The Degeneration of Socialism

Updated: Sep 12

The American Review, December 1936, pp. 216-233

As the disintegration of our civilization proceeds certain things stand out clearly from their background. One of these is that Socialism has become a destructive force. It was not always so. Before the War Socialism to a great extent represented what was large and generous in modern society. The movement had a passion for social justice. It drew its recruits from among those who were outraged by the injustices and inhumanities of the present system. Before all things it was a moral revolt and it gave the world a social conscience. But this is no longer the case. Post-War Socialism is a very different thing from pre-War Socialism. It tends to become merged in Communism, and as it does that it becomes informed by a different spirit. In place of a passion for social justice we get a spirit of class warfare. This is a consequence of the Russian Revolution, following which there has come a belief in the poisonous doctrines of Marx. Thus, we see there are two strains in Socialism or Socialist Communism, shall we call it. One is idealistic, cultured, humanitarian, and generous; the other cares for none of these things, is clear cut, direct, materialistic, thirsting only for revenge. And the latter, owing to the prestige of the Russian Revolution, has conquered and killed the former. Earlier, before the War, it was possible for men of good will to identify themselves with Socialism, for the Communist element was negligible; it was possible to believe that what was good in Socialism would triumph. Unfortunately, this is so no longer. We can today only too clearly see which way things are going, and men of good will can only continue to identify themselves with the movement if they are so blind as to suppose that those into whose hands the direction of policy has fallen share their idealism. Realists see they do nothing of the kind. To support Communism is to aid and abet a sordid and practical materialism, full of revenge, that cares nothing for the ideals which Socialists value; for ideas, art, or culture, except in so far as they can be used for the purposes of propaganda.

We cannot be surprised if there are many today who live only for revenge, since industrialism has left them little else to live for. It is but natural that men who are exploited, badgered, and bullied every day of their lives, and are compelled to labor at mechanical and inhuman tasks, should thirst for vengeance. That is a reason for abolishing industrialism, not for placing power in their hands. Men in their frame of mind are not to be trusted with power. For suffering from a burning sense of injustice, and deprived of the culture that gives a true social vision, they act blindly and revengefully when suddenly raise to power. They are also filled with a general hatred and love of destruction for its own sake, as is witnessed by the conduct of the Reds in the Spanish Civil War, where class hatred is combined with religious hatred. Yet instead of reproving them for their vandalism and vile atrocities, Socialists in this and other countries remain silent about them, and collect money for the furtherance of their cause. If a tithe of the crimes had been committed by the Right, what a song they would have made of it! But terror, torture, and vandalism are, to all appearances, in perfect order when committed by the Left. In England, this support went on until protests from the Roman Catholic members of the Labor Party gave Socialists pause. It is significant that the protests had to come from Catholics.

Now what is the explanation of this degeneration of the Socialist movement? Why has their humanitarianism ended in such inhumanity? There are several reasons. The first is that Socialists suffer from a total incapacity for weighing evidence, or discriminating between ideas, and are governed entirely by their emotions and abstract theory. Indeed a Socialist, in these days, might be described as a person who is prepared to swallow any poison, provided the bottle is labelled “For the good of the people”, for they take everything on trust, and never examine the contents. They hear conflicting stories of what happens in Spain, as also what happens in Russia, and accept the version of the Reds because it accords with their disposition. They see society as two hostile camps. In one camp are all the reformers who support the cause of enlightenment and emancipation; in the other are forces of darkness and oppression. In the first category they put all who have behind them a tradition of reform and rebellion – Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists; all noble souls who never think anything through, and never see a fact until it hits them in the face; in the other they put all who disagree with them. Socialism, Collectivism, Communism satisfy them completely because they do not see below the surface. Life for them has no depths or no heights; it is just flat. And they have no understanding of the grounds on which they stand. In consequence the social problem is, for them, just a matter of arrangement, of planning, to use current jargon. All that is required is good will; the details can be left to a competent bureaucrat or chartered accountant to work out. They cannot imagine anyone’s disagreeing with them who has not an axe to grind. That, indeed, there should be people who disagree with them, because they see more clearly than they do; that these people see only too clearly that Socialist activities are subversive of civilization, inasmuch as their final result is to liberate the flood of barbarism that is never far below the surface, is an idea that has never occurred to them.

