A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


“I could not give you a clear account of the present state of things in my country,” the Altrurian began, “without first telling you something of our conditions before the time of our Evolution. It seems to be the law of all life that nothing can come to fruition without dying and seeming to make an end. It must be sown in corruption before it can be raised in incorruption. The truth itself must perish to our senses before it can live to our souls; the Son of Man must suffer upon the cross before we can know the Son, of God.

“It was so with His message to the world, which we received in the old time as an ideal realized by the earliest Christians, who loved one another and who had all things common. The apostle cast away upon our heathen coasts won us with the story of this first Christian republic, and he established a commonwealth of peace and good-will among us in its likeness. That commonwealth perished, just as its prototype perished, or seemed to perish; and long ages of civic and economic warfare succeeded, when every man’s hand was against his neighbor, and might was the rule that got itself called right. Religion ceased to be the hope of this world, and became the vague promise of the next. We descended into the valley of the shadow, and dwelt amid chaos for ages before we groped again into the light.

“The first glimmerings were few and indistinct, but men formed themselves about the luminous points here and there, and, when these broke and dispersed into lesser gleams, still men formed themselves about each of them. There arose a system of things better, indeed, than that darkness, but full of war and lust and greed, in which the weak rendered homage to the strong, and served them in the field and in the camp, and the strong in turn gave the weak protection against the other strong. It was a juggle in which the weak did not see that their safety was, after all, from themselves; but it was an image of peace, however false and fitful, and it endured for a time. It endured for a limited time, if we measure by the life of the race; it endured for an unlimited time if we measure by the lives of the men who were born and died while it endured.

“But that disorder, cruel and fierce and stupid, which endured because it sometimes masked itself as order, did at last pass away. Here and there one of the strong overpowered the rest; then the strong became fewer and fewer, and in their turn they all yielded to a supreme lord, and throughout the land there was one rule, as it was called then, or one misrule, as we should call it now. This rule, or this misrule, continued for ages more; and again, in the immortality of the race, men toiled and struggled, and died without the hope of better things.

“Then the time came when the long nightmare was burst with the vision of a future in which all men were the law, and not one man, or any less number of men than all.

“The poor dumb beast of humanity rose, and the throne tumbled, and the sceptre was broken, and the crown rolled away into that darkness of the past. We thought that heaven had descended to us, and that liberty, equality, and fraternity were ours. We could not see what should again alienate us from one another, or how one brother could again oppress another. With a free field and no favor we believed we should prosper on together, and there would be peace and plenty for all. We had the republic again after so many ages now, and the republic, as we knew it in our dim annals, was brotherhood and universal happiness. All but a very few, who prophesied evil of our lawless freedom, were wrapped in a delirium of hope. Men’s minds and men’s hands were suddenly released to an activity unheard of before. Invention followed invention; our rivers and seas became the warp of commerce where the steam-sped shuttles carried the woof of enterprise to and fro with tireless celerity; machines to save labor multiplied themselves as if they had been procreative forces, and wares of every sort were produced with incredible swiftness and cheapness. Money seemed to flow from the ground; vast fortunes ‘rose like an exhalation,’ as your Milton says.

“At first we did not know that they were the breath of the nethermost pits of hell, and that the love of money, which was becoming universal with us, was filling the earth with the hate of men. It was long before we came to realize that in the depths of our steamships were those who fed the fires with their lives, and that our mines from which we dug our wealth were the graves of those who had died to the free light and air, without finding the rest of death. We did not see that the machines for saving labor were monsters that devoured women and children, and wasted men at the bidding of the power which no man must touch.

