Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Lost Literature of Socialism

Like most of the sins of materialist politics, killing people by category had religious precursors. The Islamic injunction that polytheists and animists had to become Muslim or die and Christian endorsement of extermination of "sodomites", not to mention of "witches" and the odd heretic, obviously well pre-date the secular versions of killing by category.

Nevertheless, genocide in secular politics—including extermination of people by race, ethnic or class category—is a socialist idea whose only significant public advocates from the 1840s to the 1940s all called themselves socialists. So George Watson tells us in his slim but revealing volume The Lost Literature of Socialism. It starts with Marx and Engels writing in the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung in January 1849:
The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward,

includes H. G. Wells concluding his 1902 Anticipations with a programme of socialist genocide, George Bernard Shaw welcoming the Soviet adoption of the exterminatory principle in a 1933 preface to On the Rocks, a principle thoroughly endorsed by Lenin in his 1908 essay Lessons of the Commune:
there are times when the interests of the proletariat call for ruthless extermination of its enemies in open armed clashes.

Plus less public support—Jack London supporting it in private correspondence, Virginia Woolf complaining in her diary on 9 January 1915 about meeting a distressing line of imbeciles "It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed", Beatrice Webb complaining at a 1932 tea party about the "very bad stage management" which allowed British visitors to the Ukraine to see cattle-trucks of starving “enemies of the state”
Ridiculous to let you see them … The English are always so sentimental. You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Shaw writing to Webb on 6 February 1938 that it was perfectly reasonable for the state to weed out “undesirable” strains:
We ought to tackle the Jewish question by admitting the right of States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable, but insisting they do so humanely as they can afford to, and not to shock civilization by such misdemeanours as the expulsion and robbery of Einstein.

All culminating in Lenin and Stalin putting theory into practice, as did that most embarrassing of all socialists, Adolf Hitler.

Of course, it was far from true that all socialists endorsed genocide (Orwell being one of very many examples of very much not doing so). But if all endorsers of genocide for a century called themselves socialists, and if socialists introduced the notion as a systematic program into secular political thought, then something is going on.
But the socialist provenance of genocide has gone down the memory hole. As has quite a lot of ideas from socialism’s history, a forgetting that is also the subject of George Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism. A volume which deserved somewhat better of its publisher—there are missing spaces between words, one sudden lurch into a different typeface and a few editing errors (Marx and Engels did not publish in the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung of 1949).

Despite the failings of the publisher, Watson’s book is highly readable. It is a book about (and against) forgetting (Watson quotes Milan Kundera’s dictum that
the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

on the first page of the first chapter). About how ideas, critiques and arguments can flourish and then be forgotten: sometimes to be re-invented and sometimes to remain in obscurity.

Something else that has gone down the memory hole is the association of socialism with imperialism. All the above were proponents of European imperialism and, from Jack London on, of specifically white imperialism. Again, practice followed theory. Socialist states have been systematically far more militarised than capitalist ones, including engaging in old-fashioned territorial imperialism (the Soviet occupations of Georgia, the Baltic States, parts of Poland, Romania and Prussia; imposition of controlled regimes under occupation on Mongolia, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan; China’s occupation of Tibet). Lenin may have denounced “capitalist” imperialism, but he was an ardent practitioner of the “proletarian” variety.

Then there was National Socialist imperialism. Nazism was a socialist ideology though Nazi Germany was no more a socialist state than Sweden is: in both societies, productive capital being mostly privately owned and exchangeable in markets. (So, if Sweden is a socialist state, then so was Nazi Germany; if Nazi Germany was a capitalist state, then so is Sweden.)

But Watson concentrates on socialist writings far more than their practical realisations (although such clearly gives grim context to said writings). His preface explains that the book is about writings by socialists and about socialism, it is not a history of socialism. In the first chapter, he notes that socialism starts in about the 1840s but has late C18th precursors, and that there is a tendency to have a somewhat reverent attitude to its founding fathers. So much so, that how much perspectives have changed has been greatly obscured.

His first chapter cites John Millar’s forgotten 1771 book The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, for
there are still social historians who take it for granted, for example, that comprehensive theories of social difference began with Marx, although Marx himself did not think so (p.8)

to examine what was a commonplace at one time becomes forgotten or obscured later. Millar’s book is the first theoretical book on social difference in all Europe and has entirely passed out of mind.

