THE MAN VERSUS THE STATE. BY HERBERT SPENCER. London: Williams and Norgate, 1884.

Herbert Spencer was born at Derby in 1820 of a middle-class family, members of which had often pushed religious and political non-conformity to the point of eccentricity. Even at school he exhibited his intellectual independence in an aversion from "rote-learning and dogmatic statements," an aversion which kept him profoundly ignorant of Latin, though not of the multiplication table. Never what today we should call a socially well-integrated person -- how he would have hated the phrase! -- he pottered around unsatisfactorily in various engineering and secretarial positions until he was nearly thirty. Then with the publication of "Social Statics" he found his calling: high-class journalism and the writing of essays, ripening into the construction of a grand synthetic philosophy of evolution. He was extraordinarily successful, and was considered by a whole generation to be the foremost champion of modernity, the interpreter to the lay world of the latest pronouncements of science. A vulgar, if quite realistic, measure of the extent to which he was read may be found in the fact that, though he never held an academic appointment nor received any other form of subsidy, and though he had only a very small property of his own, he managed to live for fifty years on the sales of his writings. And the major part of those writings were ten volumes published between 1862 and 1900 under the forbidding title, "A System of Synthetic Philosophy." These dealt with "First Principles" and then with the principles of Biology, Psychology, Sociology, and Ethics.

Spencer's family background, his temperament, and his education all combined to bring out in him to the full that "dissidence of dissent" which gentlemen like Matthew Arnold had so regretted in the English middle classes. Moreover, he grew up and attained maturity at precisely the period when the triumph of Free Trade, the axiomatic acceptance of laissez-faire as a law of Nature revealed especially to the English, and the long international peace since Waterloo, made possible an optimistic belief in the steady growth of individual liberty. Through Spencer's work there runs an ardent conviction that the individual is always right, the group always wrong; that power, especially political power, always corrupts, and that therefore the state is but a necessary evil; that as men emancipate themselves, government will be less and less necessary; and that finally the state will wither away -- this last a striking point of agreement with his Marxian foes. Spencer's hatred for the state came pretty close to anarchism; but the origins of his convictions lie close to the solid individualism of Victorian England.

There was, however, another important strain in Spencer's thought. He had early decided that Science -- one must always capitalize the word in dealing with Spencer -- was the only possible guide a man of intelligence could adopt. He followed with interest the attempts of Comte and Mill to apply the methods of science to the study of society. Notably from Comte he borrowed the notion of a grand systematization of the sciences, culminating in Sociology. Although not himself a practising laboratory scientist, he followed the progress of the natural sciences closely, and was one of the first to embrace the cause of Darwin on the publication of "The Origin of Species" in 1859. From this moment he pinned his faith on the idea of organic evolution and undertook to interpret the whole history of man in society in terms of Evolution as understood in his generation: accidental variations, struggle for life, natural selection, elimination of unfit stocks, and constant improvement through survival of fit stocks.

In very general terms, the "Synthetic Philosophy" may be summarized as follows: throughout the universe there is a ceaseless redistribution of matter and motion; this movement has a plan, now at last revealed to us through Science; it is a movement from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the simple to the complex: in biology, from the jelly-fish to homo sapiens; in sociology, from chaotic savage individualism through the imposition of discipline in the militant society to the final self-discipline of the free industrial society. This distinction between "militant" and "industrial" societies is the key to Spencer's political thinking. The militant society imposes authority upon its members, holds them to obedience by force, and by playing on their superstitions keeps them in economic subjection; it is a society designed for war with other societies, and in accordance with the plan of evolution is most effective when most rigidly organized along despotic military lines. The industrial society, prepared by the rise of traders in a successful, and hence somewhat relaxed, militant society, allows its members freedom to experiment and to enrich themselves, gives free play to the struggle for life among its members and cultivates Science, technology and peace. It is obviously higher in the scale of Evolution than was militant society. By 1860, England and the United States seemed to have emerged from militancy to industrialism, with Western Europe lingering in partial militancy and the rest of the world still pretty well sunk in it.

These ideas were enormously popular. Spencer's contempt for Christianity, his sarcasm about the sporting life of the upper classes, his dislike for Tory prejudices, all kept him from quite becoming a national hero. But everyone in England of radical or even liberal sympathies hailed him as a prophet and seer, and abroad he was known as Byron and Mill had been, as an Englishman who could see well beyond England. Evolution was almost as useful as God had once been; it proved that the Children of the Light would prevail, that hard-working, middle-class business men were the elect, predestined by the cosmic plan to win out over lords, priests, soldiers, academicians, obscurantists and all the pack of has-beens.

