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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Spectre of Poverty (S752: 1913)

Dr. Russel Wallace and His Remedy -- "Levelling Up" -- Hoarding of Wealth a Crime -- "The Wizard" -- Philosopher's View of Mr. Lloyd George

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous interview printed on page one of The Daily News & Leader of 6 January 1913. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S752.htm

    On the eve of his ninetieth birthday (writes a special correspondent of "The Daily News and Leader") that Grand Old Man of Science, Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, received me with a hearty handshake and a bright gleam of spiritual and intellectual youth flashing behind his blue spectacles.

    Contemporary of Darwin, and co-discoverer with him of the theory of natural selection, Dr. Wallace is still vigorous and hale, bubbling over with bright thoughts and happy phrases, and a fine figure of a man withal. There's a touch of Father Time about him in the long, thin hands, the rich flow of snow-white hair and beard, and the attitudes of repose and motion, and I felt sure that if I peered long enough into the dim corners of the library of the Old Orchard at Broadstone, where he received me, I should spy the inevitable scythe.

    The venerable Doctor was enshrined in books: a vast library enfolded him; but for all that a breath of the sea stole in through the open window, carried across the pines from the placid waters of Poole Harbour, and the winter song of a robin in the orchard below, half-fretful and half-joyous, made a pleasant orchestral background for our talk.


    Reclining in a huge armchair, with his feet to the blaze of a comfortable fire, and his long thin fingers weaving fantastic patterns in the air, Dr. Wallace admitted, with a humorous yawn, that he was something of a hermit these days, and sought news of the clamourous world beyond the confines of the robin's melodious acreage. What was happening? How was the Younger Generation taking things? Had we time to think in these clattering times?

    The Younger Generation, thus appealed to, did his best to sub-edit in a brief paragraph the state of affairs generally as they are visualised in the bewildering hive of Fleet-street--the helter-skelter rush of everything and everybody; the taxicab strike that led us all to fume at the crawl of the galloping hansoms we had perforce to take; the performance of wild fantasias in our political booths, with Progress still hammering on through the turmoil.

    "Ah, turmoil!" broke in the old gentleman, with another flash through the blue spectacles. "Turmoil and unrest! The more of all that the better for all of us! That's a very good sign, and so far as I can see things have never been more hopeful than they are just now on the threshold of 1913. And we want still more turmoil--more agitation--more determination."


    "I am just beginning to write a little book on that very subject--what we want, what we can do, and how we must do it. Of course, I'm a Socialist, out-and-out, and I'm going to try and knock into the intelligence of the average 'advanced' politician that a great many things he thinks impossible can very easily be done. There are so many points towards a change for the really better that even the Labour Party and the Socialists do not seem to trouble about or to know anything about."

    "One of the most vital things, one of the most fundamental, is to satisfy our Government that there is nothing so beneficial to the country--to every country--as to raise, and to keep on raising, continually the wages of the workers higher and higher and higher. The higher wages are raised in this country the more prosperous will the country become. You talk of turmoil--that's the sort of turmoil we want, especially in a nation like ours!"

    "During the last century wealth has been accumulating tremendously at one end of our amazing humanity, and poverty at the other. That must be changed--and levelled up."


    "About forty years ago a great conference was held in London, in which many eminent men of the day took part. Sir Charles Dilke was chairman, and those who contributed to the discussion included Frederic Harrison, Arthur Balfour,1 and the whole host of the prominent labour leaders of the day. It was called the Industrial Remuneration Conference, and Swinton2 and I, the enthusiasts of the Land Nationalisation Society, took eager parts. Many most excellent papers were read, and there was not a dissentient voice in the whole galaxy."

    "The text of the great sermon we preached was Levelling Up--from the lowest to the highest: and, of course, you can't level up without levelling down. And what has been the result? They--and we--have been chattering about it like magpies ever since, and nothing definite has been done. There lay the promised land before us, in all its richness . . . and there it still lies!"

    Dr. Wallace's voice rang out clear and strong. He strode across the room like a fierce old giant, raging at the futility of modern effort.


    "False principles!" he cried. "We are fettered continually by false principles. Here is another false principle promulgated by the Government. 'You must distribute taxes over the whole community!' say they, 'so that everybody must feel his responsibility.' You should begin higher up in the scale, and continue higher with your taxation. Begin, say at £1,000, or even £500, and do not stop at the million!"

    In eloquent phrase Dr. Wallace pictured his own view of Utopia. There should be no inherent right of inheritance of property. The vast accumulation of wealth as it existed in the present day was not only wrong; it was criminal. The leaving of huge fortunes to heirs was the greatest injury that could possibly be done to them. Nothing could be worse for the morale of a young man than to know that when he was one-and-twenty he was coming into an inheritance of £50,000 a year. Ten to one, it ruined him morally, physically, and intellectually, and it not only ruined him, but those about him as well. Scores of instances proved that. The evil was tremendous!

