“[Socialism is] the combination of religious sentimentality, industrial insanity, and moral obliquity.”
—F.J.C. Heamshaw

Some years ago, George Watson wrote two remarkable articles for Chronicles describing how the Soviets, those heroes of socialist resistance to fascism, carried on using German concentration camps for their original purposes until the early 50’s (“Buchenwald’s Second Life (July 1989) and “Forgotten Voices; How Buchenwald Lived On” (October 1992). And only last January, Chronicles printed a piece by him about the hypocrisy of the British leftist ruling class who send their children to expensive private schools while doing their best to abolish the same kind of education for their poorer fellow countrymen. No doubt there is some cool postmodernist word to account for phenomena like this (“dissonance” comes to mind): Certainly they pose—for non-leftists—a problem that has so far resisted analysis, except in the form of jokes about people like Teddy Kennedy and rude remarks about professors in general. But the elitism of the left is a worldwide phenomenon. As an English friend said, on hearing the news of the last British general election, “You’ve got to admit the English system works. . . . We’ve just had the first real working-class prime minister in our history, and he’s been defeated by an upperclass public-school boy calling himself a socialist.”

What do we make of these contradictions between received opinion and apparent fact? Apparently, nothing. It seems not to bother the shapers and retailers of received opinion that Fidel Castro —like several hundred other men of his kind —is not only one of the richest men in the world, but one of the more impressive murderers of his own people. Nor does it bother any of the usual dispensers of wisdom that, over the last 50 years or so, for people in the business of cultivating and circulating ideas, agreeing with Castro—or Marx, or Lenin, or Mao, or any of their acolytes for that matter —has brought wealth, influence, and a deeply rooted conviction of being on history’s right, as well as winning, side. To offer one tiny example: In a book published in 1990, Prof Stephen Greenblatt, modestly famous as the founder of the movement known to academic literary critics as the “New Historicism,” cheerfully acknowledged that he was, in essen- Hals, a Marxist. By 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, no ordinary citizen minimally acquainted with history could have admitted such a thing without at least a twinge of shame and contrition. Nonetheless, in the milieu in which Professor Greenblatt was pursuing a career, Marxist socialism, despite ruined societies and millions dead, still stood for science, truth, and social justice.

George Watson, one gathers, has devoted many thoughtful hours to the problem of the crimes, privileges, and general behavior of the socialist elite. By reading the forgotten, unread literature of the first socialists and their antagonists in the library of Lord Acton, now preserved at Cambridge University, he has succeeded in producing a startlingly simple explanation of the otherwise inexplicable. According to Watson, because no one nowadays actually reads what the socialists wrote, by a collective act of amnesia we have forgotten what they actually stood for. Returning to the founders, Watson has traced the origins of socialism to an intensely reactionary fear of the destabilizing effects of industrial capitalism and its attendant liberalism:

Like conservatism, socialism sought to justify the state anew and to reinstate in democratic and industrial societies the vital and vanishing principle of subordination through regulation and planning. As John Stuart Mill said, there are those who think it is good for a man to be ruled.

As Watson points out later in his book, Mill also prophetically feared the socialists’ arrogance:

Those who would play this game on the strength of their own private opinion, unconfirmed as yet by any experimental verification . . . must have a serene confidence in their own wisdom, on the one hand, and recklessness of other people’s suffering on the other.

At its root, socialism, like all centralizing, absolutist political systems, has no respect for private-property rights, and one of Watson’s most interesting chapters, “The Forgotten French of 1848,” shows that two long-forgotten French opponents of socialism, Adolphe Thiers and Alfred Sudre, understood the movement’s dangerous potentialities very well. Sudre, a young lawyer, wrote the first history of socialism in the summer of 1848 before Marx’s Manifesto was available in French. He traced socialism’s origins to Greek utopianism and argued that, since private property protects the poor, its abolition must favor the powerful and the rich and prove conservative in its effects. Theirs, too, in his Rights of Property, also written in 1848, argued that socialism would not only destroy liberty by abolishing rights of ownership but that its inflationary tendency, always more dangerous to the poor than to the rich, would depress living standards as well as destroy civil liberty.

How right they were. The elitism implicit in socialism from the start goes a long way to explain its later popularity among the upper and intellectual classes, sidelined by industrial and technological change and deprived of their traditional authority over their inferiors. But the most startling and disturbing consequences of socialist elitism are to be found in Watson’s seventh and eighth chapters on Hitler, Marx, and the holocaust, where he minces no words on the socialism of the Nazis and introduces us to the nightmarish fantasies of socialist control that became all too real in our century.

Why, for instance, did John Ruskin, the art critic and self-announced socialist who called himself a Tory, write in support of Governor Eyre’s atrocious suppression of a Negro revolt in Jamaica in 1865? Bernard Shaw, the doyen of socialist popularizers in his day, and never a man to evade plain speech, gave the answer to an audience in 1921. All socialists are Tories in Ruskin’s sense, he said, and Ruskin’s true heirs were the Russian Bolsheviks:

The Tory is a man who believes that those who are qualified by nature and training for public work, and who are naturally a minority, have to govern the mass of the people. That is Toryism. That is also Bolshevism. The Russian masses elected a National Assembly: Lenin and the Bolshevists ruthlessly shoved it out of the way, and indeed shot it out of the way as far as it refused to be shoved.

