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Capitalism, Socialism, & Dysgenics

Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957

Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957

3,775 words

Editor’s Note:

The following text is Jack London’s essay “Wanted: A New Law of Development,” from his book The War of the Classes (1905). The subject of this essay is eugenics and dysgenics, although London does not use those words. So one can better follow his argument, I have edited out passages where he adduces example after example from the news of the day. 

Evolution is no longer a mere tentative hypothesis. One by one, step by step, each division and subdivision of science has contributed its evidence, until now the case is complete and the verdict rendered. While there is still discussion as to the method of evolution, none the less, as a process sufficient to explain all biological phenomena, all differentiations of life into widely diverse species, families, and even kingdoms, evolution is flatly accepted. Likewise has been accepted its law of development: THAT, IN THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE, THE STRONG AND FIT AND THE PROGENY OF THE STRONG AND FIT HAVE A BETTER OPPORTUNITY FOR SURVIVAL THAN THE WEAK AND LESS FIT AND THE PROGENY OF THE WEAK AND LESS FIT.

It is in the struggle of the species with other species and against all other hostile forces in the environment, that this law operates; also in the struggle between the individuals of the same species. In this struggle, which is for food and shelter, the weak individuals must obviously win less food and shelter than the strong. Because of this, their hold on life relaxes and they are eliminated. And for the same reason that they may not win for themselves adequate food and shelter, the weak cannot give to their progeny the chance for survival that the strong give. And thus, since the weak are prone to beget weakness, the species is constantly purged of its inefficient members.

Because of this, a premium is placed upon strength, and so long as the struggle for food and shelter obtains, just so long will the average strength of each generation increase. On the other hand, should conditions so change that all, and the progeny of all, the weak as well as the strong, have an equal chance for survival, then, at once, the average strength of each generation will begin to diminish. Never yet, however, in animal life, has there been such a state of affairs. Natural selection has always obtained. The strong and their progeny, at the expense of the weak, have always survived. This law of development has operated down all the past upon all life; it so operates today, and it is not rash to say that it will continue to operate in the future — at least upon all life existing in a state of nature.

Man, preeminent though he is in the animal kingdom, capable of reacting upon and making suitable an unsuitable environment, nevertheless remains the creature of this same law of development. The social selection to which he is subject is merely another form of natural selection. True, within certain narrow limits he modifies the struggle for existence and renders less precarious the tenure of life for the weak. The extremely weak, diseased, and inefficient are housed in hospitals and asylums. The strength of the viciously strong, when inimical to society, is tempered by penal institutions and by the gallows. The short-sighted are provided with spectacles, and the sickly (when they can pay for it) with sanitariums. Pestilential marshes are drained, plagues are checked, and disasters averted. Yet, for all that, the strong and the progeny of the strong survive, and the weak are crushed out. The men strong of brain are masters as of yore. They dominate society and gather to themselves the wealth of society. With this wealth they maintain themselves and equip their progeny for the struggle. They build their homes in healthful places, purchase the best fruits, meats, and vegetables the market affords, and buy themselves the ministrations of the most brilliant and learned of the professional classes. The weak man, as of yore, is the servant, the doer of things at the master’s call. The weaker and less efficient he is, the poorer is his reward. The weakest work for a living wage (when they can get work), live in unsanitary slums, on vile and insufficient food, at the lowest depths of human degradation. Their grasp on life is indeed precarious, their mortality excessive, their infant death-rate appalling.

That some should be born to preferment and others to ignominy in order that the race may progress, is cruel and sad; but none the less they are so born. The weeding out of human souls, some for fatness and smiles, some for leanness and tears, is surely a heartless selective process — as heartless as it is natural. And the human family, for all its wonderful record of adventure and achievement, has not yet succeeded in avoiding this process. That it is incapable of doing this is not to be hazarded. Not only is it capable, but the whole trend of society is in that direction. All the social forces are driving man on to a time when the old selective law will be annulled. There is no escaping it, save by the intervention of catastrophes and cataclysms quite unthinkable. It is inexorable. It is inexorable because the common man demands it. The twentieth century, the common man says, is his day; the common man’s day, or, rather, the dawning of the common man’s day.

