July 24, 2012 essays

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From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 3

“It has been my singular fortune (or fate) to have read through the whole of Spencer’s works twice at an interval of fifteen years, and each time in the midst of a great war.” So wrote Hugh Elliot in his Introduction to Herbert Spencer (1917), one of the better early works on Spencer’s life and ideas.

Elliot first read Spencer’s books while serving with the British army during the second Boer War (1899-1902), a time when he frequently “had little other baggage than a toothbrush and a volume of The Principles of Psychology.” Elliot—who was familiar with the anti-war views of Richard Cobden, John Bright, and other laissez-faire liberals—continued:

There exists in the English language no more trenchant indictment of war and militarism than is contained in The Study of Sociology. Yet it was my lot to read that work many miles from any inhabited town, in momentary expectation of an attack, and with revolver ready loaded in case of sudden need.

It was during this period that Elliot became a “dogmatic disciple” of Spencer. But after the Boer War, as Elliot watched English politics drift with a seeming inevitability toward socialism, he became apathetic, “for the realization of Spencer’s theories appeared to be hopeless.”

The onset of the Great War (WWI) roused Elliot from his political lethargy. Although Elliot does not mention the story, his reaction was similar to that of a liberal MP who, after Britain had declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, said, with tears in his eyes: “Liberalism is dead.”

Again and again, throughout many years and in many different books and articles, Spencer argued that war is the single greatest threat to individual freedom. As Elliot (who was writing while WWI was in full swing) observed, if England was drifting toward socialistic policies before August 1914, this slow current quickly became a torrent after the war began:

We are no longer drifting slowly along the placid stream of social reform, increasing month by month our stock of legislative enactments, and adding year by year to the powers of the Government over the individual. Circumstances have driven us headlong to a consummation which in many spheres touches the limit to which previous legislation was gradually progressing. In a few months the power of the State has increased to a degree which it could scarcely have attained in as many years of social reform. If the State formerly was by degrees asserting its authority over individuals, if it was always enlarging its claim to control their activities and to take their incomes as taxation; it has now overtly proclaimed its complete authority over the persons and incomes of every individual subject to its control. Doubtless it has done so by necessity; but here we have a definite and avowed social policy, which is exceedingly likely to be continued long after the temporary necessity has lapsed.

It was during the Great War that Hugh Elliot read Spencer’s voluminous works for the second time. And though he now had some ideological disagreements, including with some of “Spencer’s furious declamations against warlike and military activities,” Elliot contended that Spencer was the greatest critic of militarism and war that England had ever produced. If “England had followed Spencer, this war could never have occurred.”

Europe is now drenched in blood; its wealth and prosperity are fast being drained away. The spirit of Treitschke has triumphed over the spirit of Spencer….And while reading Spencer again, I have reached the conclusion that, notwithstanding his errors, his spirit was sound and true. It is useless now to sneer at liberty as a discredited doctrine. Europe may have abandoned it; but see the result!

Spencer, according to Elliot, “long ago foresaw the goal of European policy, and contended with all his might to stem the tide before it was too late.” But Spencer was out of fashion in England by the turn of the century; the political tendencies in the years preceding the Great War “were all hostile to Spencer’s teaching.” Nevertheless, “it seems to be clear that the social policy against which Spencer fought is now bankrupt. It has failed, and its failure threatens to ruin Europe for a generation.”

Earlier I quoted Elliot’s remark, “There exists in the English language no more trenchant indictment of war and militarism than is contained in The Study of Sociology.” This is an interesting observation if placed in a modern context, because few contemporary libertarians are familiar with Spencer’s works on sociology. To the extent they know of Spencer’s critiques of war, militarism, and imperialism, they learned of these things either second-hand or through reading Spencer’s more popular articles. Yet it is in Spencer’s technical writings on sociology that we find his most formidable arguments about the antagonism between militarism and war, on the one hand, and individual freedom and social progress, on the other hand. (In contrast to Elliot, I would rank the second and third volumes of Spencer’s masterpiece, The Principles of Sociology, far above his more general text, The Study of Sociology.)

