Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


To Karl Marx is due the honor of having scientifically formulated these logical applications of experiential science to the domain of social economy. Beyond doubt, the exposition of these truths is surrounded, in his writings, with a multitude of technical details and of apparently dogmatic formulæ, but may not the same be said of the FIRST PRINCIPLES of Spencer, and are not the luminous passages on evolution in it surrounded with a dense fog of abstractions on time, space, the unknowable, etc.? Until these last few years a vain effort was made to consign, by a conspiracy of silence, the masterly work of Marx to oblivion, but now his name is coming to rank with those of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer as the three Titans of the scientific revolution which begot the intellectual renaissance and gave fresh potency to the civilizing thought of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The ideas by which the genius of Karl Marx completed in the domain of social economy the revolution effected by science are in number three.

The first is the discovery of the law of surplus-labor. This law gives us a scientific explanation of the accumulation of private property not created by the labor of the accumulator; as this law has a more peculiarly technical character, we will not lay further stress upon it here, as we have given a general idea of it in the preceding pages.

The two other Marxian theories are more directly related to our observations on scientific socialism, since they undoubtedly furnish us the sure and infallible key to the life of society.

I allude, first, to the idea expressed by Marx, as long ago as 1859, in his Critique de l'économie politique, that the economic phenomena form the foundation and the determining conditions of all other human or social manifestations, and that, consequently, ethics, law and politics are only derivative phenomena determined by the economic factor, in accordance with the conditions of each particular people in every phase of history and under all climatic conditions.

This idea which corresponds to that great biological law which states the dependence of the function on the nature and capacities of the organ and which makes each individual the result of the innate and acquired conditions of his physiological organism, living in a given environment, so that a biological application may be given to the famous saying: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” – this sublime idea which unfolds before our eyes the majestic drama of history, no longer as the arbitrary succession of great men on the stage of the social theatre, but rather as the resultant of the economic conditions of each people, this sublime idea, after having been partially applied by Thorold Rogers[78] has been so brilliantly expounded and illustrated by Achille Loria,[79] that I believe it unnecessary to say anything more about it.

One idea, however, still appears to me necessary to complete this Marxian theory, as I remarked in the first edition of my book: Socialismo e criminalità.

It is necessary, indeed, to rid this impregnable theory of that species of narrow dogmatism with which it is clothed in Marx and still more in Loria.

It is perfectly true that every phenomenon, as well as every institution – moral, juridical or political – is simply the result of the economic phenomena and conditions of the transitory physical and historical environment. But, as a consequence of that law of natural causality which tells us that every effect is always the resultant of numerous concurrent causes and not of one cause alone, and that every effect becomes in its turn a cause of other phenomena, it is necessary to amend and complete the too rigid form that has been given to this true idea.

Just as all the psychical manifestations of the individual are the resultant of the organic conditions (temperament) and of the environment in which he lives, in the same way, all the social manifestations – moral, juridical or political – of a people are the resultant of their organic conditions (race) and of the environment, as these are the determining causes of the given economic organization which is the physical basis of life.

In their turn, the individual psychical conditions become causes and effect, although with less power, the individual organic conditions and the issue of the struggle for life. In the same way, the moral, juridical and political institutions, from effects become causes (there is, in fact, for modern science no substantial difference between cause and effect, except that the effect is always the latter of two related phenomena, and the cause always the former) and react in their turn, although with less efficacy, on the economic conditions.

An individual who has studied the laws of hygiene may influence beneficently, for instance, the imperfections of his digestive apparatus, but always within the very narrow limits of his organic capacities. A scientific discovery, an electoral law may have an effect on industry or on the conditions of labor, but always within limits fixed by the framework of the fundamental economic organization. This is why moral, juridical and political institutions have a greater influence on the relations between the various subdivisions of the class controlling the economic power (capitalists, industrial magnates, landed proprietors) than on the relations between the capitalist – property-owners on the one side and the toilers on the other.

It suffices here for me to have mentioned this Marxian law and I will refer to the suggestive book of Achille Loria the reader who desires to see how this law scientifically explains all the phenomena, from the most trivial to the most imposing, of the social life. This law is truly the most scientific and the most prolific sociological theory that has ever been discovered by the genius of man. It furnishes, as I have already remarked, a scientific, physiological, experiential explanation of social history in the most magnificent dramas as well as of personal history in its most trivial episodes – on explanation in perfect harmony with the entire trend – which has been described as materialistic – of modern scientific thought.[80]

If we leave out of consideration the two unscientific explanations of free will and divine providence, we find that two one-sided and therefore incomplete, although correct and scientific, explanations of human history have been given. I refer to the physical determinism of Montesquieu, Buckle and Metschnikoff, and to the anthropological determinism of the ethnologists who find the explanation of the events of history in the organic and psychical characteristics of the various races of men.

Karl Marx sums up, combines and completes these two theories by his economic determinism.

The economic conditions – which are the resultant of the ethnical energies and aptitudes acting in a given physical environment – are the determining basis of all the moral, juridical and political phenomenal manifestations of human life, both individual and social.