Spencer's system had two great holes, quite apart from minor errors of detail. First, it never quite came to grips with an obvious difficulty in the application of Darwin's ideas to politics. Granted that within a given society the utmost freedom provides the utmost competition among individuals and hence the utmost degree of beneficent natural selection, how about conflicts between given societies? Clearly you cannot run an army on principles of laissez-faire, nor even of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. If industrial England should have to fight militant Prussia, might not the militant down the industrial, the slave beat the free? Where then is your inevitable course of evolution? Spencer was uneasily aware of this difficulty.

Second -- and much more fundamental -- biology proved to be ill-adapted for the defense of Spencer's fundamental political position. Had he lived in the eighteenth century and turned to physical science in support of individualism, the notions then current of the universe as a mechanism -- the "Newtonian world-machine" -- would have suited his purpose beautifully, as it suited those of an Holbach or a Bentham. But the biological lead in political thought went straight to the famous organic theory: the state, or society, is one great organism, with farmers the muscles, business men the nerves, scientists the brains, and so on (there are dozens of variations of this). The metaphysical implications of this theory are anything but agreeable to the individualist. If society is an organic whole, surely the individual is wholly subordinated to the good of the whole, and Hegel and the Prussians are right after all. You cannot imagine the arm seceding from the body, or the blood cell demanding a writ of habeas corpus. Spencer was quite aware of this difficulty on the purely commonsense level, and in the "Sociology" thought he had solved it by declaring that though society is indeed an organism it has no sensorium, no central nervous system, or, as less enlightened men might say, no soul. Society as a whole, then, has no purpose, no satisfactions; the individual is the only object with which politics is concerned. The metaphysical difficulty was not as easily solved. One might simply not raise the metaphysical question, but the point is that Spencer's whole underlying attitude does raise such a question, whether he admits it or not. He believed, as metaphysicians and theologians believe, in a cosmology: this was a rigidly determined, mechanical, atomistic universe. In such a universe, the fact of growth fits in very badly. Society is in Spencer's work a contradiction, or at the very least a paradox: it is at once an organism and a fiction, a theory and a metaphor.

It was indeed all very confusing, even, one suspects, to Spencer himself. Moreover, by 1884 the universe itself was not as clearly in line with Evolution as it had been when Spencer began to write. The American Civil War had been a triumph for homogeneity and centralization rather than for heterogeneity and local freedom. Prussia under Prince Bismarck was very successful and very militant; and even in England, eldest child of Evolution, evil agents of a tyrannical government were snooping around private homes -- private, mind you -- to inspect drains and privies. Spencer, now sixty-four years old and an invalid, sat down and wrote four indignant articles in the Contemporary Review. In 1884 they were published together with an important "Postscript" in book form as "The Man versus the State."


"The Man versus the State" is a Jeremiad. Its chapter headings are revealing: The New Toryism, The Coming Slavery, The Sins of Legislators, The Great Political Superstition. Wherever the author looks in contemporary England, the hydra-headed state is penetrating. Collectivism is supplanting individualism; slavery is overcoming freedom. Liberals in England were once people who believed in removing restraints -- feudal, religious, economic -- from the free action of Englishmen. Liberals once repealed the Combination Laws, the Test Act, the Corn Laws. Now in 1884 men calling themselves Liberals are not removing but are adding restraints on individual freedom. They are passing factory acts, inspection acts, compulsory education acts, no end of acts. They are really not Liberals at all, says Spencer, but the new Tories. Just as was the case in the evil times of the Middle Ages, men in political power are trying to legislate on every kind of economic activity. But history, as interpreted by evolutionary philosophy, shows that legislators have with surprising regularity made laws that proved either harmful or superfluous. Legislation is an attempt to use "planning" where matters had much better be left to Time and to Nature. (Spencer loathed Latin, or he might have written: vis medicatrix naturae.) The sum total of these laws is already so great that England in 1884 is on the threshold of State Socialism. Socialism is slavery, a system wherein no one labors for himself, but only for the state; and the state is in fact the new ruling class, while the bureaucrats are the new feudal overlords.

Collectivism of this sort, Spencer went on, is clearly contrary to the best intentions of Evolution. It presumes a suspension of the natural struggle for life; it rewards fit and unfit equally, which means that the unfit will soon be more numerous than the fit. Men, no longer inspired to work by the prick of competition and by the moral assurance that each will have what he desires, will cease to work except under the whip. They will lose ambition, inventiveness, energy, all the qualities that have flowered in Victorian England. Retrogression will set in, and though our faith in Evolution teaches us that it cannot be permanent, that the majestic march cannot for long be halted, still one would rather not have one's own life spent in such a retrogression.

