The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
(NYC: 1908)


For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals


In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

Residues of liberalism

George S. Street, in a very interesting paper in Putnam’s Monthly for November (1906), points out that the most significant contrast between our time and Early Victorian days is a decrease in idealism. He tells us:

The most characteristic note, in the mental attitude of the forties and fifties in England, and that in which they contrast most sharply with our own times, was confidence… In party politics this confidence was almost without limit. There was a section of conservatism which really believed in things as they were, and thought it undesirable to attempt any change for the better. …It was simply — I speak of a section, not the party as a whole — the articulate emotion of privileged and contented people and their parasites, and its denomination as “stupid” was an accurate description, though hardly the brilliant epigram for which, in our poverty of political wit, it has been taken. On the other hand, there was a confident liberalism which inspired a whole party. Some wished to go faster, some slower, but all believed sincerely in a broad scheme of domestic policy. They were to reform this and that at home; they were to assist, or at least applaud, the reforming of this and that abroad. So believing and intending, they naturally conceived themselves made very little indeed lower than the angels.

The contrast with our own day hardly needs pointing out. You might now search long and in vain for a conservative in public life who would not admit that reforms are desirable or even urgent, though few might be prepared with precise statements about particulars… But the liberals’ confidence in reform, in their ability to improve the body politic by certain definite measures, is gone. The old liberal spirit animating a whole party is dead. It may seem an odd remark to make just after the late election, but the evidence is abundant, and the explanation simple. Domestic reform on a large scale and on individualist lines has reached its limit; but to many liberals, to many eminent and authoritative liberals, reform on socialist lines is abhorrent… Consequently there is a large party called liberal, which, through the faults of its opponents and the accidents of time, is successful and has the high spirits of success, but is no more now than it has been for twenty years a party of homogeneous confidence in domestic reform, while on the world outside the British islands it looks with passivity, perhaps timidity, certainly with no intention of assisting oppressed peoples.

Theoretical socialism of a logical and thoughtful kind, not entangled with radicalism, has made much progress of late years, more especially, so far as my own experience goes, in the educated and professional. classes; but in practice it bides its time, with confidence perhaps, but with a consciousness that the time will be long coming. That is a different spirit from the buoyant expectancy of the old liberalism.

Granted the necessity of idealism to individual and social health, Street’s views do not conduce to optimism. Here we have a competent observer telling us that the only note of idealism he finds in contemporary intellectual life is a growing, but halfhearted, belief in socialism, which is more noticeable “in the educated and professional classes.”

There is another note of idealism in the life of today which Street ignores. This is the tendency toward the apotheosis of the individual in antithesis to society. This is a sign of health, insofar as it is a revolt against the stifling pressure of outworn conventionality, and it has found worthy expression in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer and the poetry of Browning and Walt Whitman. But this form of idealism cannot be said to differentiate our time from the Early Victorian era, for it found its classic expression back in the middle of the last century in Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, a book which has been forgotten amid the growing consciousness of the organic solidarity of society. But Street is possibly justified in ignoring this tendency, for as a school of thought it has committed suicide in the person of Nietzsche’s superman attempting to construct out of materials drawn from his inner consciousness a pair of stilts on which to tower above “the herd.”

Lures of socialism:
Laziness, leisure, and luxury

What is the lure of socialism that is appealing, according to Street, to more and more of our “educated and professional” people?

For, in spite of what Veblen quite rightly says of the “negative and destructive” (in the quotation at the head of this paper) character of socialist ideals, socialism must hold up some positive ideals to attract such growing numbers of the educated classes. To convince oneself of the actuality of this appeal it is only necessary to run over the writers’ names in the tables of contents in our popular magazines. The proportion of socialists is surprisingly large and is constantly growing. There can be no doubt that the percentage of socialists among writers of distinction is larger than the percentage of socialists in the population at large.

Socialism does present certain very definite positive ideals. The first of these is “comfort for all” (to use a chapter-heading from Petr Kropotkin’s too little known book, The Conquest of Bread). The second is “leisure for all,” or, in Paul Lafargue’s witty phrase, “the right to be lazy.” The third is the fullest possible physical and intellectual development of every individual, considered not as an isolated, self-centered entity, but as a member of an interdependent society; or, in the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the socialist ideal is “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” It may be noted that all that is vivifying in the ideal of individualism is included in this third positive ideal of socialism, so that, it is now seen, Street was fully justified in making no separate mention of the ideal of individualism. There can be no doubt that it is the immensely richer literary and artistic life promised by this third ideal of socialism that accounts for the phenomenon noted by Street.

The beauties of the positive ideals of the socialist utopias have been sufficiently lauded by scores of writers from Thomas More to Bellamy and H.G. Wells. What it is desired to emphasize here is the “negative and destructive” (from the standpoint of the established order) aspects of socialist ideals; for it is the nihilism of socialism that explains why Street’s “educated and professional” socialists have more patience than confidence in awaiting the realization of their ideal. The nihilism of socialism turns aside many, who have felt the lure of the socialist ideal, into what Veblen calls, “some excursion into pragmatic romance,”1 such as Social Settlements, Prohibition, Clean Politics, Single Tax, Arts and Crafts, Neighborhood Guilds, Institutional Church, Christian Science, New Thought, Hearstism, or “some such cultural thimble-rig.” Yet more, there are many of the “educated and professional classes” who call themselves socialists, because they cherish the charming delusion that it is possible to separate the positive from the negative ideals of socialism, and to work (in a dilettante fashion) for the former while blithely anathematizing the latter.


