Why We Have Socialism
About Socialism and
This article appeared as chapter 8 of Out of Step.
I was a shaver of ten or twelve when, on doing errands for my father, I ran into Grand Street. That was, and is, a thoroughfare in downtown New York, but in those days it was an institution, made so by a number of establishments along the street called “coffee saloons.” These, I presume, served other foods, but when I patronized them in the afternoons they purveyed only mugs of coffee and hunks of cake. The customers, or habitués, seemed to be less interested in eating and drinking than in arguing the metaphysical notions of Karl Marx or Kropotkin.
Each of these establishments acquired a character of its own, deriving from the particular ideology advocated by its clientele, or from an interpretation of that ideology enunciated by some self-appointed pundit who had got a following. There was at least one “saloon” which only the true believers frequented, their principal pastime, aside from discussing moot questions in Marxist “science,” being to castigate the revisionists, who held forth in another “saloon.” The latter, who called themselves Social Democrats, spent most of their time proving to one another the correctness of the reforms they had concocted; incidentally, they must have been right, for most of the reforms were later taken over by the Democrats and then by the republicans. But, on the whole, these socialists were evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; they dreamed of the day when capitalism shall have decayed, from its internal deficiencies, when a mere push from the proletariat will topple it. They were willing to let the immutable forces of history do the job, and contented themselves with talking; there was little inclination to help the forces of history along. That was long before Lenin came along with his doctrine of dynamism.
There are very few of the Grand Street type of socialists around these days, either in this country or in Europe, except, perhaps, in the Kremlin. Gone are the doctrinaires, the “scientific” socialists, with whom I delighted to argue on the campus of Columbia College, or whom I heckled on the soapbox in Union Square, New York. They have disappeared not only because the measures they advocated have largely been accepted and have been institutionalized, but more so because their theoretical position has been undermined by experience. There are therefore few to say a good word for the laboriously manufactured labor theory of value, or to give even lip service to the Marxist many-worded theory of surplus value, which was the keystone of his theory of exploitation, which in turn was the basis for his indictment of capitalism. The Russian “experiment” has shown that the state can be built on the bones of the proletariat, as well as on the bones of capitalists, and his “withering away of the state” theory has gone the way of all his notions. There is nobody to argue with, and all the hours I put into Das Kapital, for the purposes of dialectic, now seem to have been wasted. Too bad, for I did have a good time with these socialists.
But, that is the way of empirical knowledge: it makes a mess of theories confidently advanced by long-winded economists and ivory-tower social scientists. Capitalism, without benefit of a theory, and operating solely on the mundane profit motive, has disproven Marx on every point. To be sure, the economists of the Austrian school had done in the labor theory of value— that the value of a thing is determined by the amount of labor put into producing it—by showing that value is entirely subjective and has no relation whatever to labor; but capitalists did it in their own way; when people wanted a thing and were willing to pay for it, the capitalists made it, and when there was no demand for a thing it simply was not made. That is to say, the consumer puts a value on what he wants. The surplus value theory had it that capitalists paid labor subsistence wages and retained as profits all that labor produced above this subsistence level; but capitalism proved that wages come out of production, and that the more capital is used in production, the greater the output of labor and therefore the greater its rewards. Capitalism has raised wages, not lowered them, as Marx predicted. So much so, that the worker with a washing machine and an automobile has lost every vestige of “working-class consciousness.” He even plays golf.
It took capitalism almost a hundred years to demolish “scientific” socialism by the pragmatic method, but it did so thorough a job of it that Das Kapital has been laid to rest without a requiem. Even the nationalization of industry, once given the top priority of all socialistic programs, has lost its appeal. In England, the labor unions, which furnish the bulk of the finances for the Labor Party, have given up on nationalization for two reasons: first, in a strike against a privately owned industry the government can be called in as a mediator, and the government can always, for political reasons, be counted on to favor the strikers, while a strike against a nationalized industry is in fact a strike against the government, or a revolution, with questionable results; second, the inefficiency of a bureaucratically controlled industry is too evident to warrant even discussion. The German socialists, heretofore the most valiant of Marxist protagonists, have declared that nationalization is to be resorted to only if it advances “socialistic ends”; otherwise, industry can be left in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the condition of the workers has so improved under a free economy that they do not relish any change, and the theoretical socialists, anxious for votes, have had to change their theory to suit their following.
So, what is socialism without Marx? I put that question to an official of the French Socialist Party and received this answer: “Marx could not have anticipated the great technological advances of the past century and, therefore, while his theories were correct in his day they do not apply to present conditions. Nevertheless, Marx did much for the working-class movement in his time and he still gives our movement direction and inspiration.” That is to say, there is no theoretical position for socialists, no postulates to guide them, and they must “play it by ear.” As a matter of necessity they are reduced to expediencies and have therefore become mere politicians, not revolutionists. In every country the socialists have become office seekers, aiming to get hold of the reins of government by parliamentary methods, and for no other purpose than to enjoy the prerogatives and perquisites of office. Power for the sake of power is their current aim.
