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The Altruist in Politics   By: (1870-1938)

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By Benjamin Cardozo

There comes not seldom a crisis in the life of men, of nations, and of worlds, when the old forms seem ready to decay, and the old rules of action have lost their binding force. The evils of existing systems obscure the blessings that attend them; and, where reform is needed, the cry is raised for subversion. The cause of such phenomena is not far to seek. "It used to appear to me," writes Count Tolstoi, in a significant passage, "it used to appear to me that the small number of cultivated, rich and idle men, of whom I was one, composed the whole of humanity, and that the millions and millions of other men who had lived and are still living were not in reality men at all." It is this spirit the spirit that sees the whole of humanity in the few, and throws into the background the millions and millions of other men it is this spirit that has aroused the antagonism of reformers, and made the decay of the old forms, the rupture of the old restrictions, the ideal of them and of their followers. When wealth and poverty meet each other face to face, the one the master and the other the dependent, the one exalted and the other debased, it is perhaps hardly matter for surprise that the dependent and debased and powerless faction, in envy of their opponents' supremacy, should demand, not simple reform, but absolute community and equality of wealth. That cry for communism is no new one in the history of mankind. Thousands of years ago it was heard and acted on; and, in the lapse of centuries, its reverberations have but swelled in volume. Again and again, the altruist has arisen in politics, has bidden us share with others the product of our toil, and has proclaimed the communistic dogma as the panacea for our social ills. So today, amid the buried hopes and buried projects of the past, the doctrine of communism still lives in the minds of men. Under stress of misfortune, or in dread of tyranny, it is still preached in modern times as Plato preached it in the world of the Greeks.

Yet it is indeed doubtful whether, in the history of mankind, a doctrine was ever taught more impracticable or more false to the principles it professes than this very doctrine of communism. In a world where self interest is avowedly the ruling motive, it seeks to establish at once an all reaching and all controlling altruism. In a world where every man is pushing and fighting to outstrip his fellows, it would make him toil with like vigor for their common welfare. In a world where a man's activity is measured by the nearness of reward, it would hold up a prospective recompense as an equal stimulant to labor. "The more bitterly we feel," writes George Eliot, "the more bitterly we feel the folly, ignorance, neglect, or self seeking of those who at different times have wielded power, the stronger is the obligation we lay on ourselves to beware lest we also, by a too hasty wresting of measures which seem to promise immediate relief, make a worse time of it for our own generation, and leave a bad inheritance for our children." In the future, when the remoteness of his reward shall have weakened the laborer's zeal, we shall be able to judge more fairly of the blessings that the communist offers. Instead of the present world, where some at least are well to do and happy, the communist holds before us a world where all alike are poor. For the activity, the push, the vigor of our modern life, his substitute is a life aimless and unbroken. And so we have to say to communists what George Eliot might have said: Be not blinded by the passions of the moment, but when you prate about your own wrongs and the sufferings of your offspring, take heed lest in the long run you make a worse time of it for your own generation, and leave a bad inheritance for your children.

Little thought has been taken by these altruistic reformers for the application of the doctrines they uphold... Continue reading book >>

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