Nihilism and historical materialism

It is the purpose of this paper to show that socialism is not a scheme for the betterment of humanity to be accomplished by a sufficiently zealous and intelligent propaganda, but that it is, on the contrary, a consistent (though to many repellent) monistic philosophy of the cosmos; that it is from its Alpha to its Omega so closely and inextricably interlocked that its component parts cannot be disassociated, save by an act of cognitive dissonance; that, in a word, the nihilism2 of socialism is its very essence. But, here, a most important distinction should be noted. Socialism, viewed as political propaganda, is purely positive in its demands. In fact, all its demands may be reduced to two — collectivism and democracy. That the people shall own the means of production, and the producers shall control their products — that is the sum and substance of all socialist platforms. Socialist parties do not attack religion, the family, or the state. But socialist philosophy proves conclusively that the realization of the positive political and economic ideals of socialism involves the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.

The nihilism of socialism springs from the materialist conception of history, and this is precisely the portion of the socialist doctrine that is usually ignored or half-understood by the enthusiastic young intellectuals who are in growing numbers joining the socialist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. While the Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1847, is throughout founded on this conception, the first clearly formulated statement of the conception itself is to be found in the preface to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859, the same year in which Darwin and Wallace made public their independent and almost simultaneous discoveries of the theory of natural selection, This first statement runs thus:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.3

This statement contains a whole revolution in embryo. Viewed from the standpoint of the established order, it is the very quintessence of nihilism. In a word, it teaches the material origin of Ideas. In the last analysis, every idea can be traced back to the economic and telluric environments. In the words of Joseph Dietzgen, “philosophy revealed to Marx and Engels the basic principle that, in the last resort, the world is not governed by ideas, but, on the contrary, the ideas by the material world.” This doctrine involves a new epistemology, the distinguishing mark of which is its denial of the immaculate conception of thought. The human mind, according to Marx and Dietzgen, can only bring forth thought after it has been impregnated by the objects of sense perception.4

Here we have a thoroughgoing system of materialist monism. “Ours is an organic conception of history,” says Labriola. “The totality of the unity of social life is the subject matter present to our minds. It is economics itself which dissolves in the course of one process, to reappear in as many morphological stages, in each of which it serves as a substructure for all the rest. Finally, it is not our method to extend the so-called economic factor isolated in an abstract fashion over all the rest, as our adversaries imagine, but it is, before everything else, to form an historic conception of economics, and to explain the other changes by means of its changes.”5

Atrophy of religion

In another place Labriola says: “Ideas do not fall from heaven, and nothing comes to us in a dream… The change in ideas, even to the creation of new methods of conception, has reflected little by little the experience of a new life. This, in the revolutions of the last two centuries, was little by little despoiled of the mythical, religious, and mystical, envelopes in proportion as it acquired the practical and precise consciousness of its immediate and direct conditions. Human thought, also, which sums up this life and theorizes upon it, has little by little been plundered of its theological and metaphysical hypotheses to take refuge finally in this prosaic assertion: in the interpretation of history we must limit ourselves to the objective coordination of the determining conditions and of the determined effects.” He reiterates: “Ideas do not fall from heaven; and, what is more, like the other products of human activity, they are formed in given circumstances, in the precise fullness of time, through the action of definite needs, thanks to the repeated attempts at their satisfaction, and by the discovery of such and such other means of proof which are, as it were, the instruments of their production and their elaboration.

Even ideas have their basis in social conditions; they have their technique. Thought also is a form of work [intellectual labor]. To rob the one and the other, ideas and thought, of the conditions and environment of their birth and their development, is to disfigure their nature and their meaning.”6 Socialist materialism does not refuse the inspiration of ideals. “By granting that society is dominated by material interests,” Dietzgen explains, “we do not deny the power of the ideals of the heart, mind, science, and art. For we have no more to deal with the absolute antithesis between idealism and materialism, but with their higher synthesis which has been found in the knowledge that the ideal depends on the material, that divine justice and liberty depend on the production and distribution of earthly goods.”7

Religions, schools of ethics, philosophy, metaphysics, art, political and juridical institutions: all are to be explained in the last analysis by the economic and telluric environments, present and past. This ruthless materialism crushes belief in God, in the Soul, in immortality. It leaves no room for any shred of dualism in thought. It is true that the German Social Democracy included in the famous Erfurt Program (adopted in 1891 — the first clearly Marxian socialist platform ever promulgated) a demand for a “Declaration that religion is a private matter. Abolition of all expenditure from public funds upon ecclesiastical and religious objects. Ecclesiastical and religious bodies are to be regarded as private associations, which order their affairs independently.” It will be seen that this is nothing more than a demand that the state withdraw its sanction of religion as France has recently done in the Clemenceau law. But Ferri does nothing but draw the necessary conclusions from socialist premises when he writes: “God, as Laplace has said, is an hypothesis of which exact science has no need; he is, according to Herzen, at the most an X, which represents not the unknowable — as Spencer and Dubois Raymond contend — but all that which humanity does not yet know. Therefore, it is a variable X which decreases in direct ratio to the progress of the discoveries of science.