Well, how does one acquire power in a country ruled by popular suffrage? By promising the electorate all their hearts desire and by being more profligate with promises than the opposition. Thus, socialism has become mere welfarism, and with welfarism comes control of the national economy. But, while Marxism aimed to control the economy for the purpose of destroying capitalism, modern socialism seems bent on controlling the economy for the sake of control; even advocating something called a “mixed” economy, partly free and partly controlled.
In short, socialists everywhere have adopted the program of American “liberals.” In Europe, those of the socialistic persuasion still maintain their allegiance to the name, since there the word liberal still retains its original meaning, as defining one who would remove laws, not proliferate them, while the socialistically minded in this country have perverted the word into its opposite meaning. But the European socialist and the American liberal are both energumens for government intervention in the affairs of men, both have an overpowering desire for power, and both offer to buy votes with tax money. The programs and the tactics of the two are identical. And neither has any theoretical position, any philosophy of either government or economics, by which they can be judged. Both are opportunistic.
Returning to Grand Street; at that age I could not follow the reasoning—if it can be called reasoning—of the various pundits who held forth in these “saloons,” but I did acquire a dislike for socialists that has hung onto me ever since. A child is guided by his instincts, which are packaged in its little brain when he comes into this world. Just as his bundle of muscles may be developed along certain lines, or his senses sharpened by practice, so may his instincts (or temperament, if you wish) be refined or trained by education; but, trained or untrained, the original stock manifests itself in his reaction to his environment, and this reaction remains constant. That is why there are, in degree of devotion or adherence to doctrine, all kinds of Catholics or Jews, and all sorts of Democrats or Republicans. That is what we mean when we say that the boy is a “born” mathematician or a “born” politician. His instinct inclines him toward a given body of thought, and no amount of argument or education can wean him away from it. He will drift toward that body of thought no matter what influences are brought to bear upon him simply because of an intuitive, built-in inclination toward it.
Socialists are born, not made. (And so are individualists.) In a way, the basic urge toward socialism is in all of us, since every one of us is inclined to impose our set of values on others; we seek to “improve” the other fellow up to our own particular standards. But, most of us will try to “elevate” the other fellow and, meeting resistance, will give it up as a hopeless job. The socialist, however, has an intuitive urgency for power, power over other people, and proceeds to bolster this urgency with an ethic: he seeks power for a humanitarian purpose. He would “elevate” all mankind to his ideal. Since the individual does not wish to be “elevated,” and lays claim to something called rights, the socialist undertakes to prove that the individual does not exist, that an amorphous thing called “society” is the only fact of reality, and proceeds to impose his set of values on this thing. Having made this discovery—that society is something greater than the sum of its parts, with an intelligence and a spirit of its own—the socialist dons his shining armor and sets forth on a glorious adventure for its improvement. He works for the “social good”—which is what he wanted to do since first he became aware of his instinct.
I have never met a dedicated socialist who did not deem himself a leader—if not at the top of the revolution, then at least as commissar of toothpicks in the ninth ward. He is not a replaceable part of the thing called society, but was destined, at birth, to be a regulator of this thing. This desire for power is quite common, even among nonsocialists, but while others seem willing to win their spurs according to the rules of the marketplace, the socialist claims the scepter because he has a mission. He is of the anointed. In this respect, the socialist is no different from the millions of bureaucrats who now infest the social order; the bureaucrat is, like the socialist, a ruler by natural selection.
Environment or education has little to do with the making of a socialist. He may come from a wealthy home, where all his training should incline him toward capitalism, or he may come from the slums. In point of fact, many of the leaders among the socialists, those who do most to advance the cause, are inheritors of great fortunes accumulated under capitalism. It is sometimes claimed that their urgency to destroy the system stems from a sense of guilt; they feel, according to this theory, that they are not entitled to the riches they have inherited, that the riches stemmed from an iniquitous system, and are impelled by this sense of guilt to dedicate themselves to the destruction of the system. I do not hold with this theory, and I point to the fact that only a few of these scions of great wealth become socialists, while the great majority put their money to productive enterprise or consume it in luxurious living. These few were born with an innate compulsion to socialism. There is no other way to account for their idiosyncrasy.
Education merely supplies the words and ideas that fit in with the primordial inclination of the socialist. He will accept at face value all the theories, all the figures and charts supporting his preconceived notions, and will reject offhand any argument or data that support the idea of individual freedom. You cannot teach anybody anything that he does not in a real sense already know. A class of freshmen can be subjected to all the litanies of the socialistic creed; the majority will take in what they are taught for the purpose of getting a passing grade, but a minority will thrill to the instruction, while a still smaller minority will in their hearts reject it. Those who respond favorably to the instruction came intuitively prepared to do so, while those who find it repulsive were likewise instinctively opposed to it. On the other hand, give a course in classical economics, or teach a group the meaning of natural rights, and some, though they have absorbed all the words of freedom, will come away entirely unconvinced. Some emotional blocking prevents the ideas from taking root. And this is also true of all the collectivistic professors; they read all the books which the individualist holds most dear, but the reading leaves them cold to the ideas; they are collectivist because nature inclined them toward collectivism.
