Voltairine de Cleyre, “American Progress” (1891)

IN a very able article in the October Monist, Mr. T. R. Preston gives a bird’s-eye view of American Politics, for the purpose, it would appear of pointing out the coincidence of American political development with the more general theory of Evolution. This article commands admiration for its evident spirit of fairness, and desire to bring out the truth concerning the purpose of the rise, growth, and decay of political parties. Nevertheless he has arrived at certain conclusions which, in my opinion, are incorrect, and should not pass without criticism.

If I rightly apprehend the general tenor and particularly the concluding paragraphs of “American Politics,” Mr. Preston falls into a common error of interpreting all evolution as progress; for he alludes to the two opposing forces which alternately gain the political ascendancy as in turn, “bringing the nation to a higher plane of progress.” This, he observes, is neither Socialism nor Anarchism, but Evolution. No one who accepts the dictum of modern science will dispute that the several triumphs of the centralising and decentralising political parties are evolutional; but that they are always progress can and will most certainly be gainsaid. The spirit of free inquiry which should possess the searcher after truth should nevertheless work no confusion of right and wrong principles; “Truth is intolerant,” to quote the editor of The Monist. Therefore the sociological student, however he may recognise the inevitability of opposing political successes, will never mistake social disease for health, but test each by the exacting’ Law of Progress.

To deduce the law of progress from the history of social experience was one of the main purposes of modern sociology. As pointed out by Dr. Post in his article on “Ethnological Jurisprudence,” scientific jurisprudence and scientific sociology alike, demanded that the facts ‘concerning their respective subjects be gathered from all the peoples of the earth. In the one as in the other the task is necessarily still very incomplete. Nevertheless sociology has already passed from the “purely empirical” stage. The far greater task of examining and interpreting these facts; of establishing their relations; of constructing a theory which should unite them into one meaningful whole; this task also has been accomplished, and the “increasing purpose” running through the ages has been formulated in the law of progress, viz.: that society progresses proportionally to the diminution of the powers of the state, and corresponding increase of scope to the activity of the individual.

It was possible to have deduced this law even without the record of American politics; yet the story of no other nation more thoroughly verifies it than our own. In the process of examination, Sociology was obliged at the outset to take cognizance of the two tendencies which Mr. Preston has pointed out and likened to the centripetal and centrifugal forces of associative life. It recognised in one the conservative element, in the other the progressive. It recognised that each political party has generally a platform of mixed principles, in which either the conservative or progressive element is dominant. It recognised that a progressive party, having accomplished its dominant purpose, generally becomes conservative with continuance of power. But it also pointed out that wherever progress ensued, it was due to the libertarian spirit; never to the authoritarian. It did not confound political success with sociologic progress.

Let us now apply the test of progress to the most notable case instanced by Mr. Preston–that of the civil war. Our writer says that the republican party, the avowed party of what he denominates the socialistic principle, or the centripetal force, “grandly and patriotically fulfilled its mission” of liberating the chattel slaves. He alludes to the abolition agitation, previous to the war, as advocating the principle which shaped the policy of the republican party. He endeavors to show that, in accord with his declaration, this party was liberal in comparison with its predecessor in power. To a careless student this will appear true. Travelling in an unknown sea, without a compass, the unskilful mariner may call east, west. But let us be more careful. If it be true that the republican party, representing the authoritarian principle (which term I prefer to “socialistic” for, as I shall hereafter try to point out socialism does not necessarily imply centralised power), if it be true that, by virtue of an authoritarian triumph, progress was wrought, then it is an anomaly without parallel in history. Is it true? Those familiar with the history of the war, know that the principle of equal right advocated by the abolitionists had nothing to do with the policy of the republican party. The war was fought on other grounds, viz.: States’ right versus United States authority. The majority of those composing the republican party cared nothing about the negroes; their motive was to compel the southern states to remain in the Union. As one old soldier expressed it to me, “All I knew was I was fighting for the flag.” Mr. Lincoln declared: “If I could preserve the Union without freeing the slaves I would do it.”