“It is for this reason that science and religion are in inverse ratio to each other; the one diminishes and grows weaker in the same proportion that the other increases and grows stronger in its struggle against the unknown.”8 Dietzgen has thus stated what may be called the law of the atrophy of religion: “The more the idea of God recedes into the past the more palpable it is; in olden times man knew everything about his God; the more modern the form of religion has become, the more confused and hazy are our religious ideas. The truth is that the historic development of religion tends to its gradual dissolution.”9

The characteristic attitude of the socialist materialist toward Christianity appears very clearly in the following excerpt from Enrico Ferri’s Socialism and Modern Science:

It is true that Marxian socialism, since the Congress held at Erfurt (1891), has rightly declared that religious beliefs are private affairs10 and that, therefore, the Socialist party combats religious intolerance under all its forms… But this breadth of superiority of view is, at bottom, only a consequence of the confidence in final victory.

It is because socialism knows and foresees that religious beliefs, whether one regards them, with Sergi, as pathological phenomena of human psychology, or as useless phenomena of moral incrustation, are destined to perish by atrophy with the extension of even elementary scientific culture. This is why Socialism does not feel the necessity of waging a special warfare against these religious beliefs which are destined to disappear. It has assumed this attitude, although it knows that the absence or the impairment of the belief in God is one of the most powerful factors for its extension, because the priests of all religions have been, throughout all the phases of history, the most potent allies of the ruling classes in keeping the masses pliant and submissive under the yoke by means of the enchantment of religion, just as the tamer keeps wild beasts submissive by the terrors of the cracks of his whip.

It is also well to remember that a prevalent animistic habit of thought in viewing the events of life, whether it take the form of a belief in luck, as in gamblers and sportsmen, or the form of a belief in supernatural interposition in mundane affairs, as in the case of the devotees of the anthropomorphic cults, or merely the tendency to give a teleological interpretation to evolution, to attribute an ameliorative trend to the cosmic process, as in Tennyson’s “through the ages one increasing purpose runs,” tends, by retarding the prompt perception of relations of material cause and effect, to lower the industrial efficiency of the community.11

The socialist materialist can look forward with unruffled serenity to the passing of religion, since his very definition of religion as “to abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness; the demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions,”12 implies that it cannot pass away till it has ceased to be needful to human happiness.

Metamorphosis of the family

From the perspective of socialist materialism, the monogamous family, the present economic unit of society, ceases to be a divine institution, and becomes the historical product of certain definite economic conditions. It is the form of the family peculiar to a society based on private property in the means of production, and the production of commodities for sale. It is not crystallized and permanent, but, like all other institutions, fluid and subject to change. With the change in its economic basis, the code of sexual morality and the monogamous family are sure to be modified; but, in the judgment of such socialists as Friedrich Engels and August Bebel, we shall probably remain monogamous, but monogamy will cease to be compulsorily permanent.13

“What we may anticipate,” says Engels, “about the adjustment of sexual relations after the impending downfall of capitalist production is mainly of a negative nature and mostly confined to elements that will disappear. But what will be added? That will be decided after a new generation has come to maturity: a race of men who never in their lives have had any occasion for buying with money or other economic means of power the surrender of a woman; a race of women who have never had any occasion for surrendering to any man for any other reason but love, or for refusing to surrender to their lover from fear of economic consequences. Once such people are in the world, they will not give a moment’s thought to what we today believe should be their course. They will follow their own practice and fashion their own public opinion — only this and nothing more.”14

Changed economic conditions are already reflected in the disintegration of the traditional bourgeois belief in the permanency of the existing forms of the family and the home. A portentous sign of the times for the conservatives is the appearance of Elsie Clews Parsons’ book on The Family, the most scholarly work on the subject by a bourgeois writer that has yet appeared. Like all bourgeois writers Parsons has been very chary of using materials furnished by socialist scholars. Very striking is the absence from her very extensive bibliographical notes of the names of Marx, Engels, Bebel, and Ferri. But she was compelled to avail herself freely of the wealth of materials provided by the scholarly and industrious researches of [Lewis] Morgan, [Karl] Kautsky, and [Heinrich] Cunow.

In her now famous fifteenth lecture on “ethical considerations,” she suggests various modes of ameliorating the condition of woman, and improving conjugal and family relations; but she is again and again driven to admit that the economic independence of women is a condition precedent to her “reforms.” Most of her suggestions are tinged with the utopian fancifulness characteristic of the bourgeois theorist. Two excerpts will illustrate these points sufficiently:

Again reciprocity of conjugal rights and duties is desirable for parenthood. If marriage have a proprietary character, neither the owner nor the owned is entirely fit to develop free personalities in his or her children. Moreover the idea of marital ownership more or less involves that of parental ownership, and the latter, as we have seen, is incompatible with a high type of parenthood. The custom of proprietary marriage inevitably leads, for example, to restrictions upon female education. Now just in so far as a woman’s education is limited is she handicapped as an educator of her children. It is unfortunate that in the emancipation of woman agitation of the past half-century the reformers failed to emphasize the social as adequately as the individualistic need of change. If women are to be fit wives and mothers they must have all, perhaps more, of the opportunities for personal development that men have.