This is the sublime conception, the fact-founded and scientific Marxian theory, which fears no criticism, resting as it does on the best established results of geology and biology, of psychology and sociology.

It is thanks to it that students of the philosophy of law and sociology are able to determine the true nature and functions of the State which, as it is nothing but “society juridically and politically organized,” is only the secular arm used by the class in possession of the economic power – and consequently of the political, juridical and administrative power – to preserve their own special privileges and to postpone as long as possible the evil day when they must surrender them.

The other sociological theory by which Karl Marx has truly dissipated the clouds which had ere then darkened the sky of the aspirations of socialism, and which has supplied scientific socialism with a political compass by the use of which it can guide its course, with complete confidence and certainty, in the struggles of every-day life, is the great historical law of class struggles.[81] (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels. 1848.)

If it is granted that the economic conditions of social groups, like those of individuals, constitute the fundamental, determining cause of all the moral, juridical and political phenomena, it is evident that every social group, every individual will be led to act in accordance with its or his economic interest, because the latter is the physical basis of life and the essential condition of all other development. In the political sphere, each social class will be inclined to pass laws, to establish institutions and to perpetuate customs and beliefs which, directly or indirectly subserve its interests.

These laws, these institutions, these beliefs, handed down by inheritance or tradition, finally obscure or conceal their economic origin, and philosophers and jurists and often even the laity defend them as truths, subsisting by virtue of their own intrinsic merits, without seeing their real source, but the latter – the economic sub-stratum – is none the less the only scientific explanation of these laws, institutions and beliefs. And in this fact consists the greatness and strength of the perspicacious conception of the genius of Marx.[82]

As in the modern world there are now but two classes, with subordinate varieties, – on the one side the workers to whatever category they belong, and on the other the property owners who do not work, – the socialist theory of Marx leads us to this evident conclusion: since political parties are merely the echoes and the mouth-pieces of class interests – no matter what the subvarieties of these classes may be – there can be substantially only two political parties: the socialist labor party and the individualist party of the class in possession of the land and the other means of production.

The difference in the character of the economic monopoly may cause, it is true, a certain diversity of political color, and I have always contended that the great landed proprietors represent the conservative tendencies of political stagnation, while the holders of financial or industrial capital represent in many instances the progressive party, driven by its own nature to petty innovations of form, while finally those who possess only an intellectual capital, the liberal professions, etc., may go to the extreme length of political radicalism.

On the vital question – that is to say on the economic question of property – conservatives, progressives and radicals are all individualists. On this point they are all, in their essential nature of the same social class and, in spite of certain sentimental sympathies, the adversaries of the working class and of those who, although born on the other shore, have embraced the political programme of that class, a programme necessarily corresponding to the primordial economic necessity – that is to say, the socialization of the land and the means of production with all the innumerable and radical moral, juridical and political transformations, which this socialization will inevitably bring to pass in the social world.

This is why contemporary political life cannot but degenerate into the most sterile bysantinisme and the most corrupt strife for bribes and spoils, when it is confined to the superficial skirmishes between individualist parties, which differ only by a shade and in their formal names, but whose ideas are so similar that one often sees radicals and progressives less modern than many conservatives.

There will be a new birth of political life only with the development of the socialist party, because, after the disappearance from the political stage of the historical figures of the patriots (the founders of modern Italy) and of the personal reasons which split up the representatives into different political groups, the formation of one single individualist party will become necessary, as I declared in the Italian Chamber on the 20th of December, 1893.

The historical duel will then be begun, and the Class Struggle will then display on the field of politics all its beneficent influence. Beneficent, I say, because the class struggle must be understood not in the contemptible sense of a Saturnalia of fist-fights and outrages, of malevolence and personal violence, but must be worthily conceived as a great social drama. With all my heart I hope that this conflict may be settled, for the progress of civilization, without bloody convulsions, but historical destiny has decreed the conflict, and it is not given to us or to others to avert or postpone it.

It follows from all that we have just said that these ideas of political socialism, because they are scientific, dispose their partisans both to personal tolerance and to theoretical inflexibility.[83] This is also a conclusion reached by experimental psychology in the domain of philosophy. However great our personal sympathies may be for such or such a representative of the radical faction of the individualist party (as well as for every honorable and sincere representative of any scientific, religious or political opinion whatsoever), we are bound to recognize that there are on the side of socialism no partiti affini.[84] It is necessary to be on one side or the other – individualist or socialist. There is no middle ground. And I am constantly growing more and more convinced that the only serviceable tactics for the formation of a socialist party likely to live, is precisely that policy of theoretical inflexibility and of refusing to enter into any “alliance” with partiti affini, as such an alliance is for socialism only a “false placenta” for a fetus that is unlikely to live.

The conservative and the socialist are the natural products of the individual character and the social environment. One is born a conservative or an innovator just as one is born a painter or a surgeon. Therefore the socialists have no contempt for or bitterness toward the sincere representatives of any faction of the conservative party, though they combat their ideas unrelentingly. If such or such a socialist shows himself intolerant, if he abuses his opponents, this is because he is the victim of a passing emotion or of an ill-balanced temperament; it is, therefore, very excusable.

