Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/The Anarchy of Modern Politics

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By W. D. LE SUEUR, B. A.

IN the Editor's Table of the April number of this magazine, there appeared what seemed to me some most excellent remarks on "The Hindrances to the Science of Politics." One of the chief of these the writer declared to be the wide-spread skepticism as to the possibility of such a science. "In no country," he added, "was this skepticism so pronounced as in the United States." Members of Congress and of the State Legislatures would all alike agree that the idea of constituting such a science was wholly chimerical. It was also stated, and pretty conclusively shown, that popular forms of government "favor and foster states of mind that exclude all considerations of a scientific nature," by calling into ascendency in a special degree "the incalculable element of personal caprice. ... In a country where everybody is eligible to office, where the incentives to office-seeking are universal, where politics has become such a natural pastime that the whole scheme of public education is subordinated to it, personal aspirations and the interests of selfish ambition will dominate unrestricted in the management of public affairs." Offices being filled by partisans, whose lives have been largely spent in intrigue and the practice of various vicious arts, "the first presumption in regard to an office holder is, that he is unfit for the place. . . . These of course are not the men to appreciate the scientific elements and aspects of governmental affairs."

As I read all this, I could not help thinking how closely the writer's diagnosis of the conditions of modern political life resembled that given by Auguste Comte in the first chapter of the fourth volume of his "Philosophic Positive." But as Comte analyzes these conditions in greater detail, and treats the whole subject from the point of view of his own systematic philosophy, it occurred to me that something like a paraphrase of his views might not be unwelcome to the readers of the "Monthly," to whom the subject in its general bearings has been so well opened up in the article from which the above quotations are made.

The main motif of the "Positive Philosophy" is the importance, or rather the absolute necessity, if a stable and satisfactory condition of society is ever to be attained, of applying to social and political affairs those scientific principles and methods which have proved their efficacy in the physical domain. The circle of the sciences, he holds, can never be complete until there is a duly constituted science of society. So long as there exists a region, the phenomena of which are not recognized as subject to law, human thought can not assume a really integral character; while, in that outlying region, a more or less hurtful confusion must prevail. Theology has in the past assumed to rule human life, and has done so, according to a synthesis of its own. The feudal and ecclesiastical organization of society in the middle ages was the perfect exemplification of this rule. Now, however, the power of theology has been broken; it has its spokesmen still, who in its name issue mandates to the modern world; but the civilized nations have no mind to return to what would now be a house of bondage—though in its day it may have been, and in Comte's opinion was, a house of shelter. But, meantime, what are the civilized nations doing? What guidance, if any, are they now following? Comte recognizes, looking chiefly at the European nations, three doctrines, or schools, as striving for the mastery in our day—the reactionary, the revolutionary, and the stationary. The first, as its name imports, would fain bring modern society back under the theological régime, placing morality and government on a supernatural basis, and using the lures and terrors of another world as a means (supplemented, of course, by the hangman, in whom reactionists always have a fervent and affectionate belief) of repressing disorders in this. On this continent we have, perhaps, no school which openly avows these aims; and yet there are movements visible from time to time which show that Comte could at least find the rudiments of a reactionary party even in this land of liberty and light. Governor Benjamin F. Butler's recent Fast-day proclamation was a singularly impudent attempt to browbeat the Commonwealth of Massachusetts into a more pious observance of the day than that eminent official thought would be likely to be made in the absence of such pressure. The efforts of those who wish to inoculate the constitution with a particularly pure theological virus tend in the same direction, and would make the father of Positivism smile were he alive.

The revolutionary doctrine, according to Comte's nomenclature, is that which proclaims liberty in its widest sense—an unlimited right of free inquiry, and an unlimited freedom for the people of political action. As Comte well points out, this school offers to society no definite guidance whatever—simply proclaims that all principles are to be examined and all experiments tried. That, after a certain amount of examination and experimentation, some set of principles might emerge, which society could accept as final, the revolutionary leaders are careful not to hint, lest they should be suspected of having some such set of principles in their mind, and so being at heart doctrinaires and perhaps even partisans of order. No, the revolutionary ideal is the negation of all trammels, change for the sake of change, a constant bubbling of the social caldron, so that no unit may remain long at the top, or long at the bottom, or long anywhere. But society can not live on change; and, in the absence of any definite doctrines of their own, the revolutionary school, when they are at the head of affairs, are compelled to make use of the principles and habitudes they find established, and even to fall back on rags and tatters belonging by right to their reactionary opponents. Thus the freethinkers who now control the government in France are dogmatically teaching theism in the public schools. They want to give some kind of support to ideas of duty; and, having no coherent views of their own on the subject, they adopt, as a temporary make-shift, a theory and a synthesis which some of them would individually reject, and which none of them probably would care to be called on to expound.