It is true that by far the majority of our educators are socialists. But this follows not from the fact that they were educated in the creed, but that most of those who go into the pedagogical business are by nature inclined toward it. Teaching is by general acclaim a noble profession, getting that reputation from the fact that its practitioners generously and without expectation of monetary rewards undertake to inculcate values in the young. But, it is also a profession that is removed from the disciplines of the marketplace and as such appeals to those who find these disciplines distasteful; they have no liking for the higgling and haggling of the marketplace, no inclination to enter the competitive field. Since our educational system is largely dominated by government, and is therefore monopolistically controlled, it attracts those who favor that kind of control; that is, it has a lure for the socialistically minded.
Our current crop of college professors was attracted to the profession during the New Deal. Then it was that President Roosevelt welcomed into the bureaucracy a host of professors bent on trying out, at the taxpayers' expense, some ideas on “social betterment” which they had whittled out of words, and the opportunity thus offered to “do something about it” attracted a number of young men and women (because they were inherently socialists) to teaching; it seemed the right way to get into the bureaucracy, where one could help fix up the world. That is really where they belong, in the bureaucracy, for that is where one gets clean away from the marketplace. However, vast as is the bureaucracy there is not room in it for all the professors, and many do not have even the solace of temporary employment on government projects; most must remain on campuses for the rest of their lives, and they make the best of it by imposing on their students the values acquired during their own student days. They are still New Dealers; in fact, they inherited the instinct.
One more bit of evidence to support my thesis that socialism is intuitive, not acquired, is my experience with ex-socialists and ex-communists. I have known a number of them and, with one exception, though they had dropped theoretical socialism they were all for government intervention; even that one exception was for our undertaking a “preventive war” with Russia. All of them were intellectually honest men and rejected Marx on the basis of evidence and the dictates of logic; all of them were revolted by the immoralities of Sovietism. Yet, they could not accept wholeheartedly the principles of laissez-faire economics, nor could they subscribe to the idea of negative government. They held to the notion that government ought to intervene in the marketplace, for the “social good,” that political power could be exercised for the benefit of mankind. They were socialists in spite of themselves. They gave the impression that if only they were in command, socialism would work out all right. Other doxies were heterodox, but theirs was orthodox.
Since socialism is so well institutionalized, since it is the going order, introduced through democratic methods, it might be claimed that almost all, or at least the majority of the people, are socialists. That is not so. The average person is not the least bit interested in any ideology, being content to get along as best he can under any conditions imposed on him. To be sure, almost everybody is enticed by the prospect of something for nothing, and since that is what our socialists—calling themselves liberals—offer, almost everybody is willing to go along with their programs. Taking a gift does not, however, entail acceptance of the donor's philosophy. The proletarian and the plutocrat will both accept a handout without regard to consequences, thinking only of immediate enjoyment and disregarding the motives of the donor; welfarism does not commit the welfaree to any ideology.
In point of fact, it is the human capacity for adjustment that the socialist counts on to advance his cause. He lures the unsuspecting public by his offer of something for nothing and when they become inured to its acceptance, so that they consider it a right,” he proceeds to burden them with additional gifts, the acceptance of which becomes easier with each new donation. His motive is to institute a regime of statism, in which a bureaucracy regulates the market, plans the economy and regiments the people. But, he gets there by degrees, basing his program on the capacity for adjustment, rather than on the conscious acceptance of his ideal. That is how our “social security” scheme has developed; starting in 1935 with old-age “insurance” for a limited number of persons, it has widened its coverage, increased the emoluments, compelled others to come under its aegis, and, of course, increased taxes; it will shortly include medical services for oldsters, from which will come socialized medicine for all.
I have seen welfarism introduced as a temporary measure, intended for relief of the masses during the depression, and have watched it grow into a permanent policy of the nation, so much so that even to question it is to draw down on oneself the opprobrious name of reactionary. In twenty-five years it has come to pass that one out of every six Americans is the recipient of government handouts of some kind, and the number is growing. To be sure, the very beneficiaries of the system pay for what they are getting, in taxes and in inflation, and they pay in addition the cost of administrating the collection and distribution of the largess. Of course, it has all been done by the democratic process, by voting into office men of a socialistic bent, and, democracy being what it is, the process of socializing the country cannot be stopped. A people can vote themselves into slavery, though they cannot vote themselves out of it.
The “Crime” of the
“The ‘Crime’ of the Capitalists” was posthumously published in Ideas (Spring-Summer 1969). It is a reworking of an article Chodorov published in analysis (November 1945) under the title “Why We Have Socialism.”
More than a century ago Karl Marx prophesied the collapse of capitalism and the advent of socialism. In the stars of history were written two theories which foretold the inevitable. These theories he called the “concentration of capital” and “increasing misery.”