“That is, we thought we must not touch it, for it called itself prosperity and wealth and the public good, and it said that it gave bread, and it impudently bade the toiling myriads consider what would become of them if it took away their means of wearing themselves out in its service. It demanded of the state absolute immunity and absolute impunity, the right to do its will wherever and however it would, without question from the people who were the final law. It had its way, and under its rule we became the richest people under the sun. The Accumulation, as we called this power, because we feared to call it by its true name, rewarded its own with gains of twenty, of a hundred, of a thousand per cent., and to satisfy its need, to produce the labor that operated its machines, there came into existence a hapless race of men who bred their kind for its service, and whose little ones were its prey almost from their cradles. Then the infamy became too great, and the law, the voice of the people, so long guiltily silent, was lifted in behalf of those who had no helper. The Accumulation came under control for the first time, and could no longer work its slaves twenty hours a day amid perils to life and limb from its machinery and in conditions that forbade them decency and morality. The time of a hundred and a thousand per cent. passed; but still the Accumulation demanded immunity and impunity, and, in spite of its conviction of the enormities it had practised, it declared itself the only means of civilization and progress. It began to give out that it was timid, though its history was full of the boldest frauds and crimes, and it threatened to withdraw itself if it were ruled or even crossed; and again it had its way, and we seemed to prosper more and more. The land was filled with cities where the rich flaunted their splendor in palaces, and the poor swarmed in squalid tenements. The country was drained of its life and force, to feed the centres of commerce and industry. The whole land was bound together with a network of iron roads that linked the factories and founderies to the fields and mines, and blasted the landscape with the enterprise that spoiled the lives of men.

“Then, all at once, when its work seemed perfect and its dominion sure, the Accumulation was stricken with consciousness of the lie always at its heart. It had hitherto cried out for a free field and no favor, for unrestricted competition; but, in truth, it had never prospered except as a monopoly. Whenever and wherever competition had play there had been nothing but disaster to the rival enterprises, till one rose over the rest. Then there was prosperity for that one.

“The Accumulation began to act upon its new consciousness. The iron roads united; the warring industries made peace, each kind under a single leadership. Monopoly, not competition, was seen to be the beneficent means of distributing the favors and blessings of the Accumulation to mankind. But, as before, there was alternately a glut and dearth of things, and it often happened that when starving men went ragged through the streets the storehouses were piled full of rotting harvests that the farmers toiled from dawn till dusk to grow, and the warehouses fed the moth with the stuffs that the operative had woven his life into at his loom. Then followed, with a blind and mad succession, a time of famine, when money could not buy the super-abundance that vanished, none knew how or why.

“The money itself vanished from time to time, and disappeared into the vaults of the Accumulation, for no better reason than that for which it poured itself out at other times. Our theory was that the people — that is to say, the government of the people — made the people’s money, but, as a matter of fact, the Accumulation made it and controlled it and juggled with it; and now you saw it, and now you did not see it. The government made gold coins, but the people had nothing but the paper money that the Accumulation made. But whether there was scarcity or plenty, the failures went on with a continuous ruin that nothing could check, while our larger economic life proceeded in a series of violent shocks, which we called financial panics, followed by long periods of exhaustion and recuperation.

“There was no law in our economy, but as the Accumulation had never cared for the nature of law, it did not trouble itself for its name in our order of things. It had always bought the law it needed for its own use, first through the voter at the polls in the more primitive days, and then, as civilization advanced, in the legislatures and the courts. But the corruption even of these methods was far surpassed when the era of consolidation came, and the necessity for statutes and verdicts and decisions became more stringent. Then we had such a burlesque of —”

“Look here!” a sharp, nasal voice snarled across the rich, full pipe of the Altrurian, and we all instantly looked there. The voice came from an old farmer, holding himself stiffly up, with his hands in his pockets and his lean frame bent toward the speaker. “When are you goin’ to get to Altrury? We know all about Ameriky.”

He sat down again, and it was a moment before the crowd caught on. Then a yell of delight and a roar of volleyed laughter went up from the lower classes, in which, I am sorry to say, my friend the banker joined, so far as the laughter was concerned. “Good! That’s it! First-rate!” came from a hundred vulgar throats.

“Isn’t it a perfect shame?” Mrs. Makely demanded. “I think some of you gentlemen ought to say something. What will Mr. Homos think of our civilization if we let such interruptions go unrebuked?”

