Poetry, Faith and Chivalry: Alfred Marshall's Response to Modern Socialism

By Cook, Simon | History of Economics Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Poetry, Faith and Chivalry: Alfred Marshall's Response to Modern Socialism


Cook, Simon, History of Economics Review


Abstract: After his return to Cambridge in 1885 Alfred Marshall constructed an elaborate criticism of modern socialism and developed an alternative creed of economic chivalry. This paper interprets both of these intellectual developments in the light of Marshall's early philosophical model of human character. In the first instance, such an interpretation reveals the modern economist as an ideal type possessed of both a warm heart and a cool head. This contrasts with an earlier generation of economists, who reasoned clearly but without heartfelt sympathy, and the modern socialists, who sacrifice scientific reasoning to generous bur impetuous sentiment. It is also emphasised that Marshall's early model of character included a spiritual component in addition to a mechanical analysis of both reason and sympathy. In his mature reflections on socialism and chivalry this spiritual component translated into a 'faith' in social progress founded upon free competition and giving rise to a chivalrous ethos of self-sacrifice among public servants and members of the co-operative movement. But Marshall also developed a weaker form of chivalry, in which businessmen were to be motivated, not by the spirit of altruism, but by striving for sympathetic approval and an emotive desire to emulate honourable actions.

1 Introduction

In his Autobiography John Stuart Mill described himself as a socialist. By the mid-1880s, as a new 'modern socialist' movement was announcing itself in Britain, Mill's language appeared quaintly anachronistic. As Laurence Gronlund proclaimed in his Cooperative Commonwealth of 1884, 'modern Socialism' is 'German Socialism' and 'is fast becoming the Socialism the world over' (Gronlund 1965, p. 6; emphasis in original). Modern socialism was revolutionary socialism: a far cry from the doctrines of Robert Owen, Henri de Si Simon and Charles Fourier which had attracted Mill. In his Contemporary Socialism of 1884, the English journalist John Rae observed that these older 'philanthropic and experimental forms of socialism' had not survived into the second half of the century, and explained that the 'only form of socialism which has come to life again since 1848' was the product of the 'Young Hegelians of the Extreme Left'. Modern socialism, Rae explained, preached collectivism, that is, control of the economy by the state, and advocated revolutionary methods to achieve this goal. Thus Rae pointed out that in the present climate it would 'only produce confusion to give the name of socialist' to a reformer who had desired 'no more than the gradual triumph of co-operation'. In 'every question of the day', Rae insisted, a follower of J. S. Mill 'will be found in the opposite camp' to that occupied by modern socialists (Rae 1884, chapter one). (1)

By 1885 a modern socialist movement had emerged in Britain, and by 1886 its aims and methods had become an object of concern to many. As E. P. Thompson has observed, in 'the years between 1870 and 1880 (and even for ten years before 1870) no consistent Socialist propaganda--not even of a dozen or twenty members--had existed in Britain' (Thompson 1977, p. 276). But in the early 1880s an initial agitation over land reform and related excitement over Henry George's Progress and Poverty was soon transformed into the first stirrings of an active socialist movement. The first modern socialist organisation was H. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, but following a schism in 1884 William Morris and his supporters founded the Socialist League. Both organisations conducted street corner agitation, as well as engaging in print propaganda. A new socialist press, with titles like Justice, Commonweal and Today, discussed Karl Marx's economic ideas (and even published extracts from Das Kapital), and denounced the bankruptcy of the parliamentary system. (2) The 1885 Industrial Remuneration Conference provided the new socialist groups with an important platform from which to publicise their analysis of Britain's industrial problems.

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