The theories and the prophecy are worked out in great detail over hundreds of pages of fine print, but briefly they come to this: private property contains within itself the seed of its own destruction; this is its exploitative character. The laborer is robbed of his product by way of the surplus value inherent in capitalism, and the capitalist cannot consume all that he confiscates; hence a burdensome abundance accumulates. There is nothing the capitalist can do about it, for the surplus comes from the very nature of private ownership. When the owners try to unload in the market, domestic or foreign, a competitive contest takes place. The large capitalists eliminate the smaller. Those who have much have more thrust upon them. This centralization of capital makes capitalism in time a top-heavy structure, ready to topple over at the first good push. Meanwhile, the lot of the workers becomes progressively worse; their desperation drives them eventually to revolt. The revolt must prosper because this vast army, enlarged by demotions from the capitalist class, is “disciplined, united, organized, by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.” At the right moment—Marx expected it in his lifetime— “the knell of capitalist property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
A century should be time enough to test these theories. And the evidence of this period, even as a number of his followers admit, hardly supports them. Instead of an increasing concentration of capital, the figures show a constantly expanding class of capital owners; instead of intensified misery, the lot of the proletariat has vastly improved, even if the general wage level seems out of kilter with the general increase in production. These “scientific” theories, like others by which Marx hoped to lift socialism out of dreamy utopianism, have been knocked awry by facts, and his prophecy, based on these theories, seems to have been the vision of an armchair revolutionist.
And yet, it happens that Marx did hit upon an eventuality. Private capitalism is indeed slipping, while socialism is stepping along.
At this point, we ought to attempt, at least, a formulation of a general definition of socialism. The task is complicated by the lack of agreement among socialists themselves as to what the term means. To some it is a goal, to others it is a system of revolutionary tactics; it is an end in itself, it is a means toward another end, and on what that ultimate end may be there are opinions; in truth, it must be said that to the vast majority of its devotees socialism is the undefined “good society” of which mankind has dreamed since the beginning of time. Since no all-inclusive definition is possible, the best that can be done is to find among the various shadings of doctrine some common thread of thought. And that is: the public ownership and operation of the means of production and exchange. This, of course, will not satisfy all, if any, groups. Some will take umbrage at the word “public” and demand that “social” be substituted; the lack of a social goal in this definition will shock many, though the inclusion of a specific goal would raise a howl of dissension; many socialists demand a limit to public ownership, while others would leave nothing but personal articles in the hands of the individual. However, the common denominator is inclusive enough to make a working definition.
Public ownership of capital, no matter what it may ultimately lead to, comes to state capitalism. Capital is inanimate. Somebody must produce, make use of and look after it. If private persons are prevented by police power from accumulating and employing capital, the job must be undertaken by or under the supervision of political persons, that is, if there is going to be any capital—and that, however one tries to camouflage the fact, is state capitalism. Nor is it anything else if the regime is instituted without the use of prohibitory laws, as when private enterprise is wiped out in a competitive struggle with state-owned capital because it is under the handicap of supporting its competitor with taxes.
Only in Russia, its satellites, and China, now that the German and Italian machines have been smashed, is outright and unequivocal state capitalism a going concern. England is on the way to adopting it; while the present regime proposes to monopolize only certain forms of capital, the question which experience will decide is whether the intrusion of the state into one phase of the economy can stop at that predetermined point. The odds are against it, simply because in a highly specialized economy every industry impinges on many others, and the state must find it necessary to go into businesses related to those already nationalized. Even in America, long a sanctum of free enterprise, state capitalism is proceeding apace. There is no other way to describe federal ownership and operation of vast hydroelectric plants or the government's entry into the housing business or its extensive banking enterprises. In almost every country in the world the state has acquired monopolies of particular forms of capital and the trend is very definitely toward a widening of the practice. So that, if the statement that socialism is with us seems to be hyperbole, it is only so in point of degree; the seed has been planted, the soil is fertile and rapid growth seems inevitable.
But—if Marx's theories have proven to be fallacious—how is it that his prophecies of state capitalism are being fulfilled? Who is to blame? The answer is ironic but undeniable.
Between those who worship at the temple of capitalism and those who, to propitiate the gods of socialism, scorn that edifice, there are points of essential similarity; that is, similarity in essential articles of faith. For instance, a tenet common to both is that only under the aegis of the state is economic betterment to be found. The bitterest hater of socialism is as quick to call on political power to help him out of an economic morass as is the avowed socialist. Those unions which reject communism (for practical discussion, communism must be regarded as a socialistic sect) and those which openly espouse it are both in favor of a partnership with political power; hard-headed businessmen and visionary pink professors join in asking the government to tax and spend the country into prosperity; protectionism, socialized medicine, unemployment insurance, social security, full-employment legislation, farm subsidies, and all manner of political cures for economic ills find support in the opposing camps. The difference between the two simmers down to the question who shall control the power of the state; both are committed to the doctrine of more bread through more police.
Capitalists will demur at this statement and protest that the cardinal prayer in their litany is individualism. Yet when you parse this prayer you find it is only a supplication for privilege. Privilege from whom? The state, the source of all privilege. Privilege for whom? Themselves, of course. Privilege against whom? Those who, deprived of access to the source of power, are put under compulsion to give up part of their production to those who have been favored by the state. Every privilege involves an advantage, and every advantage predicates a disadvantage. Therefore, the individualism about which the going capitalism prates is a decidedly one-sided arrangement. It is quite the opposite of that equality of rights and opportunities which is the keystone of true individualism.