All the activities hitherto reserved to men must at least be open to them, and many of these activities, certain functions of citizenship15 for example, must be expected of them. Moreover, whatever the lines may be along which the fitness of women to labor will be experimentally determined, the underlying position must be established that for the sake of individual and race character she is to be a producer as well as a consumer of social values.16 As soon as this ethical necessity is generally recognized the conditions of modern industry will become much better adapted to the needs of women workers than they are now, the hygiene of workshop, factory, and office will improve, and child bearing and rearing will no longer seem incompatible with productive activity.

Here follows the paragraph upon which the Reverend Doctor Morgan Dix and other clerical defenders of the economic conditions that cause marital and non-marital prostitution pounced with such avidity:

We have therefore, given late marriage and the passing of prostitution,17 two alternatives, the requiring of absolute chastity of both sexes until marriage or the toleration of freedom of sexual intercourse on the part of the unmarried of both sexes before marriage, i.e., before the birth of offspring. In this event condemnation of sex license would have a different emphasis from that at present. Sexual intercourse would not be of itself disparaged or condemned, it would be disapproved of only if indulged in at the expense of health or of emotional or intellectual activities in oneself or in others. As a matter of fact, truly monogamous relations seem to be those most conducive to emotional or intellectual development and to health, so that, quite apart from the question of prostitution, promiscuity is not desirable or even tolerable. It would therefore, seem well from this point of view, to encourage early trial marriage,18 the relation to be entered into with a view to permanency, but with the privilege of breaking it if proved unsuccessful and in the absence of offspring without suffering any great degree of public condemnation.

The conditions to be considered in any attempt to answer the question that thus arises are exceedingly complex. Much depends upon the outcome of present experiments in economic independence for women, a matter which is in turn dependent upon the outcome of the general labor “question”! Much depends upon revelations of physiological science. If the future brings about the full economic independence of women, if physiologists will undertake to guarantee society certain immunities from the sexual excess of the individual,19 if, and these are the most important conditions of all, increases in biological, psychological and social knowledge make parenthood a more enlightened and purposive function than is even dreamed of at present and if pari passu with this increase of knowledge a higher standard of parental duty and a greater capacity for parental devotion develop, then the need of sexual restraint as we understand it may disappear and different relations between the sexes before marriage and to a certain extent within marriage may be expected.

The socialist materialist leaves idle speculations of this nature to the bourgeois utopians; he knows that a revolution in economic conditions must precede any material changes in sexual relations, and that when such changes take place they will take place in response to the stimuli of the transformed economic environment, and not in accordance with any preconceived notions of Parsons or others. Those, who are horrified at such proposed modifications of marriage as George Meredith’s marriages for a fixed, limited period, and Parsons’ “trial marriages,” will do well to ponder this posthumous aphorism of the clear-sighted Norse genius, Ibsen, recently published in Berlin: “To talk of ‘men born free’ is a mere phrase. There are none such. Marriages, the relations of man and woman, have ruined the whole race and set on all the brand of slavery.”20

In the same case is what we may call the stage-setting of the monogamous family, the home. The home ceases to be regarded as the sacred and eternal Palladium of society. It, too, is destined to change, if not to disappear. “With the transformation of the means of production into collective property,” Engels writes, “the private household changes to a social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public matter.”21 This does not deny the splendid role that the home has played in the history of the last three centuries. Many an English and American home today still merits even such an offensively pretentious epithet as “palladium.” What morals our people have known and practiced they have learned and been drilled in in the homes. That these morals should have been warped by a class-bias was inevitable. A home, itself the product of a society divided into classes, could not teach anything but a class-morality. A purely social morality (if morality be the proper name for the highest conduct in a classless society) is even yet impossible.


Much as we owe to the family household, the nihilism of socialism tells us its day is drawing to its close. So it may be as well for us to consider for a moment the bad side of the home as we know it today. It may be that when we have done so, we shall be able to anticipate its passing with greater equanimity. At this late day — when seventeen years have rolled by since Ibsen’s The Doll’s House was first introduced to an Anglophone audience at the Novelty Theater in London — it is surely not necessary to dwell upon the dwarfing and stifling effects upon women of even “ happy” homes. In the brilliant preface to Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, Bernard Shaw, referring to middle-class home life, speaks of “the normal English way being to sit in separate families in separate rooms in separate houses, each person silently occupied with a book, a paper, or a game of halma, cut off equally from the blessings of society and solitude.” “The result,” he continues, “is that you may make the acquaintance of a thousand streets of middle-class English families without coming on a trace of any consciousness of citizenship, or any artistic cultivation of the senses.” In the following paragraph he adds:

In proportion as this horrible domestic institution is broken up by the active social circulation of the upper classes in their own orbit, or its stagnant isolation made impossible by the overcrowding of the working classes, manners improve enormously. In the middle classes themselves the revolt of a single clever daughter (nobody has yet done justice to the modern clever Englishwoman’s loathing of the very word ‘home’), and her insistence on qualifying herself for an independent working life, humanizes her whole family in an astonishingly short time; and the formation of a habit of going to the suburban theater once a week, or to the Monday Popular Concerts, or both, very perceptibly ameliorates its manners. But none of these breaches in the Englishman’s castle-house can be made without a cannonade of books and pianoforte music. The books and music cannot be kept out, because they alone can make the hideous boredom of the hearth bearable. If its victims may not live real lives, they may at least read about imaginary ones, and perhaps learn from them to doubt whether a class that not only submits to home life, but actually values itself on it, is really a class worth belonging to. For the sake of the unhappy prisoners of the home, then, let my plays be printed as well as acted.

