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Salvation by Force

In this essay, written in response to J. A. Hobson, Herbert shows how socialism depends upon the illegitimate use of force.

My criticism upon Mr. Hobson’s recent paper in defense of socialism must be that he takes much trouble to prove that which is not in dispute, that which almost all of us, I presume, are ready to admit, and which, when admitted, can be of no use as regards the defense of the socialist position, while he altogether passes by the real point at issue—the crux of the whole question-by which socialism has to stand or fall.

Now let us get to business and see how the matter stands. Mr. Hobson justifies socialism—or the compulsory organization of all human beings—by the fact of our social interdependence. In many forms of words he returns again and again to the same point of view. Psychology brings, he tells us, “a cloud of witnesses to prove the direct organic interaction of mind upon mind”; society is “an organic system of the relations between individuals”; “the familiar experience of everyone exhibits thoughts, emotions, character as elaborate social products”; “minds breathe a common atmosphere, and habitually influence one another by constant interferences.” We are not, as he says, to look at “numbers,” but rather at “the action of the social will.” Without examining critically these metaphors, that he employs, we need not so far have any quarrel. We are all agreed probably that we are subject to innumerable influences, that we all act and react upon each other in the great social whole, that the environment constantly affects and modifies the individual. Marvelous indeed is the great subtle web of relations in which we are all bound together—man and nature, man and man, body and mind, nation and nation, each forever interacting on the other. But what in the name of good logic and plain common sense have this universal interaction and interdependence to do with the fundamental dogmas of socialism? Socialism rests upon the assumed right of some men to constrain other men. It naturally exhibits several varieties; but all the thoroughgoing forms of it are so far alike that they depend upon universal compulsory organization. It must be always borne in mind that socialism differs from other systems in this essential, that it recognizes, and, so to speak, sanctifies compulsion as a universally true and proper method; and the compulsion, which it sanctifies, must for practical reasons, as well as for the assumed virtues in compulsion itself, be left undefined and unlimited in extent. It represents the belief that prosperity, happiness, and morality are to be conferred upon the world by force—the force of some men applied to other men.

That may be, or may not be. Force may be the greatest and most far-reaching thing in the world; or it may be the weakest and most contemptible. But before we discuss the strength or the weakness of force as a reforming instrument, before we decide what force can or cannot do on our behalf, we have to consider, first of all, if we have a moral right to employ force. The socialist assumes—he is obliged to assume for the sake of his system—that men have a right to use force for any purpose and to any extent that he desires, in order that he may be enabled to restrain men from using their faculties for their own individual advantage. If you ask which men are to be the depositories of force, he can only answer, the biggest number of men; or if not the biggest number, then such a number of men as by efficient organization can succeed in obtaining possession of power and in retaining it.

I need not spend time in proving this point. Every thoroughgoing socialist, who is willing to deal frankly in the matter, will admit that socialism rests on the cornerstone of force. Private property is by force to be turned into common property; and when that has taken place, no individual will be allowed to acquire private property or to employ it for his own purposes, except to a very small extent, and under strict regulations. John Smith could not be allowed to work for Richard Parker, as this would be a return to the system of free labor, and must necessarily endanger the system of state labor. Richard Parker could not be allowed to open a shop and sell his wares to John Smith, for this would be to allow free enterprise and the individual acquisition of wealth once more to reappear in the world. The whole meaning of socialism is force, applied in restraint of faculties. For good or for evil, it is the attempt to place all men and all human affairs under a compulsory system; and to allow no free system to exist by the side of its own system, which would be necessarily endangered by such rivalry. It differs from every free system in this essential particular: that under liberty, you may give away your own liberty, if you think good, and be socialist, or anything else you like; under socialism, you must be socialist, and may not make a place for yourself in any free system.