    "And the panacea?" I asked.


    "If you pass an Act that the unborn should have no rights the problem would be solved. The State would then be the inheritor; the State would make ample provision for the heir, and the vast flow of accumulated wealth that would then be unloosed, would serve to endow the nation with a sufficiency for all, from universal education onward."

    "The most vital thing of all is to get rid of the horrible, grinding poverty which is stalking the country like a grisly spectre. Is it not astounding that the richer a country is at one end the poorer it is at the other? We have had a year with an enormous trade boom; we are the richest country in the world; and yet the bones of starvation are clanking and rattling among us. We do nothing, and all we say, with a shrug of the shoulders, is 'Let 'em starve!'"


    There was so much of the seer in the attitude of Dr. Wallace as he leaned forward from the depths of his chair that I could not resist asking him to project the astonishing nimbleness of his mind into the future.

    "Recently," said he, "I have been meditating upon the condition of human progress, and I have taken a general survey of all history, from those wonderful new discoveries in Egypt, going back seven thousand years, to the present day. I have come to the general conclusion that there has been no advance, either in intellect or in morals, from the days of the earliest Egyptians and Syrians down to the keel-laying of the latest Dreadnought."3

    "Through all those thousands of years morals and intellect have been stationary. There has been, of course, an immense accumulation of knowledge, but for all that we are no cleverer than the ancients. If Newton and Darwin had been born in the times of the Egyptians they could not have done more than the Egyptians did; the builders of the Pyramids were every whit as good mathematicians as Newton. And the average of mankind will remain the same until natural selection steps in to raise it."


    "Now, I have lived nearly a hundred years. During that time what can be said of our social environment? What progress has been made? In every detail of that 'progress,' throughout all the great mercantile and manufacturing operations, there has been nothing but the most abominable vice going on--every kind of cruelty to the poor and to the children vieing with the other; adulteration everywhere in every commodity, and lies everywhere."

    "Everything is as bad as it can possibly be. There is not a single industry that has not to be inspected rigorously in order to see that the producer does not cheat his customer or poison his employees or work them to death in unwholesome factories. There exist in our midst horrors that were never known before, and dreadful diseases that were never known before. Still, nothing is ever done. And therefore I declare that from top to bottom our whole social environment is rotten, full of vice, and everything that is bad; and until selections come in and a thorough weeding-out takes place, the rottenness and the vice and the badness will continue!"


    Tireless and incandescent, the old gentleman flamed on. He strode across to Germany, and chuckled at the scare so many of us are in on both shores of the North Sea. It was all a delusion, so far as any special danger to England was concerned. "If we don't interfere too much, they certainly won't try to conquer us." It was quite natural that a country like Germany should look with some disfavour upon us. We were certainly no better than the Germans, and in some respects inferior: their system of education was better than ours, and their Government more energetic.

    . . . Then this mad race for "so-called Dreadnoughts." Why should we have two to everybody else's one? "Nelson was quite content so long as he had no more than fifty per cent. more ships up against him than the number he possessed. And if there is any of that grand old spirit of seamanship left among us to carry us through perilous times, then we ought to be more than content!"

    "In spite of my tirade against everything," said Dr. Wallace at last, with one of his deep little chuckles, "I don't think we need worry about the future. The outlook is hopeful; and nothing has pleased me so much as the great strikes which began last year with the railway strike. For the first time they showed the upper classes how utterly dependent they were for everything upon the workers."


    Finally there came a sudden and spontaneous eulogy of Mr. Lloyd George. "A wonderful man--a wizard! I look upon him as the hope of the country; and I wonder that such a man as the Premier, who is very conservative in his nature, has allowed him to go so far. I hope to see Lloyd George Prime Minister of England, or--what would be even better--to see him playing the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer for the next three years!"

    The dusk of evening crept up, and the robin in the old orchard had long since ceased to sing as I bade Dr. Wallace goodbye, wishing him a lively ninetieth birthday.

    "And now," said this amazing nestor, "I'll go on with a little book I'm writing on the subject of 'Social Evolution and Moral Progress.'4 I assure you (another chuckle) its appearance will make the bishops and the archdeacons and the parsons and the curates sit up straight--very straight!"

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), English writer, and Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), English politician.
2Wallace's close friend A. C. Swinton (d1905), one of the founders of the Land Nationalisation Society.
3i.e., battleship.
4This work was published in March of 1913, only shortly after the interview appeared in print.

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