A concrete picture may give us a better idea of what Shaw means when he calls women “unhappy prisoners of the home.” In that magnificent scene in the third act of Candida, after Morell has called on Candida to choose between him and the poet, Marchbanks, Candida gives us a vivid glimpse of what her home life had been, in this speech, addressed to Marchbanks, and, in reading it, remember that Morell was “a good husband” and that Candida loved him: “You know how strong Morell is — how clever he is — how happy! Ask James’ mother and his three sisters what it cost to save James the trouble of doing anything but be strong and clever and happy. Ask me what it costs to be James’ mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one. Ask Prossy and Maria how troublesome the house is even when we have no visitors to help us slice the onions. Ask the tradesmen who want to worry James and spoil his beautiful sermons who it is that puts them off. When there is money to give, he gives it: when there is money to refuse, I refuse it. I build a castle of comfort and indulgence and love for him, and stand sentinel always to keep little vulgar cares out. I make him master here, though he does not know it, and could not tell you a moment ago how it came to be so.” This should make it easy for us to understand why so many women are ready to sympathize with William Morris in the sentiments he expressed in the following paragraph in Signs of Change:

As to what extent it may be necessary or desirable for people under social order to live in common, we may differ pretty much according to our tendencies toward social life. For my part I can’t see why we should think it a hardship to eat with the people we work with; I am sure that as to many things, such as valuable books, pictures, and splendor of surroundings, we shall find it better to club our means together; and I must say that often when I have been sickened by the stupidity of the mean, idiotic rabbit warrens that rich men build for themselves in Bays water and elsewhere, I console myself with visions of the noble communal hall of the future, unsparing of materials, generous in worthy ornament, alive with the noblest thoughts of our time, and the past, embodied in the best art which a free and manly people could produce; such an abode of man as no private enterprise could come anywhere near for beauty and fitness, because only collective thought and collective life could cherish the aspirations which would give birth to its beauty, or have the skill and leisure to carry them out.

I for my part should think it much the reverse of a hardship if I had to read my books and meet my friends in such a place; nor do I think I am better off to live in a vulgar stuccoed house crowded with upholstery that I despise, in all respects degrading to the mind and enervating to the body to live in, simply because I call it my own, or my house.

Suicide of the state

From the viewpoint of historical materialism, the state loses its attribute of permanence and becomes the product of definite economic conditions — in a word, it is the child of economic inequality. “The state,” in the words of Engels, “is the result of the desire to keep down class conflict. But, having arisen amid these conflicts, it is as a rule the state of the most powerful economic class that by force of its economic supremacy becomes also the ruling political class, and thus acquires new means of subduing and exploiting the oppressed masses. The antique state was, therefore, the state of the slave owners for the purpose of holding the slaves in check. The feudal state was the organ of the nobility for the oppression of the serfs and dependent farmers. The modern representative state is the tool of the capitalist exploiters of wage labor.”22

“The state, then,” Engels says on another page of the same work, “did not exist from all eternity. There have been societies without it, that had no idea of any State or public power.23 At a certain stage of economic development, which was of necessity accompanied by a division of society into classes, the state became the inevitable result of this division. We are now rapidly approaching a stage of evolution in production, in which the existence of classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but becomes a positive fetter on production. Hence, these classes must fall as inevitably as they once arose. The state must irrevocably fall with them. The society that is to reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will transfer the machinery of the state where it will then belong — into the museum of antiquities by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”24 In another work, he says: “The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not abolished. It dies out.”25

It is thus seen that, according to the teaching of historical materialism, the state is destined, when it becomes the state of the working-class, to remove its own foundation — economic inequality — and thus, to commit suicide. Many of those, who have witnessed with mingled consternation and amusement the strenuous efforts of Roosevelt and the frantic zeal of Hearst to enlarge the scope of governmental action to cover every conceivable field of human activity from spelling to beef-canning, will hail with delight Engels’ tidings that the state is to “die out.” The thesis, that the realization of the socialist ideal involves the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state, would now appear to be sufficiently demonstrated.

Escape from the dollhouse

One cannot help wondering what proportion of the “educated and professional” persons, who, Street testifies, are in growing numbers yielding to the lure of socialism, really desire these results. Many of them, no doubt, are trying on a new field the old experiment of serving God and Mammon, of putting new wine into old bottles. Ibsen’s Nora, though she had far less learning than is usual in the “educated and professional classes” of England and America, was in this matter far wiser than are they. When the falsehood and slavery of life in The Doll’s House became unbearable to her, she knew that she must choose between the Old and the New; and that, if she chose the new life of revolt and freedom, she must leave behind her all the badges of her doll’s life. Had she taken with her the trinkets and gauds that the master of the “dollhouse” had given her, she would not have escaped from the doll’s life when she turned her back on the dollhouse.

