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Earlier this year Chris Kjorness described the importance of entrepreneurship in the rise of the Beatles. The Beatles became a global phenomenon when they arrived in the US fifty years ago, thanks to the entrepreneurial alertness and imagination of Brian Epstein. 1964 was also the year of the start of what became John Lennon’s most admired and respected contribution to modern music: “Imagine.”
Several poems in Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit inspired Lennon to compose “Imagine.” According to Lennon “Imagine ... should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of it — the lyric and the concept — came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit.”
The lyrics of “Imagine” are blatantly socialist. Lennon stated that the song is a political statement, and “is virtually The Communist Manifesto.” Lennon rejected socialism as practiced in Russian and China, but favored “nice British socialism.”
The idea that socialism can be British instead of brutish is based on unclear thinking. There is no doubt that the lyrics of “Imagine” have evoked strong feelings, but this is why its vision for socialism is unworkable. Lennon stated that the “no-religion too” part of “Imagine” aimed at ending the “my God is bigger than your God thing.” If we eliminated national borders, religion, possessions, all the things that at least appear to divide people, then we can supposedly achieve global harmony.
The problem is that Lennon’s vision is incredibly vague and undetailed; it allows each person to imagine his or her own personal utopia. This is one of the key defects of socialism: there is no one objective notion of a good society or social justice.
The proposed ending of possessions means ending private property rights. Ending private property rights would not end division among all people, it would maximize division. Instead of the “my God is bigger than your God thing” socialism must result in the “my social justice is better than your social justice” thing.
Lennon claimed to oppose the type of socialism practiced by “some daft Russian,” but the reality is that all socialist societies naturally produce rival factions that each try to impose their own plan for all society, based on their own special notion of social justice. It is the utter lack of any objective notion of what socialism should be, combined with the powers of human imagination, which makes harmony in socialism impossible.
The entrepreneurial type of imagination and insight exercised by Brian Epstein is what produces the greatest feasible level of social harmony. Epstein accurately perceived the potential of the Beatles to entertain vast numbers of people around the world. The commercial success of the Beatles stemmed from peaceful transactions for records and tickets, and all this commerce resulted in gainful employment for many people, some of whom may not have actually appreciated Beatles music.
The kind of world described in “Imagine” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono is a source of tragic division and destruction (though Lennon and Ono can’t be blamed for any specific example of utopia-inspired disasters). A daft Russian named Stalin murdered millions to impose his vision of socialism instead of Trotsky’s vision of socialism. Then there is that daft Chinese Mao, that daft Cambodian Pol Pot, that daft Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh ...
Hayek noted that if he had to live in a socialist society he would prefer to have it run by Americans or by English, but in the end American or British socialism would “not prove so very different or much less intolerable” than the Nazi and Soviet prototypes. Hayek was right. Neither Marx nor Lennon, nor any other socialist, has been able to create anything more than a vague vision or a strictly personal plan for socialism. It would likely take many years for British or American socialism to become truly tyrannical, but the fact of the matter is that we have already witnessed a failure of rival factions in US politics to agree on any common vision for the federal welfare state.
It is a great irony that visions of socialist harmony necessarily result in rancorous and destructive struggles among groups with contradictory visions of the good society. It is perhaps equally ironic that profit-driven competition in markets results in the highest attainable degree of social harmony. Yet, this is how the world really works.