Still more serious, he continues, is the international situation. While socialism threatens freedom from within the state, militarism threatens it from without. Evolution cannot of course be expected to proceed at an even rate, and it is not surprising that England and the United States are so much more advanced in civilization than Germany and France. These latter societies are but emerging from the militant stage, are still ruled by notions of discipline, of reverence for authority, or at any rate by an attitude that the state will do what needs doing. It is unfortunate that England is exposed to such neighbors, for she must fight them partly with their own weapons; and that means adopting militant methods in a society essentially industrial. "While their sentiments and ideas are of kinds which perpetually endanger peace," as Spencer himself writes, "it is requisite that men should have such belief in the authority of government as shall give it adequate coercive power over them for war purposes -- a belief in its authority which inevitably, at the same time, gives it coercive power over them for other purposes." In 1884 war seemed inevitable; and war meant that each warring nation must tighten up its discipline, must sacrifice that individual freedom through which alone lay the course of Evolution.

It is hardly surprising that Spencer's "Postscript" should be pessimistic. "Only here and there," he admits, "a solitary citizen may have his creed modified" by a reading of "The Man versus the State." Man should be free, and everywhere he seems to be riveting on his own chains. The dilemma would have discouraged a Rousseau; Spencer, facing it, could only assume the rôle of a prophet.

The book was variously received. Many people were content to dismiss it as the fretful complaint of an old man who had already done his work. With the Westminster Review, they turned gladly from "Mr. Spencer's cheerless pages" to the posthumous volume of a true representative of forward-looking English liberalism, Arnold Toynbee, unhappily cut off in his promising youth. The Socialists were furious, and Hyndman sprang at once to the counter-attack. Radicals of all shades were hurt at what seemed to them Spencer's abandonment of his earlier sympathies for the working classes. The Spectator remarked that "the wheel is indeed come full circle when the author of 'Social Statics' and the prophet of Evolution is become an admirer of the Liberty and Property Defence League, and finds in them the bulwark of liberty," and added that "fetish-worship" of the State was no worse than the "fetish-horror" of it Spencer showed. Nor did those in the conservative tradition at first find welcome for him. The New York Nation did remark editorially that "whatever encourages men to believe that their unfavorable conditions are to be alleviated by any other means than their own exertions is pernicious," and its reviewer was prompted to the reflection that "the American has, to certain extent, lost his sense of individuality, and is conscious of himself chiefly as one of a crowd" -- thus confirming Spencer and anticipating Mr. Sinclair Lewis by almost half a century. Even the Nation, however, thought that Spencer was analyzing a merely temporary tendency, and that anything like "communism" was an impossibility.

Before very long, however, the book became a sort of rallying-center for resistance to socialism. Conservatives who once had thought of Spencer as a shocking, godless reformer were delighted to discover through him that Science and Evolution were agreed that socialism not only was undesirable but was also in the long run impossible. Spencer's Tory friends did not bother themselves over the dilemma Spencer himself could not quite dismiss from his mind. They simply neglected his anti-militarism; they pursued no further his short passages insisting on the necessity of international peace, on some sort of international understanding, if laissez-faire individualism were to be practical in England. "The Man versus the State" became an arsenal of instances and arguments to resist the social and economic legislation urged by the Liberals and by the growing Labor party.


The future Spencer foresaw so gloomily is now in part the past. His slavery has come in large areas of the world, and his legislators continue to sin and plan. Some of his phrases have worn smooth with constant use. "Regimentation," a word he used (though sparingly), flows now from any journalist's pen. After fifty years, it should be possible to test Spencer's foresight, to find out whether he predicted as a scientist might, or as a prophet does.

There is no getting around his extraordinary success in predicting certain facts. In "The Sins of Legislators" he has an amusing passage in which he cites a Mr. Janson to the effect that between "20 Henry III" (1236) and "35 Victoria" (1872) there were passed 18, 110 public acts, of which four-fifths had been repealed by 1872. This proliferation of bills Spencer thought would continue and even increase. It has. Mr. Janson's sum of 18,110 bills seems picayune nowadays, and we are as willing to repeal them as ever. He foresaw stricter building regulations; governmental slum clearance and the building of garden villages, against the wisdom of real-estate experts; compulsory, state supported schools; child labor laws; laws actually regulating the labor not only of women and children, but of grown men; compulsory insurance against old age and unemployment; state aid to scientific research, to art, to the theater; tremendously increased taxation to finance "board-schools, free libraries, public museums, baths and wash-houses, recreation-grounds, etc., etc.," and to support the immense group of state employees necessary to run all these. He predicted that the protectionist assault on the sacred fact and theory of Free Trade would continue, and that high tariffs would return to England. He foresaw an increasing scramble for trade and territory among the leading nations of the world, and the rise of what we now know as imperialism. He was certainly one of the numerous people who foresaw the Great War, though he wisely refused to try and date it.

