Thursday, May 12, 2016

It Didn’t Start With Marx

An extraordinary book came my way, one which alters to some degree my own focus on the current conflict between socialism and conservatism, between secular political collectivism and religious political collectivism in America. This is George Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism, originally published in 1998 and reissued in 2001. Then, as now, it is largely unheralded by the doyens of socialism and conservatism. The book remains obscure for many reasons, not least of which is that its contents are a revelation which current socialists and egalitarians would prefer not become general knowledge. 

Many of the unsavory roots of socialism, as highlighted by Watson, are hardly complimentary or flattering and do not lend themselves to the unicorn picture of a humane political system in which no person wants for anything, neither free cell phone, an education, and two cars in every garage. But the sources and roots of socialism are basically unknown to modern advocates, who are genuinely ignorant and oblivious to what their forerunners had in mind. They are asking for something the true and inevitable nature of which they do not bother to examine in any depth other than quoting Marxist “scripture” out of historical context and often out of the context of a writer’s works.

Modern socialists are not holding fingers to their lips and urging sotto voce, “Shush! It’s really embarrassing what so many of our pioneer socialists said and did, it’s best that this knowledge not get around! If people knew, it could harm the cause!” No. They are utterly oblivious to the truth.  Watson notes that, overall, modern Marxists “were not just ignorant of the world. They were ignorant of Marx.” (p. 27)

In 1983, in one of his last books, Politics of the Ancient World, [Moses] Finley rightly deplored the vulgar habit of calling all class analysis Marxist, since, he said, it is in fact at least as old as Aristotle.

Socialism as an articulated, propagated cause, therefore, did not start with the publication of The Communist Manifesto (1848) or with Das Capital (1867). It had been growing long in the tooth for decades, even centuries before Marx was even born. Watson, a British Liberal, in his Preface, writes:

The literature of socialism is lost in the sense that it is unread….A lost literature is still a literature, after all, whether it survives in books, periodicals, or manuscripts, and it is the business of the literary historian to read it….

There is abundant evidence…that socialism was not always supposed to be left-wing or favorable to the poor, whether by its adherents or its opponents. It was not anti-racialist…and not always in favor of the welfare state.

Why have they not been heralded? Why have these classic works been ignored, that is, ignored in the sense that they are known and contain inconvenient ideas, not because they are known but snubbed and given short shrift? In the main, most advocates of socialism today do not understand what it is they are advocating. It is because Watson, in researching the sources and foundations of socialism and socialist thought, realized that most of the big names in the history of the development of socialist ideology were, practically to a man, conservatives!

That is, they wished to preserve the status quo of an elite cadre that governs men and disposes of their lives and property. They wished to have the power of Mandrake the Magigian to appropriate the wealth created by capitalism and create a new social order based on collectivism using that wealth, with themselves as the governing class above everyone else.

The vision they commonly held was one that projected an “idyllic” Medieval era, when knights jousted on brave steeds, the elite held court and ate well, and the general population existed at subsistence level or was locked into a guild socialism mosaic of trades and crafts, never to dream of leaving their assigned stations in life or aspiring to leave their allotted status as yeomen and servants for the privileged.

The Kennedy clan can be said to be the first full-fledged realization of a self-perpetuating aristocracy that lorded it over the rest of us. It was Joseph Kennedy, Sr.’s intent that his family should rule, and rule in the literal sense of the word, a rule that bought off the populace with socialist bromides and platitudes to placate the hoi polloi and plebeians with legislative crumbs.

There isn’t a howling socialist demonstrator or candidate for political office who does not want to be in that elite, from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Paul Ryan, and virtually every Democrat and Republican. They want to preserve the status quo so that they can rule, and rule from the vantage point of privilege and empowerment. The “revolution” they want to ignite is not a drive to higher heights of social organization, but a revolving door that puts them back in power, after some messy “revolutionary” disturbances, as the privileged class, insulated from the travails they impose on the population at large.

Until Karl Marx came along, socialists who predated him thought of socialism in terms of rank, not class.  The difference between rank and class is purely “social,” and has little to do with “class warfare” or the evolution of capitalism to an ideal social state. Rank implies that one knows one’s place in society. You take orders, do what’s expected of you, and never presume to tell the next person up the ladder his business.

A promotional flyer for Watson’s book reads and captures the tenor of Watson’s opus:

…Watson examines the foundation texts of socialism to find out what they really say: the result is blasphemy against socialism and against socialism’s canon of saints. Marx and Engels publicly advocated genocide in 1849; Ruskin called himself a violent Tory….and [George Bernard] Shaw held the working classes in utter contempt. Drawing on an impressive range of sources from Robert Own to Ken Livingstone, the author demonstrates that socialism was a conservative, nostalgic reaction to the radicalism of capitalism, and not always supposed to be advantageous to the poor….Two chapters…study Hitler’s claim that the whole of National Socialism [Nazism] was based on Marx, and bring to light the common theoretical basis of the beliefs of Stalin and Hitler which lead to death camps. As a literary critic, Watson’s concern is to pay proper respect to the works of the founding fathers of socialism, to attend to what they say and not to what their modern disciples wish they had said….

