Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


The conclusion of the preceding chapter will be of use to us in the examination of the second contradiction that, it is pretended, exists between socialism and the theory of evolution. It is asserted and repeated in all possible tones that socialism constitutes a tyranny under a new form which will destroy all the blessings of liberty won with such toil and difficulty in our century, at the cost of so many sacrifices and of so many martyrs.

I have already shown, in speaking of anthropological inequalities, that socialism will, on the contrary, assure to all individuals the conditions of a human existence and the possibility of developing with the utmost freedom and completeness their own respective individualities.

It is sufficient here for me to refer to another law, which the scientific theory of evolution has established, to demonstrate (since I cannot in this monograph enter into details) that it is an error to assume that the advent of socialism would result in the suppression of the vital and vitalizing part of personal and political liberty.

It is a law of natural evolution, set forth and illustrated with remarkable clearness by M. Ardigò[55], that each succeeding phase of the natural and social evolution does not destroy the vital and life-giving manifestations of the preceding phases, but that, on the contrary, it preserves their existence in so far as they are vital and only eliminates their pathological manifestations.

In the biological evolution, the manifestations of vegetable life do not efface the first glimmerings of the dawn of life that are seen even before in the crystallization of minerals, any more than the manifestations of animal life efface those of vegetable life. The human form of life also permits the continued existence of the forms and links which precede it in the great series of living beings, but, more than this, the later forms only really live in so far as they are the product of the primitive forms and co-exist with them.

The social evolution follows the same law: and this is precisely the interpretation of transition periods given by scientific evolutionism. They did not annihilate the conquests of the preceding civilizations, but they preserved, on the contrary, whatever was vital in them and fecundated them for the Renaissance of a new civilization.

This law, which dominates all the magnificent development of the social life, equally governs the fate and the parabolic career of all social institutions.

One phase of social evolution by following upon another phase eliminates, it is true, the parts that are not vital, the pathological products of preceding institutions, but it preserves and develops the parts that are healthy and vigorous while ever elevating more and more the physical and moral diapason of humanity.

By this natural process the great stream of humanity issued from the virgin forests of savage life and developed with majestic grandeur during the periods of barbarism and the present civilization, which are superior in some respects to the preceding phases of the social life, but in many others are marred by the very products of their own degeneracy, as I pointed out in speaking of reactionary varieties of social selection.

And, as an example of this, it is certain that the laborers of the contemporaneous period, of the bourgeois civilization have, in general, a better physical and moral life than those of past centuries, but it cannot be denied none the less that their condition as free wage-workers is inferior in more than one particular to the condition of the slaves of antiquity and of the serfs of the Middle Ages.

The slave of antiquity was, it is true, the absolute property of his master, of the free man, and he was condemned to well nigh an animal existence, but it was to the interest of his master to assure him daily bread at the least, for the slave formed a part of his estate, like his cattle and horses.

Just so, the serf or villein of the Middle Ages enjoyed certain customary rights which attached him to the soil and assured him at the least – save in case of famine – of daily bread.

The free wage-worker of the modern world, on the contrary, is always condemned to labor inhuman both in its duration and its character, and this is the justification of that demand for an Eight-Hours day which can already count more than one victory and which is destined to a sure triumph. As no permanent legal relation binds the wage-slave either to the capitalist proprietor or to the soil, his daily bread is not assured to him, because the proprietor no longer has any interest to feed and support the laborers who toil in his factory or on his field. The death or sickness of the laborer cannot, in fact, cause any decrease of his estate and he can always draw from the inexhaustible multitude of laborers who are forced by lack of employment to offer themselves on the market.

That is why – not because present-day proprietors are more wicked than those of former times, but because even the moral sentiments are the result of economic conditions – the landed proprietor or the superintendent of his estate hastens to have a veterinary called if, in his stable, a cow becomes ill, while he is in no hurry to have a doctor called if it is the son of the cow-herd who is attacked by disease.

Certainly there may be – and these are more or less frequent exceptions – here and there a proprietor who contradicts this rule, especially when he lives in daily contact with his laborers. Neither can it be denied that the rich classes are moved at times by the spirit of benevolence – even apart from the charity fad – and that they thus put to rest the inner voice, the symptom of the moral disease from which they suffer, but the inexorable rule is nevertheless as follows: with the modern form of industry the laborer has gained political liberty, the right of suffrage, of association, etc. (rights which he is allowed to use only when he does not utilize them to form a class-party, based on intelligent apprehension of the essential point of the social question), but he has lost the guarantee of daily bread and of a home.

