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Chapter 4: Replacement for the Dream We Lost

It was natural that idealistic people who had ceased to believe in heaven should think up some bright hope for humanity on earth. That, I think, more than any objection to “capitalism,” accounts for the spread of the socialist dream, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. During the nineteenth century, “capitalism” so-called raised the real wage of the British worker 400 percent; the average real wage of the American worker rose, between 1840 and 1951, from eighteen to eighty-six cents an hour. A good fairy could hardly have worked faster. Of course it was not “capitalism” that did this; an abstract noun can’t do anything. It was just the spontaneous way of producing wealth with elaborate machinery and a high division of labor. The word “capitalism” was invented by socialists for the express purpose of discrediting this natural behavior, and apart from the contrast with their dream it has no precise application. We should talk more wisely if we dropped this facile abstraction altogether, and made clear in each case what, specifically, we are talking about.

Especially we should invite down to brass tacks anyone who tells us “capitalism is doomed.” That sonorous maxim is an intellectual scarecrow set up by socialists to frighten those who have wakened from their dream and are trying to find the way home to reality. It is just the same dream turned inside out. Even George Orwell, who depicted so brilliantly the horrors of what he called “oligarchical collectivism,” was deceived by this maneuver. He was on the road home, but found these solemn words in his mouth: “Capitalism itself has manifestly no future.” Meaningless words! And so he turned back, and died gazing at the dream, now mournfully dubious on the far horizon, that some other kind of collectivism besides oligarchical might come to be.

“I can’t see any other hopeful objective,” was the extent of his enthusiasm for the cause.1

It is not easy to let go of an idea around which one has organized a lifeful of emotions. On all sides one can see the lax yet still grasping logic of minds that once had a firm and flourishing hold on socialist belief. They are mainly concerned now to save face with their own pride. Somehow to keep the word and the feeling after the plan is abandoned—that inwardly is their problem.

It was tackled long ago by Georges Sorel with his doctrine of the “social myth”—an idea not valid, but necessary to set the masses in motion. Then came Hendrik de Mann with his discovery that “the present motive, not the future goal, is the essential.” And now Sidney Hook finds “the day-by-day struggle for human decency and a better social order . . . more important than the ‘ultimate’ victory of a total program.” Norman Thomas, in his rather pathetic Democratic Socialism, A New Appraisal (1953), throws overboard everything that gave distinct meaning to the word socialism, but continues to drive along in the old bandwagon with the name printed on it in large letters. “Socialism will do this. . . .” “Socialism will do that. . . .” he prophesies, naming a variety of moderate reforms, forgetting that according to his new appraisal socialism is nothing but a collective name for these same moderate reforms. Ethically, to be sure, it is something more—a society in which the spirit of mutual aid predominates over that of competition—but how does that differ from what he preached as a Christian minister before his conversion to socialism? Another scheme for backing part way out of the real meaning of socialism is to bring it all down to supporting the cooperatives—a good thing to support, for they by-pass the state. But to be socialist, the cooperatives must aim to comprise the whole national economy, and in that case they would not by-pass, but be the state. “The blending of parliament and the cooperative union of Manchester must take place!” cried Ramsay MacDonald in a debate with Hilaire Belloc in the days when socialism meant socialism.

Today everybody is hedging. Even the British Labor party has in the last four years been drifting rather than driving toward socialism. Nationalization was distinctly played down in the election campaign of 1951. Herbert Morrison, speaking as a party leader in a keynote broadcast, said: “We [and the Conservatives] believe in quite different economic systems. We believe in full employment and the planning necessary for it. The Conservatives do not.” G. D. H. Cole, the ardent Chairman of the Fabian Society, wrote in 1949: “The administration of the few industries that have already been transferred to public management is not yet so satisfactory as to encourage a general adventure into industrial socialization until the difficulties have been straightened out, and more decentralization and more workers’ participation in their affairs effectively introduced.” In the days of genuine socialist belief, nationalization and socialization were almost interchangeable terms. Today “socialization of the nationalized industries has become a popular slogan among British socialists.”2 The New Fabian Essays (1952) compare with the old as the knitting of a tired grandmother with the sprouting of a plant. Three of them, as Clement Attlee concedes in a preface, “deal with the problem of making democracy effective in a society where managerial autocracy is an increasing danger.” With that danger increasing, the zeal for a “gradual approach to socialism” is naturally in sad decline. The wonderful merits of gradualness are no longer so obvious.

It is better to be courageously humble about this and admit frankly that socialism was a mistake. An hypothesis proven false, I call it for my own pride’s sake. But whatever we call it, let’s get it out of the way of our minds. We have the task of thinking out modes of dedication to a brighter future for mankind that will not lead into the deepest pit of darkness.