Why then did the Union party free the slaves? As a matter of fact they did not. There are two aspects in which the condition of the negroes at the close of the war must be viewed, an ethical and a material aspect.

There had been an ethical progress, in the recognition of the black man as an individual, included in the social law of equal freedom; a recognition, which it is true, was but a partial one, and, for the most part, is as yet barely an ideal. It has not, as yet, been incorporated into the lives of the old masters and the old slaves; they are not really free men, and will not be until the old inheritance of slavedom has been obliterated by many generations of social adaptation. Notwithstanding, it was a step in progress; but it was not achieved by the authoritarian party. The Emancipation Proclamation made no one free; ethically speaking it had no value save as an agitator of thought. Freedom cannot be accomplished by declarative pieces of paper; you can make no one free by taking away his master. Every ethical advance must be wrought out in the life of the individual before it is an accomplished fact. Such advance as had been made resulted from the contagion of the abolitionist religion of human rights; and, as is well known, the question of Union or disruption was of little moment to its agitators. If with Mr. Lincoln it was, “save the Union at whatever cost,” with them it was” free the slave at whatever cost.” With, or without war, as Mr. Preston admits, this idea was and is bound for ultimate victory. His mistake is in supposing that the war precipitated’ the victory.

The other aspect of the situation, the real effect of the triumph of authoritarianism, was an economic change; a substitution of the wage system for chattelism, cheap labor for dear labor. This was evolution, but not progress. It is hard when we have been long accustomed to the evils of any particular institution to survey them with the same detestation as that which possesses us at the description of those with which we are unfamiliar, or which we have outgrown. Our ideas of justice are so much matters of habit, that, what to one with a higher ideal seems the blackest enormity, is to us altogether natural. Hence the daily recitals, and the facts staring in our eyes in evidence of the horrors of wage-slavery do not torture us, do not shock us, often scarcely rouse us. To paint them as they shall be one day painted is the task of the poet and the novelist of the close future, for to such is given the mastery of the emotions. But the cold logician who cares nothing for tears or graves save as factors in his problem, can both theoretically and practically prove that where, in chattelism, the cost of human labor was higher than any other, in the wage-system human life is maintained at less cost than that of working animals. As the subsistence line goes down, down go the powers and capacities of the individual, down goes society, backward turns the whee! of evolution. So much for the civil war in its most vital aspects.

Concerning Mr. Preston’s prediction of alternating “triumphs for the opposing principles, I think it altogether likely they will be fulfilled. None the less I earnestly hope they may not. I hope America will take no more backward steps in the direction of government aggrandisement. Yet there is a profound truth touched by Mr. Preston, in regard to the “centripetal and centrifugal forces” of society, a clearer grasp of which would render his utterances of more value as teaching. Socialism and anarchism are indeed co-existent with Society; and they are not at war with each other. On the contrary the greater the recognition of individual liberty, the greater the socialisation of human” effort. Any ideal of society which ignores either of these great factors, is like trying to conceive God apart from the Universe, or the Universe apart from God, if I may be allowed the term “God” to express the rationale of the Cosmos, a matter in which I am not altogether clear myself.

Many socialists however, anxious for speedy deliverance from the horrors of Wagery, conceive their half-truth to be a whole, and invoke Authority to utter a “be it enacted.” Many anarchists conceiving their half-truth to be a whole, cry for the immediate abolition of government; fancying that paradise will bloom at once where hell has raged. He who is both socialist and anarchist, and a student of history, knows that neither victory can come to man by any royal road. In the imagery of Olive Schreiner the bridge to the “Land of Freedom” must be built of human bodies; and of those living now scarce anyone will help to form the foundations of its piers; “they will be swept away and drowned.” This is a sad thought viewed from the standpoint of individual existence, as indeed all life is. It is only in rising to that point from which he whom I have criticised took his view, ‘when he looked away back to. the dim morning of the dark old earth, and saw the divinity in it all, that personal pain or pleasure ceases to be of moment. Then racial life stands out in a grandeur which makes the suffering of Now, glorious as the gateway of Then. And we learn—Patience.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “American Progress,” The Open Court 5 no. 41 (December 3, 1891): 3040-3042.

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