Sunday, March 25, 2007

Van Ornum, Co-operation, V

Twentieth Century, June 14, 1894, 7-9.



During more recent periods, since written history has kept a record of great social movements, nearly every age and country has had its agitation which contemplated such social regenerations as would practically bring equality in material and social conditions among men. Just as in other cases among the ancients, those agitations have generally been directed against the principle of private property. And if any proof were needed beyond the evidences which are everywhere observable, of the fact that the institution of private property does not express the needs of humanity, that proof would be found in abundance in the repeated efforts of mankind within the last four hundred years to throw it off, and substitute some form of community of property. Popular revolutions which have from time to time broken out in different countries against the constituted authorities, except those which have had their origin in religious disputes, have almost if not always arisen because of the unjust workings of that institution. They have been revolts against some of its features; and all improvements in social conditions which have resulted from such revolutions have been in the setting aside, for the time being at least, of the laws of property. They have suspended for a time the operation of those laws; and permitted of new adjustments. Afterward, when the authority of the aw became restored, the same abuses were enacted over again as soon as the legitimate results of the law had time to make themselves felt, when a new revolution became necessary. With such a history to appeal to, everywhere teaching the same lesson, it is time we learned that lesson, that private property, as an institution is unsuited to the wants of human society and ought to be abandoned. And when it is abandoned the necessity for any form of human enactments which shall restrain the freedom of individuals will cease; because, in one way and another, directly or indirectly the whole volume of the law, and government of mankind by man, is intended to, and does maintain this institution of property; and to classes and distinctions which result from it.

But what has all this to do with co-operation? some one will ask me. I reply: it has everything to do with it. Capitalistic production is the direct result of this institution of property established and maintained by law. It is impossible to start a co-operation which shall realize its sublime purpose without attacking the institution of private property and therefore antagonizing, and ultimately destroying the law. And it is equally impossible to maintain such a system of cooperation for a considerable time without bringing about a community of property as to all the means of production. So that we cannot consider co-operation without, at the same time, considering the question of government, and that of community of property as well.

It will be instructive to hastily glance at some of the most conspicuous attempts to establish communistic societies in different countries during the last four or five hundred years, and see wherein they failed, in order to profit by their examples.

Early in the sixteenth century a sect called Anabaptists arose in Germany, becoming prominent about the time of the Reformation. The name was given it in derision by its enemies, and had reference to its peculiar doctrines as to infant baptism. It must not, however, be confounded with the religious sect known as Baptists, because it was far more than a religious sect. In fact, this was the smallest part of its purposes. It was a revolutionary society in revolt against feudal oppression, which developed into a war against all constituted authority. It attempted to establish by force the Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and a community of goods. Under the lead of Thomas Münzer, a Lutheran pastor, it inaugurated the Peasant’s war of 1525, which was quickly suppressed by the authorities. Münzer was executed, but the agitation continued, resulting in another outbreak seven years later. This was also defeated and suppressed in 1535, the leaders executed and their followers driven out of Germany by fierce persecutions. The mistake they made was in supposing that a change of system, such as they desired, could ever be affected by revolution. Revolutions only suspend, for the time being, the operation of the laws, so as to admit of a partial readjustment of existing systems to popular requirements. For instance, in France, before the revolution, the land had all been absorbed by the church, the state and the great estates. The revolution broke that up. The land was dividedamong the people, which afforded a temporary relief. But the same system of private property, even private property in land, continued. The great body of the law remained the same, and capitalism is just as firmly fortified and just as despotic today as it ever was. probably the need for a revolution in France, provided a revolution was the best or only remedy, is just as great now as it was in the time of Louis XVI. Revolution is never more than a temporary expedient. It can never work such a change as the Anabaptists sought to establish, or such as we seek in the co-operative commonwealth. If the revolution which now threatens this country should really take place, the most it can possibly do to further that co-operative commonwealth is to suspend the operation of those laws which now hinder the planting of cooperative communities. Their growth and the development of the commonwealth must depend upon their own inherent strength; that is, upon the extent to which they fulfill the wants of mankind. The kingdom of God will never be ushered in at the point of the bayonet.

Among the co-operative schemes of industry and Communistic society which have been tried in Europe and this country with varying success may be mentioned the Society of Harmony, started at Wirtemburg in 1785 as a schism from the Lutheran Church, and which emigrated to this country in 1804 under the leadership of George Rapp, and settled at Beever, Pennsylvania; the Society of Amana, at Homestead, Iowa; one at Tuscarawa, Ohio ; several colonies of Shakers which have established themselves at various places throughout the country; the Moravians, who were only mildly Communistic in their polity ; the Dunkers, the Separatists, the Oneida Perfectionists, the Icarians, and many others. These are still in existence, but have generally declined until they number but few members in proportion to those they counted in their days of greatest prosperity. In all of them this decline in membership is so marked a characteristic as to foreshadow the early extinction of all of these societies. It would not, however, be fair to assume that this is owing to any inherent weakness in Communism itself. They have all adopted regulations which are utterly foreign to Communism and to which it is easy to trace the cause of their decline. Their interference with domestic life in regulating, even in some cases prohibiting the intercourse of the sexes ; and in prescribing minute rules of conduct in diet, dress and general habits for the observance of members, has the effect of suppressing the spontaneity of the individual, and rendering life unattractive, especially to the young, in the communities. As a result the young leave them when they arrive at manhood and womanhood. There is an almost absolute despotism vested in their leaders. The smallest minutia of the daily life of the members is regulated from headquarters. Observing this, Mr. Nordhoff, who made a considerable study of these societies, observes that “The fundamental principal of Communal life is the subordination of the individual’s will to the general interest, or the general will. Practically this takes the shape of unquestioning obedience by the members towards the elders or chiefs of their society.” On the contrary, so far from being fundamental, all this is wholly foreign to Communism. But rather, Communism is not only persistent with the liberty of the individual, but there can never be any true Communism where that liberty is abridged. Just as co-operation must be strictly voluntary, leaving the most perfect freedom at all times; the greatest spontaneity of the individual, as its resultant—Communism—will not suppress that spontaneity. The failures of Communism, just like the failures of co-operation, have been because Communists chose rather to violate the principles of Communism, as they did the principles of co-operation.

J. H. Noyes, in his work on “American Socialisms,” gives a short history of forty-seven failures of Communistic societies. I think it will be found that instead of their being, in any sense, failures of Communism, they were failures because they were not Communistic.

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