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Smith, Mill and Marx, Tolstoy, Bukarin and Others

Adam Smith entered the University of Glasgow at the age of fourteen, in 1737. There he studied moral philosophy and is said to have developed a passion for liberty, reason, and free speech. He won a scholarship and became a grad student at Oxford. Then he was a professor at Glasgow University teaching moral philosophy.

By 1776, at age 54, he had a book titled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. His friend David Hume thought that wealthy landowners buying luxury goods served a nation's economy, but Hume and Smith had their eye on wider benefit. In "Wealth of Nations," Smith described savings as the key to growth, and he described wealth as more than gold or silver. Wealth, he said, was in the production of goods that people could use, more people than just the wealthy, an economy for the many — an idea that fit well with the coming industrial age.

Smith didn't like government dictating what was to happen economically, government commanding and controlling the nation's markets. He favored self-regulating markets: people producing what they thought would sell and people buying according to what they wanted and could afford, with competition as a regulator and competition encouraging efficiency. He differed from some old-fashioned moralist by approving self-interest as a force. Self-interest had been frowned upon for ages as acquisitive and anti-social. Smith thought self-interest an indispensable spur to economic progress. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner,” he wrote, “but from their regard to their own interest."

Smith wrote of the harm caused by monopolies inhibiting competition and the harm of government favoritisms. Smith approved of government actions that defending free markets. And he favored peoples of different nations trading freely with each other. Smith was opposed to people being pawns of the state, and he was angered by that state-imposed force called imperialism — instead of trading with a people left with their freedom. He wrote of "the savage injustices of the Europeans" who served as "vile rulers of mankind."

Smith had been a believer in progress. He had seen advances in science, the Enlightenment, tolerance and a rise above what the economist-historian Dierdre McCloskey calls the Aristocratic Deal. McCloskey describes it:

"You honor me, an aristocrat by natural inequality, and give me the liberty to extract rents from you... I forbid you under penalty of death to seek competitive 'protection' ... [And] if you have behaved yourself and [removed your cap or tugged] your forelock or made your curtsey as I ride by) I will not at least have slaughtered you."

McCloskey describes the Aristocratic Deal of "extortion" by feudal lords. He writes of it being replaced in the 1800s by the "Bourgeois Deal" — a deal as McCloskey describes it that Adam Smith would have viewed as more moral than the Aristocratic Deal. The Bourgeois Deal, according to McCloskey, arose with the Great Enrichment, beginning a decade or so after Smith's death in 1790. In a rather bourgeois publication, the Wall Street Journal, McCloskey writes:

The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has one primary source: the liberation of ordinary people to pursue their dreams of economic betterment.

Poverty has been described as a state-of-mind, but an understanding of what McCloskey is referring to is in a chart on economic growth of major world regions. And there is another chart (at OurWorldInData.org) that shows Britain's total economic output at 2013 prices at 27.7 billion British pounds in the year 1800 and having risen to 181.2 billion in 1900. Paul Kennedy's data on "Per Capita Levels of Industrialization" (Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p 149) give some indication of this enrichment while showing Russia with only a slight gain between 1800 and 1900 and China and India — with their rising populations — having diminished growth.

Of course, the Great Enrichment was not all benevolence. Bourgeois ideology held to letting the market decide wages. In competition with each other, industrialists looked for people who could do a job for wages that were bid down as low as possible, and if an employee didn't like it he was free to walk. With population growth the advantage lay with those with the wealth. (Wages rose following Europe's Black Death plague in the 1300s.) The wealthy could accumulate more wealth faster than others.

Smith's idea that the market should determine prices remained, but Industrialists were happy to receive favors from politicians they had helped elect — contracts among them. That other point in people to people transactions that affected wealth distribution, the price of goods, was at times was influenced other than by free market competition and bargaining.

Workers did the one thing they needed to do to improve their ability to bargain. They joined together for added power. They sought better working conditions, better pay, and relief from working six days a week and more than eight hours per day. It was common for the industrialist to see this as an assault on their freedom to manage their enterprises as they saw fit. Workers were on their way to a belief in cooperation contrary to the bourgeoisie focusing on individualism and a competition that Adam Smith did not have in mind. The industrialists tended to assume that what was best for them was best for society. For decades they opposed any kind of labor-capital collective bargaining mediated by the state. The different focus would last into the 21st century, as with Republicans in the US talking about individuals working harder and longer hours to get ahead of their competition, the opposite labor's traditional drive for a reduced work week.