Her feminine instinct did not fail her, and, when, with a woman’s courage she chose the New and left the Old, she told Torvald, “Whatever belongs to me I shall take with me. I will have nothing from you either now or later on.” Many of the young people of education, who have of late come into the socialist movement, have left — temporarily, at least — the dollhouse of conservatism; but they have brought with them many of the habits of thought, many of the conventions of their old doll’s life. Some of them, doubtless, realizing that the materialist conception of history involves the nihilism of socialism, and thus calls on them to abandon their religious, metaphysical, and dualistic habits of thought, to cast aside their conventional class morality, to cease vaporing about that impossible monstrosity, “the socialist state,” attempt to cut the Gordian knot by denying the materialist conception of history, while clinging to their socialist ideal. They thus repeat in inverted form the curious feat in intellectual acrobatics performed by Edwin Seligman, a professor who believes in historical materialism but rejects socialism. “There is nothing in common,” he asserts, between the economic interpretation of history and the doctrine of socialism, except the accidental fact that the originator of both theories happened to be the same man.” And a few pages further on he reiterates: “Socialism and ‘historical materialism’ are entirely independent conceptions.”26


Professional positivists, proletarian nihilists

To those educated socialists who deny or mutilate the doctrine of historical materialism, the materialist socialist might well reply by asserting that these educated socialists are socialists only because of the artistic, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual changes they expect the economic revolution of socialism to produce. The fact that they, lovers of “the things of the spirit,” are socialists proves that they believe, albeit unconsciously, in economic determinism. But, although this personal argument might well be deemed sufficient, it can readily be proven affirmatively that the whole theory of modern socialism rests upon the foundation of historical materialism. This clearly appears in the admirable summary of the teachings of Marx that Gabriel Deville gives in the Preface to his epitome of Marx’s Capital:

History, Marx has shown, is nothing but the history of class conflicts. The division of society into classes, which made its appearance with the social life of man, rests on economic relations — maintained by force — which enable some to succeed in shifting on to the shoulders of others the natural necessity of labor. Material interests have always been the inciting motives of the incessant struggles of the privileged classes, either with each other, or against the inferior classes at whose expense they live. Man is dominated by the material conditions of life, and these conditions, and therefore the mode of production, have determined and will determine human customs, ethics, and institutions — social, economic, political, juridical, etc.

As soon as one part of society has monopolized the means of production, the other part, upon whom the burden of labor falls, is obliged to add to the labor-time necessary for its own support, a certain surplus labor-time, for which it receives no equivalent, — time that is devoted to supporting and enriching the possessors of the means of production. As an extractor of unpaid labor, which, by means of the increasing surplus-value whose source it is, accumulates every day, more and more, in the hands of the proprietary class the instruments of its dominion, the capitalist regime surpasses in power all the antecedent regimes founded on compulsory labor. But today the economic conditions begotten by this regime, trammeled by it in their natural evolution, inexorably tend to break the capitalist mold, which can no longer contain them, aid these destroying principles are the elements of the new society.

The historic mission of the class at present exploited, the proletariat, which is being organized and disciplined by the very mechanism of capitalist production, is to complete the work of destruction begun by the development of social antagonisms. It must, first of all, definitively wrest from its class adversaries the political power — the command of the force devoted by them to preserving intact their economic monopolies and privileges. Once in control of the political power, it will be able, by proceeding to the socialization of the means of production through the expropriation of the usurpers of the fruits of others’ toil, to suppress the present contradiction between collective production and private capitalist appropriation, and to realize the universalization of labor, and the abolition of classes.

If the “educated and professional” socialists cannot break the chain of this logic, they find themselves, as Nora did, face to face with the necessity of making a choice. Behind them is the old dollhouse life with its manifold conventions — once useful, but through economic evolution outgrown and thus become false and deadly — a life, easy enough mayhap, but wholly devoid of idealism; before them is the new life of freedom, of revolt against outworn beliefs and conventions — a life of great difficulty, mayhap, but a life cheered by a noble ideal — an ideal in whose realization the socialist materialists believe as fully, as passionately as the ancient Hebrews believed in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies.

Theirs is a hard case. Without ideals they cannot, in any worthy sense, live. The only possible ideal, that even the keen eyes of so shrewd an observer as Street can perceive, is the ideal of socialism. But they cannot accept this ideal without abandoning much, I do not say that is dear to them, but much that by habit and tradition has become part and parcel of their intellectual being. If they decide to go forward into the New, the old world of dolls’ houses must become a strange land to them. In the difficulties and trials of the new life, they cannot send back for aid to the old world, which will have become a world of strangers to them. Nora’s feminine instinct did not fail her here; when Torvald asked if he could send help to her in case of need, her unhesitating reply was, “No, I say, I take nothing from strangers.”

Much better is the case of the workingman attracted by the socialist ideal. The nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, “he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain.” He has long since lost all interest in religion; the factory by enlisting his wife and children as workers has already destroyed his home; and to him the state means nothing but the club of the policeman, the injunction of the judge, and the rifle of the militiaman. But for the man of the “educated and professional classes” leaving the dollhouse is indeed a difficult task.