But this social blindness is unfortunately not the monopoly of superficial self-satisfied people. Sometimes men of depth are afflicted by it. An example is the Spanish philosopher Unamuno. Nobody would accuse the author of The Tragic Sense of Life of superficiality. Yet he has a blind spot where social dynamics are concerned. Unamuno was pre-eminent amongst the intellectuals who were responsible for the Revolution in Spain. Yet he failed entirely to foresee the consequences of overthrowing authority. He failed to see that Liberalism, whose interests the monarchy was overthrown, was essentially a thing of transition, that it could never become a center of authority, and that its accession to power could only pave the way for the triumph of the Anarchists. Only when the worst had happened – when the Government lost all control and Anarchists had become masters in Spain, when terror, robbery, and vandalism had become the order of the day – did he awaken to the fact that the real issue was not between Monarchy and Republicanism, Capitalism and Socialism, but between civilization and barbarism; and that unless the Reds were defeated civilization would perish. The issues in Spain are clearer than in Russia; for whereas Communism is both a continuation of and a reaction against Liberalism, Anarchism carries Liberalism to its logical conclusion, as anyone acquainted with Anarchist literature is well aware. The Anarchists are logical. There is no answer to the argument by which their social theory is supported except by going behind Rousseau, and repudiating Liberalism root and branch, including the various social theories which have developed out of it.

To go behind Rousseau means repudiating the doctrine of the natural perfection of mankind, and reaffirming that of original sin. The recognition of the reality of original sin would safeguard reformers against pitching their idealism in too high a key. It is a law of psychology that an excess of idealism will be followed by a fall from grace, since man cannot for long live on a higher moral plane than the normal; and this as true of movements as of individuals. Socialists began by demanding a perfect society; that is, they began by demanding the impossible, for no society ever was or ever can be perfect so long as human nature is imperfect; it cannot be better than the human material of which it is composed. The depredations of the Reds in Spain do no leave much room for hope that the volume of sin in the world has to any extent appreciably diminished, or hope in any approach to the natural perfection of mankind. Their conduct gives the lie to the Socialist and democratic theory that all men are by nature equal and virtuous, that it is only circumstances that make them appear different, and that all would act decently under different conditions. For when everything that is due to circumstances is abstracted, there remains a residuum of original sin, which some possess in larger measure than others, and only by keeping this in subjection can society exist at all. This is not to justify existing social arrangements, but to insist that society cannot be rebuilt upon the assumption that all men are equal and by nature perfect; but only upon a frank acceptance of the fact that they are unequal and imperfect, and are likely to remain so.

Because of the imperfection of human nature a perfect society is beyond our reach; a reasonable one is not. But to achieve it we must accept the sinful nature of man as our starting point, that is as a permanent hypothesis, and seek to keep it in subjection. Such a society would be superior to that of today to the extent that its laws were made (as was stated in the preamble of a seventh century code of laws) to enable good men to live among bad, instead of to enable rich men to live among poor – as laws were made when the rich had things entirely their own way, and to some extent still are. But it would not be a perfect society, for perfection is not of this earth.

Meanwhile Socialists use the impossible standards of their perfect society as grounds for attacking all traditional institutions. If men abused their positions it was not because of original sin, but because social institutions were at fault, particularly the institutions of private property, which was made to bear the sins of the world. And from denying the validity of private property, Socialists went on to deny the validity of all traditional institutions of society except bureaucracy; which, from being regarded as a necessary evil, came to be exalted as the type and exemplar of social organization. But in turning their backs upon tradition they moved into a world of unreality, where social righteousness became associated with social insanity; because in parting company with tradition they had to take their stand on theory; and theory divorced from tradition tends to become unreal; it ceases to be an explanation of reality and becomes a substitute for it.

Chestertonian democracy is a purely mystical conception, based upon the assumption that the things men have in common are more important than their differences. If this is true, then the quantitative values, about which men are agreed, are more important, than the qualitative ones, about which they differ. It is a position I find it impossible to accept. In any case it has nothing to do with democracy as we know it. Democracy in practice means “majority vote” – that and that alone. Anyone who believes that the majority, but virtue of the fact that it is a majority, has a right to impose its will on the rest of the community, quite apart from whether its decisions are wise or foolish, is a democrat; anyone who repudiates this hypothesis is not. He may be overflowing with the milk of human kindness, and may sacrifice his life for the good of humanity, but he is not a democrat; he is something else. It would clear the air of a great deal of discussion at cross-purposes if we resolved to use the word in no other sense.