During the 1800s, at least a few industrialists were of a Puritanism that held idleness to be corrupting, that long hours was good for their employees because it keeps them out of troubles like getting drunk and doing sinful things.

Making his contribution to the ideology of the 1800s was the Englishman Jeremy Bentham, who maintained a correspondence with Smith and lived on to 1832 (42 years after Smith died). Like Smith, he stood apart from those preaching the benefits of self-denial. Like Smith, he favored betterment for common people. Bentham favored democracy as a means for common people having the power to judge who would serve his interest. In response to those who were supporting the status quo and talking about liberty, Benthem in his book, Principles of Morals and Legislation, asked, What liberty? And liberty for whom? He thought those supporting the status quo (in some cases including slavery) and talking about "natural law" and "natural rights" were nonsensical. Bentham saw liberty, law and rights as political achievements. Laws, Bentham believed, should be made for "the greatest good for the greatest number." This came to be known as Utilitarianism. It was a philosophy in line with the thinking of Jefferson's favorite philosophy, Epicurus, who viewed happiness as a worthy purpose in life. People of a conservative nature criticized Utilitarianism on the grounds that it ignored quality in favor of number — an old argument against democracy. Some conservatives thought that those already in positions of power and wealth were of a higher quality, in addition to having been more favored by God.

Following Bentham was another Utilitarian: John Stuart Mill (1806-70), the son of the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist, James Mill. John Stuart Mill was another Scot who had been precocious as a child. He was taught Greek at the age of three, and by eight was a great reader of books. At thirteen he was studying Adam Smith and the classical economist David Ricardo. Like Smith, he believed in the freedom of the individuals. Freedom, he thought, paved the way for social progress. He supported the freedom to express oneself including freedom of the press and freedom of association. In his book, On Liberty, published in 1859, he wrote of a "tyranny of the majority." He recognized that good ideas came first to individuals. He was suspicious of group-think and proposed that government protect the right of people to pursue new ideas self-development and individuality. He also supported women's rights. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Mill was "the most influential English language philosopher of the nineteenth century."

John Stuart Mill was a contemporary of Karl Marx (1818-83), Marx intensely disagreed with Mill — an ideological rivalry that was to extend well beyond their deaths, into the 1900s. Mill believed that individuality should be encouraged. “Genius," he wrote, "can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom." Marx was wedded to the labor movement and more focused on strength and success of shared interests and organized actions. He believed that while the material condition of society shapes mankind, mankind can also shape society. Marx looked forward the "working class" seeing its best interest and developing the class-consciousness that made social revolution (a mass phenomenon) possible. Marx saw in Mill a support for private property that contributed to disparities in wealth and to political oppression. Only with the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, he believed, could peasants and industrial workers acquire justice.

Marx began his intellectual career as a liberal. Like Mill, a belief in freedom was at the core of his political philosophy, but it was tethered to his belief in communism (expressed in his Communist Manifesto and later writing.) Marx extended his belief in freedom to people not having to sell their labor in order to survive. He looked forward to people eventually able to choose work with others in a collective enterprise, free of coercive bosses and capitalists taking their share, each worker producing according to his ability and a happy distribution: each according to his needs. With this, labor would not be commodity — a communism for modern times that he and people to the 21st century were not to see achieved.

In the industrializing Europe of the 1900s there were those who disagreed with both Mill and Marx. Both Mill and Marx were thought be some to be utopian. Marx didn't see himself as utopian, but he described these others as such. Marx put his politics within historical forces — influenced as he was by the philosopher Hegel (1770-1831). His Communist Manifesto was steeped in history. The Utopians, on the other hand, seemed to be championing that was pure idea, or imagination, disconnected from actual world development, including class struggle.

A Frenchman, Saint-Simon, saw the doctrine of Laissez-faire as both morally and psychologically pernicious." He countered with his idea of society organized in a better way. After his death in 1825 some noticed his writings and became followers. Saint-Simon had wanted a society in which each person was ranked according to his or her capacities and rewarded according to his or her work. (Who was to do the ranking or govern the distributing is to this writer unclear.)

