Secular Critics of Capitalism: Ward, George, and Bellamy

Not all of the leading critics of late 19th century capitalism were clergymen. Academics, journalists and political parties also joined the debate over how American society might be refashioned to enable more of its citizens to prosper. The following attracted national constituencies:

  • Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913) was a paleontologist early in his career and later a noted sociologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a champion of “Reform Darwinism," the belief that modern human development was molded largely through intelligence rather than pure natural selection.

    Ward believed that just as farmers and orchardists sought to improve on nature through cross-breeding and cross-fertilization, so also could government improve the lot of mankind through social reforms. Ward’s support for a government role in improving society placed him at the opposite end of the spectrum from such Social Darwinists as William Graham Sumner.

  • Henry George (1839-1897) had failed as a newspaper owner and later supported himself as a gas meter reader. He found his niche as a writer, demonstrating a gift for expressing complex ideas in simple terms. In 1879, he published Progress and Poverty, in which he pointed out that the wealthy extracted huge profits from the ownership of land. Land existed in a fixed amount and became more valuable as populations increased and as cities developed. Society, rather than the landlord, was responsible for the increase in value; George termed this profit “unearned increment." He advocated the enactment of a single tax system that would transfer unearned increment to the government to fund a variety of social programs. All other forms of taxation could be abolished and monopolies and poverty would disappear.

    George’s ideas were immensely popular and single tax societies were formed throughout the nation. Tax reform and the curbing of the power of the idle rich became popular causes. Despite the furor he created, George’s impact was minimal. He came close to being elected mayor of New York City in 1886 (drawing more votes than Theodore Roosevelt), but his programs made no headway in Congress or the state legislatures.

  • Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) penned an immediate bestseller, Looking Backward (1888). This fictional work tells the story of young man who falls asleep in 1887 and awakens in 2000, a time when corruption and poverty no longer existed. Change had occurred gradually in that American society; trusts had continued along the path of consolidation until only one giant conglomerate remained. That trust was controlled by the government and was responsible for the distribution of wealth throughout society. This utopian saga captured the attention of thousands of people in the United States and sparked an upsurge in interest in socialism. Bellamy avoided that term and referred to his movement as “Nationalism."

  • Socialism. Socialist organizations developed in the United States in the years following Reconstruction, drawing largely upon the growing immigrant population. The Socialist Labor Party emerged in the 1870s. The party attempted to make inroads through the election of state and local candidates, but had little success in the 1880s. The depression that followed the Panic of 1893 brought a revival of interest in socialist solutions. Daniel De Leon, a Marxist from the West Indies, joined the party in the early 1890s and led its increasing radicalization.

    The socialists called for an end to the prevailing capitalist system and for the creation of a classless society in which there would be collective ownership of industry.

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