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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

After Capitalism-What? (1933), Reinhold Niebuhr

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The onset of the Great Depression prompted many people to reflect upon the nature of capitalism as an economic system. One of the most insightful assessments came from Reinhold Niebuhr, a brilliant young minister and theologian who highlighted the pervasive social injustice made visible by the economic collapse. He contended that such inequality was the natural result of a capitalist civilization doomed to collapse.


The following analysis of American social and political conditions is written on the assumption that capitalism is dying and with the conviction that it ought to die. It is dying because it is a contracting economy which is unable to support the necessities of an industrial system that requires mass production for its maintenance,and because it disturbs the relations of an international economic system with the anarchy of nationalistic politics. It ought to die because it is unable to make the wealth created by modern technology available to all who participate in the productive process on terms of justice.

The conviction that capitalism is dying and that it ought to die gives us no clue to the method of its passing. Will it perish in another world war? Or in the collapse of the credit structure through which it manipulates its various functions? Will it, perhaps, give way to a new social order created by the political power of those who have been disinherited by it? Or will it be destroyed by a revolution? These questions are difficult to answer for any portion of Western civilization, and they are particularly puzzling when directed to the American scene. We may believe that the basic forces moving in modern industrial society are roughly similar in all nations. Yet we cannot evade the fact that various nations reveal a wide variety of unique social and economic characteristics and that our own nation is particularly unique in some of the aspects of its political and economic life. Our wealth has been greater than that of any modern nation, the ideals of a pioneer democracy have retarded the formation of definite classes, the frontier spirit belongs to so recent a past that its individualism is not yet dissipated, and the complete preoccupation of the nation with its engineering task to the exclusion of political and social problems makes us singularly incompetent as a people in the field of politics. All these factors, and some others which might be mentioned, warn the prophet to be circumspect in applying generalizations derived from European conditions to our situation. It is therefore advisable to divide our problem of analysis by considering first those aspects of the situation about which generalizations equally applicable to Europe and America can be made; the uniquely American aspects may then be seen in clearer light.

The most generally applicable judgment which can be made is that capitalism will not reform itself from within. There is nothing in history to support the thesis that a dominant class ever yields its position or privileges in society because its rule has been convicted of ineptness or injustices. Those who still regard this as possible are rationalists and moralists who have only a slight understanding of the stubborn inertia and blindness of collective egoism.

Politically this judgment implies that liberalism in politics is a spent force. In so far as liberalism is based upon confidence in the ability and willingness of rational and moral individuals to change the basis of society, it has suffered disillusion in every modem nation. As the social struggle becomes more sharply defined, the confused liberals drift reluctantly into the camp of reaction and the minority of clear-sighted intellectuals and idealists are forced either to espouse the cause of radicalism or to escape to the bleachers and become disinterested observers. Mr. Roosevelt's effort at, or pretension to, liberalizing the Democratic Party may be regarded as a belated American effort to do what Europe has proved to be impossible. Equally futile will be the efforts of liberals who stand to the left of Mr. Roosevelt and who hope to organize a party which will give the feverish American patient pills of diluted socialism coated with liberalism, in the hope that his aversion to bitter pills will thus be circumvented.

All this does not mean that intellectual and moral idealism are futile. They are needed to bring decency and fairness into any system of society; for no basic reorganization of society will ever guarantee the preservation of humaneness if good men do not preserve it. Furthermore, the intelligence of a dominant group will determine in what measure it will yield in time under pressure or to what degree it will defend its entrenched positions so uncompromisingly that an orderly retreat becomes impossible and a disorderly rout envelops the whole of society in chaos. That ought to be high enough stake for those of us to play for who are engaged in the task of education and moral suasion among the privileged. If such conclusions seems unduly cynical they will seem so only because the moral idealists of the past century, both religious and rational, have been unduly sentimental in their estimates of human nature.

Next to the futility of liberalism we may set down the inevitability of fascism as a practical certainty in every Western nation. A disintegrating social system will try to save itself by closing ranks and eliminating the anarchy within itself. It will thus undoubtedly be able to perpetuate itself for several decades. It will not finally succeed because it will have no way of curing the two basic defects of capitalism, inequality of consumption and international anarchy. It will probably succeed longer in Italy and Germany than in America, because fascism in those countries derives its strength from a combination of the military and capitalistic castes. The military caste has a greater interest in avoiding revolution than in preserving the privileges of the capitalists. It may therefore be counted upon to circumscribe these privileges more rigorously than will be the case in America, where such a caste does not exist and where military men lack social prestige.

The certainty that dominant social groups which now control society will not easily yield and that their rule is nevertheless doomed raises interesting problems of strategy for those who desire a new social order. In America these problems are complicated by the fact that there is no real proletarian class in this country. All but the most dis-inherited workers still belong to the middle class, and they will not be united in a strong political party of their own for some years to come. Distressing social experience will finally produce radical convictions among them, but experience without education and an adequate political philosophy will merely result in sporadic violence. We are literally in the midst of a disintegrating economic empire with no receiver in bankruptcy in sight to assume responsibility for the defunct institution. All this probably means that capitalism has many a decade to run in this country, particularly if it should find momentary relief from present difficulties through some inflationary movement. The sooner a strong political labor movement, expressing itself in socialist terms develops, the greater is the probability of achieving essential change without undue violence or social chaos. . . .

