Charles Hall: A Quintessential Socialist

Commentary on Charles Hall, “The Effects of Civilisation on the People in European States,” 1805.

Let me start by saying that socialism is concerned with providing people with food, shelter, clothing (i.e., their economic needs). It is not concerned with the way this is done. It seeks an end; and is silent about the means. Anarchism, by contrast, is focused on the means, which it proposed to be by democratic decisions by small communities. Combining anarchism with socialism, we get anarcho-socialism. And the model for anarcho-socialism are hunter/gatherer tribes. Their economy is based on a free access to land.

Charles Hall was a physician and his ultimate concern was with the physical and mental health of people. Writing in 1805, he did not challenge the existence of the State, and by this token he was not an anarchist. [Reminder: The French Revolution had occurred in 1789. Napoleon made himself emperor in 1804.]

While focusing on the health of people, he used the American Indians as examples of healthy people and a healthy society. [He was, thus, a precursor to Marshall Sahlins’ idea that hunter-gatherers had an “affluent society.”]
His diagnosis was that the main cause of suffering by the poor in England was due to lack of nurishment (malnutrition). So the main problem was the lack of food. This, he thought, could be solved by giving people free access to land.

He goes into detail about horticulture, giving prescriptions of how and what to grow.

He contrasted the demographics of England with that of the United States. Even though the fertility of both was substantially the same, the mortality rate of children was much higher in England than in the United States. The main difference was, he concluded, in nutrition.

He also noted that work in manufactures was unhealthy because of the conditions of work, such as exposure to noxious chemicals, and the type of bodily movements required in manufacture.

He made a distinction between crude and fine manufactures. Crude manufactures which aided the acquisition of food and diminishing necessary work were welcomed. On the other hand, he was against fine manufactures, i.e., the manufacture of luxuries.

Also too much time spent at work, did not allow time for leisurely activities, such as reading.

He was also quite aware that the State was the result of conquest. But he did not propose a change in government, he merely proposed that the State take particular measures to alleviate the condition of the poor, namely giving them access to free land. In this sense, he was a State-socialist.

Critical commentary on an article on socialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The article is: Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill, “Socialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019.

This article is an example of how scholarship obfuscates the subject matter.

The subject of the article is “socialism.” After pointing out that the word is ambiguous and vague, there should be an attempt at a prescriptive definition, which they do give. They begin correctly with the statement: “Socialism is best defined in contrast with capitalism, as socialism has arisen both as a critical challenge to capitalism, and as a proposal for overcoming and replacing it.”

So, if socialism contrasts with capitalism, then the problem is to give a definition of capitalism, which they also give by listing, what they call, “constitutive features.”

“(i) The bulk of the means of production is privately owned and controlled.

(ii) People legally own their labor power. (Here capitalism differs from slavery and feudalism, under which systems some individuals are entitled to control, whether completely or partially, the labor power of others).

(iii) Markets are the main mechanism allocating inputs and outputs of production and determining how societies’ productive surplus is used, including whether and how it is consumed or invested.

An additional feature that is typically present wherever (i)–(iii) hold, is that:

(iv) There is a class division between capitalists and workers, involving specific relations (e.g., whether of bargaining, conflict, or subordination) between those classes, and shaping the labor market, the firm, and the broader political process.”

Although these points do describe features of capitalism, I would not call them all “constitutive.” A necessary condition for capitalism is the presence of, what Marx called, “free laborers” or “proletarians.” This is why Bernard Shaw wrote: “To begin with, the word Capitalism is misleading. The proper name of our system is Proletarianism.” Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, 1928

It is (i) and (ii) which — properly formulated — is a necessary and sufficient condition for capitalism. However, as they have formulated it, it is misleading. The formulation has two phrases which are not accurate. The first is the word “bulk” meaning “most”, and the second phrase “means of production,” which comes from Karl Marx, and suggests something like “mass production.” The phrase “means of production” in Marx includes territory of land. But if we think of indigenous people (who are not capitalists), they use material found on the land for making tools, shelters, and they use the land for hunting, for fishing, and for gathering food for consumption, and they may also use the land for herding and cultivation — in short, for subsistence. It is misleading to talk here of “production.”

