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´╗┐Title: The Altruist in Politics
Author: Cardozo, Benjamin N. (Benjamin Nathan), 1870-1938
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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By Benjamin Cardozo

Transcriber's Note:
"The Altruist in Politics" was delivered by Cardozo as his commencement
oration at Columbia College in 1889. It was never copyrighted. Columbia
University, which administers Cardozo's literary estate, has explicitly


There comes not seldom a crisis in the life of men, of nations, and of
worlds, when the old forms seem ready to decay, and the old rules of
action have lost their binding force. The evils of existing systems
obscure the blessings that attend them; and, where reform is needed, the
cry is raised for subversion. The cause of such phenomena is not far to
seek. "It used to appear to me," writes Count Tolstoi, in a significant
passage, "it used to appear to me that the small number of cultivated,
rich and idle men, of whom I was one, composed the whole of humanity,
and that the millions and millions of other men who had lived and are
still living were not in reality men at all." It is this spirit-the
spirit that sees the whole of humanity in the few, and throws into the
background the millions and millions of other men-it is this spirit that
has aroused the antagonism of reformers, and made the decay of the old
forms, the rupture of the old restrictions, the ideal of them and of
their followers. When wealth and poverty meet each other face to face,
the one the master and the other the dependent, the one exalted and
the other debased, it is perhaps hardly matter for surprise that the
dependent and debased and powerless faction, in envy of their opponents'
supremacy, should demand, not simple reform, but absolute community and
equality of wealth. That cry for communism is no new one in the history
of mankind. Thousands of years ago it was heard and acted on; and, in
the lapse of centuries, its reverberations have but swelled in volume.
Again and again, the altruist has arisen in politics, has bidden us
share with others the product of our toil, and has proclaimed the
communistic dogma as the panacea for our social ills. So today, amid the
buried hopes and buried projects of the past, the doctrine of communism
still lives in the minds of men. Under stress of misfortune, or in dread
of tyranny, it is still preached in modern times as Plato preached it in
the world of the Greeks.

Yet it is indeed doubtful whether, in the history of mankind, a doctrine
was ever taught more impracticable or more false to the principles
it professes than this very doctrine of communism. In a world where
self-interest is avowedly the ruling motive, it seeks to establish at
once an all-reaching and all-controlling altruism. In a world where
every man is pushing and fighting to outstrip his fellows, it would make
him toil with like vigor for their common welfare. In a world where a
man's activity is measured by the nearness of reward, it would hold up
a prospective recompense as an equal stimulant to labor. "The more
bitterly we feel," writes George Eliot, "the more bitterly we feel the
folly, ignorance, neglect, or self-seeking of those who at different
times have wielded power, the stronger is the obligation we lay on
ourselves to beware lest we also, by a too hasty wresting of measures
which seem to promise immediate relief, make a worse time of it for our
own generation, and leave a bad inheritance for our children." In
the future, when the remoteness of his reward shall have weakened the
laborer's zeal, we shall be able to judge more fairly of the blessings
that the communist offers. Instead of the present world, where some at
least are well-to-do and happy, the communist holds before us a world
where all alike are poor. For the activity, the push, the vigor of our
modern life, his substitute is a life aimless and unbroken. And so we
have to say to communists what George Eliot might have said: Be not
blinded by the passions of the moment, but when you prate about your own
wrongs and the sufferings of your offspring, take heed lest in the long
run you make a worse time of it for your own generation, and leave a bad
inheritance for your children.

Little thought has been taken by these altruistic reformers for the
application of the doctrines they uphold. To the question how one kind
of labor can be measured against another, how the labor of the artisan
can be measured against the labor of the artist, how the labor of the
strong can be measured against the labor of the weak, the communists
can give no answer. Absorbed, as they are, in the principle of equality,
they have still forgotten the equality of work in the equality of
pay; they have forgotten that reward, to be really equal, must be
proportionate to effort; and they and all socialists have forgotten that
we cannot make an arithmetic of human thought and feeling; and that for
all our crude attempts to balance recompense against toil, for all our
crude attempts to determine the relative severity of different kinds
of toil, for all our crude attempts to determine the relative strain on
different persons of the same kind of toil, yet not only will the ratio,
dealing, as it does, with our subjective feelings, be a blundering one,
but a system based upon it will involve inequalities greater, because
more insidious, than those of the present system it would discard.