When we consider the history of what is called capitalism we see that its principals never concerned themselves only, or even mainly with private ownership of the means of production and exchange. At the inception of the laissez-faire economy in the eighteenth century, the rising class of entrepreneurs put forth every effort to acquire for themselves a preferred position comparable to that occupied by the nobility; the task of producing goods and services for exchange has always been secondary and unwanted. Slavery, patents, franchises, protective tariffs, cartels, subsidies, land grants—any monopolistic avoidance of the demands and risks of competition has been and is the hope and the goal of the businessman. He is a capitalist only by necessity; his ambition is to be a monopolist. Since every privilege amounts to getting something for nothing, no privilege can be self-enforcing. Taking property always requires force, and legalized force is the most expedient. The sovereignty of the state, backed by general acquiescence, is the source of privilege. It is the gangster's gun made shiny by the law.
The state, however abstract it may seem, is composed of human beings whose motivations are typical of the race. Their only price for granting a privilege is a further increment of power. Patents require a patent office, tariffs call for an extensive customs service, land grants demand a register's office. Every privilege granted by the state enlarges its working force, its power, and its income by way of additional tax levies. Capitalists have rarely objected to all this; the cost of maintaining a bureaucracy is an inconsequential charge against profitable privileges, and is in the main met by taxes on producers anyway.
As it went about peddling privilege for grants of power, the state could not restrict its clientele to a specially selected group; that is, not after constitutionalism effected a diffusion of its strength. Feudalism had kept everything running smoothly by limiting privilege and political power to a well-circumscribed group. When the growing class of industrialists broke through this crust they demanded a share in the political power. Their economic strength made it impossible to hold them in subjection, and by the use of such shibboleths as “no taxation without representation” and “the rights of man” they managed to wangle their way into a partnership with the rulers. There the nouveaux riches held on, emulating their feudal predecessors by using political power to their advantage. They instituted the mercantilist system of creating scarcities so that the worker would have to give up more to them for the needs of life. To the privileges of the feudal landowners were added the privileges of the industrialists. Both classes, knowing how they came by their affluence, were intent on depriving the clamoring crowd of access to that power. But the crowd could not be denied forever, and when at long last it became a participant in power, by way of the vote, it soon learned its economic possibilities.
And so, as the suffrage was extended the state's customers increased in number and ferocity. Privilege was added to privilege with dizzy profligacy; the capacity of production to meet the price was ignored in the wild scramble for something “for free.” Meanwhile, this siphoning of production involved an increasing overhead cost, thus further depleting the economy, while the administrative agency became stronger and bolder by the wealth and power thus put into its hands. It met the disaffection arising from a lowering economy by adding another group to its roster of privilege, another tax levy to its fiscal strength. Just as it relieved “infant industries” of foreign competition with a protective tariff, which added to its coffers, so it provided medical care for the indigent at the price of so-called social-security taxes; it subsidized the railroad magnates and the impoverished farmers with equanimity, and blithely put the costs on production. What else could it do? Nor could it carry out its assignments without an increase in its collecting and dispensing personnel, whose keep must also be provided for by producers.
As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, socialism is the end-product of an economy sucked dry by privilege. It is the political control of an economy so weakened by political intercession that it cannot stand up on its own feet. When the remuneration for productive effort is insufficient to warrant the expenditure, when rent, royalties, subsidies, and doles, to say nothing of the enforcement costs, absorb so much that sustenance becomes precarious and the incentive for capital accumulation disappears, then the state takes over and tries to make a go of it. It is not necessary here to discuss the causes of the periodic paroxysm known as the “depression”; it should be pointed out, however, that during such times the transference of economic power from producer to politician is accelerated, for it is then that the bewildered public is most susceptible to the most impossible promises. Nor need we go into the subject of war to show how this political upheaval gives impetus to the socialistic trend, not only by the new coercive instruments it puts into the hands of the state, but more so by the correlative economic power conferred on the politician; the financing of war through loans, to mention but one instance, creates a privilege class most intimately concerned with the state's power of levying taxes.
Socialism creeps up on society. It need not come by way of revolution, as Marx predicted. The bolsheviks in Russia and the fascists in Italy did take over the economies of their respective countries with a fanfare of arms, but in Germany it was initiated with legality and in England it is going through the parliamentary mill in due order. In America the state is becoming the one and only capitalist quite peacefully, making its way to the seductive strain of “the better life.” And, in those countries where state capitalism became an accomplished fact as well as in those countries where it promises to come into its own, the proletarian revolution was and is absent. A few intellectuals made Russia what it is, while the Nazis and fascists owed their success to the support of middle-class industrialists. In England the privileged classes have taken to the idea of selling out their holdings to the state, and in America it is the so-called capitalist who is to blame for the fulfillment of Marx's prophecies. Beguiled by the state's siren song of special privilege, the capitalists have abandoned capitalism. In doing so they may well have made inevitable that day in the not-so-distant future when their dearly bought privileges will be swept away as the state formally takes the means of production into its own hands. How right Lenin was when he said that the capitalist would sell you the rope with which you intended to hang him if he thought he could make a profit on the sale.