One thing we might do is to narrow the scope without tainting the quality of our idealism—narrow it, I mean, both in time and space. Perhaps it is a little grandiose to undertake to mold all history and a whole planet on the lines of our ideal. Perhaps we are slightly infatuated these days with globalism and historicism. I think in the future a good many people who were, or might have been socialists, are going to take a neighborhood for the scene of their effort, or some single measure of assured benefit to mankind for its scope. And I am not sure they won’t be the happiest, as well as the most useful, of these idealists—provided they can avoid the prying and authoritarian self-righteousness of the professional do-gooder. Real progress is piecemeal, and perhaps it would move faster if each community, or each generation, were to bite off a relatively small piece. Alexander Herzen remarked a century ago (as though foreseeing the Bolshevik debacle): “A goal endlessly remote is not a goal, if you please, but a hoax. The goal must be nearer. The goal for each generation is itself.”

However, such wisdom is no substitute for the dream of a future paradise on earth. We have a right to dream. We have a right to make a big try. Only our dream must not be inconsistent with present measures that we can see in a shorter perspective are good. We must make sure that while we think we are marshaling mankind for a “leap from the Kingdom of Necessity into the Kingdom of Freedom,” we are not actually leading him down the old well-paved road to serfdom. In short, if we are going to dream, let’s dream in the right direction.

Taking human nature as it is, and accepting the indubitable necessity of private property and a competitive market if men are to be free, what should be the leading feature of a fair and true society? Here I am afraid that, besides lowering our banners, we shall have to creep back somewhat ignominiously into our belligerent past, and confess that one of our most triumphed-over opponents was right. Indeed I do not know any argument in opposition written during the high tide of socialist propaganda more precisely right than Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State. His prophecies have an accuracy that seems almost uncanny when you reflect that they were published in 1912—so long before two world wars reminded us what men are really made of. He asserts categorically, as though he had lived through it, that “at its first inception all Collectivist Reform is necessarily deflected and evolves, in the place of what it had intended, a new thing: a society wherein the owners remain few and wherein the proletarian mass accept a security at the expense of servitude.” And he repeats as the kernel of his thesis:

The Capitalist state breeds a Collectivist theory which in action produces something entirely different from Collectivism: to wit, the Servile State.

Although collectivist theory was far from popular at that time, Belloc was aware that the transition to collectivism was going to appear more “practical,” and therefore be easier of achievement than the attainment of real blessedness in what he called the Distributive State. He was not an optimist about the Distributive State, but he was categorically sure that no third alternative exists.

“A society like ours, disliking the name of “slavery” and avoiding a direct and conscious re-establishment of the slave status, will necessarily contemplate the reform of its ill-distributed ownership on one of two models. The first is the negation of private property and the establishment of what is called Collectivism: that is, the management of production by the political officers of the community. The second is the wider distribution of property until that institution shall become the mark of the whole state, and until free citizens are normally found to be possessors of land or capital, or both.

There is a radical ideal here, and a crisp and simple logic that should give light—if their eyes can still stand it—to those semi-ex-socialists now blindly groping their way out of the maze of Marxian theory and emotion. I can add nothing to it, except my customary reminder that the basic error in the whole century-long blunder has been a crude and foolish conception, or no-conception, of human nature. The socialist idea was dreamed up by intellectual and radical-minded people, who constitute a very small and not typical section of the human race. You might almost describe the socialist movement as an effort of the intelligentsia to put over their tastes and interests upon the masses of mankind. I remember how when I traveled in Russia in 1922, long before I had waked, or knew I was waking, from the socialist dream, a certain thought kept intruding itself into my mind. These millions of poor peasants whose fate so wrings the heart of Lenin have only two major joy-giving interests outside their bodies and their homes: the market and the church. And Lenin, devoting his life selflessly to their happiness, has no program but to deprive them of these two institutions. That is not quite the way to go about the business of making other people happy.

We Socialists were, I think, profoundly wrong to ignore the depth and generality of the drive toward property, and therefore exchange of property, in man. Walt Whitman was profoundly wrong when he said in his famous hymn of praise to the animals: “Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” Ownership is not a mania, but a robust instinct extending far and wide in the animal kingdom. Even the birds stake out with their songs an area that belongs to them, attacking fiercely any intruder upon it. Less lyrical beasts serve notice by depositing distinctive odors on the boundaries of their domain. People who keep watch dogs can hardly deny the range and ferocity of the proprietary instinct. It was fully developed even among the nomads with their tents of different sizes. For settled and civilized man, there can never be a paradise, I fear, or even a sane and peaceful habitat, where this deep wish is unsatisfied. It has been neglected in utopias because their authors were guided rather by the Christian evangel of sainthood than by a study of the needs of average men.

