Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


Admitting, say our adversaries, that in demanding a social transformation socialism is in apparent accord with the evolutionist theory, it does not follow that its positive conclusions – notably the substitution of social ownership for individual ownership – are justified by that theory. Still further, they add, we maintain that those conclusions are in absolute contradiction with that very theory, and that they are therefore, to say the least, utopian and absurd.

The first alleged contradiction between socialism and evolutionism is that the return to collective ownership of the land would be, at the same time, a return to the primitive, savage state of mankind, and socialism would indeed be a transformation, but a transformation in a backward direction, that is to say, against the current of the social evolution which has led us from the primitive form of collective property in land to the present form of individual property in land – the form characteristic of advanced civilization. Socialism, then, would be a return to barbarism.

This objection contains an element of truth which can not be denied; it rightly points out that collective ownership should be a return – apparent – to the primitive social organization. But the conclusion drawn from this truth is absolutely false and anti-scientific because it altogether neglects a law – which is usually forgotten – but which is no less true, no less founded on scientific observation of the facts than is the law of social evolution.

This is a sociological law which an able French physician merely pointed out in his studies on the relations between Transmutation and Socialism,[50] and the truth and full importance of which I showed in my Sociologie criminelle (1892) – before I became a militant socialist – and which I again emphasized in my recent controversy with Morselli on the subject of divorce.[51]

This law of apparent retrogression proves that the reversion of social institutions to primitive forms and types is a fact of constant recurrence.

Before referring to some obvious illustrations of this law, I would recall to your notice the fact that M. Cognetti de Martiis, as far back as 1881, had a vague perception of this sociological law. His work, Forme primitive nell’ evoluzione economica, (Turin, 1881), so remarkable for the fullness, accuracy and reliability of its collation of relevant facts, made it possible to foresee the possibility of the reappearance in the future economic evolution of the primitive forms characteristic of the status which formed the starting-point of the social evolution.

I also remember having heard Carducci say, in his lectures at the University of Bologna, that the later development of the forms and the substance of literature is often merely the reproduction of the forms and the substance of the primitive Gręco-Oriental literature; in the same way, the modern scientific theory of monism, the very soul of universal evolution and the typical and definitive form of systematic, scientific, experiential human thought boldly fronting the facts of the external world – following upon the brilliant but erratic speculations of metaphysics – is only a return to the ideas of the Greek philosophers and of Lucretius, the great poet of naturalism.

The examples of this reversion to primitive forms are only too obvious and too numerous, even in the category of social institutions.

I have already spoken of the religions evolution. According to Hartmann, in the primitive stage of human development happiness appeared attainable during the lifetime of the individual; this appeared impossible later on and its realization was referred to the life beyond the tomb; and now the tendency is to refer its realization to the earthly life of humanity, not to the life of the individual as in primitive times, but to series of generations yet unborn.

The same is true in the political domain. Herbert Spencer remarks (Principles of Sociology, Vol. II, Part V, Chap. V,) that the will of all – the sovereign element among primitive mankind – gradually gives way to the will of a single person, then to those of a few (these are the various aristocracies: military, hereditary, professional or feudal), and the popular will finally tends again to become sovereign with the progress of democracy (universal suffrage – the referendum – direct legislation by the people, etc.).

The right to administer punishment, a simple defensive function among primitive mankind tends to become the same once more. Criminal law no longer pretends to be a teleological agency for the distribution of ideal justice. This pretension in former days was an illusion that the belief in the freedom of the will had erected on the natural foundation of society’s right of self-defense. Scientific investigations into the nature of crime, as a natural and social phenomenon, have demonstrated to-day how absurd and unjustified was the pretension of the lawmaker and the judge to weigh and measure the guilt of the delinquent to make the punishment exactly counterbalance it, instead of contenting themselves with excluding from civil society, temporarily or permanently, the individuals unable to adapt themselves to its requirements, as is done in the case of the insane and the victims of contagious diseases.

The same truth applies to marriage. The right of freely dissolving the tie, which was recognized in primitive society, has been gradually replaced by the absolute formulę of theology and mysticism which fancy that the “free will” can settle the destiny of a person by a monosyllable pronounced at a time when the physical equilibrium is as unstable as it is during courtship and at marriage. Later on the reversion to the spontaneous and primitive form of a union based on mutual consent imposes itself on men, and the matrimonial union, with the increase in the frequency and facility of divorce, reverts to its original forms and restores to the family, that it to say to the social cell, a healthier constitution.

This some phenomenon may be traced in the organization of property. Spencer himself has been forced to recognize that there has been an inexorable tendency to a reversion to primitive collectivism since ownership in land, at first a family attribute, then industrial, as he has himself demonstrated, has reached its culminating point, so that in some countries (Torrens act in Australia) land has become a sort of personal property, transferable as readily as a share in a stock-company.

Read as proof what such an individualist as Herbert Spencer has written:

“At first sight it seems fairly inferable that the absolute ownership of land by private persons, must be the ultimate state which industrialism brings about. But though industrialism has thus far tended to individualize possession of land, while individualizing all other possession, it may be doubted whether the final stage is at present reached. Ownership established by force does not stand on the same footing as ownership established by contract, and though multiplied sales and purchases, treating the two ownerships in the same way, have tacitly assimilated them, the assimilation may eventually be denied. The analogy furnished by assumed rights of possession over human beings, helps us to recognize this possibility. For while prisoners of war, taken by force and held as property in a vague way (being at first much on a footing with other members of a household), were reduced more definitely to the form of property when the buying and selling of slaves became general; and while it might, centuries ago, have been thence inferred that the ownership of man by man was an ownership in course of being permanently established;[52] yet we see that a later stage of civilization, reversing this process, has destroyed ownership of man by man. Similarly, at a stage still more advanced, it may be that private ownership of land will disappear."[53]

Moreover, this process of the socialization of property, though a partial and subordinate process, is nevertheless so evident and continuous that to deny its existence would be to maintain that the economic and consequently the juridical tendency of the organization of property is not in the direction of a greater and greater magnification of the interests and rights of the collectivity over those of the individual. This, which is only a preponderance to-day, will become by an inevitable evolution a complete substitution as regards property in land and the means of production.

