The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

6. The careful suppression of individual liberty

This week Radio 4 has been broadcasting a series of programs by John Simpson about China in the run up to this year's Olympic Games. The Liberator of Kabul, who was last reporting from Beijing in 1989 during the massacre at Tiananmen Square, is astounded by the changes in the country, by the phenomena that is China's almost total rejection of Communism in favour of capitalism. In today's program he remarked on the contrast between the clothing of a well-heeled businessmen and the monochrome
uniform of the Cultural Revolution, and the young man responded without irony by expressing his admiration of the chic style of the old look. During a very brief visit I made to the city a year ago almost everybody I spoke to wanted to enthuse about the new opportunities for business and prosperity, and to say how great a man was Chairman Mao.

Serendipitously, as I haven't yet returned it to the shelves, Volume 6 (Cli. - Day) has entries on both COMMERCE and COMMUNISM.

COMMERCE, by Robert Somers (author of "The Trade Unions: an appeal to the working classes and their friends" - thanks, Google) provides a historical outline of the rise of international trade, using the prosperity of Britain (being, in 1876 of course, Top Nation ) as an illustrative example. The outlook for Commerce, Mr Somers concludes, is pretty rosy:

"...[C]ommerce has acquired a security and extension, in all its most essential conditions, of which it was void in any previous age. ...[I]t is established in every quarter of the globe, and all the seas and ways are open to it on terms fair and equal to every nation. ...[S]uch decay and ruin as have smitten many once proud seats of wealth into dust cannot again occur without such cataclysms of war, violence, and disorder as the the growing civilization and reason of mankind, and the power of law, right, and common interest forbid us to anticipate."

The essay on COMMUNISM is written by Mrs Fawcett, presumably Milicent Garrett Fawcett (thanks again, Google), political economist and campaigner for suffrage for women. At nearly nine pages the essay runs somewhere over (by my approximate calculation) 10,000 words, and, perhaps to an even greater degree than Mr Somers' work, is a thoughtful analysis of the subject not entirely done justice by my selective use of it here.

The Utopian models of Plato and Thomas More are considered, as are the more contemporary writings of Louis Blanc and one Karl Marx, who is quoted as a "member of the International Society" to illustrate the contempt of German socialists for political liberalism.

Mrs Fawcett is critical of Thomas More and later communists for their rejection of monogamy. Their "attacking marriage and advocating promiscuous intercourse between the sexes may probably be traced to the notion which regards a wife as being a mere item among the goods and chattels of her husband. It is not difficult to find evidence of the survival of this ancient habit of mind." And not only amongst communist thinkers, as Mrs Fawcett was no doubt very aware.

On the whole, the essay is skeptical of the merits of communism as a philosophy, without failing to acknowledge that many of its principals are just.
"The communists denounce the evils of the present state of society ; the hopeless poverty of the poor, side by side with the self-regarding luxury of the rich, seems to them to cry aloud to Heaven for the creation of a new social organization. They proclaim the necessity of of sweeping away the institution of private property, and insist that this great revolution, accompanied by universal education, free trade, a perfect administration of justice, and a due limitation on the numbers of the community, would put an end to half the self-made distresses of humanity. Has it never occurred to them that a similarly happy result might be attained if all these subsidiary reforms were carried out, leaving the principles of private property and competition to their old predominance in the economic world ?"

The "limitation on the numbers of the community" is in the author's opinion a central concern of communism, as the larger the society, the thinner the prosperity has to be spread. Particularly, there is a removal of the incentive for a parent to work harder to provide for more offspring, and so communist societies must impose limitations on procreation.

Naturally, Mrs Fawcett draws most of her examples of communism as practised rather
than merely theorized from America: the Shakers, Icarians, Perfectionists and others. Acknowledging that they are imperfect models as they are all very small communities, she attempts to define what might be the problems with a larger system.

"If [...] communism were adopted throughout a whole nation, the minute despotism which now distinguishes the government of existing communistic societies, and which furnishes them with an effectual control over the growth of population, would cease to be possible ; or if, indeed, it should ever become possible it would be through the careful suppression of individual liberty, and through the strenuous encouragement of everything which tended to destroy self reliance on the part of the people and to build up the absolute power of the state."

The verdict of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is clear - Communism is a flawed concept ; Commerce will prevail.

Although CHINA is found in Vol. 5, in Vol. 6 we have a respectably long essay on CONFUCIUS, from which and whom I would like to leave you with this saying:

Learning, undigested by thought, is labour lost ; thought, unassisted by learning, is perilous.

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