The "stationary" school is that which erects into a doctrine a permanent principle of political action—the necessity of balancing reaction against revolution; holding out to society no prospect beyond that of an eternal seesaw of opposite tendencies. Disdaining all Utopias, it yet proposes to itself, as Comte observes, the very wildest of Utopias—that, namely, of securing social well-being by playing off the instinct of order against the instinct of progress. Having no principles of its own, it subsists wholly upon contradictory borrowings from the two antagonist doctrines. While it acknowledges that neither the one nor the other is fit to preside over social and political action, it thinks that, if both can be applied at once, all will go well. What has chiefly given vitality to this school, according to Comte, has been the example of England—which, however, has been, he asserts, an eminently misleading one; the stability of the English polity having been due to altogether exceptional circumstances, which are not and can not be reproduced in the numerous countries to which English institutions are sought to he applied. This "essentially loyal régime" he further says, is approaching its end even in the country to which it is native; and English authorities, as I may have occasion to show before I close, are not wanting who share the same opinion. The polity to which the future belongs is one that will not set order against progress and progress against order, but that will make equal provision for both, and make each contribute to the other; so that order shall facilitate progress, and progress strengthen order. This is the positivist ideal.

On this continent political parties can not be said to be constituted on the lines here marked out. Owing to the absence of political privilege and the comparative uniformity of social conditions, we do not as yet see any party, of sufficient importance to be taken into account, to which the term revolutionary could be applied. For the same reasons we have no distinctly reactionary party. At the same time, taking a wider view of things, and looking rather at the constitution of opinion than at the structure of parties, we shall probably see that the two opposite schools mentioned by Comte are sufficiently well developed, and that the third or "stationary" school comprises a very large section of the entire population. The forces are at work, though, as the politicians say, they may not yet be "in politics." All three concur in creating and continually intensifying the confusion, skepticism, and apathy which are such marked characteristics of the political thought and action of our time. What now remains is to study the results of these general conditions in a little more detail.

By reason of their greater complexity,[1] and also on account of their closer contact with the whole range of human passions, social questions ought to be reserved more scrupulously than any others for intelligences, necessarily few in number, that by a severe preliminary training have been gradually prepared to work them out to satisfactory results. That this is the normal state of things we have abundant historical evidence to prove; and when, in an epoch of revolution, the situation is changed, we can only regard the case as pathological; though, possibly, as already explained, provisionally inevitable and indispensable. What, then, must have been the ravages of this social malady in a time when all individuals, however inferior their intelligence, however destitute of all suitable preparation, were summoned indiscriminately and by the most energetic modes of appeal to decide day by day, with the most deplorable levity, and without guidance or check of any kind, the most fundamental questions of politics! Instead of being surprised at the alarming divergence of views produced by the universal propagation during the last century of this anarchical tendency, should we not rather experience a gratified wonder at discovering that, thanks to the natural good sense and intellectual moderation of men in general,[2] the disorder is not more complete, and that, beneath the decomposition of social maxims, certain rallying-points for humanity may still be dimly discerned? The evil has now reached such a point that all political opinions, though traceable to one or other of the sources mentioned, assume an essentially individual character, owing to the infinite number of variations produced by the intermingling of these three vicious principles. Except in cases where men are earned away by their interest in some common object or measure—which, however, each generally plans to turn to his own especial advantage—it becomes more and more impossible to get even a small number of individuals to adhere to anything like an explicit programme, or one in which vague and ambiguous language has not been employed to produce an illusory appearance of a really unattainable harmony of opinion. In the countries in which this intellectual disintegration has been, as it were, consecrated, since the commencement of the revolutionary era in the sixteenth century, by the political preponderance of Protestantism, diversities of thought, without being less intense, have been much more numerous, the popular mind having given itself over, in the absence of any energetic spiritual authority, to the indefinite discussion of religious opinions, which, of course, are at once the vaguest and the most discordant of all. No country has better verified this tendency than the United States of America, where Christianity is represented by some hundreds of sects radically at variance with one another, and daily undergoing further subdivision into shades of opinion which at last become almost purely individual. The countries that were not brought to a stand by the false "Halt!" of Protestantism do not present so great a total of vagaries; and the false opinions which have taken root in them, being more definite in their character, can be more hopefully dealt with.

