The ‘Christian Socialist’ Period, 1877–1886

  • John F. Henry
Part of the Contemporary Economists book series (CONTECON)


Clark’s theoretical development cannot be understood outside the larger economic, political and ideological context within which it unfolded. Essentially, both the early, ‘Christian Socialist’ Clark and the mature, neoclassical Clark were a product of and a response to an intense period of conflict in which prevailing institutions were undergoing substantial change and social authority was losing its hold over the underlying population.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Much of the argument contained in this and the ensuing chapter will be found in Henry, 1982; 1983; 1995.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    ‘Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century virtually all economic and politics had been taught by professors of Mental and Moral Philosophy. The philosophy of these classrooms usually consisted of an elaborate apologetic for Christianity and the inculcation of Christian moral ideas. … Secular social theory presented a direct challenge to both the authority and function of the church and its instruction’ (Everett, [1946] 1982, p. 24). At the same time, this is not to say that all those opposing extant society and/or its institutions were irreligious. Henry George argued that his system was a divinely-structured natural order.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    And in so doing, made his own life uncomfortable. In an informed study of Darwin’s work in relation to the larger society surrounding him, Howard Gruber has shown that the principal reason that Darwin was so hesitant to publish his researches was his fear of persecution by the prevailing authority of the time (Gruber, 1981, especially chapter 2).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    And lest one think that the enemy was oblivious to Darwin, the noted labor organizer William (‘Big Bill’) Hay wood reports that miners on the western frontier maintained circulating libraries in which one found Darwin’s Origin of Species as one of the most prominent works (Haywood, 1929, p. 23). Also, Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe, though something of a vulgar popularized account of Darwinian theory, was translated into twenty-five languages and sold millions of copies in its ten editions (Gasman, 1971, p. 14).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This is not to say that Marx and Engels uncritically adopted the Darwinian framework. Indeed, Marx saw Darwin as being influenced by the society surrounding him and thus allowing conventional Victorian ideas to somewhat shape his scientific views. The connection between Darwin and Marx lies in the general theory of evolutionary change rather than the specifics thereof. Nor does this contention imply that some aspects of Darwin’s work could not be used to buttress conservative doctrine. Surely the whole argument of’ social Darwinism’ has at least something to do with some features of Darwin’s theory. See Bannister, 1979. Finally, it is true that conservative, ‘neoclassical’ economists of the day saw a justification for their competitive, laissez-faire approach in Darwin. See Schweber, 1980.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Originally, however, Spencer had argued his case in the context of divine law (Fine, [1965] 1964, p. 33).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Concurrently, a conservative trend in American religious circles emerged in 1877, that of a millennial evangelicism led by Dwight Moody. While this tendency certainly had an impact in its inception period, it is probably more important in establishing the basis for today’s fundamentalist developments. What is perhaps of greatest significance here is that the different religious movements represented differing responses to the social stress of the period, one attempting to maintain existing authority through forward-looking reform, the other through a backward-looking appeal to certainty. This is not unusual. Indeed, we observe the same development at various points in history whenever society is subjected to significant upheavals (see Lewy, 1974). Moreover, while various individuals and organizations of a religious bent appear to welcome change of a revolutionary sort (witness the peasant movements of the medieval period-Jan Huss, John Ball, et. al), the principal function of the reformist trend would appear to be that of directing social movements into safe channels, deflecting the revolutionaries and preserving the sanctity of property. Thus, in the modern ‘Liberation Theology’ movement in Latin America, the Church has acted to maintain a progressive appearance while eliminating the revolutionary threat posed by communist priests, et al. within that movement through the time-honored tradition of simply expelling them and adopting a program that continues to lie within the existing constraints of current authority within those countries (Levine, 1986, especially pp. 246–7).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    One might compare Walker’s argument on divine harmonies to that of the French journalist-economist Frederick Bastiat: All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern …. For certainly, if humanity is inevitably impelled toward injustice by the laws of value, toward inequality by the laws of rent, toward poverty by the laws of population … we cannot say that God’s handiwork is harmonious in the social order …. (Bastiat, [1850] 1964, pp. xxi, xxviii, emphasis in original).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    In ‘The Philosophy of Value’, Clark establishes his claim as an independent co-discoverer of the law of diminishing marginal utility (in Clark’s terms, ‘effective utility’) (Clark, 1881, pp. 460–2). Given that this article was written ten years after the publication of Jevon’s The Theory of Political Economy (and ignoring all the literature pointing in this direction prior to Jevons), one should not, perhaps, put too much emphasis on this claim. Or, perhaps, this may be evidence of Stigler’s argument on the gradualist rather than revolutionary process by which this theoretical position reached dominance (Stigler, in Black et al., 1973, pp. 305–20).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    It is noteworthy that in this article, Clark puts forward a crude notion of price elasticity of demand, separating goods into two orders (‘lower’ as food and ‘higher’ as works of art) according to his perception of their relative elasticities (Clark, 1877b, pp. 720–1).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ironically, Marx and Engels, in their The Holy Family (1844) and The German Ideology (1845–47), had subjected German ‘true socialism’ to bitter and scathing criticism for developing an argument similar to that of Clark’s in that the German writers concocted various schemes that were not based on an examination of actual social movements, but rather were simply the idealized versions of what they would like to have seen. Further, as these ideas were not based on an examination of social processes, they largely reflected and reinforced the ideology and institutions of the society that surrounded them and of which they were a part-capitalism. See Marx and Engels [1845–47] 1976, pp. 479–611.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Indeed, in a series of book reviews written for The New Englander in 1880, Clark demonstrates precisely these points as well as illustrating his affinity for the Social Gospel as a constraining force. In his review of Woolsey’s Communism and Socialism, Clark makes it clear that his argument is directed against Marx (the only mention of this theorist I have found in his writings) (Clark, 1880b, p. 415). In his (less favorable) review of Thompson’s The Workman, Clark sympathizes with the author’s attack on the ‘false friends’ of the working class ‘ … those who would teach him delusive theories of Political Economy, arouse his enmity against property-owners, and incite him to riot and socialism’ (Clark, 1880c, p. 417), and the Reverend Thompson’s advocacy of religious instruction as a vehicle through which the worker can be turned away from such ‘false friends’ (Ibid., p. 418). Clark concludes his review by claiming the book to be ‘ … one of the best of its class, an effective, popular argument for the existing industrial system, as against the socialist schemers whom the author learned to know during his German residence, and from whose migration to this country he entertained serious apprehensions’ (Ibid., p. 418). In his extremely favorable review of Joseph Cook’s Socialism, we see clearly Clark’s affinity to the Social Gospel movement. Cook was one of the leaders of this organization, and in a series of lectures comprising the volume reviewed layed out the tenents of the movement which basically revolved around the distinction between ‘political socialism’ and ‘cooperative socialism’, the latter including large corporatist capitalist structures (Clark, 1880d, pp. 704–6).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Clark’s conception of competition is ever changing. At no point does he specify precisely what he means and it certainly is true that the meaning does change within various contexts. Perhaps the best way to define Clark’s use of the term is as an ‘ether’ through which the specifics of his arguments run their course. See Morgan, 1993. It does appear, though, that in the most general of contexts he equates competition and capitalism.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John F. Henry 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • John F. Henry
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsCalifornia State UniversitySacramentoUSA

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