A Fifty-Year Project
This article was originally written for and published in pamphlet form by the National Council for American Education. 1 have reprinted here the version Chodorov published in analysis (October 1950). A different version appeared in Human Events and was the impetus for the founding of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. It was also reprinted in Out of Step.
Came 1950, and the Sunday supplement writers had something new to engage their talents. The achievements of the human race, particularly the American branch of it, during the first half of the twentieth century made good copy. Every accomplishment of note, in science, art, industry, or sports, received proper notice. Except one. And that one achievement of the last fifty years is far more startling, far more important from the long-term point of view, than anything the literary gentlemen paid their respects to. It was the transmutation of the American character from individualist to collectivist.
The replacement of the horse and buggy by the automobile is startling enough; but is it as startling as the contrast between Cleveland and Truman? This is not to compare one president with the other, but to point out the remarkable change in the character of the people presided over. Cleveland's remark that the government could not take care of the people who took care of it was made because Americans thought that way; today, the handout principle of government is accepted by all good Americans, from pauper to millionaire. At the beginning of the century the tradition of individualism that had held up since the Revolution was still going strong; by 1950, only the physical composition of the individual remained, for his character had been well washed out by the caustic of socialism.
Anybody can make a machine, but the unmaking of a national character is the work of genius. The accomplishment is too great to be ignored. A study of just how it was done is in order, and it ought to be undertaken at once, before the American individualist becomes a subject for speculative archaeology. There are still some living remnants of the species, and traces of the way they behaved and thought have not yet been entirely obliterated. A thorough analysis of the character transformation may well serve the twenty-first century in its disillusionment; and it may help them find their way back to a sense of freedom; provided, of course, such a work should escape the bonfire of past values that always lights up the road of socialism.
AN IMPORTANT CHAPTER
At least one chapter of the book should deal with how the collectivist seed was implanted in the soft and fertile student mind forty-odd years ago. That's how it all began. Collectivism is, after all, only an idea, and the usual way of acquiring an idea is by learning. The followers of Marx are fond of saying that socialism is an inevitable product of the forces of history; but, this manure of inevitability is the fertilizer they use to aid the idea of socialism in taking root and sprouting after it is planted. If the thing was to come anyhow, why have they been so assiduous in spreading the idea? Why did they bother to organize students' socialist clubs when socialism was “in the nature of things”?
Just how socialism first invaded the campus is not recorded. Perhaps a student or two became infected at some street corner and brought it in. The glorious promise of socialism gave it easy access to the idealistic adolescent mind, insufficiently fortified by reason or experience. At eighteen, one is ready to take up for every underdog, real or imaginary, and the opportunity to remake the world is most inviting. Very few students, however, paid much attention to the importation when it first appeared; one had enough to do to get over the difficult hurdles of the rigid curriculum that prevailed in those days. Besides, one had to prepare oneself for the arduous task of meeting the problems of the world as an individual. It was then taken for granted that one's way in life called for industry and self-improvement; politics and a government job, including an army career, were for the unfit only; you got an education so that you could the better take care of yourself, not society. While that tradition prevailed, socialism made little headway on the campus.
The idealistic pretensions of socialism did capture a few hearts, while its vibrant and challenging slogans fed the nascent revolutionary flame of youth. Their intellectual vanity was flattered by the “scientific” claims of socialism; they knew all about surplus value, which the others did not understand, and that made them an elite. The “science” was aided and abetted by such fighting words as “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains,” and the knight-errant of the fuzzy chin was aroused to the full. Truth to tell, those who espoused socialism were among the most imaginative, volatile, and articulate students; the fact that they were ignored or derided by their classmates simply added to their ardor, for it fed the sense of superiority that makes for martyrdom. They made some headway with a few who could not break into the fraternities or could not make the athletic teams.
CONVERSION WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING
In those early days the socialistic students were unorganized. They were held together by the bond of the unwanted. Their principal occupation was mutual conversion. When they got hold of a possible proselyte, they put him to a disadvantage by the ready speeches got out of their extracurricular reading, mostly pamphlets, and the prospect was overpowered, if not convinced. They attracted some attention by their self-assurance and by their audacity, which was their purpose in the first place. But, on the whole, they cut little figure on the campus; far less, let us say, than did the few students of Oriental origin who came to American colleges before World War I.
Not long after the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the organized socialistic student group began to appear and the apparatus of proselytizing was set up. Unauthorized posters advertising “noted” speakers adorned the official bulletin boards, and often the promise of enlightenment was supplemented with the assurance of refreshments. Conversion through the media of dances and punch was found to be even more effective than through literature and argument. The membership of these clubs grew.