Utopian romances

For its performance three things are requisite: a free and open mind, courage, and a vivid imagination. The Russian genius Peshkov [Maksim Gorkii] did it, and did it with relative ease, because he was a workingman before he became an educated man. For the same reason, though in lesser degree, Jack London has also done it successfully, though here and there he still lapses into the doll’s mode of thought. The sex interest in the latter part of The Sea Wolf is obviously treated from the dolls’ point of view; but it should be remembered that London necessarily expected the majority of the purchasers of The Sea Wolf to be dolls. Despite this instance, we may be sure that London brought but little with him when he left the dollhouse; and I am very sure he never sends back to have parcels forwarded to him.

When Upton Sinclair left the dollhouse, he evidently stuffed his mental pockets with a large assortment of intellectual lingerie and millinery from the doll wardrobes. In telling us what life means to him in a recent magazine, he says that during a certain stress and storm period of his life he lived in close intimacy with three friends who “loved” him “very dearly.” “Their names are Jesus, Hamlet, and Shelley.” Can any one imagine William Morris writing a sentiment so perfectly satisfying to a doll’s sense of beauty? When I read these lines there rises before me a picture of the author tastefully robed in an exquisite dress — a doll’s dress — of dotted Swiss.27 Recently he has started a Cooperative Home Colony quite in the spirit of the bourgeois utopians who founded Brook Farm more than half a century ago. Founding colonies, historians tell us, was a favorite amusement of the dolls of that era. In the December 1906 issue of Time Magazine Sinclair tells us that “the home has endured for ages, and through all the ages it has stayed about the same.” This belief, I am informed, is almost universal among dolls. I find myself the prey of a growing suspicion that Sinclair from time to time receives express parcels from the “dollhouse.”

Morris was a genius; he had a free and open mind; he had courage; and he had a vivid imagination. When he left the dollhouse, he took nothing with him, and he never afterward took anything “from strangers.” It was his poet’s imagination that enabled him to write News from Nowhere, the only utopia in whose communal halls the unwary reader does not stumble over dolls’ furniture. Morris is the perfect type of the man of culture turned revolutionist.28

H.G. Wells has recently written a utopian romance, “In the Days of the Comet,” which, although it possesses in the fullest measure Wells’ well known charm of style, is in substance at best a very feeble echo of News from Nowhere. One of the modes of thought specially characteristic of eighteenth century French dolls is strongly to the fore in Wells’ treatment of war. In the conversations “after the Change” between Melmount, the famous Cabinet Minister, and the pitiful, cowardly, inefficient hero (?), Leadford, they both appear to be inexpressibly shocked at the unreasonableness of war. It is true it is somewhat difficult to tell just what Melmount did think or feel, for Melmount is in one particular like Boston’s distinguished litterateur, Lawson, — he appears to be constantly on the point of uttering some great thought, but never utters it. But so far as light is given us Melmount after the Change seems to have looked on war much as Carlyle did long before. Every one remembers Carlyle’s two groups of peasants,29 living hundreds of miles apart, who never heard of each other, and had not the slightest quarrel, the one with the other, but who nonetheless obeyed the orders of their respective kings, and marched until they met, and at the word of command shot each other into corpses. Most of us will agree with Carlyle and Melmount that, viewed from the peasants’ standpoint, this was unreasonable to the point of sheer folly.

But, if I understand Wells correctly, he seems to elevate the reason of the peasant into something very like the “eternal reason” of Diderot and Rousseau. He apparently forgets for the nonce that Engels long ago pointed out that “this eternal reason was in reality nothing but the idealized understanding of the eighteenth century citizen, just then evolving into the bourgeois.” The difficulty that Wells will encounter in trying to bring human society into harmony with “eternal reason” is the impossibility of getting different classes of men to agree as to what is reasonable. No one outside of dolls’ houses any longer believes in “eternal reason.” Every man and every class has an ideal of what is reasonable, but these ideals vary. War is unreasonable to the peasant; it is also unreasonable to Melmount and Wells so far as they are representatives of the citizens of the classless society of the future, a society based on social solidarity, on worldwide brotherhood. But to the socialist materialist, war, in a world based on private ownership of the means of production used to produce commodities, with its concomitants, the wage-system, competition — domestic and international, — and ever-recurring “overproduction,” is so very far from unreasonable that it is absolutely inevitable.30 Wells evidently brought something with him when he left the “dollhouse.”

Furniture of the past

We now begin to realize what a very difficult matter it is to rid the mind completely of the effects of what Veblen calls “the institutional furniture handed down from the past.” The man, who yields to the lure of socialism, must sooner or later effect a revolution within his own mind; if he does not, he will sooner or later return to his dollhouse, or make an excursion into some field of pragmatic romance” where he will build himself a new dollhouse. Granted the truth of historical materialism, how will future generations look on the literature of today and yesterday? To a generation wholly untrained in theological, metaphysical and dualistic modes of thought how much meaning will there be in the poetry of” Tennyson and Browning? For my part, I never read Browning now without being unpleasantly reminded of the aphorism Nietzsche put into the mouth of Zarathustra: “Indeed, I cast my net into the poets’ seas and wanted to catch good fish. But always I hauled in an ancient god’s head.”