Socialism wishes to give this guarantee to all individuals – and it demonstrates the mathematical possibility of this by the substitution of social ownership for individual ownership of the means of production – but it does not follow from this that socialism will do away with all the useful and truly fruitful conquests of the present phase of civilization, and of the preceding phases.

And here is a characteristic example of this: the invention of industrial and agricultural machinery, that marvelous application of science to the transformation of natural forces which ought to have had only beneficent consequences, has caused and is still causing the misery and ruin of thousands and thousands of laborers. The substitution of machines for human labor has inevitably condemned multitudes of workers to the tortures of enforced idleness and to the ruthless action of the iron law of minimum wages barely sufficient to prevent them from dying of hunger.

The first instinctive reaction or impulse of these unfortunates was and still is, unhappily, to destroy the machines and to see in them only the instruments of their undeserved sufferings.

But the destruction of the machines would be, in fact, only a pure and simple return to barbarism, and this is not the wish or purpose of socialism which represents a higher phase of human civilization.

And this is why socialism alone can furnish a solution of this tragic difficulty which can not be solved by economic individualism which involves the constant employment and introduction of improved machinery because its use gives an evident and irresistible advantage to the capitalist.

It is necessary – and there is no other solution – that the machines become collective or social property. Then, obviously, their only effect will be to diminish the aggregate amount of labor and muscular effort necessary to produce a given quantity of products. And thus the daily work of each worker will be decreased, and his standard of existence will constantly rise and become more closely correspondent with the dignity of a human being.

This effect is already manifest, to a limited extent, in those cases where, for instance, several small farm proprietors found co-operative societies for the purchase of, for example, threshing-machines. If there should be joined to the small proprietors, in a grand fraternal co-operation, the laborers or peasants (and this will be possible only when the land shall have become social property), and if the machines were municipal property, for example, as are the fire-engines, and if the commune were to grant their use for the labors of the fields, the machines would no longer produce any evil effects and all men would see in them their liberators.

It is thus that socialism, because it represents a higher phase of human evolution, would eliminate from the present phase only the bad products of our unbridled economic individualism which creates, at one pole, the billionaires or “Napoleons of Finance” who enrich themselves in a few years by seizing upon – in ways more or less clearly described in the penal code – the public funds, and which, at the other pole, accumulates vast multitudes of poverty-stricken wretches in the slums of the cities or in the houses of straw and mud which reproduce in the South of Italy, the quarters of the Helots of antiquity, or in the valley of the Po, the huts of the Australian bushmen.[56]

No intelligent socialist has ever dreamt of not recognizing all that the bourgeoisie has done for human civilization, or of tearing out the pages of gold that it has written in the history of the civilized world by its brilliant development of the various nations, by its marvelous applications of science to industry, and by the commercial and intellectual relations which it has developed between different peoples.

These are permanent conquests of human progress, and socialism does not deny them any more than it wishes to destroy them, and it accords a just tribute of recognition to the generous pioneers who have achieved them. The attitude of socialism toward the bourgeoisie might be compared to that of atheists who do not wish either to destroy or to refuse their admiration to a painting of Raphael or to a statue of Michel-Angelo, because these works represent and give the seal of eternity to religious legends.

But socialism sees in the present bourgeois civilization, arrived at its decline, the sad symptoms of an irremediable dissolution, and it contends that it is necessary to rid the social organism of its infectious poison, and this not by ridding it of such or such a bankrupt, of such or such a corrupt official, of such or such a dishonest contractor ... but by going to the root of the evil, to the indisputable source of the virulent infection. By radically transforming the regime – through the substitution of social ownership for individual ownership – it is necessary to renew the healthy and vital forces of human society, to enable it to rise to a higher phase of civilization. Then, it is true, the privileged classes will no longer be able to pass their lives in idleness, luxury and dissipation, and they will have to make up their minds to lead an industrious and less ostentatious life, but the immense majority of men will rise to the heights of serene dignity, security and joyous brotherhood, instead of living in the sorrows, anxieties and bitter strife of the present.

An analogous response may be made to that banal objection that socialism will suppress all liberty – that objection repeated to satiety by all those who more or less consciously conceal, under the colors of political liberalism, the tendencies of economic conservatism.

That repugnance which many people, even in good faith, show toward socialism, is it not the manifestation of another law of human evolution which Herbert Spencer has formulated thus: “Every progress effected is an obstacle to further progress"?

