‘How I Became a Socialist’ by Rev. Thomas J. Hagerty from The Comrade. Vol. 2 No. 1. October, 1902.
A CONVICTION grew upon me in my boyhood days-which has broadened and deepened with the out-going years—that human nature is inherently good. In the old Hebraic records, composite of earlier documents which register the world’s notion of creation, I was caught by the reiteration of the idea of the goodness of all things. The after-development of tribe and nation, however, seems to give the lie to this primal verity. Prophets and philosophers in the cuneiform script and Vedic hymn of Egypt and India, singers and sculptors in the psalm and glistening marble of Palestine and Greece, throughout the centuries have sought to keep alive the sense of goodness in the brain of man. Yet all the time murder and rapine, disease and wretchedness flaunted denial in the face of truth. Pariah, slave, and bond-servant groaned in hopeless toil the while Kung-fu-sdu and Gotamma the Buddha proclaimed kindness and justice and David and Homer sang of high emprise.
Christianity came, with a catholic breadth of goodness, teaching the brotherhood of man, gathering up the treasures of foregoing ages wherewith to enrich the race, and sending messengers of peace through all the turbulent highways in every land. Far-reaching deeds of love marked its growth in palace and hovel: yet the clash of swords and the snarl of the slave-driver’s lash broke in upon its holiness; and, ever and anon, hunger drove some mother to insane slaughter of the anemic babe at her breast. The rich in high places rose up against a Savonarola and a Sir Thomas More and tried to silence the reproach of their goodness in death:
“And in such indexes, although small pricks
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large.”
Within reach of every banquet’s savor crouched the gaunt figure of Poverty; and the shadows of the Universities swept athwart the bleak paths of Ignorance and intensified the darkness. Gradually, through all the travail of the earth’s growth, came the machine to lift the burden from the straining muscles of men; and its only effect was to change the servitude of the many into an equally galling wage-slavery without surcease of misery and hate and crime. Meanwhile, the inherent goodness of human nature asserted itself in large heroism and patient bravery. Republics were builded out of the strength of the common people; and fine philosophies of liberty were engrossed upon the parchment of history, but humanity failed to reach the heights where gladness holds her breathing-places. The goodness of human nature seemed to be spent in the Sisyphus-like task of rolling some needless burden up the hill of Time and falling ever backward to the bottom in a futile renewal of toil.
As I read the annals of civilization in books and traced their later chapters in field and shop and factory, my early conviction of the inherent goodness of human nature was sharpened by its contrast with the physical evils everywhere so blatant. I saw the tragic waste of life wherewith the commerce of to-day stands crimsoned in the blood of the proletariat. I noticed little children slowly murdering by the loom and sewing-machine. In the disease-sodden tenements of the slums I saw hundreds of men and women dragging out a living death their lives foreshortening by the vilest adulteration of food and drink and by the foul air and reeking bodies of their fellow-men in the low, narrow rooms in which they huddled together. Drunkenness, insanity, and sexual perversions were all too common: nevertheless self-sacrifice, kindness, and wondrous patience were equally in evidence.
When, later on, I took up the study of medicine, a new light broke in upon the conditions of the poor to my mind, I learned that much of the sin in the world is physiologic rather than mental in its origin: and that, in order to improve men morally, one must first build them up physically. The most suitable environment must be had for the best physiologic development-for the maintenance of that “sound mind in a sound body” which is essential to normal thought and life. Now, as a matter of fact, the great mass of the people are wrongly situated from the medical point of view. A boy is born in the slums. His parents are too poor to call in a competent obstetrician and some half-ignorant midwife is hired instead. No proper examination is made of the infant. He has an adherent foreskin under which smegma gathers as he grows older. A constant irritation goes on which is soothed by self-administered counter-irritation. Before the child has reached the use of reason, and while, therefore, he is incapable of moral accountability, a habit has been formed. The age of puberty is prematurely reached and the boy thereafter becomes a confirmed masturbator, ending his days in an insane asylum. Here ignorance, poverty and unhealthy surroundings combine to wreck a human being and to rob him of all the earth’s heritage of art and science and happiness. Owing to similar causes and the influence of heredity, which is the influence of previous environment projected into present environment, alcoholism ruins many a fair life. In studying Dr. Pepper’s “System of Medicine,” I was greatly impressed by Dr. James C. Wilson’s arguments that “rum is at once the refuge and the snare of want, destitution and sorrow….Exhausting toil under unfavorable circumstances as regards heat and confinement predisposes to drink, as in the case of foundrymen, workers in rolling-mills, stokers and the like…..Monotony of occupation, as in the case of cobblers, tailors, bakers, printers, etc., especially when associated with close, ill-ventilated work-rooms and long hours of toil, exerts a strong predisposing influence….Bodily, weakness and inability to cope with the daily tasks imposed by necessity impel great numbers of persons of feeble constitution, especially among the laboring classes, to the abuse of alcohol.” (Vol. V., pp. 575-577.) I found, also, that Dr. Charles F. Folsom, in his treatise on “Mental Diseases,” proves that insanity is greatest where the concentration of population brings with it extremes of poverty and wealth: “Luxury, idleness, excesses, syphilis, debility, drunkenness, poverty, disease, and over-work produce vitiated constitutions in which varying types of insanity appear in various nations and climates.” (Pepper’s “System of Medicine,” Vol. V., p. 116.)