I will explore Spencer’s technical theories, such as his celebrated contrast between the “militant’ and “industrial” forms of social organization, in a later essay. These theories are essential to understanding Spencer’s later pessimism and his uncanny predictions about the statism and war that would dominate Europe during much of the twentieth century. For the remainder of this essay, however, I will focus on Spencer’s opposition to the Boer War—his last great cause.

As Hugh Elliot read Spencer’s works while “on active service on the South African veldt,” he could hardly have avoided reading some of Spencer’s trenchant and bitter criticisms of the Boer War. As Spencer’s official biographer, David Duncan, noted in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (p. 449):

Probably no political event in the whole course of his life moved him so profoundly. “I am ashamed of my country,” was his frequent remark. Liberals equally with Tories were, in his opinion, responsible for the deplorable condition in which the country had drifted.

Duncan (p. 421) also remarked:

Some time before the outbreak of hostilities in South Africa [Spencer] had denounced the policy that was drifting the country into war. Whatever one’s opinion may be as to the right or the wrong of the war, one must admit that Spencer’s attitude towards it was in complete harmony with the principles he had throughout life professed.

By 1900, an eighty-year-old Spencer had made the final revisions to his formidable ten-volume Synthetic Philosophya work of incredible scope that was planned decades earlier and written in spite of severe health problems. Spencer received letters of congratulations from leading intellectuals around the world, and many people expected the old man, who now dubbed himself an “invalid,” to retire from the stress of writing.

But Spencer had one more book to write—a collection of essays that, unlike his earlier anthologies, would include new rather than previously published pieces. Published as Facts and Comments in 1902 (a year before Spencer’s death), this collection expressed ideas that, as Spencer put it, ranged from “relatively trivial” to “some of more interest, and some which I think are important.”

Among the important essays are several that deal with militarism, imperialism, and war—and the Boer War in particular. Spencer’s uncompromising opposition to the Boer War was well-known prior to the publication of Facts and Comments in 1902. Two years earlier, for example, Spencer had published several letters condemning the war, and his opposition brought upon his head the predictable response that he was unpatriotic.

Spencer struck back with a vengeance in Facts and Comments, especially in an essay titled “Patriotism.” This essay begins:

Were any one to call me dishonest or untruthful he would touch me to the quick. Were he to say that I am unpatriotic, he would leave me unmoved. ‘What, then, have you no love of country?” That is a question not to be answered in a breath.

Although Spencer admired many things about England and English history, there were also “traits, unhappily of late more frequently displayed,” that deserved condemnation from anyone with a serious regard for justice and freedom, such as various pretexts used by British imperialists to wage “desolating” wars.

If because my love of country does not survive these and many other adverse experiences I am called unpatriotic—well, I am content to be so called.

One striking paragraph in particular incurred the wrath of English public opinion; even The Liberty Review—a periodical of the Liberty and Property Defense League, many of whose members idolized Spencer—attacked it. Here is Spencer’s infamous statement:

Some years ago I gave expression to my own feeling—anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called—in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war [1878-80], when, in pursuance of what were thought to be “our interests,” we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenaeum Club a well-known military man—then a captain but now a general—drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying—“When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”

Spencer was no pacifist. On the contrary, he vigorously defended the right of self-defense and upheld the moral legitimacy of wars that are truly defensive. But if “patriotism” means the unconditional support of one’s government in time of war, regardless of the justice of that war, then Spencer wanted no part of it. “To me the cry—‘Our country, right or wrong!’ seems detestable.” Patriotism in this sense is a “sentiment…of the lowest.”

Throughout Facts and Comments, we find criticisms of the English press, which had falsified information in an effort to muster support for the Boer War. The following comment (from the article “State-Education,” which is largely a critique of the war) is typical: “Day by day the reports of the South African war have been full of fictions, exaggerations, garbling; much has been falsified, much suppressed.”

Spencer was especially critical of the how the London Times reported on the war. The Times retaliated after Spencer’s death in 1903 with a highly critical obituary.

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