Here is a sampling of what the “ancients” of socialism said. In 1862, John Ruskin (1810-1900), an art critic and essayist, and virulently opposed to the Industrial Revolution, published Unto This Last. Watson writes:

Whether medieval, Neolithic, or Paleolithic, socialism was from its origins a hierarchical doctrine, and it habitually venerated aristocracy and leadership. “My continual aim,” Ruskin wrote in Unto This Last,
...has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing such person or persons to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors according to their own better knowledge and wider will” (paragraph 54).
Those who have wondered why, in practice, socialists can be so snobbish may have their answer here. They were not snobs in spite of being socialists…but socialists because they were snobs. Capitalism, after all, is radically vulgar…and it can give spending power to the most dreadful people. (p. 48)

I may be an upper class twit, but I own you.
I do not know if Ruskin ever killed anyone, but V.I. Lenin (1870-1924) killed on a mass scale once the Bolshevik government was established in 1917. Yet, he hailed from the Russian aristocracy. His father was made an hereditary nobleman for his work in education. Lenin, for all his hard-scrabble revolutionary activities and periods of imprisonment and exile, had aristocratic pretensions. Watson sheds some light on Lenin’s aims:

The principle of socialist aristocracy was candidly announced by Lenin fifteen years before he seized power, and in What Is to Be Done?, a pamphlet written in exile, he put a blunt case for the rule of an intellectual elite….Lenin’s argument is uncompromising. Since Marxist revolution is based on theory, and only intellectuals can understand theory, only an intellectual elite can lead the revolution: “the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia.” (pp. 48-49)

The chief and overriding end of Lenin’s crusade against the Romanoffs and aristocracy was to replace them in fact and in political practice with Lenin and his commissars (and their successors). This is what happened. Soviet Russia, for over half a century, was ruled by a self-perpetuating aristocracy.

Socialism necessarily means government by a privileged class, as Lenin saw, since only those of privileged education are capable of planning and governing. [George Bernard] Shaw and H.G. Wells [both British Fabians], too, often derided the notion that ordinary people can be trusted with political choice….Socialism had to be based on privilege…since only privilege educates for the due exercise of centralized power in a planned economy….The next step was for the ruling elites of the socialist world to grant themselves the privileges, sometimes even hereditary privileges of a ruling caste. (p. 49)

On pages 62 and 63, Watson provides an note about the origin of key terms:

Socialism was first used as a term by Robert Owen in the “Cooperative Magazine” in 1827; and it was an English Christian Socialist, Goodwyn Barnby, who claimed in 1848 to have invented the word “communism” in Paris in 1840.

Watson cites numerous “unknown” advocates or critics of socialism throughout The Lost Literature, among them Alfred Sudre, a French lawyer and writer who published, in 1848, Histoire du Communisme.
Its subtitle was “an historical refutation of socialist utopias.’ Sudre opposed socialism and communism. He wrote that private property was the best defense of the poor against oppression by a stratified communist or socialist aristocratic establishment. Watson writes of Sudre that he averred that

The liberating claims of socialism…however sincere, are a chimera, and the nation that places economic power in the hands of a central authority, Sudre argues, will end with a tyranny like Plato’s guardians, ruled by fear and military discipline. It was the commitment of political thinkers in antiquity to the concept of a perfect state that led them into the monstrous errors that now threaten mankind, and Sudre was the first to notice how deeply indebted the early socialist thinkers were to the heritage of ancient philosophy, though his target was not Aristotle, who inspired Marx, but Aristotle’s master, Plato.

Sudre, writes Watson, was more radical than traditionalist, radical in the sense that he saw free enterprise and private property as a defense against socialist tyranny.

His case is both theoretical and practical. The real charge against communism is that, whatever its motives, its effects would be to create a privileged caste. It is more conservative, as an idea, than any group or party which, in a democratic age, chooses to call itself that. (p. 66)

Watson’s discourse is replete with discussions of obscure writers and excerpts from their works, pro and con socialism. Sudre, John Millar, David Hume, William Morris, Marx, Engels, and so on. It was not so startling, for example, to read that Hitler was first and foremost a socialist (thus the name of his Nazi party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party), but he was willing to allow some free enterprise in order to prop up his command economy. The striking thing is that, while he maintained a lifelong enmity for socialists and communists, he admitted in private that he and Nazism were indebted to Marx and Marxism – including the means to exterminate whole races as Stalin could, except he claimed that the Nazis were more efficient at it. 

I highly recommend Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism, especially to those socialists among us who wish to redistribute our lives, our property, and our futures. As a friend who has read it remarked, “there is a nugget on every page.” Socialists who heed my recommendation, however, may need to recalibrate their political philosophy.

The Lost Literature of Socialism, by George Watson. Cambridge, UK: The Lutterworth Press, 1998. 112 pp.


  1. From the publisher:

    It is always a pleasure to see when one of our titles has been reviewed, especially if it is a favourable review! This is a particularly timely review as it is my pleasure to inform you that we will be making The Lost Literature of Socialism available in ebook Formats. On the 30/06/2016 the book will be published in PDF, ePub and Kindle formats.

    Thank you for informing us of the review and I hope you will find more of our titles to your liking.

    Kind Regards,
    David Bishop
    Sales & Publicity
    James Clarke & Co. / The Lutterworth Press

  2. A downright interesting review, and discovery, Mr. Cline. Thank you.

  3. I learn something new from all of your posts.

  4. I can't wait to read this. Thanks very much for taking the trouble to write this review.