Nor can it be denied. The evidence is with him. The previous centuries, and more notably the nineteenth, have marked the rise of the common man. From chattel slavery to serfdom, and from serfdom to what he bitterly terms “wage slavery,” he has risen. Never was he so strong as he is today, and never so menacing. He does the work of the world, and he is beginning to know it. The world cannot get along without him, and this also he is beginning to know. All the human knowledge of the past, all the scientific discovery, governmental experiment, and invention of machinery, have tended to his advancement. His standard of living is higher. His common school education would shame princes ten centuries past. His civil and religious liberty makes him a free man, and his ballot the peer of his betters. And all this has tended to make him conscious, conscious of himself, conscious of his class. He looks about him and questions that ancient law of development. It is cruel and wrong, he is beginning to declare. It is an anachronism. Let it be abolished. Why should there be one empty belly in all the world, when the work of ten men can feed a hundred? What if my brother be not so strong as I? He has not sinned. Wherefore should he hunger — he and his sinless little ones? Away with the old law. There is food and shelter for all, therefore let all receive food and shelter.

As fast as labor has become conscious it has organized. The ambition of these class-conscious men is that the movement shall become general, that all labor shall become conscious of itself and its class interests. And the day that witnesses the solidarity of labor, they triumphantly affirm, will be a day when labor dominates the world. This growing consciousness has led to the organization of two movements, both separate and distinct, but both converging toward a common goal — one, the labor movement, known as Trade Unionism; the other, the political movement, known as Socialism. Both are grim and silent forces, unheralded and virtually unknown to the general public save in moments of stress. The sleeping labor giant receives little notice from the capitalistic press, and when he stirs uneasily, a column of surprise, indignation, and horror suffices.

It is only now and then, after long periods of silence, that the labor movement puts in its claim for notice. All is quiet. The kind old world spins on, and the bourgeois masters clip their coupons in smug complacency. But the grim and silent forces are at work.

Suddenly, like a clap of thunder from a clear sky, comes a disruption of industry. From ocean to ocean the wheels of a great chain of railroads cease to run. A quarter of a million miners throw down pick and shovel and outrage the sun with their pale, bleached faces. The street railways of a swarming metropolis stand idle, or the rumble of machinery in vast manufactories dies away to silence. There is alarm and panic. Arson and homicide stalk forth. There is a cry in the night, and quick anger and sudden death. Peaceful cities are affrighted by the crack of rifles and the snarl of machine-guns, and the hearts of the shuddering are shaken by the roar of dynamite. There is hurrying and skurrying. The wires are kept hot between the centre of government and the seat of trouble. The chiefs of state ponder gravely and advise, and governors of states implore. There is assembling of militia and massing of troops, and the streets resound to the tramp of armed men. There are separate and joint conferences between the captains of industry and the captains of labor. And then, finally, all is quiet again, and the memory of it is like the memory of a bad dream.

But these strikes become olympiads, things to date from; and common on the lips of men become such phrases as “The Great Dock Strike,” “The Great Coal Strike,” “The Great Railroad Strike.” Never before did labor do these things. After the Great Plague in England, labor, finding itself in demand and innocently obeying the economic law, asked higher wages. But the masters set a maximum wage, restrained workingmen from moving about from place to place, refused to tolerate idlers, and by most barbarous legal methods punished those who disobeyed. But labor is accorded greater respect today. Such a policy, put into effect in this the first decade of the twentieth century, would sweep the masters from their seats in one mighty crash. And the masters know it and are respectful.

[ . . . ]

The political movement known as Socialism is, perhaps, even less realized by the general public. The great strides it has taken and the portentous front it today exhibits are not comprehended; and, fastened though it is in every land, it is given little space by the capitalistic press. For all its plea and passion and warmth, it wells upward like a great, cold tidal wave, irresistible, inexorable, ingulfing present-day society level by level. By its own preachment it is inexorable. Just as societies have sprung into existence, fulfilled their function, and passed away, it claims, just as surely is present society hastening on to its dissolution. This is a transition period — and destined to be a very short one. Barely a century old, capitalism is ripening so rapidly that it can never live to see a second birthday. There is no hope for it, the Socialists say. It is doomed.