I remember well the first shock I had which led me to doubt democracy. I was discussing the question of democracy with a prominent Socialist speaker in the nineties – one of the type who would doubtless be a Communist were he alive today. “I will tell you, he said, “my idea of democracy. Go to the pithead; take the first twenty men who come up; they are as fit to govern England as any other twenty.” It was one of those foolish remarks which have the sudden effect of illuminating a situation. Democracy could no longer impose upon me. From then onwards, it became clear to me that democracy could only in the long run mean one of two things. It either meant government by the wise, as Rousseau, the father of democracy, imagined it would, or it meant government by anybody; and there could be no doubt about the direction in which it was moving. There came to my mind the words of an Eastern proverb: “Disturb not the minds of the ignorant.”

It is interesting in this connection to recall Rousseau’s ideas of democracy. In The Social Contract he says: “It is the best and most natural order of things that the wise should govern the multitude, when we can be sure they will govern it for its advantage, and not their own.” Moreover, it was because monarchical institutions gave no guarantee of such a desideratum that he took exception to them. Thus, he writes:

The one essential and inevitable defect, which will render a monarchical government inferior to a republican one, is that in the latter the public voice hardly ever raises to the highest posts any but enlightened and capable men, who fill them honorably; whereas those who succeed in monarchies are most frequently petty mischief makers, petty knaves, petty intriguers, whose petty talents, which enabled them to obtain high posts at court, only serve to show the public their ineptitude as soon as they have attained them. The people are much less mistaken about their choice than the prince is; and a man of real merit is almost as rare in a royal ministry as a fool as the head of a republican government. Therefore, when by some fortunate chance, one of those born rulers takes the helm of affairs in a monarchy, almost wrecked by such a set of fine ministers, it is quite astonishing what resources he finds, and his accession to power forms an epoch in the country.

Reading these words in the light of a century of democracy of a kind, there seems something rather naïve about their simple faith, since the eternal, and perhaps insoluble, problem of government is that the best and wisest do not automatically come to the top, under democracy any more than under any other form of government. It is the clever rather than the wise usually clever. The fact that the clever rather than the wise come to the front under democracy is capable of many explanations. But the most obvious is that a capacity for public speaking, of popular appeal, is the one indispensable qualification for success; and it does not follow that the man who possesses this gift is wiser or more trustworthy than his fellows. Further, the more complex society becomes, the greater is the obstruction placed in the path of the wise, because the more difficult it becomes for the wise man to make himself understood. Thus we arrive at the paradox: the greater the complexity, the greater the need of wisdom at the helm, but the less chance is there of its getting there for complexity promotes the interests of superficial people who do not see below the surface.

In Unforeseen Tendencies in Democracy, Mr. E.L. Godkin shows how the decline of the ideals of American democracy coincided with the growth of large towns, and the increase of the electorate. In the early days of the American Republic, when voters were few, men of wisdom and character were personally known to the communities in which they lived, and they became public representatives because of their prominence. But with the rapid increase of immigration after the Civil War this ceased to be true. People were no longer well known to each other. A capacity for popular appeal rather than personal character became the primary qualification for public life, because only good speakers could make themselves known to the electorate. With this change there came a deterioration in the type of public representative, and the growth of the power of the political machine, corruption and jobbery, and the defeat of political idealism.

Rousseau himself was not blind to these dangers, for though at times he talks as if democracy could do no wrong, at other times he admits the dangers; his advocacy of small states and small property was not unconnected with his apprehension of the peril that lurked in large ones. Truth to tell, Rousseau qualified his position in so many ways that it is difficult finally to convict him of anything, except the general charge that he had an over-confidence in the improvements which he assumed would automatically follow a mere change in political machinery; though even here it is possible to quote passages from his writings against such and assumption. Of course social and political machinery we must have: and there are evils that can be kept in check by the provision of suitable machinery. But no machinery, of a democratic nature, can insure that the wise will come to the top, because there is no means of insuring that the wise are known to the people.