All this is imposing. By all ordinary tests, Spencer seems to have come off very well in his predictions. And yet it is difficult today to read "The Man versus the State" without a certain amount of irritation. The book seems perverse, wrong-headed; it seems to foresee but not to understand. You certainly cannot take it up and think yourself still in the world of 1937. It is as much a part of the eighties as a Victorian bustle. Now this feeling may quite possibly arise because Spencer foresaw with perfect accuracy the mud in which we are stuck. By that theory, we are in the midst of his slavery but we will not admit it, even to ourselves. Buried under legislation, we can no longer sympathize with bold free spirits like Spencer, who fought the process so courageously at its beginning. Compulsory, state-supported schools no longer shock us; but does that prove they wouldn't shock free men? We are already, even in the so-called democratic societies, so deep in State Socialism that we cannot sympathize with true individualism.

There are, however, other explanations of the unquestionably archaic flavor in Spencer's predictions, explanations not quite so harmful to our pride, and not quite so simple. Some of them, though they make a real contribution to our total estimate of Spencer, are relatively trivial: his prose style, now very old-fashioned, heavy, unsalted with humor; his temperamental anarchism, which carries laissez-faire far beyond the kind of Science he admired so much; his crotchets, the product of a singularly unsociable and celibate existence. Spencer held that for a municipality to insist on a houseowner's putting in drains was a shocking tyranny, an act in open defiance of Evolution. He succeeded to his own satisfaction in proving the positive evil of drains, since they spread typhoid and diphtheria: "in Windsor as in Edinburgh, there was absolutely no typhoid in the undrained parts, while it was very fatal in the drained parts." But luckily medicine has not been worried by abstractions like individualism, collectivism, or Evolution. It knows that typhoid germs are not impressed by dogmatic laissez-faire. And physicians have fortunately had more influence than Spencer on public health legislation.

These details, important though they are, do not completely explain why Spencer seems today so old-fashioned. The main explanation lies here: Spencer thought of himself as a scientist, and he seems to us hardly a scientist at all, but a preacher and a propagandist. We dismiss him as not really a scientist, not because he was prejudiced, cocksure and obstinate, for many scientists as private persons display all these characteristics. We dismiss him because he carried these traits directly into what he seems to have regarded as scientific thinking.

The simplest of his mistakes in method is very clear in "The Man versus the State." It is that of listing facts which accord with a uniformity you wish to prove, as though a list afforded mathematical proof. Spencer in "The Sins of Legislators" lists as "bad" one example after another of laws, from an attempt in "35 Edward III" to keep down the price of herrings to Victorian fire insurance laws. By "bad" he undoubtedly means that he doesn't like these laws, and as he disliked all laws, his position is really a metaphysical one, and as such will presently be considered. But if one says a "bad" law is a law that doesn't work, and if one properly defines "work," and if one limits one's self to a certain kind of law -- say laws regulating trade -- in a given society at a given time, and if one is very, very careful, one may arrive at some first approximations of uniformities that are recognizably like the kind of uniformities the natural scientist arrives at. One might, as part of this process, list laws that "worked" and those that didn't. It is very unlikely that one would find, as Spencer did, that one hundred percent failed to "work."

Though Spencer knew a good deal about mathematics and mechanics, he apparently thought society could be understood by simpler methods. There is no evidence that he realized the necessity for a scientific -- that is, a detached and skeptical -- approach to the study of society. His method is the traditional one of the preacher, and resembles in many ways the approach of Carlyle. We can discern the inadequacies of his methods and also get a final glimpse of him as prophet, if we go for a simple comparison to the art or science from which students of man in society can perhaps learn most -- namely, medicine. A physician has a patient suffering, let us say, from what used to be called epilepsy -- probably not a simple disease, but a group of troubles. Somehow or other he effects a cure. Then, thirty years later, the same patient returns, with a similar group of symptoms. Of one thing you may be sure: the doctor will express neither surprise nor indignation, and will not start belaboring the patient for getting in the way of Evolution. He will certainly look over his records of thirty years earlier, but he will equally certainly not assume that the two cases are identical, or that his treatment of the patient should be identical with that of thirty years before. He will set to work to do his best to cure the patient again.