The thing that provokes a smile of pity is to see certain conservatives “young in years, but old in thought” – for conservatism in the young can be nothing but the effect of calculating selfishness or the index of psychical anemia – have an air of complacency or of pity for socialists whom they consider, at best, as “misled,” without perceiving that what is normal is for the old to be conservatives, but that young conservatives can be nothing but egoists who are afraid of losing the life of idle luxury into which they were born or the advantages of the orthodox fashion of dividing (?) the fruits of labor. Their hearts at least, if not their brains, are abnormally small. The socialist, who has everything to lose and nothing to gain by boldly declaring his position and principles, possesses by contrast all the superiority of a disinterested altruism, especially when having been born in the aristocratic or the bourgeois class he has renounced the brilliant pleasure of a life of leisure to defend the cause of the weak and the oppressed.[85]

But, it is said, these bourgeois socialists act in this way through love of popularity! This is a strange form of selfishness, at all events, which prefers to the quickly reaped rewards and profits of bourgeois individualism, “the socialist idealism” of popular sympathy, especially when it might gain this sympathy by other means which would compromise it less in the eyes of the class in power.

Let us hope, in concluding, that when the bourgeoisie shall have to surrender the economic power and the political power in order that they may be used for the benefit of all in the new society and that, as Berenini recently said, victors and vanquished may really become brothers without distinction of class in the common assured enjoyment of a mode of life worthy of human beings, let us hope that in surrendering power, the bourgeoisie will do it with that dignity and self-respect which the aristocracy showed when it was stripped of its class privileges by the triumphant bourgeoisie at the time of the French Revolution.

It is the truth of the message of socialism and its perfect agreement with the most certain inductions of experimental science which explain to us not only its tremendous growth and progress, which could not be merely the purely negative effect of a material and moral malady rendered acute by a period of social crisis, but above all it explains to us that unity of intelligent, disciplined, class-conscious solidarity which presents, in the world-wide celebration of the first of May, a moral phenomenon of such grandeur that human history presents no parallel example, if we except the movement of primitive Christianity which had, however, a much more restricted field of action than contemporary socialism.

Henceforth – disregarding the hysterical or unreasoning attempts to revert from bourgeois scepticism to mysticism as a safeguard against the moral and material crisis of the present time, attempts which make us think of those lascivious women who become pious bigots on growing old[86] – henceforth both partisans and adversaries of socialism are forced to recognize the fact that, like Christianity at the dissolution of the Roman world, Socialism constitutes the only force which restores the hope of a better future to the old and disintegrating human society – a hope no longer begotten by a faith inspired by the unreasoning transports of sentiment, but born of rational confidence in the inductions of modern experimental science.


78. J. E. TH. ROGERS, The Economic Interpretation of History, London, 1888.

79. LORIA, Les Bases économiques de la constitution sociale, 2nd edition, Paris, 1894. (This work is available in English under the title: “The Economic Foundations of Society.” Swan Sonnenschein, London. – Tr.)

To the general idea of Karl Marx, Loria adds a theory about “the occupation of free land,” which is the fundamental cause of the technical explanation of the different econo-micro-social organizations, a theory which he has amply demonstrated in his Analisi della proprietà capitalistica, Turin, 1892.

80. It is seen what our judgment must be regarding the thesis maintained by Ziegler, in his book: La question sociale est une question morale (The social question is a moral question). French trans., Paris, 1894. Just as psychology is an effect of physiology, so the moral phenomena are effects of the economic facts. Such books are only intended, more or less consciously, to divert attention from the vital point of the question, which is that formulated by Karl Marx.

See on our side, DE GREEF, l'Empirieme, l'utopié et le socialisme scientifique, Revue Socialiste, Aug., 1886, p. 688.

81. As proof of that conspiracy of silence about the theories of Karl Marx, it suffices for me to point out that the historians of socialism generally mention only the technical theory of surplus-labor, and ignore the two other laws: (1) the determination of social phenomena and institutions by economic conditions, and (2) the Class Struggle.

82. The votes on measures imposing taxes in the legislative bodies of all countries afford obvious illustrations of this principle. (The alignment of forces in the struggle for the income tax under the late administration of President Cleveland, is a very striking instance. – Tr.)

83. If uncompromisingness was an English word, it would express the thought more clearly and strongly. – Tr.

84. Parties related by affinity of object, tactics, or, more especially, of immediate demands. – Tr.

85. See the lectures of DE AMICIS. Osservazioni sulla questione sociale, Lecce, 1894. LABRIOLA, Il Socialismo, Rome, 1890. G. OGGERO, Il Socialismo, 2nd edition, Milan, 1894.

86. There are, however, certain forms of this mysticism which appeal to our sympathies very strongly. Such forms I will call social mysticism. We may instance the works of Tolstoi, who envelops his socialism with the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil by violent means,” drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.

Tolstoi is also an eloquent anti-militarist, and I am pleased to see quoted in his book le Salut est en vous, Paris, 1894, a passage from one of my lectures against war.

But he maintains a position aloof from contemporary experimental science, and his work thus fails to reach the mark.