This is, in fact, a natural psychological tendency, a tendency analogous to fetishism, to refuse to consider the ideal attained, the progress effected as a simple instrument, a starting-point for further progress and for the attainment of new ideals, instead of contentedly halting to adore as a fetish the progress already effected, which men are prone to look upon as being so complete that it leaves no room for new ideals and higher aspirations.

Just as the savage adores the fruit-tree, whose benefits he enjoys, for itself and not for the fruits it can yield, and, in the end, makes a fetish of it, an idol too holy to be touched and, therefore, barren; just as the miser who has learned in our individualist world the value of money, ends by adoring the money in itself and for itself, as a fetish and an idol, and keeps it buried in a safe where it remains sterile, instead of employing it as a means for procuring himself new pleasures; in the same way, the sincere liberal, the son of the French Revolution, has made Liberty an idol which is its own goal, a sterile fetish, instead of making use of it as an instrument for new conquests, for the realization of new ideals.

It is understood that under a regime of political tyranny, the first and most urgent ideal was necessarily the conquest of liberty and of political sovereignty.

And we who arrive upon the field after the battle is fought and the victory won, we gladly pay our tribute of gratitude for that conquest to all the martyrs and heroes who bought it at the price of their blood.

But Liberty is not and can not be its own end and object!

What is the liberty of holding public assemblages or the liberty of thought worth if the stomach has not its daily bread, and if millions of individuals have their moral strength paralyzed as a consequence of bodily or cerebral anemia?

Of what worth is the theoretic share in political sovereignty, the right to vote, if the people remain enslaved by misery, lack of employment, and acute or chronic hunger?

Liberty for liberty’s sake – there you have the progress achieved turned into an obstacle to future progress; it is a sort of political masturbation, it is impotency face to face with the new necessities of life.

Socialism, on the other hand, says that just as the subsequent phase of the social evolution does not efface the conquests of the preceding phases, neither does it wish to suppress the liberty so gloriously conquered, by the bourgeois world in 1789 – but it does desire the laborers, after they have become conscious of the interests and needs of their class, to make use of that liberty to realize a more equitable and more human social organization.

Nevertheless, it is only too indisputable that under the system of private property and its inevitable consequence, the monopoly of economic power, the liberty of the man who does not share in this monopoly, is only an impotent and sentimental toy. And when the workers, with a clear consciousness of their class-interests, wish to make use of this liberty, then the holders of political power are forced to disown the great liberal principles, “the principles of ‘89,” by suppressing all public liberty, and they vainly fancy that they will be able, in this way, to stop the inevitable march of human evolution.

As much must be said of another accusation made against socialists. They renounce their fatherland (patrie), it is said, in the name of internationalism.

This also is false.

The national épopées which, in our century, have reconquered for Italy and Germany their unity and their independence, have really constituted great steps forward, and we are grateful to those who have given us a free country.

But our country can not become an obstacle to future progress, to the fraternity of all peoples, freed from national hatreds which are truly a relic of barbarism, or a mere bit of theatrical scenery to hide the interests of capitalism which has been shrewd enough to realize, for its own benefit, the broadest internationalism.

It was a true moral and social progress to rise above the phase of the communal wars in Italy, and to feel ourselves all brothers of one and the same nation; it will be just the same when we shall have risen above the phase of “patriotic” rivalries to feel ourselves all brothers of one and the same humanity.

It is, nevertheless, not difficult for us to penetrate, thanks to the historical key of class-interests, the secret of the contradictions, in which the classes in power move. When they form an international league – the London banker, thanks to telegraphy, is master of the markets in Pekin, New York and St. Petersburg – it is greatly to the advantage of that ruling class to maintain the artificial divisions between the laborers of the whole world, or even those of old Europe alone, because it is only the division of the workers which makes possible the maintenance of the power of the capitalists. And to attain their object, it suffices to exploit the primitive fund of savage hatred for “foreigners.”

But this does not keep international socialism from being, even from this point of view, a definite moral scheme and an inevitable phase of human evolution.

Just so, and in consequence of the same sociological law, it is not correct to assert that, by establishing collective ownership, socialism will suppress every kind of individual ownership.

We must repeat again that one phase of evolution can not suppress all that has been accomplished during the preceding phases; it suppresses only the manifestations which have ceased to be vital, and it suppresses them because they are in contradiction with the new conditions of existence begotten by the new phases of evolution.

In substituting social ownership for individual ownership of the land and the means of production, it is obvious that it will not be necessary to suppress private property in the food necessary to the individual, nor in clothing and objects of personal use which will continue to be objects of individual or family consumption.

