Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley




The cause of Socialism is the cause of love and hope and humanity: the cause of competition is the cause of anarchy, pessimism and disbelief in a possible manhood for human nature just emerging from its barbarous infancy. The human soul is the highest thing of which we have any knowledge. If this soul is incapable of ever adapting itself to conditions of equallity [sic], community and brotherhood, then had we better never have been born, for reason, the capacity for faith, and the love of beauty were given to us in vain.

Here on the one hand are a million human beings—the noblest product of the forces of life—most of whom would work or would once have worked for a living, if work were possible—either unemployed and starving, or toiling for a wage utterly inadequate to the maintenance of a fair and human existence—many of them living in conditions of unspeakable horror and degradation—and all [of] them rapidly deteriorating under the influence of misery and dispair [sic] and the brutalizing vices begotten of these. On the other hand is the broad and fruitful earth, miles upon miles and tract upon tract of it unoccupied and untilled, ready to produce food and every material of life for multitudes vastly times greater than those now subsisting upon it. How is it that these two cannot be brought together—this starving people, a land full of fruit and material waste and unutilized? Then comes the old fashioned economist and looking us in the eye with a straight face, tells us that it is impossible owing to the working of the "Law of supply and demand"[.] What a desperate piece of mockery this is to the man with a human heart watching the misery of the world; yet the economist speaks to us without a smile. It is more ghastly than anything in a dream. We know that often in disturbed dreams we long exceedingly for something and reach out after it, but are mysteriously held back and thwarted. We cannot lay hold upon it, though there is nothing visible between to prevent us. This [is] much like the Law of Supply and Demand; it is the reasonless[,] baseless nightmare of the human race.

The fact is that there is a wrong and unhuman principle at the bottom of our whole industrial system; the principle that the private individual may take possession of the common earth and use it in any way he will for his own advantage; the principle that one man may buy other men into slavery, for this in the process of competition is what it amounts to in the end. The man who has land and money takes possession of the strength and intelligence of men who have none[,] sets them to labour and after getting all the work of them that he can, returns them in wages just so much of the wealth they produce as will suffice to keep body and soul together and enable them to work on. The rest, after paying the charges of rent interest on capital and so forth, he appropriates for his own comfort or advancement. Putting it this way in cold phrases it may not sound so very bad in the ears of those who possess land and money and are bred to this system, but look at the result. Look at the frightful inequallity [sic] that is growing year by year, the accumulating pride and luxury, the accumulating vice and misery. There is no cure for these things under the compet[it]ive system, none whatever. The evil can only increase; and unless the humane social theory prevails, it will increase to the exploding point, when the conditions of life can no longer be borne. The truth is that your system has reached a point of developement at which its falseness and injustice are patent. There are only two alternatives, the competive plan and the collective. You have tried the one and it has led to the inequallity [sic], the injustice, the misery that you see. Try the other, the system which is based upon abstract justice, and a generous estimate of the capabilities of the human soul. If this should fail then we shall have to agree with the pessimists and acknowledge that it is all a mistake; that life is a failure and not worth living.

Now it has been a curious habit of human nature in all ages to evince suddenly at times a capacity for the most unexpected and apparently impossible things. Let us take just one or two examples. At the end of the sixth century no country in the world was in so despicable and so deplorable a condition as Arabia. It was divided up among a number of petty and hostile tribes, among whom there appeared to be no possibility of uniting for any social or reasonable purpose. There was no law, no authority, no courtesy, no morals, nothing worth calling a religion[.] Life was not worth living to any man who was not fearfully armed, physically powerful and trained in all the arts of fraud and violence. Then came Mohammed, the man with a burning and inextinguishable idea. He infused his understanding and his idea into a few fiery and indomitable men. They swept Arabia, compelled the sheikhs to sink their deadly spites and age long jealousies, established order, religion, and law. Then they formed an army, one of the most wonderful armies that the world has ever seen, perfect in courage, perfect in discipline. In less than a century they overran Asia and Africa from the Indus to the pillars of Hercules, and broke the power of the Goths in Spain. So much for an idea and a man, and so much for human nature. Forty years ago many of the wisest and most patriotic Germans despaired of German unity, of the old cloudy, enthusiast’s dream of a German Empire. It was not in human nature that all those petty and pompous German princelings should ever take each other by the hand, sink their jealousies, and forget their little love of personal dominion even though it were only over an acre or two. But they did, when the man came, inspired irresistably of the idea, the man and the idea and at the back of both an event which kindled every thing into flame. All of a sudden they forgot themselves and linked together and made the German Empire. So much again for human nature.

