Review of the Book
by Lancelot Hogben
[Reprinted from The Freeman, June, 1940]
Professor Lancelot Hogben, whose latest book is
analyzed in the accompanying critique, is a distinguished
mathematician, perhaps best known to the general public as the
author of Mathematics for the Millions. But he has also
gained a widespread reputation as a new type of reformer, one
who depends on the rationality and efficiency of science for
solution of social and economic problems.
Francis Neilson, author of this critique, was a member of the
British Parliament during the first World War, and is author of
Man at the Crossroads and other volumes on social and
economic subjects. He will be the principal speaker at the
Commencement Exercises of the Henry George School of Social
Science to be held in New York on June 8.
On the jacket of Dangerous Thoughts the publisher informs us
that the author, Lancelot Bogben, possesses "as lucid and
powerful an intelligence as exists in Europe." This is not a bad
beginning by way of introduction, for I must confess I have not read
Mathematics for the Millions or any of his other books;
indeed, Dangerous Thoughts is the first link in my
acquaintance with the author.
: In the first essay, called "The Creed of a Scientific
Humanist," he assures us that it is this creed which he
professes, and that this profession is the one he tries to practise.
He tells us that the anticipations of Socialism before and
immediately after the Great War did not materialize, "From the
moment when all hope of return to pre-War conditions was officially
abandoned by conservative politicians the official Socialist patties
entered an eclipse which has lasted ever since." Further on he
says, "While laisser-faire was in the ascendant Socialism meant
having some plan in contradistinction to none."
It is curious how this notion persists -- that England or any other
country ever enjoyed a system of laisser-faire. If scientists would
only take the trouble, when they wish to indulge in such fancies, to
read works published in recent years on the Physiocrats, they would
save themselves the humiliation of flagrantly breaking the rules laid
down in their own classrooms. For such an error in natural history or
mathematics, Hogben would plough or flunk a student.
Let us, however, become acquainted with the creed Hogben practises.
"The social control of scientific humanism is the
recognition that the sufficient basis for rational cooperation
between citizens is scientific investigation of the common needs of
mankind, a scientific inventory of resources available for
satisfying them, and a realistic survey of how modern social
institutions contribute to or militate against the use of such
resources for the satisfaction of fundamental human needs."
With little alteration this would do for a statement of the first
intentions of the New Deal, which we nave had for eight years in this
country and, up to now, to use the phrase of the man-to-the-street, "nothin'
doing." Eleven millions unemployed and the national debt raised
from nineteen billions to over forty billions! In this country
scientific humanism which in its operations has had the benefit of
Brain Trusters, Best Minds and specially drilled, college-reared
advocates of change, has proceeded from failure to failure with a
regularity that even the yes-men in Congress are beginning to notice.
Of course, scientific humanism as it is to be practised by Mr. Hogben
is proof against failure. He does not realize that Germany is today
suffering from scientific humanism inflicted with an iron hand, forged
in the furnace of hate. I hope he will not think I am pro-German when
I say that I do not know how the scientific humanists of England could
do better than the same cult working in Germany.
If Mr. Hogben really believes that the exercise of scientific
humanism is all that is necessary for bringing peace and plenty to the
people, I feel sure that the rest of his life will be charged with
humiliation and disappointment. Something more is required, and how
any scientist living in England can fail to see that it is the lack of
laisser-faire which is the cause of present conditions, is something
which I cannot understand.
He asks for a fairer distribution of the produce. Does he know what
occasions the unequal distribution of wealth? I doubt it, for he gives
one the impression that the study of economics is quite unnecessary
for the scientific humanist. Science alone if practised according to
Hogben, would be quite sufficient to solve the equalities which exist.
A knowledge of fundamental economics -- say, for instance, the three
primary factors in production -- belongs to the "dismal"
science. He fails to see that no matter what changes are made by
Science and its gadgets, the old factors are still present and govern
in the production of wealth and its distribution.