Still, I am glad to believe that the matchless melody and the chiseled beauty of Tennyson’s verse will charm the senses of men to whom his curious mixture of pantheism and Broad Church theology, which the middle classes of England and America in the latter decades of the nineteenth century welcomed as the ultimate massage of philosophy, will not be ridiculous only because it will be meaningless. Yet I am unable to think of the men of the future deriving any pleasure from our greatest poet, Browning. On the other hand it is not impossible that the fame of Swinburne will stand higher in the twenty-first century than it does in this opening decade of the twentieth. The men and women of the future will, I am sure, feel themselves akin to Shelley. They will probably enjoy Byron too, so far as they understand him; but men and women, who have never known any relationship between the sexes but that of independence and equality, will be bored and baffled by that great bulk of Byron’s verse which shocked his contemporaries.

When we turn to the drama, it appears probable that the revolution in the relations of the sexes will convert into mere materials for the historian even our greatest plays, such as Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, Sudermann’s The Joy of Living, Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna, and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Are the “educated and professional” socialists prepared to accept gladly such tremendous changes? They are confronted by a momentous question. It was of their class William Morris was thinking when he wrote:

I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization. This, then, is the claim: It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do: and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor overanxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed; discontent and strife and dishonesty would be ended. To feel that we were doing work useful to others and pleasant to ourselves, and that such work and its due reward could not fail us! What serious harm could happen to us then? And the price to be paid for so making the world happy is Revolution.31

Are they willing to pay the price? Nora paid the price for her freedom and paid it in full. She took nothing from strangers. If they are unwilling to pay the price, what is there left for them save the joyless sensuality and black despair of pessimism?


1 Thorstein Veblen, Theory of Business Enterprise. New York, 1904. Pgs. 351, 352. See also my article on “Veblen the Revolutionist,” International Socialist Review, June 1905, vol. 5, pg. 726.
2 Throughout this article “nihilism” is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but is used simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.
3 Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York, 1904. Pgs. 11, 12.
4 See Joseph Dietzgen, Philosophical Essays. Chicago, 1906. Pgs. 174, 152.
5 Antonio Labriola, Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History. Chicago, 1904. Pgs. 85, 86.
6 Ibid., pgs. 155-156, 158.
7 Dietzgen, Philosophical Essays. Pg. 86.
8 Enrico Ferri, Socialism and Modern Science. New York, 1904. Pgs. 60, 61.
9 Dietzgen, Philosophical Essays. Pg. 116.
10 The reader will observe that Ferri reads into the Erfurt pronouncement on religion (quoted in full above) a broader spirit of tolerance than its words necessarily imply.
11 See Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class. New York, 1905. Pgs. 287, 288.
12 Marx in Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie.
13 Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the state. Chicago, 1905. Pg. 99. See also August Bebel, Woman under Socialism. New York, 1904. Page 127.
14 Engels, Origin of the Family. Pg. 100.
15 [Parsons:] The enlightened public opinion of today finds the chief if not the only warrant for universal male suffrage in its being an educational means. In this view women need the suffrage at present even more than men.
16 [Parsons:] Dr. Alice Drysdale Vickery gave striking expression to one phase of this subject at a recent discussion of the London Sociological Society. She urged that without economic independence the individuality of woman could not exercise that natural selective power in the choice of a mate which was probably a main factor in the spiritual evolution of the human race. The American Journal of Sociology, Sept., 1905. Pg. 279.
17 [La Monte:] No wonder such a startling hypothesis aroused the ire of our clerical friends.
18 [La Monte:] It is worthy of note that this suggestion of a serious modification of marriage under existing economic conditions comes characteristically, not from a socialist, but from the wife of a Republican member of Congress and the daughter of a distinguished financier.
19 [Parsons:] Through the discovery of certain and innocuous methods of preventing conception. The application of this knowledge would have to be encouraged by public opinion in cases where conception would result in a degenerate offspring. Public opinion would also have to endorse, the segregation of persons tainted with communicable sexual disease.
20 Berlin cablegram in the New York Sun of Dec. 7, 1906.
21 Engels, Origin of the Family. Pgs. 91, 92. See also Bebel, Woman under Socialism. Pg. 122, and elsewhere.
22 Origin of the Family. Pages 208, 209.
23 On the existence of organized societies without a coercive State, see also Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan, Chicago, 1907.
24 Origin of the Family. Pgs. 211, 212.
25 Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Chicago, 1905. Pgs. 76, 77, 113.
26 Edwin R.A. Seligman, “The Economic Interpretation of History.” New York, 1903. Pgs. 105, 109.
27 Cartoonists are warned that this idea is protected by copyright.
28 The other day I chanced upon a pamphlet by one Oscar Lovell Triggs of Chicago. It bore the title, “William Morris: Craftsman, Writer, and Social Reformer.” In turning over its pages I was somewhat startled to read. “‘Scientific’ socialism he never understood or advocated.” And again further on my eye fell on this gem: “It is apparent that Morris’ ‘socialism’ is poetic and not scientific socialism.” This pamphlet should have a place of honor in every doll’s library.
29 In Sartor Resartus.
30 In fact, Professor Veblen has shown that for the last quarter of a century the commonest cause of seasons of “ordinary prosperity” has been war. See The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pgs. 250-251.
31 From “Art and Socialism,” a pamphlet that is now rare.

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