It is not that the “bulk” or “most” of the land (which is what we should be talking about) is privately owned; rather, all of it is controlled by the government — where there is a government — as a sellable commodity. For example, in the United States all land was owned by the government and originally sold for a minimum of $1 an acre.

Capitalism is best described as a political system which bars people from a free access to subsistence land; thus creating proletarians.

And then, socialism, as an antithesis to capitalism, is a political system which grants everyone a right of free access to subsistence land, or something approximating this.

Socialism =/= Anarchism

I call myself an anarcho-socialist for a reason. I favor both socialism and anarchism. Socialism is concerned primarily with subsistence; whereas anarchism with freedom of agreements. The model for anarcho-socialism is a typical indigenous tribe of hunter/gatherers. But remember a model is used to depict things in given respects only; other respects are irrelevant or even unsavory. The respects in which a tribe serves as a model for socialism is that it satisfies all three criteria as given, for example, by Anton Menger. He listed these as: 1. the right to the full product of labor, 2. right to subsistence, 3. the right to labor. Of these, the primary is the right to subsistence, i.e., all the things which are necessary to preserve animal life: water, food, shelter, clothing, fire (energy).

An indigenous tribe also serves as a model for anarchism inasmuch as the tribe makes decisions through direct democracy on a small scale, i.e., the scale of a Dunbar number of not more than 150 persons. This presumably is the amount of people that one can get to know intimately.

There are, however, features of primitive tribes which are inimical to free thought. And it is in this respect which Karl Popper condemns “tribalism” as a closed society. Primitive tribes are closed to metaphysical and ritualistic disagreements. This unsavory aspect is continued in modern societies by religions and patriotic rituals.

If the essence of socialism is the right to subsistence, then socialism is carried out by the States in the form of prisons, and in the case of the United States in the form of Indian reservations, and to a lesser extent by welfare programs. Let us call these Prison Socialism, Reservation Socialism, and Welfare Socialism. There are also various non-governmental charitable organizations serving, for example, the homeless. Call these Charitable Socialisms.

Talking about Prison Socialism, have you seen Michael Moore’s video “Where to Invade Next“? Watch the whole film about how socialism works, and especially the clip from the film about Norwegian prisons:

Critical remarks on Anton Menger’s approach to Socialism

In a former blog, I claimed that Alexander Gray [The Socialist Tradition], though citing Anton Menger’s book, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, as the source of his knowledge about the English Socialists — he called them “pre-Marxians — learned nothing from him, i.e., from the thoughts of Menger himself.

First, concerning the definition of “socialism,” Gray is all over the place talking about individualism, communism, justice, efficiency, equality — finally settling for an unsystematic classification of socialisms rather than for a definition. And even the classification is done on the basis of secondary matters.

Anton Menger, by contrast, at the very beginning of his book, sets up as his desiderata (criteria) for socialism three disjunctive conditions. By “disjunctive” I mean that any one of them singly is sufficient for socialism. And it is left as an open question whether the three are jointly compatible. The three are:

  1. Right to the whole produce of labor
  2. Right to subsistence
  3. Right to labor

He quickly notes that the third is a species of the second. In other words, that labor is a way of getting subsistence.

In chapters 2-12 he goes over the literature on how these desiderata were treated, mostly the first. He spends much time considering how communities or associations were to be organized. This applies to colonies, as well as to domestic organizations. And in the last chapter 13, he offers possible solutions through a consideration of land ownership, which he lists as three possibilities:

  1. Private ownership and private use
  2. Common ownership and private use
  3. Common ownership and common use

Let me point out that this classification assumes that land is a sellable commodity, and that it can be owned either by individuals or groups. It does not include the possibility that land is not owned.

All three alternatives can exist in present States. It is simply which is preferable. The first alternative is what prevails in the world, dominated by private corporations. The existing laws allow private ownership, and the hiring of people for private production and private profit (or for whatever the owners wish).

He cites the Russian village (Mir) as an example of common ownership, and private use (the second alternative). Actually the Russian village did not “own” the land; it collectively managed the land, and through periodic democratic assemblies divided the arable land in some agreed to plots.

Proposals to nationalize the land are variations on this second alternative.

The third alternative was realized by the various communal colonies — either religious or non-sectarian — which, for example, were set up in the United States. He cites the reporting of William Hinds [American Communities] for these communitarian experiments.