She was sitting between the banker and myself, and her indignation made him laugh more and more. “Oh, it serves him right,” he said. “Don’t you see that he is hoist with his own petard? Let him alone. He’s in the hands of his friends.”

The Altrurian waited for the tumult to die away, and then he said, gently: “I don’t understand.”

The old farmer jerked himself to his feet again. “It’s like this: I paid my dolla’ to hear about a country where there wa’n’t no co’perations nor no monop’lies nor no buyin’ up cou’ts; and I ain’t agoin’ to have no allegory shoved down my throat, instead of a true history, noways. I know all about how it is here. Fi’st, run their line through your backya’d, and then kill off your cattle, and keep kerryin’ on it up from cou’t to cou’t, till there ain’t hide or hair on ’em left —”

“Oh, set down, set down! Let the man go on! He’ll make it all right with you,” one of the construction gang called out; but the farmer stood his ground, and I could hear him through the laughing and shouting keep saying something, from time to time, about not wanting to pay no dolla’ for no talk about co’perations and monop’lies that we had right under our own noses the whole while, and, you might say, in your very bread-troughs; till, at last, I saw Reuben Camp make his way toward him, and, after an energetic expostulation, turn to leave him again.

Then he faltered out, “I guess it’s all right,” and dropped out of sight in the group he had risen from. I fancied his wife scolding him there, and all but shaking him in public.

“I should be very sorry,” the Altrurian proceeded, “to have any one believe that I have not been giving you a bona fide account of conditions in my country before the Evolution, when we first took the name of Altruria in our great, peaceful campaign against the Accumulation. As for offering you any allegory or travesty of your own conditions, I will simply say that I do not know them well enough to do so intelligently. But, whatever they are, God forbid that the likeness which you seem to recognize should ever go so far as the desperate state of things which we finally reached. I will not trouble you with details; in fact, I have been afraid that I had already treated of our affairs too abstractly; but, since your own experience furnishes you the means of seizing my meaning, I will go on as before.

“You will understand me when I explain that the Accumulation had not erected itself into the sovereignty with us unopposed. The working-men, who suffered most from its oppression had early begun to band themselves against it, with the instinct of self-preservation, first trade by trade and art by art, and then in congresses and federations of the trades and arts, until finally they enrolled themselves in one vast union, which included all the working-men, whom their necessity or their interest did not leave on the side of the Accumulation. This beneficent and generous association of the weak for the sake of the weakest did not accomplish itself fully till the baleful instinct of the Accumulation had reduced the monopolies to one vast monopoly, till the stronger had devoured the weaker among its members, and the supreme agent stood at the head of our affairs, in everything but name, our imperial ruler. We had hugged so long the delusion of each man for himself that we had suffered all realty to be taken from us. The Accumulation owned the land as well as the mines under it and the shops over it; the Accumulation owned the seas and the ships that sailed the seas, and the fish that swam in their depths; it owned transportation and distribution, and the wares and products that were to be carried to and fro; and, by a logic irresistible and inexorable, the Accumulation was, and we were not.

“But the Accumulation, too, had forgotten something. It had found it so easy to buy legislatures and courts that it did not trouble itself about the polls. It left us the suffrage, and let us amuse ourselves with the periodical election of the political clay images which it manipulated and moulded to any shape and effect at its pleasure. The Accumulation knew that it was the sovereignty, whatever figure-head we called president or governor or mayor: we had other names for these officials, but I use their analogues for the sake of clearness, and I hope my good friend over there will not think I am still talking about America.”

“No,” the old farmer called back, without rising, “we hain’t got there quite yit.”

“No hurry,” said a trainman. “All in good time. Go on!” he called to the Altrurian.

