Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


What, in substance, is the message of socialism? That the present economic world can not be immutable and eternal, that it merely represents a transitory phase of social evolution and that an ulterior phase, a differently organized world, is destined to succeed it.

That this new organization must be collectivist or socialist – and no longer individualist – results, as an ultimate and certain conclusion, from the examination we have made of Darwinism and socialism.

I must now demonstrate that this fundamental affirmation of socialism – leaving out of consideration for the moment all the details of that future organization, of which I will speak further on – is in perfect harmony with the experiential theory of evolutionism.

Upon what point are orthodox political economy and socialism in absolute conflict? Political economy has held and holds that the economic laws governing the production and distribution of wealth which it has established are natural laws ... not in the sense that they are laws naturally determined by the conditions of the social organism (which would be correct), but that they are absolute laws, that is to say that they apply to humanity at all times and in all places, and, consequently, that they are immutable in their principal points, though they may be subject to modification in details.[44]

Scientific socialism holds, on the contrary, that the laws established by classical political economy, since the time of Adam Smith, are laws peculiar to the present period in the history of civilized humanity, and that they are, consequently, laws essentially relative to the period of their analysis and discovery, and that just as they no longer fit the facts when the attempt is made to extend their application to past historical epochs and, still more, to pre-historic and ante-historic times, so it is absurd to attempt to apply them to the future and thus vainly try to petrify and perpetuate present social forms.

Of these two fundamental theses, the orthodox thesis and the socialist thesis, which is the one which best agrees with the scientific theory of universal evolution?

The answer cannot be doubtful.[45]

The theory of evolution, of which Herbert Spencer was the true creator, by applying to sociology the tendency to relativism which the historical school had followed in its studies in law and political economy (even then heterodox on more than one point), has shown that everything changes; that the present phase – of the facts in astronomy, geology, biology and sociology – is only the resultant of thousands on thousands of incessant, inevitable, natural transformations; that the present differs from the past and that the future will certainly be different from the present.

Spencerism has done nothing but to collate a vast amount of scientific evidence, from all branches of human knowledge, in support of these two abstract thoughts of Leibnitz and Hegel: “The present is the child of the past, but it is the parent of the future,” and “Nothing is; everything is becoming.” This demonstration had already been made in the case of geology by Lyell who substituted for the traditional catastrophic theory of cataclysmic changes, the scientific theory of the gradual and continuous transformation of the earth.[46]

It is true that, notwithstanding his encyclopædic knowledge, Herbert Spencer has not made a really profound study of political economy, or that at least he has not furnished us the evidence of the facts to support his assertions in this field as he has done in the natural sciences. This does not alter the fact, however, that socialism is, after all, in its fundamental conception only the logical application of the scientific theory of natural evolution to economic phenomena.

It was Karl Marx who, in 1859 in his Critique de l'économie politique, and even before then, in 1847, in the famous Manifesto written in collaboration with Engels, nearly ten years before Spencer’s First Principles, and finally in Capital (1867) supplemented, or rather completed, in the social domain, the scientific revolution begun by Darwin and Spencer.

The old metaphysics conceived of ethics – law – economics – as a finished compilation of absolute and eternal laws. This is the conception of Plato. It takes into consideration only historical times and it has, as an instrument of research, only the fantastic logic of the school-men. The generations which preceded us, have all been imbued with this notion of the absoluteness of natural laws, the conflicting laws of a dual universe of matter and spirit. Modern science, on the contrary, starts from the magnificent synthetic conception of monism, that is to say, of a single substance underlying all phenomena – matter and force being recognized as inseparable and indestructible, continuously evolving in a succession of forms – forms relative to their respective times and places. It has radically changed the direction of modern thought and directed it toward the grand idea of universal evolution.[47]

Ethics, law and politics are mere superstructures, effects of the economic structure; they vary with its variations, from one parallel (of latitude or longitude) to another, and from one century to another.

This is the great discovery which the genius of Karl Marx has expounded in his Critique de l'économie politique. I will examine further on the question as to what this sole source or basis of the varying economic conditions is, but the important point now is to emphasize their constant variability, from the pre-historic ages down to historical times and to the different periods of the latter.

Moral codes, religious creeds, juridical institutions both civil and criminal, political organization: – all are constantly undergoing transformation and all are relative to their respective historical and material environments.