Scientific humanists should know they cannot by Science increase the
girth of the earth, the place on which men seek a living. The earth,
is large enough and there are men enough to exploit its resource, but
millions go hungry. Why? Two of many reasons may be given: (1) most
men cannot use it freely because it is owned by private individuals;
(2) State aid, private philanthropy and sentimental politicians have
destroyed initiative in men and the desire to fend for themselves. The
conspiracy against the poor goes on steadily, notwithstanding the
advance of Science and no matter whether the Tories, the Liberals or
the Laborites sit on the front beach, and no matter how many
scientists are humanized nor how many schemes of "amelioration"
are launched to keep the impoverished quiet. It is now bread and
circus for the needy and the loaf era, rent and leisure for the land
When he turns to the difficulties of scientific progress after the
Reformation, Hogben reveals a looseness of statement that would not be
tolerated in his students. "It is obvious that organized
Christianity was an impediment to scientific inquiry in the Italy of
Galileo, in the France of Descartes, in the Germany of Haeckel, and in
the England of Darwin." Such a statement requires not only
modification but expiation. The Galileo myth was dealt with long ago,
even by Huxley, and there is no excuse for a "lucid and powerful
intelligence" overlooking the fact. Moreover, organized science
was not a bad second in thwarting scientific Inquiry. Take the case of
Darwin and Samuel Butler after Life and Habit was published. A
long list of great scientists who suffered at the hands of organized
science could easily be drawn up, but such an exercise has not
powerfully attracted such men as Mr. Hogben and Lord Russell. At any
rate, before the Reformation, whatever science we had sprang from the
Church, and today the Jesuits themselves have proved that Science does
not conflict with religion.
Nowhere in the work does our professor think it worth while to define
the word wealth. Therefore, it is impossible for the reader to know
what he is driving at. As this word has so much to do with the Age of
Plenty he seeks, it seems absolutely necessary that a scientific
humanist, before he launches his scheme, should know the substances
with which he is dealing. In the laboratories at Aberdeen, presumably
the students are clearly informed by the chemists of the nature of the
elements used in experiments. A bio-chemist would be shocked to find a
student proceeding with an experiment if he did not know what sodium
was or what might happen when it came in contact with water. Can there
be any excuse for a scientific humanist despising economics and
neglecting to know the precise meaning of the term wealth?
Again, we receive a setback when we are told "the necessary
desideratum is to define human needs consistently with the Darwinian
doctrine." Which doctrine of Darwin's does Professor Hogben refer
to? A course in Samuel Butler is surely necessary for the scientist
who is under the impression that there is only one Darwinian doctrine.
As we proceed through this highly entertaining series of essays, the
fog becomes thicker and thicker. It is amusing to see it gather around
the scientific humanist as he flounders about in (for him) uncharted
domains. He tells us:
"The word plenty defined with reference to man's
species needs has therefore a perfectly clear social meaning which
remains in spite of the continued existence of Austrian economists.
Plenty is the excess of free energy over the collective calorie debt
of human effort applied to securing the needs which all human beings
It never occurred to me that the plenty which I enjoy could be
defined in this manner. It reminds me of the calorie rage at the depth
of the depression, when a nurse in a hospital said to a wife visiting
a sick man: "Have you had your calories today?" Her reply
was, "No, I hate the things. I had a good square meal instead."
One of the essays starts with a question:
"People have stopped asking, Can capitalism survive?
No intelligent individual under forty-five years of age imagines
that it can. What is less certain is an answer to the question, Can
the human race survive?"
"Can capitalism survive?" In some strange way it has
survived since. Marx and Engels began their work, and no matter what
those under forty-five have to say about its future length of tenure,
I do not mind prophesying that there will be scientific humanists a
hundred years from now who will be asking the same stupid question.
The reason these questions are asked is that the curious have never
taken the trouble to inform themselves as to what capitalism is.
Capitalism began, I presume, with the first tool that was made, being
that part of wealth that aids in the production of more wealth.