But Watson shows that people often became socialists prior to reading any of the key texts. Indeed, Louis Althusser managed to make an academic and intellectual career as an interpreter of Marx without bothering to read much of Marx at all: and not a word of Aristotle or Kant, despite lecturing on both (p.13).

Watson brings to light a series of prescient critiques of socialism published in the C19th and early C20th that predicted (accurately) the tyrannical tendency inherent in the socialist project. So Max Hirsch, a radical and disciple of Henry George, published in Australia in 1901 his Democracy versus Socialism warning of socialism creating an “all-pervading despotism” under the rule of a new managerial class (as, of course, happened in all the Leninist states). But Hirsch was also confident that his warnings would not be heeded; because socialists were deaf, confident in their conviction that social reform could only mean socialism (p.14).

Watson delineates false convictions about socialism that have become orthodoxy—that socialism is always left-wing and can never be conservative; that it was always about class and never about race (so can never have advocated genocide). And related convictions—that Left means radical, that revolution means radical change.

In his second chapter, Watson examines Millar’s book in its context, starting with Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (1748) and later writings by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith all of whom, like Millar, were interested in social differentiation and none of whom used the modern concept of class, which they had never heard of. For them, social differentiation was about subordination of ranks: rank being a much more differentiated concept that the crudity of class and one far more in tune with common understandings of how things are. They also saw human societies as displaying an underlying constancy of human nature in the midst of flux, wealth as an agency of change and economic structures as underlying historical movement.

Watson is at pains to make two points here: as Marx and Engels themselves rightly said, Marx was not original in seeing economics and social differentiation as drivers of history. So claims that comprehensive social analysis was born in the 1840s are false and based on ignorance of both Marx and of intellectual history. Second, what made the previous tradition (which in various forms stretches back to Aristotle) unappealing (and Marx appealing) is that the earlier tradition saw social differentiation as desirable.

The third chapter is on the idea of conservative revolution. Watson establishes the idea that a “real” revolution was one of radical change very much dates from the French Revolution. It was not an idea that had struck earlier times. For them, revolutions were part of a cycle of history and could easily be preservative: such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Indeed, as he points out, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a conservative revolution (against the modernising secularism of the Shah). Watson does, however, overreach in this chapter. He wants to define revolution as any violent seizure of power and he tries to maintain that revolution was only conceived of in conservative terms. The first strikes me as too broad a definition and the second goes beyond his evidence. Indeed, against the notion of the recurring cycles of history that people typically operated under.

Chapter four is on the Tory tradition of socialism. That socialism was a conservative idea was a commonplace of early C19th thought. Liberal capitalism was transforming society and overturning old social norms and arrangements. Socialism—by its hostility to markets and private property—was seen as a natural way to stop such transformations and preserve a more static, status-bound order. As, indeed, it has proved to be. China, after all, abandoned socialist economics not because it promoted too much change but because it permitted too little—as Bertold Brecht would remark
communism is not radical: capitalism is radical (p.44).

While, as Watson points out, all the Leninist states promptly became very hierarchical societies. The Tory socialist John Ruskin, particularly his book Unto this last, was cited by many British Labour figures as deeply influencing their own political thought.

And the answer to question of why socialists declaring themselves to be Tory, or Tory influenced, was not denounced by liberal and radical opinion was: they were, the debate has just been forgotten. The binaries and simplicities of Left v Right, socialist=Left, Left=change have proven too powerful.

The next chapter examines de Tocqueville (and other liberal thinkers and writers) prescient discussion of the burden of liberty. There were and are psychic and social burdens to liberty and autonomy, and liberals such as de Tocqueville, Dickens, Turgenev, Ibsen, Henry James, John Stuart Mill were well aware of it and wrote about it perceptively. They did not turn against freedom but, particularly de Tocqueville and Mill (indeed, Mill from de Tocqueville) saw limited and representative government as the way to deal with such pressures.

Watson then moves on to two forgotten French critiques of socialism by Adolphe Thiers (De la propriete) and Alfred Sudre (Histoire du Communisme) writing in the context of the 1848 revolution that overthrew the Orleanist monarchy, briefly led to the Second Republic and then the Second Empire under Napoleon III (who regarded himself as a socialist). Sudre’s book was the first history of socialism (or communism) in any language. It was a critique of the idea that the abolition of property will help the poor—from the other side of the dead of the collectivisation famines and the grinding poverty of Leninist states, hardly an outrageous argument. But one mounted decades before 1917 and just as The Communist Manifesto was being published. Sudre held socialism to be a conservative, hierarchical and, indeed, naturally tyrannical idea, as the powerful will just use the state for their purposes. Thiers mounted a similar, but more narrowly economic, argument. Sudre’s book is apparently not mentioned in any history of socialism.