It is not easy in America, where mass production has crowded people into vast industrial cities, to imagine each citizen as a landed proprietor! The dream is easier in Switzerland where factories are scattered through the country and average industrial workers quite normally own a home and a plot of ground. There is plenty of land here, however, and good reason, if only in the atom bomb, for scattering factories through the country. I see no reason why this more enchanting aspect of the distributive state should be ultimately and forever unattainable. And that free American citizens should normally be found possessors of capital, or property in the means of production, seems to me not only possible but, granted two conditions are met, in the long run probable.

One of those conditions is that the idea of collective ownership, and all the distortions of fact which it produced in the minds of democratic idealists, be heartily abandoned. Most vicious of those distortions is the belief that “capitalism” imposes an “increasing misery” upon the working class. It is not enough to recognize, as all now do, that this Marxian prediction which rested on nothing but Hegelian dialectic, was false. We must recognize that the extreme opposite is true. Though it led off with the new-fashioned sufferings described by Marx in Das Kapital—not greater in degree, but different in kind from what had preceded—the market economy he thundered against has, in its full development, lifted the toiling masses of mankind to levels of life never dreamed of in all past history. It is only the habit of comparing reality with perfection instead of with what is possible, a habit proper to juveniles and fanatics, that blinds us to this. Whether or not it is true, as Von Mises asserts, that “capitalism . . . deproletarianizes all strata of society,” it is at least true that it makes possible their deproletarianization.

Let us suppose that the rate of increase in real wages mentioned in my first paragraph continued for another hundred years. And let us suppose that throughout that new hundred years the radical idealists replaced their old zeal for collective ownership with as burning a zeal for universal individual ownership. Is it fantastic to imagine that they might bring on the day when “free citizens are normally found to be possessors of land or capital or both?” They would not at least, because infatuated with perfection, abandon the road of the general rise of income which makes such a thing possible. They would be dreaming in the right direction.4

In my opinion, however, no dreams whatever, and no plans even for a slightly better society than we have, will be realized unless the rise in wealth production is matched by a decline in the production of people. We shall have to go back farther than Belloc, we who have broken with socialism in the radical way we espoused it. We shall have to go back to Malthus, who perceived before socialism was born, the basic fact which foils all dreams of a just and generous society. There are too many people in the world; their number, when conditions are favorable, increases too fast. One of the worst effects of the Marxian religion of salvation by economics was that it swept this biological truth out of the minds of reformers and revolutionists alike. It belongs at the top of humanity’s agenda.5

There are many truths in this book which I have been lamentably slow to discover, but this I am happy to say is not one of them. From the beginning of my days as an agitator for socialism, I warned of the priority of this problem. At the height of the exaltation of belief caused in me by the Bolshevik Revolution and a first glimpse of the writings of Lenin, I wrote:

In Lenin’s discussion of means for increasing the productivity of labor, I miss a reference to the means of decreasing, and intelligently controlling, the production of people. . . . The socialist movement will surely before long awake to the enormity of the population problem, and I can not but wish the awakening might be now, and in Russia, where the tendencies of the movement in the immediate future are to be crystallized.6

I was deceived about Russia. I was deceived about Lenin. I was deceived about the socialist movement. It never did awake to the importance of this problem. Such problems lie outside the universe of discourse in which socialism draws breath. As I have awakened from socialism, however, the problem has loomed steadily larger to me, and I must say, darker. It has been lightened in recent years by the anxious attention that has been drawn to it both among political scientists and among those engaged in physiological research. The Report on “The Determinants and Consequences of Population Trends,” published by the United Nations on May 3, 1954, was a grim reminder of what is in store for us if we do not confront it. A great hearty and worldwide campaign of education might, it seems to me, after a long time, reverse the fatal trend of the statistics. Next to defending the free market, that seems to me the most important task that one still actuated by the wish for a more ideal society and still radical—radical enough to tear up the blueprints and begin over—could undertake.

More goods and fewer people is the slogan I should like to see carried at the head of humanity’s march into the future.

  • 1. The quotations are from an article on “The Future of Socialism” in Partisan Review, July–August 1947.
  • 2. See “Socialism and the British Labor Party” by Leon D. Epstein in the Political Science Quarterly for December 1951.
  • 4. The identical dream, by the way, is proposed as an immediate political program by the German-Swiss economist, Wilhelm Roepke. “If there exists such a thing as a ‘social’ right,” he says in Civitas Humana (p. 257 of the French edition), “it is the right to property. And nothing better illustrates the confusion of our epoch than the fact that up to now no government, no party, has inscribed this device on its banner. If they think it would not be a success, we believe they are profoundly mistaken.”
  • 5. In a book called The Road to Abundance, which I helped a chemical genius, Dr. Jacob Rosin, to write, the opinion is advanced that synthetic chemistry, or rather physico-chemistry, can solve all man’s problems, including this one of population, by making him independent of both plant and mine. It is an exciting book with vitally important things to say. But I have my reservations about it—especially on this population problem which, even if all Dr. Rosin’s other prophetic visions came true, would only be postponed.
  • 6. The Liberator, October 1918.
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