Instances, indeed, are not wanting to substantiate the claim that
communism, by unduly exalting our altruistic impulses, proceeds upon a
false psychological basis. Yet if an instance is to be chosen, it would
be hard to find one more suggestive than that afforded by the efforts
of Robert Owen. The year 1824 saw the rise of Owen's little community of
New Harmony, and the year of 1828 saw the community's final disruption.
Individuals had appropriated to themselves the property designed for
all; and even Owen, who had given to the enterprise his money and
his life, was obliged to admit that men were not yet fitted for the
communistic stage, and that the moment of transition from individualism
to communism had not yet arrived. Men trained under the old system, with
its eager rivalry, its selfish interests, could not quite yet enter
into the spirit of self-renunciation that communism demands. And Owen,
therefore, was led to put his trust in education as the great moulder of
the minds of men. Through this agency, he hoped, the eager rivalry, the
selfish interests, the sordid love of gain, might be lost in higher,
purer, more disinterested ends; and, animated by that hope-the hope that
in the fullness of time another New Harmony, free from contention and
the disappointments of the old one, might serve to immortalize his
name-animated by that hope, Owen passed the last thirty years of his
life; and with that hope still before his eyes he died.

But years now have passed since Owen lived; the second New Harmony has
not yet been seen; the so-called rational system of education has not
yet transformed the impulses or the aims of men; and the communist of
today, with a history of two thousand years of failure behind him, in
the same pathetic confidence still looks for the realization of his
dreams to the communism of the future.

And yet, granting that communism were practicable, granting that Owen's
hopes had some prospect of fulfillment, the doctrine still embodies
evils that must make it forever inexpedient. The readers of Mr. Matthew
Arnold's works must have noticed the emphasis with which he dwells
on the instinct of expansion as a factor in human progress. It is
the refutation alike of communism and socialism that they thwart the
instinct of expansion; that they substitute for individual energy the
energy of the government; that they substitute for human personality
the blind, mechanical power of the State. The one system, as the other,
marks the end of individualism. The one system, as the other, would make
each man the image of his neighbor. The one system, as the other, would
hold back the progressive, and, by uniformity of reward, gain uniformity
of type.

I can look forward to no blissful prospect for a race of men that, under
the dominion of the State, at the cost of all freedom of action, at the
cost, indeed, of their own true selves, shall enjoy, if one will, a fair
abundance of the material blessings of life. Some Matthew Arnold of the
future would inevitably say of them in phase like that applied to the
Puritans of old: "They entered the prison of socialism and had the key
turned upon their spirit there for hundreds of years." Into that prison
of socialism, with broken enterprise and broken energy, as serfs under
the mastery of the State, while human personality is preferred to
unreasoning mechanism, mankind must hesitate to step. When they shall
once have entered within it, when the key shall have been turned upon
their spirit and have confined them in narrower straits than even
Puritanism could have done, it will be left for them to find, in
their blind obedience and passive submission, the recompense for the
singleness of character, the foresight, and the energy, that they have
left behind them.

In almost every phase of life, this doctrine of political altruists is
equally impracticable and pernicious. In its social results, it involves
the substitution of the community in the family's present position. In
its political aspects, it involves the absolute dominion of the State
over the actions and property of its subjects. Thus, though claiming
to be an exaltation of the so-called natural rights of liberty and
equality, it is in reality their emphatic debasement. It teaches
that thoughtless docility is a recompense for stunted enterprise. It
magnifies material good at the cost of every rational endowment. It
inculcates a self-denial that must result in dwarfing the individual
to a mere instrument in the hands of the State for the benefit of his
fellows. No such organization of society-no organization that fails
to take note of the fact that man must have scope for the exercise and
development of his faculties-no such organization of society can
ever reach a permanent success. However beneficent its motives, the
hypothesis with which it starts can never be realized. The aphorism
of Emerson, "Churches have been built, not upon principles, but upon
tropes," is as true in the field of politics as it is in the field of
religion. In a like figurative spirit, the followers of communism have
reared their edifice; and, looking back upon the finished structure,
seeking to discern the base on which it rests, the critic finds, not
principles, but tropes. The builders have appealed to a future that
has no warrant in the past; and fixing their gaze upon the distant
dreamland, captivated by the vision there beheld, entranced by its ideal
effulgence, their eyes were blinded to the real conditions of the human
problem they had set before them. Their enemies have not been slow to
note such weakness and mistake; and perhaps it may serve to clear up
misconceptions, perhaps it may serve to lessen cant and open the way
for fresh and vigorous thought, if we shall once convince ourselves
that altruism cannot be the rule of life; that its logical result is
the dwarfing of the individual man; and that not by the death of human
personality can we hope to banish the evils of our day, and to realize
the ideal of all existence, a nobler or purer life.

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