The Altruist in Politics
Benjamin Cardozo

"The Altruist in Politics" by Benjamin Cardozo

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

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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