Any modern industrial civilization has a natural and justified instinctive avoidance of revolution. It rightly fears that revolution may result in suicide for the whole civilization. When European nations are unable to achieve a bare Socialist majority in their legislative bodies, it is hardly probable that in America we will ever have such a preponderance of Socialist conviction that Socialist amendments to the constitution could be enacted. But revolution is equally unthinkable. There is no possibility of a purely revolutionary movement establishing order on this continent without years of internecine strife. For this reason it is important that parliamentary socialism seek to enact as much of its program as possible within the present constitutional framework during the next decades, without hoping, however, that socialism itself can be established in this manner. The final struggle between socialism and fascism will probably be a long and drawn-out conflict in which it is possible that fascism will finally capitulate without a military or revolutionary venture being initiated against it. It will capitulate simply because the inexorable logic of history plus the determined opposition of the labor group will finally destroy it. The final transfer of power may come through the use of a general strike or some similar technique.

Prediction at long range may seem idle and useless. But it is important to recognize that neither the parliamentary nor the revolutionary course offers modern society an easy way to the mastery of a technological civilization. If this is the case, it becomes very important to develop such forms of resistance and mass coercion as will disturb the intricacies of an industrial civilization as little as possible, and as will preserve the temper of mutual respect within the area of social conflict. Political realists have become cynical about moral and religious idealism in politics chiefly because so frequently it is expressed in terms of confusion which hide the basic facts of the social struggle. Once the realities of this struggle are freely admitted, there is every possibility of introducing very important ethical elements into the struggle in the way, for instance, that Gandhi introduces them in India.

The inability of religious and intellectual idealists to gauge properly the course of historical events results from their constant over-estimate of idealistic and unselfish factors in political life. They think that an entire nation can be educated toward a new social ideal when all the testimony of history proves that new societies are born out of social struggle, in which the positions of the various social groups are determined by their economic interests.

Those who wish to participate in such a struggle creatively, to help history toward a goal of justice and to eliminate as much confusion, chaos and conflict in the attainment of the goal as possible, will accomplish this result only if they do not permit their own comparative emancipation from the determining and conditioning economic factors to obscure the fact that these factors are generally determining. No amount of education or religious idealism will ever persuade a social class to espouse a cause or seek a goal which is counter to its economic interest. Social intelligence can have a part in guiding social impulse only if it does not commit the error of assuming that intelligence has destroyed and sublimated impulse to such a degree that impulse is no longer potent. This is the real issue between liberalism and political realism. The liberal is an idealist who imagines that his particular type of education or his special kind of religious idealism will accomplish what history has never before revealed: the complete sublimation of the natural impulse of a social group.

Dominant groups will always have the impulse to hold on to their power as long as possible. In the interest of a progressive justice they must be dislodged, and this will be done least painfully and with least confusion if the social group which has the future in its hands becomes conscious of its destiny as soon as possible, is disciplined and self-confident in the knowledge of it destiny and gradually acquires all the heights of prestige and power in society which it is possible to acquire without a struggle. When the inevitable struggle comes (for all contests of power must finally issue in a crisis) there is always the possibility that the old will capitulate and the new assume social direction without internecine conflict. That is why an adequate political realism will ultimately make for more peace in society than a liberalism which does not read the facts of human nature and human history right, and which is betrayed by these errors into erroneous historical calculations which prolong the death agonies of the old order and postpone the coming of the new.

It may be important to say in conclusion that educational and religious idealists shrink from the conclusions to which a realistic analysis of history forces the careful student, partly because they live in the false hope that the impulses of nature in man can be sublimated by mind and conscience to a larger degree than is actually possible, and partly because their own personal idealism shrinks from the "brutalities" of the social struggle which a realistic theory envisages. But this idealism is full of confusion. It does not recognize that everyone but the ascetic is a participant in the brutalities of the social struggle now. The only question of importance is on what side of the struggle they are. Think of all the kind souls who stand in horror of a social conflict who are at this moment benefiting from, and living comfortable lives at the expense of, a social system which condemns 13 million men to misery and semi-starvation. Failure to recognize this covert brutality of the social struggle is probably the greatest weakness of middle- class liberals, and it lends a note of hypocrisy and self-deception to every moral pretension which seeks to eliminate violence in the social struggle.

The relation of the sensitive conscience to the brutal realities of man's collective behavior will always create its own problem—a problem in the solution of which orthodox religion has frequently been more shrewd than liberalism because it did not over-estimate the virtue of human society, but rather recognized the "sinful" character of man's collective life. This problem has its own difficulties, and they ought not to be confused with the problem of achieving an adequate social and political strategy for the attainment of a just society or for the attainment of a higher approximation of justice than a decadent capitalism grants.


[From Reinhold Niebuhr, "After Capitalism—What?" The World Tomorrow (1 March 1933): 203-205.]

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