Social Darwinism. A Yale Professor’s Backing to the Marxian argument


One other example is of especial interest from our point of view; “the introduction of the factory system seemed to throw the whole organisation of society into disorder and chaos. . . . But this phenomenon means no more than the falling out of adjustment of the secondary societal forms with the primary. An access of pain and want—the unmistakable sign of maladaptation—promptly ensued and forced the secondary forms into better adjustment with the primary. The former had to catch up so to speak with the latter.”

Here Keller illustrates a peculiar malady to which the social organism is especially liable, which might be termed maladjustment of parts. To assure the utmost adaptation to external circumstances, an organism must be thoroughly adapted internally. In other words, for the whole structure to be efficient there must be a perfect co-ordination of organ with organ inside the body, an uniformity of development. There must not be a great progression of some organs or structures, leaving other parts of the organism undeveloped and out of adjustment. This rarely happens among natural organisms owing to the intensity of the struggle with environment, but it is not entirely unknown. The titanic diplodocus, a reptile of the middle period of the earth’s history, although eighty feet long and weighing thirty tons, had a brain no larger than a newly born infant’s, quite incapable of allowing a vigorous co-ordinated activity to the whole vast bulk. Remains of a creature as big as a rhinoceros but with ridiculous-looking teeth about as small as a hog’s have been found. Such forms are only adapted to easy conditions, with little or no competition. While such conditions remain they may persist, but when a crisis, a time of stress and struggle, arises, they perish.

The social system is peculiarly liable to such bad co ordination of parts ; indeed, at a certain stage of its development this becomes periodically inevitable. This follows from the peculiar nature of its structure. Unlike the cells of an animal, the cells, or individuals, of the social organism are conscious, reasoning agents. Unlike the organs of the animal, the social organs, that is the groups of individuals which perform the different functions requisite to social living, often have their own special interests distinct from the interests of other groups or the welfare of the whole organism. Sectional interests may and do conflict. “When . . . the society is compounded and differentiated in its elements, these elements are characterised by differing codes of mores. But some of the elements, or classes, seem to be succeeding in life-to be securing obvious material advantages to which others have not attained. Comparison of group destiny, resulting in dissatisfaction, must have developed very early.” Those classes which are benefited by the form of society which exists will naturally exert all their influence and power against a change to a form less advantageous. If such a class gets hold of the political machinery, thus dominating the social life, it can to some extent preserve such institutions as it desires, despite the fact that, from the economic point of view, they may be obsolete, that is, out of adjustment with the method and institutions of acquiring subsistence.

Just as the diplodocus could live on for a time amid favourable circumstances, with all its bad organic co-ordination, so can a society with its superstructure estranged from the basic economic conditions. But when critical times came the great reptile was annihilated. Capitalist production as it is to-day is typical of this social malformation, and when up against the crisis of the great war now raging its internal weaknesses revealed themselves. Competitive production by individual firms lacks efficiency and is wasteful, hence the moves toward centralised control which the several capitalist States have taken. The free action of the economic laws of capitalism weaken social cohesion, hence the great increase during the war of State interference. But such minor modifications can be made without immediate injury to the ruling-class interest. The complete re-adjustment which becomes ever more necessary between the primary and the secondary social forms, can obviously, however, only be brought about by the class which is dissatisfied with the established conditions and desires the change to be made. “It is asking too much of human beings to expect one group to safeguard the diverging interests of another. Each group must try to get power to realise its own.” And in its struggle for this power the class must place its whole faith and reliance upon its own strength and organisation. “No outside observer, however learned, can sense interests as those can who feel their stress directly.”

