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The Theory of Social Revolutions

Civilization, I apprehend, is nearly synonymous with order. However much we may differ touching such matters as the distribution of property, the domestic relations, the law of inheritance and the like, most of us, I should suppose, would agree that without order civilization, as we understand it, cannot exist. Now, although the optimist contends that, since man cannot foresee the future, worry about the future is futile, and that everything, in the best possible of worlds, is inevitably for the best, I think it clear that within recent years an uneasy suspicion has come into being that the principle of authority has been dangerously impaired, and that the social system, if it is to cohere, must be reorganized. So far as my observation has extended, such intuitions are usually not without an adequate cause, and if there be reason for anxiety anywhere, it surely should be in the United States, with its unwieldy bulk, its heterogeneous population, and its complex government. Therefore, I submit, that an hour may not be quite wasted which is passed in considering some of the recent phenomena which have appeared about us, in order to ascertain if they can be grouped together in any comprehensible relation.

About a century ago, after, the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic wars, the present industrial era opened, and brought with it a new governing class, as every considerable change in human environment must bring with it a governing class to give it expression. Perhaps, for lack of a recognized name, I may describe this class as the industrial capitalistic class, composed in the main of administrators and bankers. As nothing in the universe is stationary, ruling classes have their rise, culmination, and decline, and I conjecture that this class attained to its acme of popularity and power, at least in America, toward the close of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. I draw this inference from the fact that in the next quarter resistance to capitalistic methods began to take shape in such legislation as the Interstate Commerce Law and the Sherman Act, and almost at the opening of the present century a progressively rigorous opposition found for its mouthpiece the President of the Union himself. History may not be a very practical study, but it teaches some useful lessons, one of which is that nothing is accidental, and that if men move in a given direction, they do so in obedience to an impulsion as automatic as is the impulsion of gravitation. Therefore, if Mr. Roosevelt became, what his adversaries are pleased to call, an agitator, his agitation had a cause which is as deserving of study as is the path of a cyclone. This problem has long interested me, and I harbor no doubt not only that the equilibrium of society is very rapidly shifting, but that Mr. Roosevelt has, half-automatically, been stimulated by the instability about him to seek for a new centre of social gravity. In plain English, I infer that he has concluded that industrialism has induced conditions which can no longer be controlled by the old capitalistic methods, and that the country must be brought to a level of administrative efficiency competent to deal with the strains and stresses of the twentieth century, just as, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, the country was brought to an administrative level competent for that age, by the adoption of the Constitution. Acting on these premises, as I conjecture, whether consciously worked out or not, Mr. Roosevelt’s next step was to begin the readjustment; but, I infer, that on attempting any correlated measures of reform, Mr. Roosevelt found progress impossible, because of the obstruction of the courts. Hence his instinct led him to try to overleap that obstruction, and he suggested, without, I suspect, examining the problem very deeply, that the people should assume the right of “recalling” judicial decisions made in causes which involved the nullifying of legislation. What would have happened had Mr. Roosevelt been given the opportunity to thoroughly formulate his ideas, even in the midst of an election, can never be known, for it chanced that he was forced to deal with subjects as vast and complex as ever vexed a statesman or a jurist, under difficulties at least equal to the difficulties of the task itself. If the modern mind has developed one characteristic more markedly than another, it is an impatience with prolonged demands on its attention, especially if the subject be tedious. No one could imagine that the New York press of to-day would print the disquisitions which Hamilton wrote in 1788 in support of the Constitution, or that, if it did, any one would read them, least of all the lawyers; and yet Mr. Roosevelt’s audience was emotional and discursive even for a modern American audience. Hence, if he attempted to lead at all, he had little choice but to adopt, or at least discuss, every nostrum for reaching an immediate millennium which happened to be uppermost; although, at the same time, he had to defend himself against an attack compared with which any criticism to which Hamilton may have been subjected resembled a caress. The result has been that the Progressive movement, bearing Mr. Roosevelt with it, has degenerated into a disintegrating rather than a constructive energy, which is, I suspect, likely to become a danger to every one interested in the maintenance of order, not to say in the stability of property. Mr. Roosevelt is admittedly a strong and determined man whose instinct is arbitrary, and yet, if my analysis be sound, we see him, at the supreme moment of his life, diverted from his chosen path toward centralization of power, and projected into an environment of, apparently, for the most part, philanthropists and women, who could hardly conceivably form a party fit to aid him in establishing a vigorous, consolidated, administrative system. He must have found the pressure toward disintegration resistless, and if we consider this most significant phenomenon, in connection with an abundance of similar phenomena, in other countries, which indicate social incoherence, we can hardly resist a growing apprehension touching the future. Nor is that apprehension allayed if, to reassure ourselves, we turn to history, for there we find on every side long series of precedents more ominous still.

Were all other evidence lacking, the inference that radical changes are at hand might be deduced from the past. In the experience of the English-speaking race, about once in every three generations a social convulsion has occurred; and probably such catastrophes must continue to occur in order that laws and institutions may be adapted to physical growth. Human society is a living organism, working mechanically, like any other organism. It has members, a circulation, a nervous system, and a sort of skin or envelope, consisting of its laws and institutions. This skin, or envelope, however, does not expand automatically, as it would had Providence intended humanity to be peaceful, but is only fitted to new conditions by those painful and conscious efforts which we call revolutions. Usually these revolutions are warlike, but sometimes they are benign, as was the revolution over which General Washington, our first great “Progressive,” presided, when the rotting Confederation, under his guidance, was converted into a relatively excellent administrative system by the adoption of the Constitution.

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