Mill does not refer to either book in his (published posthumously) point-by-point critique of Louis Blanc’s 1839 Organisation du Travail. Mill attacks socialists for their recklessness:
Those who would play this game on the strength of their private opinion, unconfirmed as yet by any experimental verification … must have a serene confidence in their own wisdom, on the one hand, and a recklessness of other people’s sufferings on the other (pp69-70).

Again, from the other side of the mountain of corpses piled up from 1917 to now in socialist “experiments”, Mill was clearly spot on.

Watson devotes a chapter to Hitler’s citing of Marxism as the key source for National Socialism, Hitler’s repeated private and public declarations of being a socialist and how such has been fairly systematically ignored since 1945. (Hitler's claims seem much less strange if socialism is seen as creating a static and hierarchical society.) Another chapter examines the genocidal theme within socialist writings from Marx to the Holocaust. A chapter on Orwell follows, which is well worth reading on its own: a deeply perspicacious discussion of what Orwell was about as a writer. Though it is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the book: the connections being that Orwell was very much not a person for forgetting—struggling revealingly with how to have truthful experiences, and then how to evoke them in ways that were both truthful and persuasive—was deeply humanitarian and (along with Koestler) revisited themes (the hierarchical, status-driven, static nature of socialism) that they seem to have independently rediscovered, in ignorance of previous writers.

I am not entirely convinced by Watson’s use of the word conservative. He seems to mean it in the sense of preservative or static or even returning to, but they are not the same. Abolishing or hugely restricting legal private property seems a fairly dramatic change: in a capitalist society, full socialism is not conservative. But that it will then create a static (and, indeed, hierarchical and controlled) order is also true. As is that socialism was often seen as a way of preserving traditional morality (again, not without reason). Still, one can agree with his underlying thesis while not entirely agreeing with how he expresses it.

Watson concludes with a final, brief, chapter on The Great Amnesia summarising how ideas, arguments and critiques have arisen and been forgotten. The preference for simple binaries (particularly Left-versus-Right) he regards as a prime culprit for the
successive series of suppressions, a repeated refusal to look (p.105).

That and the sheer embarrassment (for both conservatives and socialists) of finding socialism has often been seen as conservative, the embarrassment that genocide was born on the Left and within socialism, that Hitler was avowedly a socialist, that there were capitalists who profited from Lenin’s rule. As Watson says, there are more comfortable things to believe in.

But that truth may not be comfortable does not make it any less the truth. Watson’s slim volume is a worthy blow against forgetting. One suspects, however, that the forces for forgetting are too strong, even as socialism slides into the detritus of history.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Well said.

  2. a book that needs to be more widely read - good critique as well

  3. Imagine that you own a business. You paid, or obtained investment for the property and all its contents. You conceived the business idea, fulfilled all the legal and tax requirements, negotiated contracts with suppliers, employed staff and opened for business.

    Imagine also that a new government mandates that they will dictate when and what you produce, in what quantities and where it will be distributed to. They will define how much you pay your staff and yourself. They will define what price products and services are sold for and enforce them via a dedicated police force with the power to deliver severe punishments for any deviations.

    Given that private property is a core tenet of capitalism and ownership entails being personally accountable for the products, profits, losses and debts of that property. Is the aforementioned fictitious society implementing concepts of private property? I say not. If one has no control over their property then it is their property in name only.

    Another core tenet of capitalism is free trade, the voluntary and non-coercive exchange of value. Can one describe a system, in which no one can choose the product they want or the price at which to buy or sell without severe legal ramifications, a free-market system? Again, I say not.

    The imaginary economy that I am describing is, in fact, the Nazi German economy.

    Therefore, I conclude that the term "State Capitalism" is an oxymoron and that Nazi Germany was a Socialist economy imposed on a previously capitalist economy. Maintaining the fiction of private property was merely a strategy to avoid the inevitable civil war that would result from the wholesale government theft of citizen's private property.

    1. While I take your point, there was still enough private ownership of capital to make calling the Nazi economy 'socialist' a bit problematic. It was not a command economy in the full sense of the term. It did have a lot of similarities to the War Socialism of the Second Reich during the Great War (1914-1919) which, as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, accustomed the German middle class to state planning. But it did so precisely because it did not have the full-blown characteristics of socialism, in the sense of a command economy.