The inevitable result of such an intellectual epidemic has been the gradual demolition of public morals. Such is the eminently complex character of social questions that, even when deliberate sophistry is absent, either side can be defended by extremely plausible arguments; seeing that there is no institution whatever, no matter how really indispensable to society, that has not many and serious drawbacks; while, on the other hand, the most extravagant Utopia always presents some undeniable advantages. We must not, therefore, be surprised if we see nearly all the great principles of public morality undergoing attack; their defects being generally very obvious, while the facts that justify them, though in reality far more decisive, lie sometimes far below the surface, and are only brought to light by a careful and delicate analysis. But to abandon the rules of social action to the blind and arbitrary decision of an incompetent public, is really to destroy their authority. Before, therefore, there can be that convergence of opinion in relation to such matters which is indispensable to social well-being, there must be a voluntary and intentional abdication by the majority of their sovereign right of judgment—an abdication which they would probably be very willing to make if they could only find suitable organs for the exercise of the function. In the wretched routine of our political struggles, it is common to find the most judicious and honorable men accusing one another of folly or of wickedness, on the strength of the vain antagonism of their political principles; while, in every important crisis, the most opposite political principles are habitually defended by partisans of apparently equal respectability. How, then, is it possible that the influence of this double spectacle, essentially incompatible as it is with any deep and permanent conviction, should not destroy all true political morality in the minds of those alike who take part in it or who view it with admiration? Private morality depends, fortunately, on many other general conditions besides fixity of opinion. Here, in ordinary cases, a true natural sentiment speaks much more powerfully than it does in regard to public relations. The disorganizing forces have, moreover, been counterbalanced to a great extent; partly by a progressive softening of manners, the result of more general intellectual culture, bringing in its train a greater familiarity with and a juster appreciation of the fine arts, and partly by the unceasing development of industry. It must be added that the rules of domestic or personal morality, as they depend on simpler conditions, and admit of easier demonstration, are naturally less endangered by the incursions of individual analysis. And yet the time has undoubtedly come when, in the private as well as in the public sphere, we are called upon to witness the lamentable results of the general unsettlement of opinion. Whether we consider the relations of the sexes, or of different ages and conditions, we shall find that the necessary elements of all satisfactory social life are directly compromised, and are daily becoming more so, by the action of a corrosive discussion, dominated by no real principles, which delivers up to hopeless uncertainty every idea of duty. The family, which the fiercest blasts of the revolutionary tempest in the last century had left untouched, is, in our day, radically assailed in its two essential foundations, marriage and inheritance. We have seen even the most general and obvious principle of individual morality, the subordination of the passions to the reason, flatly contradicted by certain would be reformers, who, without stopping to consider the teachings of universal experience, rationally sanctioned as they are by the scientific study of human nature, have tried to establish, as the fundamental doctrine of their improved morality, the systematic domination of the passions!

As a necessary and direct result of such disorder in the intellectual region, we see corruption erected into a recognized and indispensable means of carrying on government. So powerless have general ideas become, into such discredit have they fallen, that they no longer avail to prompt any course of action; and governments find themselves, therefore, without any other resource for securing such union of individuals as is necessary to the maintenance of a rude material order, than an almost open appeal to purely personal interests. But, were men animated by profound convictions, such a means of influence would never have to be resorted to. Even in characters of the least elevation, human nature seldom debases itself so far as to follow out a line of conduct in direct opposition to any set of convictions. We see this proved in the case of men of science: in politics, where the reign of law is not yet established, they frequently exhibit the most shameful tergiversation; while they stand firm against all temptation to abandon their anti-theological opinions for which they believe they have a scientific warrant. We thus see that the prevalent intellectual confusion not only allows the development of political corruption, but absolutely renders it necessary as a means of government, which of course can not be carried on unless a certain number of individuals can be brought to act in harmony. This fact, however, does not excuse the governments of our time for showing such a preference as they do for this particular means of influence; nor for using it, as they do, almost exclusively in their own personal interests. Bad as the instrument is, it might be used to better ends than is commonly the case, if the "practical politicians," instead of casting scorn on all attempts to establish a science of politics, were to lend such aid as they could to its elaboration. They could lend some aid by a mere change of attitude.

The political corruption of our day is not confined, however, to the direct offer by governments of material inducements for political support. We see a form of it in the awarding of distinctions and titles; and, taking a wider view, we see that all our institutions work together to call into activity the selfish ambition of all the more energetic members of the community. In this most important respect, the existing condition of society itself may be said to be eminently corrupting. At the same time that the prevalent intellectual anarchy has dissolved any public prejudices that stood in the way of unlimited individual self-assertion, the inevitable decomposition of the ancient social classification has likewise thrown down the barriers to private ambition, which is now, in the name of progress, invited to take the very highest flights. Carried along by an irresistible current, governments have had to try and meet the new demands of the time by an extravagant multiplication of public offices, by making access to these as easy as possible, and by changing the incumbents as often as possible. Yielding in the first place to an evil necessity, they have afterward converted that necessity into a general resource of government, by trusting, as a regular thing, to the interested support of energetic and ambitious men with whom they divide the profits arising from the management of the public business. How dangerous such an expedient is from the point of view of the governments themselves, it is almost needless to point out; since it must necessarily call forth far more claims than it can satisfy, and consequently excite against the established régime passions far stronger than any it can evoke for its support.[3] If we just look at the selections for a generation or two past for the most eminent political functions, is there any reason why the great majority of our aspiring men should not conceive the hope of climbing in their turn to similar positions? Another marked feature of the times is the disposition to trust to material agencies or mere acts of legislation for the removal of evils that have their root in men's ideas and in social customs. An amendment to a constitution or a charter is proffered as a plan of political salvation; or, worse still, we are asked to rest our hopes on the substitution of this man for that in a cabinet. Meanwhile, the absence of any clear or comprehensive conception of the social future affords a career only to the most vulgar kind of ambition. At no former epoch, probably, were such chances ever offered to a presuming and adventurous mediocrity. The quality chiefly required in public life is fluency of speech; above all, a fluency which suffers no abatement if it is suddenly called on to change sides on a question. In a time of weak and wavering convictions there has naturally been a demand for representatives characterized by the vagueness of their intellectual habits and an habitual lack of fixed opinions. Unless we could hope that such a condition of things would be but transitory, it would really constitute the most shameful social degradation. That hope we may, however, entertain. If there are forces of decomposition at work, there are also—though their action may not be so conspicuous—forces of regeneration; and what is needed to give these a decisive victory is the formulation and application of a true political philosophy.