His conclusion is that the socialist ideal is satisfied by these last two alternatives, but not having a clear proposal for how subsistence relates to labor, he simply notes that the right to subsistence prevails in these communitarian societies; thus, satisfying one socialist desideratum.

Critical commentary:

Although I disapprove of ad hominem arguments, here I offer an ad hominem circumstancial which should guide our critical consideration of Menger’s proposals. He, as a salaried professor of jurisprudence at the University of Vienna (and wanting to keep his job), should have kept away from a criticism of the State, and he did; simply mentioning that anarchists wish to eliminate the State. He himself was interested in how to lawfully realize socialism, i.e., in and by a State. And he did have Bismark’s social legislation as a model.

My first observation is this. All primitive tribes and stateless communities satisfy all three desiderata. But this is anarchism, which is not under Menger’s purview.

My second observation is this. The Russian Mir was owned by a landlord, and all of Russia was owned by a Czar, and both required taxes from the village. The village only determined land usage and how the taxes were to be distributed among the villagers.

My third observation is that all the communitarian colonies in the United States had to purchase the land either from the State or from individuals. In some cases, these colonies did so by borrowing money, which they had to pay back with interest. And let us not forget property taxes exacted by the individual states. Thus, although all colonies became self-sufficient concerning subsistence, they were forced to enter an outside market economy to repay their debts.

Strictly speaking, the first — and main — ideal of socialism cannot be fully realized by any of these alternative property holdings, as long as there is a State which takes taxes.

The other consideration, pointed out by Menger, is that the communitarian colonies — taken as individuals — were in competition with other corporations and individuals for a market. And success was not guaranteed. [This criticism applies to Richard Wolff’s proposal for worker-owned enterprises. And it does not solve the problem of unemployment and homelessness.]

Although I am interested in what these communitarians believed and how they managed their affairs, I am more focused on the fact that they had to purchase their land holdings, and that they had to pay property taxes.

I think there is a preconception in people’s mind about the vast amount of land which was open to settlement in “the frontier.” Well, let’s be clear, in areas where either a British colony, or eventually a State made a survey and gained control, i.e., jurisdiction, no land was available for free. Yes, those who ventured into the frontier beyond government control could eke out a living by hunting and gathering, and even by building a homestead, i.e., by squatting. But beside the danger of encroaching on Indian territory, as soon as the government reached their territory, these squatters had to pay for the land through what were called “preemption laws.” This means that they had the first right to buy the land. If they could not, they were evicted.

I found the book by Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain 1776-1936, an eye opener. This book should be read in conjunction with Richard Morris, Government and Labor in Early America.

All land was the property of the State, and in May 20, 1785 (modified in 1787) a law was established that land was to be surveyed into Townships, an area of 6 x 6 miles, divided into 36 “sections” of 1 x 1 mile (640 acres). [As an aside. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, pioneers were granted 1/4 section (160 acres) (for a small processing fee and a condition that the land be “improved” within 5 years), and in 1865 General Sherman proposed to give 40 acres to former slaves — a proposal which was rescinded by President Johnson]

Land was to be sold at auction with a minimum of $1 per acre, and a $36 fee for the surveyed Township. (I have not determined what was the minimal acres which were sold, but apparently speculators gobbled up the land in huge chunks, which they then sold at retail inflated prices. And there were shady acquisitions galore.

My point is that prior to 1862 there never was land to be taken legally for free.

Next, let me make some other observations. Menger says that the first desideratum has implications of a negative sort. He claims that it implies that no one is allowed to rent out land, and that there is to be no interest taken on loans. I am not sure how universal he means to make these prescriptions. Given that farmers and manufacturers had to purchase land and machinery, there were various proposed schemes to set up Banks and Credit Unions which would take only a minimal interest to offset the cost of processing a loan.

I want to end with the following observation as found in Franz Oppenheimer’s book, The State:

“For as long as man has ample opportunity to take up unoccupied land, “no one,” says Turgot, “would think of entering the service of another;” we may add, “at least for wages, which are not apt to be higher than the earnings of an independent peasant working an unmortgaged and sufficiently large property;” while mortgaging is not possible as long as land is yet free for the working or taking, as free as air and water.” p. 9-10