There was the British industrialist Robert Owen who moved to the US in 1824, and there on 30,000 acres in Indiana he built a community he called New Harmony – a place that he wanted to be free of religion, private property and crime. Settlers came. And, following the news of his community, others created copycat communities, in the US, Britain and Ireland. At New Harmony conflict arose between those who wanted to defend their individuality and those who advocated conformity. Some complained about others not doing their fair share of work. New Harmony failed to attract an adequate number of workers with skills. According to one observer, New Harmony had "plenty of storekeepers, clerks, committeemen [but] few smiths, artisans, and farmers." By 1828 New Harmony had been reorganized five times and Owen had lost four-fifths of his fortune. He disbanded New Harmony, blaming the failure on people not having acquired "those moral characteristics of forbearance and charity necessary for confidence and harmony." The other, copy-cat, settlements are not known to have overcome similar difficulties. Social harmony had proved difficult to invent and impose.

Another utopian was Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Like Saint-Simon, he too disliked liassez-faire economics, and he disliked Bentham's utilitarianism. He had his own plan to superimpose on society. He wanted society divided into communities of something like 1,620 people, each community with a grand hotel-like dormitory at the center, divided between first class, second class and third class depending on one's wealth. Everyone would work a few hours each day, doing what suited him or her best. He thought his idea conformed to the nature of humanity created by God, and he looked forward to each community being tied together by lobe and a singular devotion to God.

And in France was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, nine years older than Marx and in touch with him through personal correspondence. Competition, he believed, was the root of evil. Like Marx he favored a society based on cooperation — as if humanity could suddenly cast off conflict and eliminate the need for a police force or prisons. He wanted to change the system through non-violent “revolutionary” politics, and he was opposed to indoctrination by any group that held power. To Marx he wrote: "Let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance." He had a slogan that attracted attention — "property is theft," suggesting the violent coercion that would be required to undo that injustice. But he changed his mind, deciding that free people ought to have enough property to assure their independence.

Proudhon was one of the many in the 1800s who differed from Mill and Marx by their opposition to organization — their philosophical anarchism. Not believing in organization, Proudhon belonged to no political organization. His influence was as a journalist, but it was one of those belief's difficult to live by. Proudhon won a seat in the France's Constituent Assembly, but his career in electoral politics was largely ineffective.

Another philosophical anarchist was the famous writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). He was born into the wealthy Russian landowning aristocracy. As a student he was no John Stuart Mill: In 1844, at 16 he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University. His teachers described him as "both unable and unwilling to learn." For years his personal life and marriage were filled with awkward disharmonies. In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. In the 1870s, Tolstoy is said to have had a spiritual awakening. He held to the idea that the Kingdom of God was within him. He accepted a literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ. He sympathized with the poor and believed that the powerful were a burden on the poor, that the state was dominated by the wicked. He described the state as having forced itself on people with brutal force, which offended his pacifism. He described himself as an anarchist and the Russia's peasant communes as the best institution. And he faulted Mill for not having concluded that humanity's well-being was best served not by liberal politics but by trying to understand God.

Russia produced another anarchist from the aristocracy: Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76). He began his career as an academic, ending up in Paris, where in 1842 he met Proudhon and Marx. He participated in the Czech rebellion of 1848, was apprehended, turned over to Russian authorities and imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg until 1857. Then he was sent to a work camp in Siberia. He escaped to Japan, made it to the US and back to Europe. He became a leading figure in the International Working Men's Association (a federation of trade unions and workers' organizations) and there he butted heads with a faction led by Karl Marx. The so-called Bakunin, anarchist faction. Bakunin wanted a revolution without taking over the state, without applying any kind of hierarchical authority. Bakunin wrote that liberty consists solely of people obeying the laws of nature. He complained that if the Marxist faction were successful it would create a dictatorship. He added that when people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called "the People's Stick". Bakunin wanted a revolution organized at the grass roots rather than top down.

Marx, meanwhile, saw capitalism's faulty distribution of wealth as eventually producing an immmizeration against which people would make revolution, a revolution that was supposed to come first to the most advanced of industrialized societies. Instead, in the most industrially advanced countries a belief in liberalism and reforms prevailed and the revolution with thoroughly collectivist goals would come where economies were not so advanced — in Russia.

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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.