The cardinal tenet of Socialism is that forbidding doctrine, the materialistic conception of history. Men are not the masters of their souls. They are the puppets of great, blind forces. The lives they live and the deaths they die are compulsory. All social codes are but the reflexes of existing economic conditions, plus certain survivals of past economic conditions. The institutions men build they are compelled to build. Economic laws determine at any given time what these institutions shall be, how long they shall operate, and by what they shall be replaced. And so, through the economic process, the Socialist preaches the ripening of the capitalistic society and the coming of the new cooperative society.

The second great tenet of Socialism, itself a phase of the materialistic conception of history, is the class struggle. In the social struggle for existence, men are forced into classes. “The history of all society thus far is the history of class strife.” In existing society the capitalist class exploits the working class, the proletariat. The interests of the exploiter are not the interests of the exploited. “Profits are legitimate,” says the one. “Profits are unpaid wages,” replies the other, when he has become conscious of his class, “therefore profits are robbery.” The capitalist enforces his profits because he is the legal owner of all the means of production. He is the legal owner because he controls the political machinery of society. The Socialist sets to work to capture the political machinery, so that he may make illegal the capitalist’s ownership of the means of production, and make legal his own ownership of the means of production. And it is this struggle, between these two classes, upon which the world has at last entered.

Scientific Socialism is very young. Only yesterday it was in swaddling clothes. But today it is a vigorous young giant, well braced to battle for what it wants, and knowing precisely what it wants.

[ . . . ]

[T]he Socialist and labor movements have recently entered upon a new phase. There has been a remarkable change in attitude on both sides. For a long time the labor unions refrained from going in for political action. On the other hand, the Socialists claimed that without political action labor was powerless. And because of this there was much ill feeling between them, even open hostilities, and no concerted action. But now the Socialists grant that the labor movement has held up wages and decreased the hours of labor, and the labor unions find that political action is necessary. Today both parties have drawn closely together in the common fight. In the United States this friendly feeling grows. The Socialist papers espouse the cause of labor, and the unions have opened their ears once more to the wiles of the Socialists. They are all leavened with Socialist workmen, “boring from within,” and many of their leaders have already succumbed. In England, where class consciousness is more developed, the name “Unionism” has been replaced by “The New Unionism,” the main object of which is “to capture existing social structures in the interests of the wage-earners.” [ . . . ]

For centuries the world has been preparing for the coming of the common man. And the period of preparation virtually past, labor, conscious of itself and its desires, has begun a definite movement toward solidarity. It believes the time is not far distant when the historian will speak not only of the dark ages of feudalism, but of the dark ages of capitalism. And labor sincerely believes itself justified in this by the terrible indictment it brings against capitalistic society. In the face of its enormous wealth, capitalistic society forfeits its right to existence when it permits widespread, bestial poverty. The philosophy of the survival of the fittest does not soothe the class-conscious worker when he learns through his class literature that among the Italian pants-finishers of Chicago the average weekly wage is $1.31, and the average number of weeks employed in the year is 27.85.[1] Likewise when he reads: “Every room in these reeking tenements houses a family or two. In one room a missionary found a man ill with small-pox, his wife just recovering from her confinement, and the children running about half naked and covered with dirt. Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen, and a little dead child lying in the same room. Here live a widow and her six children, two of whom are ill with scarlet fever. In another, nine brothers and sisters, from twenty-nine years of age downward, live, eat, and sleep together.”[10] And likewise, when he reads: “When one man, fifty years old, who has worked all his life, is compelled to beg a little money to bury his dead baby, and another man, fifty years old, can give ten million dollars to enable his daughter to live in luxury and bolster up a decaying foreign aristocracy, do you see nothing amiss?”[3]

And on the other hand, the class-conscious worker reads the statistics of the wealthy classes, knows what their incomes are, and how they get them. True, down all the past he has known his own material misery and the material comfort of the dominant classes, and often has this knowledge led him to intemperate acts and unwise rebellion. But today, and for the first time, because both society and he have evolved, he is beginning to see a possible way out. His ears are opening to the propaganda of Socialism, the passionate gospel of the dispossessed. But it does not inculcate a turning back. The way through is the way out, he understands, and with this in mind he draws up the programme.