When Shaw himself in old age praised Stalin for exterminating his enemies and called for a “humane gas that will kill instantly and painlessly,” these were not the maunderings of an elderly crank. In the preface to Major Barbara, written before World War I, Shaw had already cheerfully recommended that social undesirables be sent to the extermination chamber. Nor was Shaw’s an eccentric or a lonely voice. To quote Watson again:

The Marxist theory of history required and demanded genocide for reasons implicit in its claim that feudalism, which in advanced nations was already giving place to capitalism, must in its turn be superseded by socialism. Entire races would be left behind after a workers’ revolution, feudal remnants in a socialist age; and since they could not advance two steps at a time. they would have to be killed. They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dungheap of history. The list of names and quotations Watson produces in support of this policy is as impressive as it is appalling: Marx, Engels, and Lenin, naturally, but also Wells, Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Jack London, and, of course, those maverick socialists, Goebbels and Hitler, who told one of his followers that “the whole of National Socialism” was based on Marx.

The list of exterminables, equally appalling, includes anyone to whom some socialist administrator of history’s examination system might give a failing grade: blacks and browns, Gypsies, Poles, Bohemians, Carinthians, Dalmatians, Scottish Highlanders, Basques—the list is virtually endless. Nor is it limited to categories of race. All whom socialism could not assimilate—whether old, young, rich, poor, sick, retarded, or insane—were dispensable.

These chapters make nonsense of the common apologia for murderous socialist regimes: that their killings were an aberration, a mistake, or a departure from true socialism. Here is Watson’s summarizing sentence:

In the European century that began in the 1840s, from Engels’ article of 1849 down to the death of Hitler, everyone who advocated genocide called himself a socialist, and no exception has been found.

Watson concludes this fascinating, very readable book, filled with deeply satisfying quotations from the perpetrators themselves and their publicists, rather inconclusively with a chapter on George Orwell as a writer who, like Arthur Koestier, exposed the socialist fantasy on the basis of his own experience. Then, in a brief coda, “The Great Amnesia,” Watson suggests that the truth about socialist theory and experiment has been completely forgotten because it is so uncomfortable to contemplate:

Who wants to be told that Hitler and Goebbels believed they were socialists, and that there were socialists outside Germany who reluctantly accepted their claim? Or that there were capitalists who profited from Lenin’s rule? There are more comfortable things to believe than this.

Watson’s own hope seems to be that, with the demise of socialist theory, we will all rediscover the humane, skeptical liberalism which he has found in writers like Tocqueville and Mill.

Other, probably gloomier conclusions might be reached. The bad philosophy, goofy pseudoscience, and sheer neurosis that powered the worst socialist regimes of our time became a habit of mind, and the toxic effects, for which “amnesia” is a kind word, are still with us. Moreover, in its capitalist form, centralized economic control is still destroying civil liberty, and by methods subtler than any devised by the socialists. Eugenics, which the socialists welcomed so enthusiastically as an adjunct to their exterminatory fantasies, is flourishing as genetic science and now threatens nature itself, as well as human nature. As for truth, with the concentration of the ownership of almost all modes of communication in the hands of a few giant corporations virtually synonymous with government, it would be naive to expect an outbreak of truth-telling simply because one rather clumsy source of lies has become unfashionable. The activities of a James Carville make Goebbels himself look like an amateur. As for the willingness of a ruling elite to dispose of elements it judges unassimilable, our huge prison population, not to mention the events at Waco and Ruby Ridge and one ruthless bombing of poor, virtually defenseless countries, tell us all we need to know about that.

As the first critics of socialism argued, and as Richard Pipes and James Bovard have argued again in recent books, private property is the only guarantee of civil liberty and the humane culture it underpins. The average American wage-earner, with half a dozen loaded credit cards and a mortgage, living in a town whose schools are funded by taxes and debt, owns less than nothing. That is why, in Bill Clinton’s America and Tony Blair’s Britain, the argument for private property, whatever the fate of socialism, is still to be understood, let alone made and won. Watson, focused on the history of the socialist idea, leaves the reader with the impression that socialism has been the only serious threat to life and property in modern times. In its day, it may have been the worst, but it is not the one we have to contend with now — not, at least, in its original form, and under its own names. It is interesting, for instance, that although Watson introduces Julian Huxley among his mistaken socialists, he has nothing to say about Julian’s far more creative brother Aldous’s vision, in Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, of the longer-term tendencies of We.stern civilization.

Another missing witness from Watson’s book is G.K. Chesterton. The great opponent in his day of Shaw and Wells, he, too, foresaw and would have understood our difficulties. Chesterton, who argued against the elitism of the socialists all his life, knew that private property was the ordinary citizen’s only security against the illiberal tendencies of both left and right and devoted his later years to an attempt to make the argument a political reality. Chesterton’s party may have failed, but the need that prompted its creation is still there. Either Aldous Huxley or Chesterton would have made a better concluding witness for Watson’s book than Orwell, whose 1984, after all, is one of the more spectacularly mistaken prophetic dystopias. The complete absence of Huxley and Chesterton from this otherwise lively and fascinating account of current forgetfulness is a sign that this book, too, is not fully awake to the destructive realities of its own times.


[The Lost Literature of Socialism, by George Watson (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press) 112 pp., £25.00]