Now Spencer begins "The Man versus the State" with an elaborate parallel between the laws regulating trade in the later Middle Ages and early Tudor period, and the laws regulating trade which were being passed by the "new Tories" of 1884. England is the patient, these laws the disease. After much suffering, the patient was apparently pretty well cured by the early nineteenth century. But now, in 1884, there are abundant signs of the recurrence of the disease. Let us grant Spencer -- and it is granting him a great deal -- that it is reasonable to regard these laws as a disease, that we ought to try and rid society of them. Even granting this, he comes out very poorly in comparison with the doctor. He curses at the patient, tells him he ought not to have the disease, seems astonished and hurt at the recurrence. Had he had any of the spirit of the true scientist, he must have realized that the appearance of laws regulating trade in the 1880's was a natural phenomenon, and would have asked himself first of all with what other phenomena they were bound up, why they came about. Feebly, at the end of the book, he drags in the notion of the incompletely industrial society, the villains France and Prussia, temporary retrogression, and so on. But these explanations are still hardly more than reviling the patient.

Spencer very much wanted a world in which men should be peace-loving, tolerant, self-reliant, self-sustaining, hard-working, simple and unassuming in their tastes, ever building bigger and better machines, factories, railroads, ever extending the frontiers of science; he loathed a world where men fought, boasted, lusted, lorded it over their fellows, or aped them with servility, clung to stupid superstitions and behaved in general as the damned human race has long behaved. He made the transition from what he saw about him to what he wanted to see about him in the way we all do: by metaphysics and theology. His metaphysics was a dogmatic positivism based at bottom on the "Newtonian world-machine," the familiar mechanical cosmology of our grandfathers. His theology was built around a Divine Force, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, which he called Evolution. You can measure something of the differences between our cosmology and Spencer's if you recall that between us and him stand relativity and quantum physics, the true importance of Mendel, the rise of anti-intellectualism, of Sorel, Bergson, James and Pareto, the World War and the Great Depression. Spencer seems to us old-fashioned because of his world of values, a world that stands clear in spite of, or rather because of, the scaffolding of "scientific method" with which he surrounds it.

The world of the 1880's was a world which more and more refused to behave the way Spencer wanted it to behave. "The Man versus the State" is a pathetic and unwilling recognition of that fact, and an acknowledgment that in the near future the world was probably going to continue to behave even less in accord with his desires. He was, of course, right. But he is none the less dealing in prophecy, not in scientific prediction. The prophet is, in a sense, always right. The Book of Revelation is as reliable today as it ever was. Scientific prediction -- prognosis -- is as yet, in the social sciences, a practical impossibility. Prophecy, however, is still a very good trade. For the prophet does but remind us that there is a gap between what we want and what we have, between our experience and our ethical, metaphysical, theological abstractions. That gap has been there a long time. Spencer predicted The Coming Slavery; it is here, and we are not even aware of it. We might predict for 1987 The Coming Freedom; it will come, and our grandsons may well writhe under it. For neither slavery nor freedom has here any precise meaning; they are grand, indispensable words, thoroughly worked into the fabric of western society, words which may be tools in hands skilled or unskilled -- but in the hands of politicians, preachers, teachers, not of scientists. Some day sociologists may know as clearly what they mean by "slavery" as the physiologists, for example, know what they mean by "fatigue." But not yet. Certainly Herbert Spencer did not know, and he has helped us very little on the road to such knowledge. Seen now, after fifty years, "The Man versus the State" might almost have been a very long "Letter to The Times," signed Britannicus or Pro Bono Publico. It tells us something about Spencer, and something about the world of the 1880's. More important, it tells us that, if men cannot "plan," cannot legislate positively so as to control the future course of society, neither can they exert a negative and restraining influence. They can but humbly inquire, and make a few guesses: all else is vanity, or prophecy.

For the full opaqueness of the future is a matter rather of human sentiments than of social, political, or even economic institutions. You can tell only how you feel, not how your children or grandchildren will feel. Spencer foresaw social security legislation, but he foresaw it with horror and disgust, and his picture of the future -- now our present -- is falsified because we no longer share his horror and disgust. He was a pessimist about a future which he could not expect to live in, and which was therefore incapable of feeling exactly his kind of pessimism. Optimism is no better, and perhaps a worse, guide. Edward Bellamy in "Looking Backward" also predicted quite successfully certain facts, mostly in the field of scientific and industrial achievements. We can, as could the guest in Bellamy's novel, turn a little button in our room and listen to a distant orchestra. But our lives are not the idyls Bellamy's feelings would have made them, any more than they are the complete torture Spencer's feelings would have made them.

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  • CRANE BRINTON, Associate Professor of History in Harvard University; author of "A Decade of Revolution" and other works
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