Meanwhile the people will follow the leadership of the wise if by hook or crook they can find their way into positions of authority. But they will not put them there; which is perfectly logical, for if the theory of equality is true everybody should be on one level. Perhaps another reason why the many never promote the wise is that they cannot distinguish between a wise man and a crank, and so fight shy of both; or perhaps it is that they feel that to promote the wise is to abdicate authority, and their quota of original sin prevents them from doing that. Anyway, confronted by democracy the wise man is helpless, for he can never hope to convince the majority of the rightness of his views, if he should happen to find himself at their mercy; they are beyond them. His only chance is to be given a leg-up by someone of understanding already in authority. This explains why aristocracy in spite of its defects works better than a democracy. Probably the average intelligence of an aristocracy is no higher than that of any other class. But the individual aristocrat is in a position to act on his own initiative, for should he lack means himself, he will be in social contact with people who can provide them; whereas the individual of democratic birth, without means, will not; and this makes all the difference so far as the prospects of the wise are concerned.

Instead of wasting their lives vainly trying to persuade the democracy to allow them to act, as the wise in a purely democratic community are compelled to do, the wise of means or aristocratic birth can get to work at once, and the rest of the community will follow them, because they are in a position to give practical proof of their superior wisdom. And the wise aristocrats will promote the interests of other wise men who have not the advantages of birth. And because of such actions the point of view of the wise will come more or less to prevail in the aristocratic class, give it its tone, and from thence it will percolate downwards, leavening the whole of society. But if there are no wise men who inherit wealth or position, there will be no wise men in authority, because the democracy will not promote them, and no one else can. And as a consequence the tone of the community will progressively decline. The theory of averages leads ever to a lower level.

All this serves to show that in their hearts the people do not believe in democracy as it is understood today; they demand authority and leadership, and left to themselves they would not, if it were honest, think of questioning it. It is exploitation to which they object and rightly object, and they only challenge authority when it is too closely associated with exploitation. The people realize that under any system, democratic or otherwise, they must obey; and that democratic institutions do not mean government by the people any more than monarchy or aristocracy, but government by a caucus who exercise authority in the name of the people. What they really want is not control over the national government, which deals with things remote, but control over the immediate circumstances of their own lives, which the mediaeval guildsmen had, and which capitalism and industrialism deny them. Viewed in this light, democracy today presents itself as an attempt to secure by external means a control over the economic arrangements of society that can only be exercised from within, as it was in the Middle Ages. By restoring regulative guilds of the mediaeval type the people will regain control over their lives. For the rest it will be government by consent, whatever form authority takes.

Most people dismiss any suggestion of returning to the Middle Ages for a model of social organization as sheer romanticism, without any relation to the problem that confronts us. But that is only because very few people take the trouble to think anything through. Those who do make the discovery that returning to fundamentals, to which the modern world must return if it is to avert catastrophe, means returning to the Middle Ages in more senses than one; because in the Middle Ages are to be found the beginnings of the modern world, as well as the spiritual wellsprings of life. To dismiss therefore any idea because it is mediaeval is to refuse to trace ideas to their source, which is just what modernists do; it explains why they are so hazy about everything. But if the people are ever to regain control over the circumstances of their lives, they will in some sense have to return to the Middle Ages, to take their stand again on the great traditions of the past; the pursuit of progress is a will-o-the-wisp’s leading that can only increase their misery and slavery.

On what terms can men regain control of their own lives? The first condition is that they abandon the equalitarian principle and belief in the natural perfection of mankind, not only because these are contradicted by the facts of nature, but because they stand in the way of common sense social arrangements, setting men off on vain attempts to realize the unrealizable. They stand in the way of and redistribution of property, because as property in by nature unequal, the demand for economic equality involves the abolition of private ownership, which in turn leads to the abolition of the private management of industry; and this results either in bureaucratic control, which denies alike liberty and equality, or in “producing guilds”, which experience proves are unworkable in so far as they are faithful to the principles of equality.