To slay one’s parents is the greatest of crimes in Europe and America; it is, on the contrary, a duty enjoined by religion in the island of Sumatra; in the same way, cannibalism is a permitted usage in Central Africa, and such it also was in Europe and America in pre-historic ages.

The family is, at first (as among animals), only a sort of sexual communism; then polyandry and the matriarchal system were established where the supply of food was scanty and permitted only a very limited increase of population; we find polygamy and the patriarchal system appearing whenever and wherever the tyranny of this fundamental economic cause of polyandry ceases to be felt; with the advent of historical times appears the monogamic form of the family the best and the most advanced form, although it is still requisite for it to be freed from the rigid conventionalism of the indissoluble tie and the disguised and legalised prostitution (the fruits of economic causes) which pollute it among us to-day.

How can any one hold that the constitution of property is bound to remain eternally just as it is, immutable, in the midst of the tremendous stream of changing social institutions and moral codes, all passing through evolutions and continuous and profound transformations? Property alone is subject to no changes and will remain petrified in its present form, i. e., a monopoly by a few of the land and the means of production![48]

This is the absurd contention of economic and juridical orthodoxy. To the irresistible proofs and demonstrations of the evolutionist theory, they make only this one concession: the subordinate rules may vary, the abuses may be diminished. The principle itself is unassailable and a few individuals may seize upon and appropriate the land and the means of production necessary to the life of the whole social organism which thus remains completely and eternally under the more or less direct domination of those who have control over the physical foundation of life.[49]

Nothing more than a perfectly clear statement of the two fundamental theses – the thesis of classical law and economics, and the economic and juridical thesis of socialism – is necessary to determine, without further discussion, this first point of the controversy. At all events, the theory of evolution is in perfect, unquestionable harmony with the inductions of socialism and, or the contrary, it flatly contradicts the hypothesis of the absoluteness and immutability of the “natural” laws of economies, etc.


44. U. RABBENO, Le leggi economiche e il socialismo, in Rivista di filos. scientif., 1884, vol. III., fasc. 5.

45. This is the thesis of COLAJANNI, in Il socialismo, Catane, 1884, P. 277. He errs when he thinks that I combatted this position in my book Socialismo e criminalità.

46. MORSELLI, Antropologia generale – Lezioni sull’ uomo secondo la teoria dell’ evoluzione, Turin, 1890-94, gives an excellent resumé of these general indications of modern scientific thought in their application to all branches of knowledge from geology to anthropology.

47. BONARDI, Evoluzionismo e socialismo, Florence, 1894.

48. ARCANGELI, Le evoluzioni della proprietà, in Critica sociale, July 1, 1894.

49. This is exactly analogous to the conflict between the partisans and the opponents of free-will.

The old metaphysics accorded to man (alone, a marvelous exception from all the rest of the universe) an absolutely free will.

Modern physio-psychology absolutely denies every form of the free-will dogma in the name of the laws of natural causality.

An intermediate position is occupied by those who, while recognizing that the freedom of man’s will is not absolute, hold that at least a remnant of freedom must be conceded to the human will, because otherwise there would no longer be any merit or any blameworthiness, any vice or any virtue, etc.

I considered this question in my first work: Teoria dell’ imputabilità e negazione del libero arbitrio (Florence, 1878, out of print), and in the third chapter of my Sociologie criminelle, French trans., Paris, 1892.

I speak of it here only in order to show the analogy in the form of the debate on the economico-social question, and therefore the possibility of predicting a similar ultimate solution.

The true conservative, drawing his inspiration from the metaphysical tradition, sticks to the old philosophical or economic ideas with all their rigid absolutism; at least he is logical.

The determinist, in the name of science, upholds diametrically opposite ideas, in the domain of psychology as well as in those of the economic or juridical sciences.

The eclectic, in politics as in psychology, in political economy as in law, is a conservative through and through, but he fondly hopes to escape the difficulties of the conservative position by making a few partial concessions to save appearances. But if the eclecticism is a convenient and agreeable attitude for its champions, it is, like hybridism, sterile, and neither life nor science owe anything to it.

Therefore, the socialists are logical when they contend that in the last analysis there are only two political parties: the individualists (conservatives [or Republicans], progressives [or Democrats] and radicals [or Populists]) and the socialists.