Recently in Anatolia, Professor Garstang and Dr. Burkitt uncovered
tools of the sixth millenium B. C., and men have been lending, tools
to other men on the payment of interest for use and wear and tear ever
since that time. And so long as tools can lighten labor, men will
continue to carry on the system. Lenin learned a lot when he had to
put into practice what had been tabulated on a blueprint. And so will
Professor Hogben, when he begins. As for the human race, it will get
over its present setback. It wriggled through the Black Death and the
Great War; it witnessed the exploits of Caesar ("dead and turned
to clay"); it survived the Reformation and the Thirty Years War;
it saw the rise of Bonaparte, endured the butchery which took place
from Moscow to Corunna, and it is now, with fortitude and unseemly
tolerance, enduring the inflictions of the New Deal. And what is more,
the human race, in spite of contraceptives, will rear children, send
them to the wars and bury them in foreign lands. It will go on because
this business is conducted by men whom scientific humanists have never
taken the trouble to study. Anthropology is a science; medicine is a
science; chemistry is a science; but the man dealt with by these
branches of learning is not the man the politicians use. The man who
carries on from age to age is the world enigma, the container of all
the good and all the evil; the gentleman who confounds the philosopher
is no specimen for an experiment in a laboratory conducted by
There is so much in these essays that might have been written by
members of the Brain Trust that I sometimes think that Professor
Hogben has taken an overdose of Tugwell, Soule and Chase. He makes the
same glaring errors. Here is a sentence that might have been written
by any one of these men:
"In view of the rising popularity of Fascist
doctrines, it is important to emphasize that the distribution of
purchasing power to increase the .volume of effective demand is
essentially different from the view held by the pioneers of
Socialism fifty or a hundred years ago, and it would have been
regarded by them as a capitulation to the prevailing doctrine of
laissez-faire, against which they revolted."
Does Professor Hogben wish to convey the idea that Socialists at any
time revolted against a system which did not exist?
Then he goes on to say:
"If Socialism accepts the distribution of purchasing
power as its primary and sole concern, its success will merely
aggravate the tendencies which have made capitalism a biological
I commend this extraordinary sentence to the Privy Council of the
White House. Corcoran and Cohen, might take to heart this
extraordinary prophecy, for they are at present considering a larger
distribution, according to some, as a means of consolidating the vote
What on earth has capitalism to do with biological success or
failure? Perhaps we may uncover the mystery in the following sentence:
"The Marxist case against capitalism is that capitalism makes for
Increasing poverty." Now we know where to place the blame for,
biological failure. According to Hogben we must infer that poverty and
its attendant ills are inflicted by the system which Socialists call
capitalism. Surely this means that capitalism, desiring the production
of more wealth so that more capital may be used, of set purpose
determines that the people shall be impoverished and defeat the end
for which capitalism is organized. It really means that capitalism is
a system devised by men who persist; in cutting off their noses to
spite their faces. I venture to state that there never was a
capitalist who did not desire whole-heartedly customers with plenty of
money to spend. Our professor will have to look further and much
deeper if he really wants to know why poverty keeps march with
Nor could superficial rhetoric go further than this: "As I see
it, capitalism is no longer a creative force." I defy any
reasonable creature to say in precise terms what this sentence means.
Why creative? Does Professor Hogben mean a productive force? What
could capitalism create? It does not create land; it does not paint
pictures, chisel statues, compose symphonies or write poems. These are
not the jobs capitalists undertake. Moreover, capitalism is not an
organization, no matter what may toe said of combines and cartels. The
comprehensive term is supposed to cover the activities of all
capitalists no matter where they are. Sometimes he refers to
capitalism as if it were an eleemosynary institution; again, as an
educational establishment, or a Toynbee Hall or Cooper Institute. Very
often in spite of his objection to organized Christianity before or
after the Reformation, he gives one the Impression that capitalism
ought to be a Christian Endeavor association. But he seldom stops to
explain; off he goes at a tangent, carried away by his exhilarating
verbosity, and the result is that we get nothing but outright
assertion -- sheer statement -- and, when all is said and done, there
is scarcely anything touching economic, industrial and social
conditions that hasn't been said over and over again since the
Communist Manifesto was published. However, Professor Hogben says it
all with an exuberance that is highly entertaining, for he is a great
mathematician and Regius Professor of Natural History at the
University of Aberdeen! Still, it is as true of Hogben as it is of
ninety-five percent of our professors in schools of economics in our
universities, that they should, when the weary day is over and the
teaching task is done, repair to a night school where they may learn
how to define simple economic terms and learn something of the
fundamentals of production.
Professor Hogben is passing through the phase all Socialists must
suffer at some time .We have seen in Lenin and Trotsky, in Kautsky and
numbers of others since the World War a desire to re-fashion the
worn-out props they have used. It amounts to this: if we must abandon
the old shibboleth, let us find a new name for it and retain all its
unquestionable features dressed in the height of fashion. No one will
recognize the old strumpet in a new garb!