For a class to realise its aspirations and bring about conditions in its interests, it must first become the ruling class by securing political domination. As Keller says, “if a class gets political power, it can conserve and further realise its mores.” With modern conditions of government political parties are the vehicles through which sectional or class interests are expressed. But most existing parties consist only of a small group who are conscious of its real aims and class nature, scheming for power, and supported by a more or less ignorant mass who are deluded by hero-worship and the false claims of their leaders. Such parties obviously rely for their existence upon the ignorance of the workers, who form the bulk of the electorate, for they all assist in maintaining the system of exploitation, to which the workers’ real interests are opposed. Keller’s remarks upon party politics are to the point. “In general the party in power will stay in power so long as it can ‘give the people prosperity,’ or persuade them that it is doing that—so long as they are contented. . . History and common-sense are perverted, deliberately, to demonstrate this. “Each candidate is endowed by his supporters with the standard virtues of the mores (‘honesty,’ etc.), and often the attempt is made to ‘blacken the character’ of the opposition by reference to delinquencies of one kind or another.” “It is a source of never-ending astonishment and disheartenment to observe the ignorance, prejudice, and even superstition displayed in politics by people who are well-informed and rational of judgment in other lines.” When a new class really does get complete control a social transformation inevitably occurs : “Such upheavals on the grand scale, as in the French Revolution, are repeated on the small scale from time to time in any State.”

In concluding this review of Keller’s work let us just glance at his remarks on present day society and its developments in the near future. His treatment of modern capitalist society we have no hesitation in saying is by far the least satisfactory portion of the book. In the last chapter he proposes to make the same examination of the latest form of social structure as in the two previous chapters he did of Eskimo and frontier societies; that is, show the influence of the mode of living upon the social structure. Unfortunately he contents himself with a few brief and scrappy references to the artificiality of modern society and the influence which the predominance of city life has upon such relatively unimportant matters as religion and marriage. Had Prof. Keller shown and dwelt upon the great unconformity between the collective or social nature of production to-day and the capitalist property form under which it is carried on, which results in what he himself admits is “an unmistakable sign of maladaptation,” namely, an “access of pain and want” due to poverty, unemployment, wars, etc., he would have completed his work and made it a masterly piece of social analysis. Unfortunately the price of such a course would have been the loss of his position as “professor of the science of society at Yale University.”

Keller is also to be censured for not fully acknowledging Karl Marx as the principal discoverer of the economic basis of social forms, and of the class struggle as a powerful agent of historic progress. In dealing with Socialism Keller gives vent to a statement which either proceeds from a total ignorance of it (which is almost inconceivable in so able a sociologist) it is a daring piece of bluff. “It is possible,” he says, “to believe in something like Marxian economic determinism, and then, when when it comes to a plan of action, try to help adapt society to the conditions of life as learned; it is not necessary that we should plan to alter the environment in toto, change human nature and other somewhat permanent elements in it rather than accommodate ourselves, even though it is not so easy or grandiose, to life conditions and laws.”

Surely Prof. Keller knows that the disciples of Marx propose to change no element in human nature (except such as would result from the social change) but accept it as it is. Furthermore it is precisely the advice which he gives to those desirous of altering society, that we Socialists believe to be the only practical policy and a proposition which will eventually be carried out. He says, “. . . the improver might turn attention to the effort to help the secondary societal forms get into consistency or harmony with the improved primary ones. This is about as far as reason can go safely and securely in societal evolution. This conclusion cannot content the ‘world beatifier,’ but it may afford a definite, though minimal, hope to those whose ideals are less exalted, and who respect reason enough to wish to go a furlong with her rather than a mile, or even twain in an emotional ecstacy.” This is so exactly the proposition of the Marxists, is in fact so excellent a formulation of our attitude in opposition to our Utopian opponents, that it is worth while quoting in juxtaposition the following from Frederick Engels’ “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” in order to prove that it is so.

“The growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust, that reason has become unreason, and right wrong, is only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have silently taken place, with which the social order, adapted to earlier economic conditions, is no longer in keeping.

“From this it also follows that the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to light, must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within the changed modes of production themselves. These means are not to be invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production.”

Finally, we heartily recommend to the notice of all students of society, especially Socialists, this excellent addition to the literature of sociology, which, notwithstanding its defects, it undoubtedly is. Not only does it show how the principles bearing the name of the illustrious Darwin are at work unceasingly in the sphere of society just as in that of animal and plant life, in a manner more thorough than has ever (so far as the present writer is aware) been done before ; but it also vindicates the position of we Socialists who have declared to the world that our principles are based upon the fullest scientific investigation into the constitution of society. Such a vindication is our triumph, and a still greater triumph, even if posthumous, for the great old man who has now lain thirty years in the clay of Highgate Cemetery.

Surely Marx is coming into his own.

R. W. H.

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