.




In his reply to my main paper, Mr. Hillquit admits
substantially that I have stated correctly the essentials
of Socialist ethics. Naturally he disagrees with me con-
cerning the validity and value of those ethical doctrines.
In the following pages I shall attempt to meet some of his
more important arguments, and to bring out somewhat
more clearly the sinister significance of the moral theories
which permeate the Socialist movement.

Applying the theory of economic determinism to in-
ternational relations, my opponent asserts that material
interests have led the nations to adopt dual and "dia-
metrically opposite" standards of morality, one for
themselves and another for the peoples without.

Have they? Civilized nations forbid the killing of
their own citizens except on account of capital crimes.
A "diametrically opposite" rule in relation to foreigners
would permit the assassination of the latter in the
absence of any such offences. Will my opponent cite a
single civilized people that has explicitly adopted or
defended this principle?

Nor have the civilized peoples sanctioned this prin-
ciple implicitly. Waging war on foreign nations no more
implies approval of murder than does the legal execution
of criminals, or individual homicide. In every war one
of the belligerents is necessarily contending for ad-
vantages to which it has no moral right, and is there-
fore in the position of an unjust aggressor. Sometimes
the wrongful nation realizes the immorality of its course,


just as the individual murderer sometimes recognizes
the wickedness of his action. Perhaps in the majority
of cases the offending nation thinks that it has a proper
grievance, that it is merely defending its genuine rights.
Its mistaken interpretation of the moral law no more
involves approval of the principle of murder than does
the homicidal performance of a lynching party or a
Kentucky feudist.

On the other hand, the nation that is in the right
defends its position by force of arms on quite the same
solid moral ground as it puts to death capital offenders
among its own citizens, and with quite the same justifi-
cation as that which authorizes the individual to protect
his own life against the murderous attack of a highway-

Perhaps the simplest and clearest indication that war
does not imply approval of murder, is the fact that
civilized belligerents refrain, even to their own disad-
vantage, from killing women and other non-combatants.

In the field of industrial relations, continues my
opponent, we likewise see the all-determining influence
of material interests upon moral conceptions. By the
rules of the "prevailing capitalist morality," "prac-
tically everything is permissible and praiseworthy so
long as it makes money."

As a matter of fact, the current moral conceptions
condemn all the industrial evils enumerated in Mr.
Hillquit's lurid paragraphs. In proof of this statement
I would call attention to the mass of corrective legisla-
tion already enacted, and certain to be enacted. Not
even the capitalist class has ever formally accepted the
principle that practically everything is lawful which


"makes money." If they frequently act in such a way
as to suggest to the uncritical that they believe in this
principle, they are influenced by several other considera-
tions than crude and simple greed.

One cause of such conduct has been the prevalence of
the plausible but fundamentally false ethical theory pro-
pounded with more or less definiteness by the classical
economists, that every free contract is a fair contract.
Another is the failure of many employers to realize the
existence or the extent of the industrial evils in question.
Moreover, a large class of employers either lull to sleep
or deliberately violate their better moral perceptions.
Another large group, possibly the majority, are unable,
on account of the keenness of business competition, to
remedy the bad conditions. Finally, employers as a
whole realize both the evils and their own responsibility
much more fully than they did half a century ago.

As I have more than once observed in the course of this
debate, the economic interests and conditions of individ-
uals and of classes do prevent them from estimating
fairly and accurately the morality of many kinds of con-
duct. But this is quite a different statement from the
assertion that moral notions and practices are primarily
determined, caused to be what they are by material
conditions and interests. So long as men admit that
they are obliged sometimes to subordinate their own in-
terests to the welfare of their fellows or to moral principle,
they show conclusively that material conditions are not
the supreme determinant of ethical beliefs and conduct.

In passing, I would note that according to Socialist
theory moral ideas and actions are determined by mate-
rial conditions not only primarily, but necessarily. " So-


cialists," declares my opponent, "are not inclined to
place the blame for these perverse capitalist notions of
ethics upon the individual 'malefactors.'" Hence the
moral beliefs and deeds of men are beyond the control
of the human will. Hence the labour-crushing capitalist,
no less than the bomb-throwing exemplar of sabotage,
is relieved of all strictly moral accountability. Both
are helpless instruments of material forces !

I did not say, nor even intimate, that any Socialist
"approves of the horrid string of crimes" which I enu-
merated in the fourth paragraph of my principal paper.
What I said was that the Marxian who is logical must
admit the possibility that all these may sometime be-
come legitimate ; but I did not venture the assertion that
all Socialists are logical.

In the opinion of my opponent, the ethical standard
which I have defended is " somewhat lacking in meaning."
It is, indeed, somewhat abstract and technical, but so
are all summary statements of fundamental truth. And
yet it is more concrete and practical than his standard
of general happiness. When we say that man's rational
nature is the unvarying rule of conduct, we mean :
first, that he must not use his faculties in such a way as
to frustrate their natural end, or the natural end of his
entire being ; second, that his animal or sense nature
must be subordinated to his rational or spirit nature;
third, that by nature all men are essentially equal, and
have substantially equal claims upon one another;
fourth, that they are inferior and owe unqualified obedi-
ence to God ; and, fifth, that they are essentially superior
to the brute creation.


In his endeavour to establish the variableness of the
moral law, my opponent rejects the distinction which I
drew between the law and the understanding of it by
human beings. This distinction he calls "a subtle meta-
physical theory." It is neither subtle nor metaphysical,
but obvious and logical. Quite as aptly might he apply
this phrase to the effort to distinguish between a civil
law and the varying popular knowledge of it, or between
the established principles of medical science and the
various conceptions of them prevailing throughout a

The immutable law of planetary rotation, continues
Mr. Hillquit, always expressed itself in the uniform
"conduct" of the heavenly bodies, but the moral notions
and conduct of men varied in spite of the "alleged immut-
able laws."

But the moral law likewise expressed itself at all times.
Its provisions could be read in man's nature and in his
essential relations to other beings. And the majority
of mankind did perceive this objective expression, this
enduring record, of the moral law long before any of them
discovered the law of planetary rotation.

If we admit that the race makes moral progress, con-
tends my opponent, it matters little whether we believe
in the objective existence of a code of "final and im-
mutable ethics." But how can we know whether the
changes in moral notions and actions to which we give the
name of progress are properly so called, unless we have
some permanently valid code of ethics, some supreme
standard, some moral ideal, by which we can distinguish
the good from the bad in conduct, and the genuine from
the imitation in moral progress ? Precisely because men


have possessed the conception of such a standard, how-
ever denned, they have been able to discern and to follow,
however dimly and haltingly, the way of improvement.

Nor can my opponent save the situation by bringing
in his standard of general welfare or general happiness.
If there be no such thing as objective and immutable
ethical rules, on what rational ground can the individual
be required to subordinate his own welfare or pleasure
to that of the community? Why should this standard
suddenly become morally binding upon its adoption by
the Socialist State ? It is quite in order for the individual
to remonstrate :

"On your own principle your ethical code is funda-
mentally relative ; for it is but the expression of what
you conceive to be the needs of your present form of
society. It has no more genuine moral force, authority,
or obligation than any other code that has ever been set
up by any other society or social class. I claim the right

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryMorris HillquitSocialism; promise or menace? → online text (page 12 of 20)