The Altrurian resumed:

“There had been, from the beginning, an almost ceaseless struggle between the Accumulation and the proletariate. The Accumulation always said that it was the best friend of the proletariate, and it denounced, through the press which it controlled, the proletarian leaders who taught that it was the enemy of the proletariate, and who stirred up strikes and tumults of all sorts, for higher wages and fewer hours. But the friend of the proletariate, whenever occasion served, treated the proletariate like a deadly enemy. In seasons of overproduction, as it was called, it locked the workmen out or laid them off, and left their families to starve, or ran light work and claimed the credit of public benefactors for running at all. It sought every chance to reduce wages; it had laws passed to forbid or cripple the workmen in their strikes; and the judges convicted them of conspiracy, and wrested the statutes to their hurt, in cases where there had been no thought of embarrassing them, even among the legislators. God forbid that you should ever come to such a pass in America; but, if you ever should, God grant that you may find your way out as simply as we did at last, when freedom had perished in everything but name among us, and justice had become a mockery.

“The Accumulation had advanced so smoothly, so lightly, in all its steps to the supreme power, and had at last so thoroughly quelled the uprisings of the proletariate, that it forgot one thing: it forgot the despised and neglected suffrage. The ballot, because it had been so easy to annul its effect, had been left in the people’s hands; and when, at last, the leaders of the proletariate ceased to counsel strikes, or any form of resistance to the Accumulation that could be tormented into the likeness of insurrection against the government, and began to urge them to attack it in the political way, the deluge that swept the Accumulation out of existence came trickling and creeping over the land. It appeared first in the country, a spring from the ground; then it gathered head in the villages; then it swelled to a torrent in the cities. I cannot stay to trace its course; but suddenly, one day, when the Accumulation’s abuse of a certain power became too gross, it was voted out of that power. You will perhaps be interested to know that it was with the telegraphs that the rebellion against the Accumulation began, and the government was forced, by the overwhelming majority which the proletariate sent to our parliament, to assume a function which the Accumulation had impudently usurped. Then the transportation of smaller and more perishable wares —”

“Yes,” a voice called —“express business. Go on!”

“Was legislated a function of the post-office,” the Altrurian went on. “Then all transportation was taken into the hands of the political government, which had always been accused of great corruption in its administration, but which showed itself immaculately pure compared with the Accumulation. The common ownership of mines necessarily followed, with an allotment of lands to any one who wished to live by tilling the land; but not a foot of the land was remitted to private hands for the purposes of selfish pleasure or the exclusion of any other from the landscape. As all business had been gathered into the grasp of the Accumulation, and the manufacture of everything they used and the production of everything that they ate was in the control of the Accumulation, its transfer to the government was the work of a single clause in the statute.

“The Accumulation, which had treated the first menaces of resistance with contempt, awoke to its peril too late. When it turned to wrest the suffrage from the proletariate, at the first election where it attempted to make head against them, it was simply snowed under, as your picturesque phrase is. The Accumulation had no voters, except the few men at its head and the creatures devoted to it by interest and ignorance. It seemed, at one moment, as if it would offer an armed resistance to the popular will, but, happily, that moment of madness passed. Our Evolution was accomplished without a drop of bloodshed, and the first great political brotherhood, the commonwealth of Altruria, was founded.

“I wish that I had time to go into a study of some of the curious phases of the transformation from a civility in which the people lived upon each other to one in which they lived for each other. There is a famous passage in the inaugural message of our first Altrurian president which compares the new civic consciousness with that of a disembodied spirit released to the life beyond this and freed from all the selfish cares and greeds of the flesh. But perhaps I shall give a sufficiently clear notion of the triumph of the change among us when I say that within half a decade after the fall of the old plutocratic oligarchy one of the chief directors of the Accumulation publicly expressed his gratitude to God that the Accumulation had passed away forever. You will realize the importance of such an expression in recalling the declarations some of your slave-holders have made since the Civil War, that they would not have slavery restored for any earthly consideration.

“But now, after this preamble, which has been so much longer than I meant it to be, how shall I give you a sufficiently just conception of the existing Altruria, the actual state from which I come?”