This form of individual ownership will then always continue to exist, since it is necessary and perfectly consistent with social ownership of the land, mines, factories, houses, machines, tools and instruments of labor, and means of transportation.

The collective ownership of libraries – which we see in operation under our eyes – does it deprive individuals of the personal use of rare and expensive books which they would be unable to procure in any other way, and does it not largely increase the utility that can be derived from these books, when compared to the services that these books could render if they were shut up in the private library of a useless book-collector? In the same way, the collective ownership of the land and the means of production, by securing to everyone the use of the machines, tools and land, will only increase their utility a hundred-fold.

And let no one say that, when men shall no longer have the exclusive and transferable (by inheritance, etc.) ownership of wealth, they will no longer be impelled to labor because they will no longer be constrained to work by personal or family self-interest.[57] We see, for example, that, even in our present individualist world, those survivals of collective property in land – to which Laveleye has so strikingly called the attention of sociologists – continue to be cultivated and yield a return which is not lower than that yielded by lands held in private ownership, although these communist or collectivist farmers have only the right of use and enjoyment, and not the absolute title.[58]

If some of these survivals of collective ownership are disappearing, or if their administration is bad, this can not be an argument against socialism, since it is easy to understand that, in the present economic organization based on absolute individualism, these organisms do not have an environment which furnishes them the conditions of a possible existence.

It is as though one were to wish a fish to live out of water, or a mammal in an atmosphere containing no oxygen.

These are the same considerations which condemn to a certain death all those famous experiments – the socialist, communist or anarchist colonies which it has been attempted to establish in various places as “experimental trials of socialism.” It seems not to have been understood that such experiments could only result in inevitable abortions, obliged as they are to develop in an individualist economic and moral environment which can not furnish them the conditions essential for their physiological development, conditions which they will, on the contrary, have when the whole social organization shall be guided by the collectivist principle, that is to say, when society shall be socialized.[59]

Then individual tendencies and psychological aptitudes will adapt themselves to the environment. It is natural that in an individualist environment, a world of free competition, in which every individual sees in every other if not an adversary, at least a competitor, anti-social egoism should be the tendency which is inevitably most highly developed, as a necessary result of the instinct of self-preservation, especially in these latest phases of a civilization which seems to be driven at full steam, compared to the pacific and gentle individualism of past centuries.

In an environment where every one, in exchange for intellectual or manual labor furnished to society, will be assured of his daily bread and will thus be saved from daily anxiety, it is evident that egoism will have far fewer stimulants, fewer occasions to manifest itself than solidarity, sympathy and altruism will have. Then that pitiless maxim – homo homini lupus – will cease to be true – a maxim which, whether we admit it or not, poisons so much of our present life.

I can not dwell longer on these details and I conclude here the examination of this second pretended opposition between socialism and evolution by again pointing out that the sociological law which declares that the subsequent phase (of social evolution) does not efface the vital and fruitful manifestations of the preceding phases of evolution, gives us, in regard to the social organization in process of formation, a more exact (positive or fact-founded) idea than our opponents think, who always imagine that they have to refute the romantic and sentimental socialism of the first half of this century.[60]

This shows how little weight there is in the objection recently raised against socialism, in the name of a learned but vague sociological eclecticism, by a distinguished Italian professor, M. Vanni.

“Contemporary socialism is not identified with individualism, since it places at the foundation of the social organization a principle which is not that of individual autonomy, but rather its negation. If, notwithstanding this, it promulgates individualist ideas, which are in contradiction with its principles, this does not signify that it has changed its nature, or that it has ceased to be socialism: it means simply that it lives upon and by contradictions."[61]

When socialism, by assuring to every one the means of livelihood, contends that it will permit the assertion and the development of all individualities, it does not fall into a contradiction of principles, but being, as it is, the approaching phase of human civilization, it can not suppress nor efface whatever is vital, that is to say, compatible with the new social form, in the preceding phases. And just as socialist internationalism is not in conflict with patriotism, since it recognizes whatever is healthy and true in that sentiment, and eliminates only the pathological part, jingoism, in the same way, socialism does not draw its life from contradiction, but it follows, on the contrary, the fundamental laws of natural evolution, in developing and preserving the vital part of individualism, and in suppressing only its pathological manifestations which are responsible for the fact that in the modern world, as Prampolini said, 90 per cent. of the cells of the social organization are condemned to anemia because 10 per cent. are ill with hyper-emia and hyper-trophy.


