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"Socially Conscious" Literature


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05/03/2011Ludwig von Mises

The public, committed to socialist ideas, asks for socialist ("social") novels and plays. The authors, themselves imbued with socialist ideas, are ready to deliver the stuff required. They describe unsatisfactory conditions which, as they insinuate, are the inevitable consequence of capitalism. They depict the poverty and destitution, the ignorance, dirt, and disease of the exploited classes. They castigate the luxury, the stupidity, and the moral corruption of the exploiting classes. In their eyes everything that is bad and ridiculous is bourgeois, and everything that is good and sublime is proletarian.

The authors who deal with the lives of the poverty-stricken can be divided into two classes. The first class are those who themselves did not experience poverty, who were born and brought up in a "bourgeois" milieu or in a milieu of prosperous wage earners or peasants and to whom the environment in which they place the characters of their plays and novels is strange. These authors must, before they start writing, collect information about the life in the underworld they want to paint. They embark upon research. But, of course, they do not approach the subject of their studies with an unbiased mind. They know beforehand what they will discover. They are convinced that the conditions of the wage earners are desolate and horrible beyond any imagination. They shut their eyes to all things they do not want to see, and find only what confirms their preconceived opinions. They have been taught by the socialists that capitalism is a system to make the masses suffer terribly and that the more capitalism progresses and approaches its full maturity, the more the immense majority becomes impoverished. Their novels and plays are designed as case studies for the demonstration of this Marxian dogma.

What is wrong with these authors is not that they choose to portray misery and destitution. An artist may display his mastership in the treatment of any kind of subject. Their blunder consists rather in the tendentious misrepresentation and misinterpretation of social conditions. They fail to realize that the shocking circumstances they describe are the outcome of the absence of capitalism, the remnants of the precapitalistic past, or the effects of policies sabotaging the operation of capitalism. They do not comprehend that capitalism, in engendering big-scale production for mass consumption, is essentially a system of wiping out penury as much as possible. They describe the wage earner only in his capacity as a factory hand and never give a thought to the fact that he is also the main consumer either of the manufactured goods themselves or of the foodstuffs and raw materials exchanged against them.

The predilection of these authors for dealing with desolation and distress turns into a scandalous distortion of truth when they imply that what they report is the state of affairs typical and representative of capitalism. The information provided by the statistical data concerning the production and the sale of all articles of big-scale production clearly shows that the typical wage earner does not live in the depths of misery.

The outstanding figure in the school of "social" literature was Émile Zola. He set the pattern which hosts of less gifted imitators adopted. In his opinion art was closely related to science. It had to be founded on research and to illustrate the findings of science. And the main result of social science, as Zola saw it, was the dogma that capitalism is the worst of all evils and that the coming of socialism is both inevitable and highly desirable. His novels were "in effect a body of socialist homiletics."1  But Zola was, in his prosocialist bias and zeal, very soon surpassed by the "proletarian" literature of his adepts.

The "proletarian" critics of literature pretend that what these "proletarian" authors deal with is simply the unadulterated facts of proletarian experience.2 However, these authors do not merely report facts. They interpret these facts from the point of view of the teachings of Marx, Veblen, and the Webbs. This interpretation is the gist of their writings, the salient point that characterizes them as prosocialist propaganda. These writers take the dogmas on which their explanation of events is based as self-understood and irrefutable and are fully convinced that their readers share their confidence. Thus it seems to them often superfluous to mention the doctrines explicitly. They sometimes refer to them only by implication. But this does not alter the fact that everything they convey in their books depends on the validity of the socialist tenets and pseudoeconomic constructions. Their fiction is an illustration of the lessons of the anticapitalistic doctrinaires and collapses with them.

The second class of authors of "proletarian" fiction are those who were born in the proletarian milieu they describe in their books. These men have detached themselves from the environment of manual workers and have joined the ranks of professional people. They are not like the proletarian authors of "bourgeois" background under the necessity to embark upon special research in order to learn something about the life of the wage earners. They can draw from their own experience.

This personal experience teaches them things that flatly contradict essential dogmas of the socialist creed. Gifted and hard-working sons of parents living in modest conditions are not barred from access to more satisfactory positions. The authors of "proletarian" background stand themselves in witness of this fact. They know why they themselves succeeded while most of their brothers and mates did not. In the course of their advance to a better station in life they had ample opportunity to meet other young men who, like themselves, were eager to learn and to advance. They know why some of them found their way and others missed it. Now, living with the "bourgeois," they discover that what distinguishes the man who makes more money from another who makes less is not that the former is a scoundrel. They would not have risen above the level in which they were born if they were so stupid as not to see that many of the businessmen and professional people are self-made men who, like themselves, started poor. They cannot fail to realize that differences in income are due to factors other than to those suggested by socialist resentment.

If such authors indulge in writing what is in fact prosocialist homiletics, they are insincere. Their novels and plays are unveracious and therefore nothing but trash. They are far below the standards of the books of their colleagues of "bourgeois" origin who at least believe in what they are writing.

The socialist authors do not content themselves with depicting the conditions of the victims of capitalism. They also deal with the life and the doings of its beneficiaries, the businessmen. They are intent upon disclosing to the readers how profits come into existence. As they themselves — thank God — are not familiar with such a dirty subject, they first search for information in the books of competent historians. This is what these experts tell them about the "financial gangsters" and "robber barons" and the way they acquired riches:

He began his career as a cattle drover, which means that he bought farmers' cattle and drove them to the market to sell. The cattle were sold to the butchers by weight. Just before they got to the market he fed them salt and gave them large quantities of water to drink. A gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. Put three or four gallons of water in a cow, and you have something extra when it comes to selling her.3

In this vein dozens and dozens of novels and plays report the transactions of the villain of their plot, the businessman. The tycoons became rich by selling cracked steel and rotten food, shoes with cardboard soles and cotton goods for silk. They bribed the senators and the governors, the judges and the police. They cheated their customers and their workers. It is a very simple story.

It never occurred to these authors that their narration implicitly describes all other Americans as perfect idiots whom every rascal can easily dupe. The above-mentioned trick of the inflated cows is the most primitive and oldest method of swindling. It is hardly to be believed that there are in any part of the world cattle buyers stupid enough to be hoodwinked by it. To assume that there were in the United States butchers who could be beguiled in this way is to expect too much from the reader's simplicity. It is the same with all similar fables.

In his private life the businessman, as the "progressive" author paints him, is a barbarian, a gambler and a drunkard. He spends his days at the race tracks, his evenings in night clubs, and his nights with mistresses. As Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, these "bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others' wives." This is how American business is mirrored in a great part of American literature.4

  • 1. Cf. P. Martino in the "Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences," Vol. XV, p. 537.
  • 2. Cf. J. Freeman, Introduction to Proletarian Literature in the United States, an Anthology, New York, 1935, pp. 9–28.
  • 3. Cf. W.E. Woodward (A New American History, New York, 1938, p. 608) in narrating the biography of a businessman who endowed a theological seminary.
  • 4. Cf., the brilliant analysis by John Chamberlain, The Businessman in Fiction (Fortune, November 1948, pp. 134–148.)

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