It is quite simple, this programme. Everything is moving in his direction, toward the day when he will take charge. The trust? Ah, no. Unlike the trembling middle-class man and the small capitalist, he sees nothing at which to be frightened. He likes the trust. He exults in the trust, for it is largely doing the task for him. It socializes production; this done, there remains nothing for him to do but socialize distribution, and all is accomplished. The trust? “It organizes industry on an enormous, labor-saving scale, and abolishes childish, wasteful competition.” It is a gigantic object lesson, and it preaches his political economy far more potently than he can preach it. He points to the trust, laughing scornfully in the face of the orthodox economists. “You told me this thing could not be,”[4] he thunders. “Behold, the thing is!”

He sees competition in the realm of production passing away. When the captains of industry have thoroughly organized production, and got everything running smoothly, it will be very easy for him to eliminate the profits by stepping in and having the thing run for himself. And the captain of industry, if he be good, may be given the privilege of continuing the management on a fair salary. The sixty millions of dividends which the Standard Oil Company annually declares will be distributed among the workers. The same with the great United States Steel Corporation. The president of that corporation knows his business. Very good. Let him become Secretary of the Department of Iron and Steel of the United States. But, since the chief executive of a nation of seventy-odd millions works for $50,000 a year, the Secretary of the Department of Iron and Steel must expect to have his salary cut accordingly. And not only will the workers take to themselves the profits of national and municipal monopolies, but also the immense revenues which the dominant classes today draw from rents, and mines, and factories, and all manner of enterprises.

All this would seem very like a dream, even to the worker, if it were not for the fact that like things have been done before. He points triumphantly to the aristocrat of the eighteenth century, who fought, legislated, governed, and dominated society, but who was shorn of power and displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Ay, the thing was done, he holds. And it shall be done again, but this time it is the proletariat who does the shearing. Sociology has taught him that m-i-g-h-t spells “right.” Every society has been ruled by classes, and the classes have ruled by sheer strength, and have been overthrown by sheer strength. The bourgeoisie, because it was the stronger, dragged down the nobility of the sword; and the proletariat, because it is the strongest of all, can and will drag down the bourgeoisie.

And in that day, for better or worse, the common man becomes the master — for better, he believes. It is his intention to make the sum of human happiness far greater. No man shall work for a bare living wage, which is degradation. Every man shall have work to do, and shall be paid exceedingly well for doing it. There shall be no slum classes, no beggars. Nor shall there be hundreds of thousands of men and women condemned, for economic reasons, to lives of celibacy or sexual infertility. Every man shall be able to marry, to live in healthy, comfortable quarters, and to have all he wants to eat as many times a day as he wishes. There shall no longer be a life-and-death struggle for food and shelter. The old heartless law of development shall be annulled.

All of which is very good and very fine. And when these things have come to pass, what then? Of old, by virtue of their weakness and inefficiency in the struggle for food and shelter, the race was purged of its weak and inefficient members. But this will no longer obtain. Under the new order the weak and the progeny of the weak will have a chance for survival equal to that of the strong and the progeny of the strong. This being so, the premium upon strength will have been withdrawn, and on the face of it the average strength of each generation, instead of continuing to rise, will begin to decline.

When the common man’s day shall have arrived, the new social institutions of that day will prevent the weeding out of weakness and inefficiency. All, the weak and the strong, will have an equal chance for procreation. And the progeny of all, of the weak as well as the strong, will have an equal chance for survival. This being so, and if no new effective law of development be put into operation, then progress must cease. And not only progress, for deterioration would at once set in. It is a pregnant problem. What will be the nature of this new and most necessary law of development? Can the common man pause long enough from his undermining labors to answer? Since he is bent upon dragging down the bourgeoisie and reconstructing society, can he so reconstruct that a premium, in some unguessed way or other, will still be laid upon the strong and efficient so that the human type will continue to develop? Can the common man, or the uncommon men who are allied with him, devise such a law? Or have they already devised one? And if so, what is it?


1. From figures presented by Miss Nellie Mason Auten in the American Journal of Sociology, and copied extensively by the trade-union and Socialist press.

2. “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London.”

3. An item from the Social Democratic Herald. Hundreds of these items, culled from current happenings, are published weekly in the papers of the workers.

4. Karl Marx, the great Socialist, worked out the trust development forty years ago, for which he was laughed at by the orthodox economists.


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