55. ARDIGÒ, La formazione naturale, Vol. II. of his Opere filosofiche, Padua, 1897.

56. My master, Pietro Ellero, has given in La Tirrandie borghese, an eloquent description of this social and political pathology as it appears in Italy.

57. RICHTER, Où mène le socialisme, Paris, 1892.

58. M. Loria, in Les Bases économiques de la constitution sociale, Paris, 1894, part 1st, demonstrates, moreover, that in a society based on collective ownership selfishness, rightly understood will still remain the principal motive of human actions, but that it will then be the means of realizing a social harmony of which it is the worst enemy under the regime of individualism.

Here is an example of this, on a small scale, but instructive. The means of transportation have, in large cities, followed the ordinary process of progressive socialization. At first, everybody went on foot, excepting only a few rich persons who were able to have horses and carriages; later, carriages were made available for the public at a fixed rate of hire (the fiacres which have been used in Paris a little more than a century, and which took their name from Saint Fiacre because the first cab stood beneath his image); then, the dearness of fiacre-hire led to a further socialization by means of omnibuses and tramways. Another step forward and the socialization will be complete. Let the cab service, omnibus service, street railways, bicyclettes, etc., become a municipal service or function and every one will be able to make use of it gratis just as he freely enjoys the railways when they become a national public service.

But, then – this is the individualist objection – everybody will wish to ride in cabs or on trolleys, and the service having to attempt to satisfy all, will be perfectly satisfactory to no one.

This is not correct. If the transformation had to be made suddenly, this might be a temporary consequence. But even now many ride gratis (on passes, etc.) on both railways and tramways.

And so it seems to us that every one will wish to ride on the street cars because the fact that it is now impossible for many to enjoy this mode of locomotion gives rise to the desire for the forbidden fruit. But when the enjoyment of it shall be free (and there could be restrictions based on the necessity for such transportation) another egoistic motive will come into play – the physiological need of walking, especially for well-fed people who have been engaged in sedentary labor.

And so you see how individual selfishness, in this example of collective ownership on a small scale, would act in harmony with the social requirements.

59. Thus it is easy to understand how unfounded is the reasoning among the opponents of socialism that the failure of communist or socialist colonies is an objective demonstration of “the instability of a socialist arrangement” (of society).

60. This is what Yves Guyot, for example, does in Les Principes de 1789, Paris, 1894, when he declares, in the name of individualist psychology, that “socialism is restrictive and individualism expansive.” This thesis is, moreover, in part true, if it is transposed.

The vulgar psychology, which answers the purposes of M. Guyot (La Tyrannie socialiste, liv. III, ch. I.), is content with superficial observations. It declares, for instance, that if the laborer works twelve hours, he will produce evidently a third more than if he works eight hours, and this is the reason why industrial capitalism has opposed and does oppose the minimum programme of the three eighths – eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for meals and recreation.

A more scientific physio-psychological observation demonstrates, on the contrary, as I said long ago, that “man is a machine, but he does not function after the fashion of a machine,” in the sense that man is a living machine, and not an inorganic machine.

Every one knows that a locomotive or a sewing machine does in twelve hours a quantity of work greater by one-third than it does in eight hours; but man is a living machine, subject to the law of physical mechanics, but also to those of biological mechanics. Intellectual labor, like muscular labor, is not uniform in quality and intensity throughout its duration. Within the individual limits of fatigue and exhaustion, it obeys the law which Quetelet expressed by his binomial curve, and which I believe to be one of the fundamental laws of living and inorganic nature. At the start the force or the speed is very slight – afterward a maximum of force or speed is attained – and at last the force or speed again becomes very slight.

With manual labor, as with intellectual labor, there is a maximum, after which the muscular and cerebral forces decline, and then the work drags along slowly and without vigor until the end of the forced daily labor. Consider also the beneficient suggestive influence of a reduction of hours, and you will readily understand why the recent English reports are so unanswerable on the excellent results, even from the capitalist point of view, of the Eight-Hour reform. The workingmen are less fatigued, and the production is undiminished.

When these economic reforms, and all those which are based on an exact physio-psychology, shall be effected under the socialist regime – that is to say, without the friction and the loss of force that would be inevitable under capitalist individualism – it is evident that they will have immense material and moral advantages, notwithstanding the a priori objections of the present individualism which can not see or which forgets the profound reflex effects of a change of the social environment on individual psychology.

61. ICILIO VANNI, La funzione practica della filosofia del diritto considerata in sè e in rapporto al socialismo contemporaneo, Bologne, 1894.