The people who carp at Socialism seem to be immensely taken up with that propensity[,] apparently so prevalent in human nature, the greed of gain[,] the desire of material splendor, the love of the pomp and circumstance attending the possession of wealth and power. To this impulse they attribute the progress of enlightenment, the advance of civilization. But who are the men, who have inspired and guided the best efforts of mankind in every age both spiritually and materially. They have not been the worldlings who filled their coffers with gold and sat in the proudest seats. They have been men like Socrates who lived in poverty and died for an idea; like the Greeks who perished in the struggle for liberty but left names which were a light to future ages; [l]ike Erasmus, the Augustinian monk, who if he had been content to follow his appointed role of Churchman, might have been a bishop or a pope, but who preferred his own spiritual liberty and the liberty of his kind; like Galileo, who lived for science and found his reward in it; like Columbus and Watt and Arkwright[,] the fruit of whose discoveries in [words illegible] was reaped by other and meaner men[;] like Milton and Wordsworth who confined themselves materially to simple and austere living that they might have spiritual space and lofty imaginings. Turning to our special subject, who are the men who are leading the Socialist movement in England today[?] They are not the ignorant and starving men of the people, who might expect material gain through the acceptance of this idea they support. They are many of them what we call gentlemen, men of culture and refinement, some of them professional men of recognized ability in London, some of them teachers and scholars connected with the old universities of Oxford and Cambridge, others indeed men of the people but men whose unusual personal force and ability would assuredly win them wealth and power if they were content with that ideal. What has happened to these men is the same thing that happened to Buddah, to Socrates, to the founder of Christianity, to Mohammed[,] to Joan of Arc, to St. Francis of Assisi[,] to Luther and Melancthon [sic] and Erasmus, to Mirabeau and Danton, to Washington, to Hofer and Cavour and Garabaldi [sic], to Newton, and Comte, and Darwin and many another. They have been siezed and inspired by a great and beneficent idea, and in order that that idea may prosper for the benefit of the race they are willing to sink themselves materially and be[,] in the worldly sense, of no account.

Many people are frightened at Socialism, because they think of tumult and insurrection, of mob violence, and the tyranny of the masses that have risen and got power into their hands. Possibly if the strife between Capitalism and labour were to reach an acute stage, with no safety valve in the form of gradual ameliorative changes, there might be scenes of revolt and turbulence. Nevertheless this ideal would be there still hanging over the heads of the rough multitude, though it acts upon them for the moment as a brutal intoxicant, the ideal of economic liberty, and it is working out their salvation. We all know the debt Europe owes to the great French Revolution[,] the debt of political liberty, yet who can think of Paris in 1794 without fear and horror. Who dares picture to himself the September massacres[,] the gates of Sainte Pélagie, the long lines of bloody pikes, the rivers of blood, the mob drunken with blood and fury. Men like Wordsworth and Coleridge[,] who had formerly defended the revolution, were appalled by such facts, turned back and abandoned their early faith. Yet the ideal was there—ever there—over the heads of that ferocious multitude, though it acted upon them for the time merely as a brutal intoxicant. The feudal chains were broken and liberty was won. Such scenes can never be repeated in France; can never be repeated because they happened once, and civilization was advanced another stage. But there will be no September massacres[,] probably no violence of any great account in connection with Socialism. The change will work itself out gradually and intelligently from possibility to possibility. The world has grown cooler headed since 1794, and human nature is better understood.