Between the two world wars the socialists got going on their “inevitable” idea in dead earnest; they pushed it along with all the organizational ingenuity they possessed, and they possessed plenty. Lenin had taught them that one need not wait on the slow process of evolution; history could be hurried. The process of expedition consisted in the marshaling of the mass-mind behind an idea, whether understood or not; in fact, the less understood the better, for thinking might retard the action to which the historical forces are amenable. The teaching of “scientific” socialism was suspended and the necessity of “dynamism” was emphasized. Action for the sake of action was all that counted. Marx was spoken of and revered, but far more important than an understanding of what he taught was the doctrine of solidarity and the policy of movement.
The organizers paid special attention to the mass-mind on the campus, the mind that would eventually make the rules for other people to live by. Their efforts here were aided by the disillusionment that followed the war with the Central Powers. Taking advantage of this frame of mind among the students, the socialists set themselves up as the “prophets of pacifism,” conveniently overlooking the militancy preached by Marx. Many a student became a socialist—that is, joined a socialist club—simply because he was opposed to war; which was all right with the doctrinaire leadership, whose goal was numbers, not understanding.
To make trouble for trouble's sake is a fundamental of socialist strategy, and the students' clubs followed that principle in campus affairs at any and all occasions. Their esprit de corps was thus improved. Nothing favored their purpose more than involvement in a strike, and they looked upon one in the neighborhood with great favor. It gave them an opportunity to harangue the crowd, pass out leaflets, do picket duty, charge the police, and get themselves arrested and martyrized. It was a lark to be sure, but a lark glamorized with a “noble” purpose. Active participation in some labor trouble was a cementing influence far more effective than intellectual agreement. It was a demonstration of the superiority of the group over the individual.
CAME THE NEW DEAL
By the time the New Deal came upon us these college socialists were well organized. They had become intercollegiate in scope. At national conventions the boys and girls settled all the problems of mankind, national and international, present and future. They debated and resolved, resolved and debated, and went back to their respective campuses thoroughly exalted. They attracted attention, and among those attracted were sons of the detested capitalistic class, boys who were thrilled by the prospect of expiating the sins of their fathers on the altar of the “public good,” meanwhile flattering their egos by the attendant publicity. Money to carry on the crusade was thus easier to come by.
The effects of three decades of organization and propaganda soon became evident. Thousands of graduates of these socialistic clubs had gone out into the world. It was natural that they should enter those fields in which ideas and opinions are the main stock-in-trade, and where training in organizational methods comes in handy; the teaching profession, labor unions, social work, law and politics, and, most important, the publishing business. Working themselves into positions of importance, they eased the way for a supporting cast of their own kind. Jobs for the faithful became plentiful; for nonbelievers the opportunities became scarcer and scarcer. Since the third decade of the century, therefore, a pedagogue of known individualistic inclinations has found employment increasingly difficult, and an antistatist writer simply has no market for his wares. If a book of that type does get into print, thanks to a venturesome publisher, it is given short shrift by the reviewers, most of whom came out of the socialistic college environment, and its chances for wide reception are thus choked off; on the other hand, any kind of socialistic bilge is boosted into a masterpiece. The clan takes care of its own.
The New Deal was a product of this extracurricular work in the colleges. When the “emergency” hit President Roosevelt, he had nobody to turn to for advice but the graduates of these socialistic clubs. The businessmen, the men who concern themselves with the making and selling of things, were in the main devoid of any knowledge of fundamental economics, and too bewildered by the turn of events to be of much use in the situation. The loudmouthed theoreticians were more sanguine; besides, the books they had had published qualified them as experts. It would be interesting to know how many of the professors who came to the aid of Mr. Roosevelt had been associated with socialistic groups in their college days; that would throw light on the transmutation of the American character.
The apparatus of the New Deal was most favorable for the “inevitable” idea, for it provided the sustenance necessary for effective propaganda work. No longer were the socialist workers dependent for their living on voluntary contributions; the taxpayer now fed them well, and they worked the better on full stomachs. Today, a bright young man cannot afford to entertain individualistic ideas, assuming that he happened on them in some dust-covered book, because such ideas carry a decided economic disadvantage. The best jobs go to those most loyal to the new Americanism.
HELP FROM THE ENEMY
The character of a nation is the way it thinks. American thought in 1950 is collectivistic because the seed of that kind of thinking was well planted in its most receptive minds during the early years of the century. What we have now is the fruit of careful and assiduous husbandry.
The climate of the times favored the socialists. They could point up the manifest injustices and incongruities that had developed under the prevailing system of private property, which made no distinction between productive effort and political privilege. The growth of monopolies, and the ruthlessness of their practices, presented an easy indictment of private property as a whole. It was a damaging indictment and the heart of youth was so touched that examination was precluded. The fact that monopoly is a product of politics, and that socialism is nothing but a political scheme, did not occur to them, and the monopolists were in no position to bring up the matter. Socialism, of course, proposes to substitute public for private monopoly, claiming that, with the “profit motive” gone, the evils inherent in monopoly would be wiped out. The inference is that under socialistic management monopoly would be an instrument for good only; which is a variation of the “chosen people” doctrine, and that catered to the conceit of the neophyte socialists.