The starvation-wages doled out to girls in department-stores and sweat-shops drives them into the outer darkness of the brothel where dishonor, disease and death await them. One needs only read Dr. Sanger’s “History of Prostitution” to know that industrial inequalities are, in the main, responsible for this unspeakable evil. Becoming interested in criminology, I studied the works of Lombroso, Ferri, Manouvier, Wilson, Maudsley, Leffingwell, Benedikt and Velenriti y Vivo. I interviewed criminals in the Harrison Street Police Station at Chicago and was especially startled by the answer I received from a young man who had been arrested for forging U. S. two-cent stamps. He was of slender physique, refined and intellectual. His parents were hard-working people who had nothing to bequeath him except the outworn cell-tissues of their exhausted bodies. He had tried hard to turn his cunning of eye and hand to some honest account; but everywhere the profession of draughtsmen was overcrowded. After many a weary search for work, he found himself almost penniless. He did not possess the bodily strength to dig in the ditch nor engage in any work requiring vigor of muscle. “Society owes me a living,” he said, “and if I cannot get it in an honest way, I’ll get it the best way I can.” This man had good qualities. He would never refuse to help a tramp nor a crippled newsboy. He was simply warped by false social conditions. In fact, “the French school of criminology has shown that the greater part of crime arises out of social conditions, and hence is amenable to reformation, by the changing of these conditions.” (MacDonald, “Criminology,” Part II, ch. III, p. 272 a.)
I asked myself, why do these conditions prevail? The world holds enough wealth, happiness, health and knowledge for all men. The means of life are round about us on every side. There is, in the nature of things, no need for delicate women and puny children to lead the purely animal life of drudgery in shop and tenement while all the earth is teeming with plenty and there are billions upon billions of cubic feet of pure aid in God’s atmosphere to dawn the stifling, microbe-laden air of the slums. There is no need for the stunted bodies and blackened souls of men and women; no need for the zymotic diseases of typhoid and yellow-fever and small-pox and cholera which every year wipe out so many hopeful lives. We have the science, the machinery and the intelligence to clean out the plague-spots, the slums, the ill-ventilated work-rooms, the hours of exhausting toil, the ignorance, the poverty, and the crime which mar the fair face of Nature. Why, then, do the many suffer from these evils while the few enjoy immunity therefrom? Why are wretchedness and hunger the lot of the multitude while comfort and satiety are the fortune of the minority? Why must the thousands go out in a fruitless quest of the Holy Grail while the rich buy the genius and inspiration of painter and poet in canvas and verse and lock up the color and song of art in palaces where the millions may never enter to the feast of eye and ear and soul?
Chancing one day, about ten years ago, upon a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital,” I read, with illuminating swiftness, the complete answer to the questions which I hardly partially solved, I thought, by advocating a world-wide, aggressive Labor Union to demand more of the product of the workers. I perceived through the keen lens of the Marxian philosophy that Profit has always been the evil spirit turning to naught the inherent goodness of man. Wipe out profit, interest and rent, give to each man through society, the entire product of his labor, and all men will have opportunity to share equally in the good, the healthful, the intellectual, and the ennobling things which the centuries have heaped up for “the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.” A thorough study of industrial development, as chiefly exemplified in the marvellous machines of the nineteenth century, convinced me that, as a people, we are at least fifty years behind the economic evolution and that, if we would keep abreast of the times and of our destiny as race, we must take hold of the accumulated treasures of the ages and distribute them with equal hand to every son of Adam whose lawful heritage they are. Misery, disease, hate, and crime would then have no cause for being and, discovering that the stone of Sisyphus is but a useless congeries of Profits, we would pound it into macadam to pave the highways of emancipated Labor. And so, having unriddled the mystery of the world’s imprisonment of human goodness, I became a Socialist.
The Comrade began in 1901 with the launch of the Socialist Party, and was published monthly until 1905 in New York City and edited by John Spargo, Otto Wegener, and Algernon Lee amongst others. Along with Socialist politics, it featured radical art and literature. The Comrade was known for publishing Utopian Socialist literature and included a serialization of ‘News from Nowhere’ by William Morris along work from with Heinrich Heine, Thomas Nast, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edward Markham, Jack London, Maxim Gorky, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones. It would be absorbed into the International Socialist Review in 1905.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/comrade/v02n01-oct-1902-The-Comrade.pdf