The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism

By Elie Halévy; Mary Morris | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE ECONOMIC PROBLEM

'WHEN the rich plunder the poor of his rights', wrote Thomas Paine, 'it becomes an example to the poor to plunder the rich of his property'.1 Thus, apparently, if the rich were merely to allow equal political rights to all citizens, they would thereby secure respect for the right of property. Godwin's equalitarianism, on the other hand, contests all rights which are defined as powers to use and to abuse, and consequently among the rest the right of property. 'Republicanism is not a remedy that strikes at the root of the evil. Injustice, oppression and misery can find an abode in those seeming happy seats. But what shall stop the progress of wisdom and improvement, where the monopoly of property is unknown?'2 According to Godwin, therefore, one should not hope for the whole social problem to be solved by the suppression of political inequalities, for the problem of poverty remains. This problem arose not only for the pure theorist, like Godwin, but for the observer of contemporary facts. It was a time when, owing to the war, which was absorbing the whole energy of the peoples of Europe, England presented a picture, which was characteristic of the new industrial era, of the progress, to some extent parallel, of wealth and poverty. In order to stamp out poverty, is it enough to regulate production and to distribute wealth more evenly? Actually, the philosophy of utility, as presented by Godwin, resolves itself into communism. Or should the excessive growth of population be checked? In 1801, in a pamphlet in which he defended his work against the numerous critics who had attacked it,3 he kept a place apart among his adversaries for the anonymous author of An Essay on Population, in which his own views were discussed, because of its impartiality, and because in it was discovered a new principle in

____________________
1
Conway, Life of Paine, vol. i. p. 369.
2
Pol. Justice, bk. viii. ch. 6.
3
Thoughts occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon.

-204-

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