“Yes,” came the nasal of the old farmer again, “that’s what we are here fur. I wouldn’t give a copper to know all you went through beforehand. It’s too dumn like what we have been through ourselves, as fur as heard from.”

A shout of laughter went up from most of the crowd, but the Altrurian did not seem to see any fun in it.

“Well,” he resumed, “I will tell you, as well as I can, what Altruria is like; but, in the first place, you will have to cast out of your minds all images of civilization with which your experience has filled them. For a time the shell of the old Accumulation remained for our social habitation, and we dwelt in the old competitive and monopolistic forms after the life had gone out of them — that is, we continued to live in populous cities, and we toiled to heap up riches for the moth to corrupt, and we slaved on in making utterly useless things, merely because we had the habit of making them to sell. For a while we made the old sham things, which pretended to be useful things and were worse than the confessedly useless things. I will give you an illustration from the trades, which you will all understand. The proletariate, in the competitive and monopolistic time, used to make a kind of shoes for the proletariate, or the women of the proletariate, which looked like fine shoes of the best quality. It took just as much work to make these shoes as to make the best fine shoes; but they were shams through and through. They wore out in a week, and the people called them, because they were bought fresh for every Sunday —”

“Sat’d’y-night shoes,” screamed the old farmer. “I know ’em. My gals buy ’em. Half-dolla’ a pai’, and not wo’th the money.”

“Well,” said the Altrurian, “they were a cheat and a lie in every way, and under the new system it was not possible, when public attention was called to the fact, to continue the falsehood they embodied. As soon as the Saturday-night shoes realized itself to the public conscience, an investigation began, and it was found that the principle of the Saturday-night shoe underlay half our industries and made half the work that was done.

“Then an immense reform took place. We renounced, in the most solemn convocation of the whole economy, the principle of the Saturday-night shoe, and those who had spent their lives in producing sham shoes —”

“Yes,” said the professor, rising from his seat near us and addressing the speaker, “I shall be very glad to know what became of the worthy and industrious operatives who were thrown out of employment by this explosion of economic virtue.”

“Why,” the Altrurian replied, “they were set to work making honest shoes; and, as it took no more time to make a pair of honest shoes which lasted a year than it took to make a pair of dishonest shoes that lasted a week, the amount of labor in shoemaking was at once enormously reduced.”

“Yes,” said the professor, “I understand that. What became of the shoemakers?”

“They joined the vast army of other laborers who had been employed, directly or indirectly, in the fabrication of fraudulent wares. These shoemakers — lasters, button-holers, binders, and so on — no longer wore themselves out over their machines. One hour sufficed where twelve hours were needed before, and the operatives were released to the happy labor of the fields, where no one with us toils killingly, from dawn till dusk, but does only as much work as is needed to keep the body in health. We had a continent to refine and beautify; we had climates to change and seasons to modify, a whole system of meteorology to readjust, and the public works gave employment to the multitudes emancipated from the soul-destroying service of shams. I can scarcely give you a notion of the vastness of the improvements undertaken and carried through, or still in process of accomplishment. But a single one will, perhaps, afford a sufficient illustration. Our southeast coast, from its vicinity to the pole, had always suffered from a winter of antarctic rigor; but our first president conceived the plan of cutting off a peninsula, which kept the equatorial current from making in to our shores; and the work was begun in his term, though the entire strip, twenty miles in width and ninety-three in length, was not severed before the end of the first Altrurian decade. Since that time the whole region of our southeastern coast has enjoyed the climate of your Mediterranean countries.

“It was not only the makers of fraudulent things who were released to these useful and wholesome labors, but those who had spent themselves in contriving ugly and stupid and foolish things were set free to the public employment. The multitude of these monstrosities and iniquities was as great as that of the shams —”

Here I lost some words, for the professor leaned over and whispered to me: “He has got that out of William Morris. Depend upon it, the man is a humbug. He is not an Altrurian at all.”

I confess that my heart misgave me; but I signalled the professor to be silent, and again gave the Altrurian — if he was an Altrurian — my whole attention.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38