Now we can all see that any writer, with the literary abilities and instincts possessed by Mr. Hobson, who under these circumstances proposes to plead the cause of socialism, finds himself involved in considerable difficulties. He has to apologize for and to defend a system of universal force, and he instinctively dislikes the task. Of course he might openly take force under his protection, declare that it was the reformer’s true weapon, and glorify the whole business of compelling all dissidents. But the systematic glorification of force is an awkward piece of work; for as it is generally conceded for good and for evil that we are all to be free and equal in forming our opinions, so as a necessary consequence it must be conceded that we are to be free and equal as regards the methods of advancing our opinions. A method that is good for one must be good for all; and in accepting the method, we must expect to find that, here too as in every other human matter, considerable differences will exist as regards the application of the method. Tot homines, tot sententiae. Tastes must vary. Some men will prefer the confused mixture of force and liberty that usually prevails under the system of party government; some men will prefer the stronger article of compulsory socialism; some men will prefer military despotism; and some the force of the anarchist, who employs dynamite as a social corrective. On what ground can the believers in force quarrel with or even very seriously criticize each other? They are all fellow worshipers in the same temple, and at the shrine of the same principle. Once admit that force is right in itself, and then you cannot pick out any special sect or party, confer special privileges upon them, and declare that they alone, and nobody else, are entitled to use force. That would be a mere arbitrary and fanciful selection, as arbitrary and fanciful as picking out certain opinions, and declaring that these opinions are orthodox, and that all other opinions are heterodox. If force is good in the hands of some men, it is good in the hands of other men; if it is a good instrument to serve some causes, it is good to serve other causes. You can’t have a monopoly in the use of so valuable “a resource of civilization.” If the socialist with his compulsory system can succeed in justifying his use of force so also can the ordinary politician, or the military despot, or the dynamiting anarchist, with his newly awakened perceptions that force can be applied in very uncomfortable fashions, without any machinery of government, or policemen, or soldiers. Having once arrived, after much searching of heart, at the belief that we must concede to all men the right to think as they like, and having got rid of the Old World idea that we can authoritatively pronounce some opinions to be good and some to be bad, we must take the further step, and admit that every holder of opinions has an equal right to use the same methods of advancing his opinions. In a word, we must concede equality as regards the method of advancing opinions, just as we have conceded equality as regards the holding of opinions. We must therefore choose between either altogether rejecting force as an instrument for advancing our opinions and our interests, or recognizing equality in the use of method—accepting, so to speak, free trade in force, even if this last alternative is not altogether reassuring as regards the peaceful and friendly relations of men to each other. This difficulty therefore confronts the socialist. If he is resolved to employ a frank and consistent logic, he must admit that force is a good instrument in the hands of all who can possess themselves of it; or employing the defective and halting logic that all his predecessors in power have employed, he must try to persuade us that force is good for him, but not for the rest of his fellow men, and claim, in common with the other worshipers of force, that there exists a mysterious dispensation given from some unknown quarter in his own special favor.

But the literary difficulties of those who plead for the compulsory organization of all men, under the name of socialism, do not end here. I will not touch now upon the difficulties of conceiving that you can organize society upon the principle of dividing every five men in the nation into two groups—a group of three men, who have all rights, and a group of two men, who have no rights, of turning the three men into those who own others, and the two men into those who are owned by others. Apart from the verdict, which reason and morality if fairly questioned, must pass upon every system which splits the nation into a crowd that owns, and a crowd that is owned, into a conquering and a conquered faction, the socialist, who plainly and frankly invites men to banish freedom of action from the world, will find himself opposed by a large number of persons who, as the result of living in a fairly free country, and who, guided by their feelings and daily experience, have a strong moral and intellectual dislike to force. It is only a few persons as yet amongst us who consciously submit themselves in this matter to the discipline of first principles; but there is a large number of persons whose general habit of thought and whose instinct tell them that force is the wrong method, and that discussion, persuasion, the light of reason and the attraction of example, are the right method. They see that force is at best a clumsy and brutal argument. They remember the wise saying: “Any fool can govern with bayonets.” They see that those who use force most freely are as a one-eyed race, with very limited perceptions, able to perceive dimly the immediate consequences, but not the more remote consequences of what they do. And just as these disbelievers in force see that those who accustom themselves to the use of force grow stupid, and not only stupid but brutal, so they see that those, who are subject to force, also grow stupid in their own way, indifferent, apathetic, and generally revolutionary in temper. They see that mistakes made under force systems are apt to persist, that they are not easy to discover or remedy, when you have discouraged the growth of all systems by their side. They see that every force system requires a great complicated machinery, and that this machinery always eludes popular control, and falls under the management of some not very intelligent or disinterested clique. They see not only that every act of force requires continual new extensions of force, but also that force breeds many forms of intrigue and deception. Even when you have force in your hands, it is not an easy task to compel a great number of persons to do what they don’t want to do—it is much like the labor of making water flow uphill; and force, therefore, naturally allies itself to trick and to management. The moral transition is always an easy one.

Those persons who have taken the one shortcut readily persuade themselves to take the other shortcut. No believer in force truly respects his fellow-men. He always slightly despises them, even while he serves them. They tend to become to him mere material for carrying out his views. His views may be honestly and sincerely held; they may be excellent in themselves; but when he uses force on their behalf he commits the capital mistake of exalting himself and his views into the first place, and of degrading his fellow-men, with an intelligence and conscience like and equal to his own, into the second place. Thus it comes about that the user of force loses all hold on moral principles; he becomes a law, and a very defective law, to himself; and thus it comes about also that politics—which are simply the method of force—are in every country not only the battlefield of opposed fighters, but the hotbed of intrigue and corruption. The career of a politician mainly consists in making one part of the nation do what it does not want to do, in order to please and satisfy the other part of the nation. It is the prolonged sacrifice of the rights of some persons at the bidding and for the satisfaction of other persons. The ruling idea of the politician—stated rather bluntly—is that those who are opposed to him exist for the purpose of being made to serve his ends, if he can get power enough in his hands to force these ends upon them. Is it wonderful then, if trick and intrigue grow rank and fast in the garden of politics; or that amongst the many things which you may find there, you will rarely find flowers that are fragrant, and fruits that are clean and wholesome?