Such was the view taken by Comte, over forty years ago, of the then political situation in France and other countries enjoying constitutional régimes. Matters have not mended since his day: principles are more than ever discredited in political affairs; parties no longer even profess them; and government and legislation are carried on at mere hap-hazard. The great object with party managers is to get all important questions taken "out of politics," so that there may be nothing to embarrass the scramble for offices. The New York "Sun" lately reminded the Democrats that their business was "to elect a President," not to reform the tariff. Seek first, it says, to "elect a President," and all good things will be added unto you; but grapple with a great question like the tariff, and your opponents will surely get the better of you. Another leading organ observes that, now that the offices are no longer generally available, owing to the passage of the Pendleton civil-service bill, for the reward of political services, there remains nothing for a victorious party but "a damned barren ideality." The strength of the language, which we reproduce with absolute faithfulness, may be taken as a gauge of the disgust which the average politician feels when he sees nothing before him but a chance of doing his duty, without any special reward therefor. The novel, "Democracy," about which so much has been said, does not overstate the case in the least. When Mrs. Lee, in that lively story, tells the senator, who pays her the compliment of consulting as to the best course to take in a certain complication, to do "what is most for the public good," her counsel falls utterly pointless and abortive, simply because "the public good" had nothing whatever to do with the matter in hand. The senator himself could not pretend to tell her at what point the two things came into any kind of relation with each other. The questions involved were questions purely of self-interest, and, whatever course was taken, the country had nothing to gain.

If we turn to England, signs are not wanting that there too the absence of political principles is leading up to a crisis. "The notion," said the London "Times" recently, "that any particular set of men are in possession of principles especially calculated to promote the national well-being, or that any particular trick of government could add appreciably to the sum of happiness, is one which nowadays finds remarkably few advocates. Moreover, there is a pretty general feeling that it is very little use to rely upon principles of any kind. . . . At the present time we are not proceeding upon any principle known to either political party; and it is that fact which explains the hollowness of all political discussion, and the marked incredulity of the intelligent public toward all political professions. The fact is, that our political principles are worn out, and that the conflict which raged around them while they were vital is being mechanically carried on by men whose business it is to fight about something." When remarks like these can be made by the "leading journal," it would certainly seem as if Comte was not far wrong in his prediction that the English system would before long reveal its essential weakness. The question then arises, Can government be permanently carried on under these conditions? As Comte has remarked, the absence of principle in public life reacts upon private life; and certainly, in the latter sphere, the disorder we now witness is not what might have been expected in an age of such general enlightenment. It would seem as if, before long, those who now profess to take things as they come, and make light of all attempts to construct a philosophy applicable to human affairs, might be compelled to humble themselves to believe that Science may have a word to say in regard to the highest order of phenomena just as she has had in regard to all orders up to the highest. If the pride of individualism should ever have such a fall as this, there is no doubt, in the mind of the present writer, that Science will respond nobly to the new call upon her, and will show how order and progress can be reconciled, and a moving equilibrium be established which shall be the proper manifestation and expression of a normal and healthy social life.

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  1. From this point onward I shall, for the most part, be giving what at the outset I proposed to give, namely, a paraphrase rather than a translation of what Comte has written on this subject. (See "Philosophie Positive," first edition, vol. iv, p. 118 et seq.)
  2. This touch is very characteristic of Comte. He was no flatterer of "the people," and yet in the people he saw a reservoir of all the forces and all the virtues needful for the happiest regulation of the social state. The greatest philosopher, the mightiest leader of men, was in his view simply an organ of society, drawing all his strength and efficiency from the general life of society.
  3. How exactly this applies to the existing situation in France, and how nearly it describes the situation here, no reader will fail to remark.