The fundamental thesis of Socialism is then, to repeat it again, in perfect harmony with that sociological law of apparent retrogression, the natural reasons for which have been so admirably analyzed by M. Loria, thus: the thought and the life of primitive mankind are moulded and directed by the natural environment along the simplest and most fundamental lines; then the progress of intelligence and the complexity of life increasing by a law of evolution give us an analytical development of the principal elements contained in the first genus of each institution; this analytical development is often, when once finished, detrimental to each one of its elements; humanity itself, arrived at a certain stage of evolution, reconstructs and combines in a final synthesis these different elements, and thus returns to its primitive starting-point.[54]

This reversion to primitive forms is not, however, a pure and simple repetition. Therefore it is called the law of apparent retrogression, and this removes all force from the objection that socialism would be a “return to primitive barbarism.” It is not a pure and simple repetition, but it is the concluding phase of a cycle, of a grand rhythm, as M. Asturaro recently put it, which infallibly and inevitably preserves in their integrity the achievements and conquests of the long preceding evolution, in so far as they are vital and fruitful; and the final outcome is far superior, objectively and subjectively, to the primitive social embryo.

The track of the social evolution is not represented by a closed circle, which, like the serpent in the old symbol, cuts off all hope of a better future; but, to use the figure of Goethe, it is represented by a spiral, which seems to return upon itself, but which always advances and ascends.


50. L. DRAMARD, Transformisme et socialisme, in Revue Socialiste, Jan. and Feb., 1885.

51. Divorzio e sociologia, in Scuola positiva nella geurisprudenza penale, Rome, 1893, No. 16.

52. It is known that Aristotle, mistaking for an absolute sociological law a law relative to his own time, declared that slavery was a natural institution, and that men were divided, by Nature, into two classes – free men and slaves.

53. SPENCER, Principles of Sociology, Vol. II, Part. V., Chap. XV., p. 553. New York, 1897. D. Appleton & Co.

This idea, which Spencer had expressed in 1850 in his Social Statics is found again in his recent work, Justice (Chap. XI, and Appendix 3). It is true that he has made a step backward. He thinks that the amount of the indemnity to be given to the present holders of the land would be so great that this would make next to impossible that “nationalization of the land” which, as long ago as 1881, Henry George considered as the only remedy, and that Gladstone had the courage to propose as a solution of the Irish question. Spencer adds: “I adhere to the inference originally drawn, that the aggregate of men forming the community are the supreme owners of the land, but a fuller consideration of the matter has led me to the conclusion that individual ownership, subject to State suzerainty, should be maintained.”

The “profound study” which Spencer has made in Justice – (and, let us say between parentheses, this work, together with his “Positive and Negative Beneficence” furnishes sad evidence of the senile mental retrogression that even Herbert Spencer has been unable to escape; moreover its subjective aridity is in strange contrast with the marvelous wealth of scientific evidence poured forth in his earlier works) – is based on these two arguments: I. The present landed proprietors are not the direct descendants of the first conquerors; they have, in general, acquired their titles by free contract; II. Society is entitled to the ownership of the virgin soil, as it was before it was cleared, before any improvements or buildings were put upon it by private owners; the indemnity which would have to be paid for these improvements would reach an enormous figure.

The answer is that the first argument would hold good if socialism proposed to punish the present owners; but the question presents itself in a different form. Society places the expropriation of the owners of land on the ground of “public utility,” and the individual right must give way before the rights of society. Just as it does at present, leaving out of consideration for the moment the question of indemnity. To reply to the second argument, in the first place, it must not be forgotten that the improvements are not exclusively the work of the personal exertions of the owners. They represent, at first, an enormous accumulation of fatigue and blood that many generations of laborers have left upon the soil, in order to bring it to its present state of cultivation ... and all of this for the profit of others; there is also this fact to be remembered that society itself, the social life, has been a great factor in producing these improvements (or increased values), since public roads, railways, the use of machinery in agriculture, etc., have been the means of bestowing freely upon the landowners large unearned increments that have greatly swollen the prices of their lands.

Why, finally, if we are to consider the amount and the character of this indemnity, should this indemnity be total and absolute? Why, even under present conditions, if a landowner, for various reasons, such as cherished memories connected with the land, values it at a sentimental price, he would be forced under the right of eminent domain to accept the market value, without any extra payment for his affection or sentiment. It would be just the same in the case of the collective appropriation which would, moreover, be facilitated by the progressive concentration of the land in the hands of a few great landed proprietors. If we were to assure these proprietors, for the term of the natural lives, a comfortable and tranquil life, it would suffice to make the indemnity meet all the requirements of the most rigorous equity.

54. LORIA, La Teoria economica della constituzione politica, Turin, 1886. p. 141. The second edition of this work has appeared in French, considerably enlarged: Les bases économiques de la constitution sociale, Paris, 1893. (This has also been translated into English. – Tr.)

This law of apparent retrogression alone overthrows the greater part of the far too superficial criticisms that Guyot makes upon socialism in La Tyrannie socialiste, Paris, 1893 (published in English, by Swan Sonnenschein, London,) and in Les Principes de 1789 et le Socialisme, Paris, 1894.