And again, men see another evil, which arises where the use of force is admitted. So long as we remain in the region of discussion and persuasion, so long there is a sure guarantee that the truest view will gradually prevail. The truest view necessarily commands the best arguments, just as it gradually attracts to its side the higher class of minds; and therefore having the best arguments and the best fighters on its side must win in the free open field, sooner or later. But when we abandon the free open field, in which reason and persuasion, the appeal to reason and the appeal to conscience, are the only admitted weapons, and allow force to be recognized as an equally righteous method, then this certainty of ultimate victory for the truest view entirely disappears. Why? Because force enlarges and degrades the issues. It adds inducements of an effective, if of a very coarse kind, in order to win men over to its side. As long as we are only seeking to persuade, we can only offer the fruits of persuasion. We can promise men that they shall be better, happier, more prosperous, by certain changes in their conduct, but we cannot promise that they shall find tomorrow or the next day five shillings or five pounds, magically placed in their pocket, without any effort of their own. But this is exactly the kind of promise that force can make; indeed, not only can make, but must make. From the nature of things, force cannot fight a pure battle, or appeal simply to pure motives. There is nobody amongst us who can become possessed of force, unless he can first of all induce a very large number of persons to fight on his side. To be the possessor of force you must possess a force army; and your force army must be larger than the force army of any of your rivals. How are you to collect together and keep together such a force army? You cannot do it by appeals to reason and conscience, for that is a slow affair, which wins its way by influencing individuals, and these individuals, who are influenced, are influenced by the same appeal in very different degree and fashion. To obtain a force army, capable of defeating another highly organized force army, you must bring in the recruits in shoals and masses, you must bring them in on a given day, at a given spot, you must bring them in in such a state of discipline, that they will all keep step together and follow their leader like one man. But if appeals to reason and conscience, being, as I have said, essentially individualistic in their action, cannot produce disciplined masses on the given spot and at the given moment, force has a store of arguments exactly, suited for the purpose. Give me force enough, and I can promise you almost any material prize for which your heart lusts. If you are a poor man, I can promise you three acres and a cow, gratuitous education, state pensions, and state insurance, novels provided at the public expense, and taxes thrown upon your richer fellow citizen; or better still, all private wealth converted at a touch of my wand into public wealth; if you are a rich man, I can promise you bigger armies and fleets, more territory, more glory, and many noble opportunities of making a splash before the eyes of the world; and if you are nervous about the safety of your possessions in these socialistic days, I can turn the nation into an army for your convenience, and submit it to military discipline—an excellent way, as some persons think, of conjuring away, at all events for some twenty-four hours, all socialistic dangers. Give me force enough, and I can offer every kind of glittering ware for every class of customer. In this way, if I am only a skillful buyer of men, I can recruit my force army; and when I have recruited them, I can pay them out of the prize money which I employ them to win.

From certain practical points of view the system is excellent, as the politicians have discovered, only you must not ask from it, what it cannot pretend to offer—any test as regards the moral and intellectual value of conflicting views; or, if does offer you such a test, it can only offer it by the rule of contraries. If we wished to be ingenious, we might perhaps say that the moral and intellectual value of the views, which are backed by force, is generally in inverse proportion to their momentary attractiveness. The more any particular kind of political prize money attracts, the less clean, and sound, and wholesome, and really desirable in itself, it will probably be discovered to be under searching criticism. I do not know if the philosophers will someday be able to extract a more definite moral canon for our guidance as regards the attractions of force, but meanwhile, we may content ourselves with certain homely but useful truths. You cannot possess force, without first recruiting a force army; you cannot recruit a force army, without the free use of prize money; and you cannot offer prize money without putting the prize money, in the first place, and the appeal to conscience and reason in the second place, with a very large interval disclosing itself between the two classes of inducements.

I have dwelt at some length on this question of force, because it is the test question, by which socialism has to be tried. Socialism undertakes to save the world from all its sorrows by a greatly extended use of force, a use of force, far exceeding the force which even emperors and despotic governments employ; and what the philosophical and literary defenders of socialism—I do not mean the mere promisers of prize money—have to do is to convince us first of all that force is a right weapon in itself—that we are morally justified in using it against each other; and second, that it is likely—as far as we can judge by past experience—when applied in this new universal fashion, to make men better and happier. Socialism intends to found itself upon force; and therefore we stand upon the threshold, and call upon it, before it goes any further, to justify force. Does Mr. Hobson do this? Does he lay any moral foundations for the use of force? Does he satisfy us that three men may rightly do whatever they please with the minds, bodies and property of two men? Does he satisfy us that the three men can produce any lawful commission for saying to the two men: “Henceforth your faculties belong to us and not to you; henceforth you are forbidden to employ those faculties for your own advantage, and in such fashion as you choose; henceforth they are to be employed for what we are pleased to call the public good.” In another paper, I hope to follow Mr. Hobson’s argument, and see how far it is suited to remove the hesitations and scruples of those who believe that every man and woman is the true owners of his or her own faculties, and that every forcible annexation of these faculties by others has prevented the world from discovering the ways of true happiness.