Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

John R. Commons's "Five Big Years": 1899-1904

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

John R. Commons's "Five Big Years": 1899-1904

Article excerpt



IN 1897, SEVEN YEARS INTO HIS CAREER, JOHN R. COMMONS WAS A PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY at Syracuse University. He had under development a system comprising an ethics of self-development calling for political and industrial democracy; sociology, and a sociological approach to politics and to economics; and an array of public policy proposals. That year he told Richard T. Ely that he planned during the next 15 years to create a sociological treatise (1897a). In 1899--1900 he published a compressed outline of the treatise titled A Sociological View of Sovereignty (hereafter SVOS), in it stating that sociology "lays foundations" for the social sciences, "underlying and unifying" them. (1) But spring 1899 interrupted his plans: Syracuse dismissed him as a radical, sending him into an academic exile that lasted until 1904. The exile was a stage in the evolution of his thought that he called "my Five Big Years" (1934, p. 65).

Exile? It was his good fortune, he reminisced. It drove him out of academia and into experiences that engendered new ideas resulting in many publications, including nearly three dozen unsigned editorials in The Independent and five unsigned articles in the National Civic Federation Monthly Review. (2) He acquired a perhaps overblown reputation: "In our opinion," wrote the editor of The Independent (Ward 1904), "Professor Commons knows more that is true about the mutual relations of capital and labor than any man in the United States." His exile ended in spring 1904 when Ely ushered him into the University of Wisconsin where he would set upon the work that would carry him to fame as an institutional economist.

Yet, apart from his own sketchy autobiographical remarks, the comment that he passed through a "turning point" and became a labor specialist (Harter 1962, p. 23), and the assertion that the Webbs' Industrial Democracy deeply influenced him (Harris 1993, pp. 52-53; Schatz 1993, p. 87; Kaufman 1994, p. 153), little is known about this stage, and understandably so, for many of his works appeared in magazines of the day. So there are puzzles. What were his new experiences? Did they cause him to develop new principles and public policy proposals? Did his economic thought during this stage represent economic theory?

His new experiences were sixfold, and after describing them this essay advances two theses. First, his new experiences strengthened his ethical, sociological, and political beliefs, but they caused him to develop new economic principles concerning capitalists' and laborers' "combinations" in restraint of trade, and consequently some new public policy proposals to promote a limited but apparently practicable kind of democracy in the economic order. Second, his economic thought during this stage arguably represents the fragmentary beginnings of an economic theory but not one of a neoclassical character. The essay ends by considering the significance of his Five Big Years.


The New Experiences

HIS STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL took him initially to New York City where he and E. W. Bemis, "a refugee like me," as he put it later, founded the Bureau of Economic Research. Commons began to construct an ill-fated price index (1934, pp. 64-67 explain this endeavor). Then followed six new experiences.

First, two jobs requiring investigations afield came his way. One, from the U.S. Industrial Commission, was to investigate immigration and its effect on labor unionism. The other--a "by-product" he had contrived--from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, was to explore the restraints of trade being imposed by "combinations" alike by capital and by labor (Commons 1934, pp. 71-77).

Second, perhaps in 1901 (1934, p. 71), he began to read the Webbs' Industrial Democracy (1897), a book the authors declared to lie in the field of sociology. For Commons it was a gold mine chock-full of glittering nuggets concerning criticism of neoclassical economic theory, tips about how to collect and sort out evidence obtained by field investigation, a history of British labor unionism, and critical advocacy of industrial democracy. …

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