The “perfect society” of Socialists is full of snags. It does not work because human nature is imperfect. Common sense suggests therefore that instead of beginning with the assumption that human nature is perfect, we begin with the assumption that it is not; and that if society is to maintain its integrity, evil must be kept in subjection, in order that good men may live among bad. To translate this idea into the terms of social organization, we must, like the mediaeval guilds, proceed upon the assumption that a high standard of commercial morality can only be maintained when laws exist to suppress a lower one. With this end in mind we shall not seek to abolish private industry in favor of cooperative industry, but to break up large-scale industry into small units, and superimpose over each industry and organization to regulate its affairs, much in the same way that professional societies enforce a discipline among their members. But there will be this difference, that, in addition to upholding a standard of professional conduct, such regulative guilds would be concerned to promote a certain measure of economic equality, in the same way that trade unions do today. Such guilds would insist that all who engaged in any industry should conform to their regulations, which would be concerned with such things as the maintenance of fixed and just prices and wages, the regulation of machinery and apprenticeship, the upholding of a standard of quality in production, the prevention of adulteration and bad workmanship, mutual aid, and other matters appertaining to the conduct of industry and the personal welfare of its members.

Though such regulative guilds are identical in principle with the mediaeval guilds, there is yet no technical difficulty that stands in the way of their establishment over industry today; for the principles to which it is proposed to give practical application are finally nothing more than the enforcement of moral standards. Through modern industry differs from mediaeval industry, the differences are technical, and no technical difference can involve a difference of moral principles. On the contrary, what is involved is a difference of application. For whereas mediaeval guilds exercised control over employers and their assistants engaged in small workshops, owned by small masters, our propose modern regulative guilds would, at first, exercise control over employers and workers engaged in both large and small factories and workshops owned by private individuals, limited liability companies, and self-governing groups of workers. Later the limited liability companies would tend to disappear as a consequence of the steady pressure that could be applied, and the small man would take his place in industry again; for the enforcement of moral standards, the suppression of abuses, would cut at the root of company industry.

To make such control effective, it would be necessary to depart from the mediaeval model to the extent: that instead of authority being vested exclusively in the hands of the masters, as it was in the Middle Ages, the workers should be given representation. Perhaps the Syndicates of Fascist Italy, in which employers and workers are given equal representation with a government official to act as arbitrator, provides the best working model. It would be necessary to make this departure from the mediaeval model because the typical employer today is not a master of his craft, jealous for its honor as was the mediaeval employer, but a financier who is interested only in the profit and loss account, and therefore is not to be trusted with final authority. Hence the conclusion that if standards of honesty and fair dealing are to be upheld, prices and wages fixed at a just level, machinery and other things necessary to the proper conduct of industry regulated, the final authority must be vested in the trade as a whole, for only those who suffer from the growth of abuses be relied upon to take measures to suppress them.

In comparison with the enforcement of such moral standards over industry, all other issues, such as whether the workers are engaged in cooperative production or producing guilds, whether they have small workshops of their own or are employed by others, are secondary. They are not matters of principle, but of expediency or personal preference. There is no greater mistake than to assume that most men prefer to work cooperatively with others. On the contrary, the majority, the vast majority, I believe, prefer, other things being equal, to be employers or employed. Numbers of men prefer to work as assistants because they don’t like responsibility; while men of a masterful disposition are too individualistic by temperament to love cooperation and would be mere grit and friction inside any organization of a cooperative kind; while other men prefer to work under men of masterful dispositions, because they like to know just where they are; while other men prefer to work alone. Preferences of this kind have nothing to do with indifference to or love of money. Men may have any of these differences, and be good or bad citizens. It is entirely a matter of temperament. For this reason a mixed economy, which is flexible and contains different types of organization, is best adapted to differing human needs, and the varied circumstances of industry. What is important is that these varying types of men in any single industry – employers, employed, cooperators – should submit to the same regulations, or suffer expulsion form the guild. If moral standards were enforced over industry by regulative guilds, the particular way men preferred to work could be left for them to decide, for their differences could not have harmful consequences; should, as I have already said, the enforcement of the guild discipline combined with taxation of larger scale industry would tend to weed out undesirable forms of industrial organization such as limited liability companies.

But all this is wasted upon Socialists. Like heretics in all ages; they believe but one thing necessary for salvation; in their case it is the abolition of private property, upon which they have a fixation. And they are so obsessed with this idea that it blinds them alike to experience and the dictate of common sense. Finally it leaves them at the mercy of cads and other disreputable elements of society; for, attributing all evils to external causes, they overlook the part played by the evil desires of men, and remove all social and political barriers, on the assumption that men are by nature perfect; to find out, when it is too late, that they have not established the perfect society, but opened the floodgates to anarchy and revenge

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