Then, the obvious incongruity of the “boom and bust” economy helped the socialistic idea along, particularly as it came up with a plausible explanation and a cure; the going capitalism offered neither. Again, the recurrence of war under capitalism was a condemnation that youth could understand, and since socialism insisted that it had a preventive it was accepted sight unseen. Youth loves, never analyzes, a panacea.
Abysmal ignorance of their own philosophy, plus a smug complacency, put the practicing capitalists at a disadvantage in meeting the challenge of youth. They had been in the driver's seat too long to believe dislodgment a possibility. Somewhere hovering over their cloudy heads, but not bothering them at all, were the ideas of Locke, Adam Smith, Jefferson, and the other libertarians of the past two centuries; these were like heirlooms gathering dust in a closet and never taken out for examination or appreciation. The only economic ideas the capitalists had a working acquaintance with were those conducive to the piling up of profits, like protective tariffs and other special privileges. As for the doctrine of natural rights, which is the foundation of capitalistic thought, it meant nothing to them but the right to exploit their fellow man. Preoccupation with the business of making money, by any and all means, dulled whatever intellectual capacity they might have had. The best they could offer to inquiring youth was their own affluence as a demonstration of the excellence of the status quo, which youth could see was far from excellent.
IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
Under the circumstances, the idea of socialism took root and flourished. The question now, at the half-century mark, is whether it is destined to crowd out the remaining vestiges of individualism in the American culture. It would seem so. But socialism is only an idea, not an historical necessity, and ideas are acquired by the human mind. We are not born with ideas, we learn them. If socialism came to America because it was implanted in the minds of past generations, there is no reason for assuming that future generations will come by that idea without similar indoctrination; or that the contrary idea cannot be taught them. What the socialists have done can be undone, if there is a will for it. But, the undoing will not be accomplished by trying to destroy established socialistic institutions. It can be accomplished only by attacking minds, and not the minds of those already hardened by socialistic fixations. Individualism can be revivified by implanting the idea in the minds of the coming generations.
So then, if those who put a value on the dignity of the individual are up to the task, they have a most challenging opportunity in education before them. It will not be an easy or quick job. It will require the kind of industry, intelligence, and patience that comes with devotion to an ideal. And the only reward they can hope for is that by the end of the century, the socialization of the American character will have been undone.
Things being as they are, perhaps the job should begin by going after the preadolescent mind, even in the kindergarten grade. The socialists, it might be recalled, did not neglect to turn nursery rhymes to their use, and since the advent of the comic book, the communists (or advanced socialists) have employed this medium of indoctrination. But that is a specialized effort that could well be deferred until the college mind, the mind that will soon enter the active arena, is taken care of. The assault must be made on the campus.
WRITE OFF THE FACULTY
Assault is the proper word, and the proper attitude, for the proposed job. The possibility of winning over the faculty to the individualistic idea might as well be dismissed aforehand, simply because the professorial mind is by and large beyond redemption; it is both the effect and the cause of the condition that is to be corrected. Here and there a welcome atavism will be found, but it will be rare, and the safe thing to do is to write off the faculty. That tactic, moreover, will find favor with the students, particularly those endowed with the gift of intellectual curiosity; to be able to controvert the dicta of the professor is always a sophomoric delight. To win the student over to the idea of individualism it is necessary to equip him with doubts regarding the collectivistic doctrines insinuated into the lecture room or into his textbooks. If the suggested undertaking should apply itself to a refutation of the “adopted” texts, especially in the fields of economics, social science, and government, a veritable revolution could be started on the campus in short order; the vulnerability of these texts is all too obvious to even superficial examination.
The apparatus for initiating the project suggests itself. It would consist of a lecture bureau, manned by a secretariat and a corps of lecturers. The business of the bureau would be to arrange for lectures on or near the selected campuses. The lecturers—probably difficult to find these days—would have to be acquainted with socialistic theory as well as with the literature of individualism, for since the purpose is to uproot the trend of thought, the student would have to be impressed with its inadequacies. Whatever the subject matter of the lecture, the doctrine of the primacy of the individual, as against the supremacy of the social order, must be emphasized; thus, the student will learn to recognize in the classroom or textbook the insidious implication that the social order and its political establishment take precedence over the individual. Every lecture must contain a challenge.
It is unnecessary, in throwing out the suggestion, to detail an entire program. Once started, the project would develop a momentum of its own; the students would see to that. It might be suggested, however, that the lectures be followed up with the organization of Individualistic Clubs and an intercollegiate affiliation. Prizes for essays on individualism would do much to stimulate thought; and a publication offering an outlet for articles would be a necessity. Out of these activities would come an esprit de corps based upon conviction and enthusiasm for a “new” idea. The individualist would become the campus radical, just as the socialist was forty years ago, and the aura of the “intellectual elite” would fall on him.
Is the effort worthwhile? To which one offers as answer another question: What in life is more worthwhile than the pursuit of an ideal?