The other day, in London, I had a vision on a moving staircase in Harrod’s.
Harrod’s is a department store in the British capital much loved by local duchesses and well-heeled visiting Americans—a sort of consumer-heaven with chic, from its delicatessen to its china and its sumptuous furnishings. It is less noted for its mystical experiences, which is why I trouble to report the matter. But when a manager—a refined and dignified presence—stepped onto the escalator beside me, I ventured to ask him when his store was founded. “In 1849,” he replied. Whence my vision: For 1849, as I knew, was the year Karl Marx left his native Germany for London, where he was to spend the rest of his life. And I suddenly saw the whole history of Britain for the past century and more as a struggle between those two opposing spirits— Harrod’s and Marx—with Harrod’s winning.
The triumph of consumerism has been clear for a long time. It was already clear when the centenary of Marx’s death passed off so unassumingly in 1983, with a modest rite organized at his grave in north London by the dwindling British Communist Party, which lost its last seat in the House of Commons as long ago as 1950. (It still has one in the House of Lords.) It was clear before the Labour Party left office in 1979, in the first of three election defeats; clear even before Clement Attlee lost the premiership to Winston Churchill in 1951. Marx believed that Britain would be the first socialist state on earth, being the first industrial nation: that was among the reasons why he settled there. It is far too late for the British to be that. But the argument by now has gone much further, and a good many people—including a good many in the Labour Party—wonder if it will ever be socialist at all. In fact Labour is now busy rewriting its program (after its third electoral defeat in June 1987) to come to terms with a nation where one fifth are said to own shares and nearly two thirds their own homes. In September 1987, Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that with the privatization of British Petroleum there would be more shareholders than television sets in Britain; while the privatization of steel, water, and electricity is still to come.
This is a large change: large even in the memory of the living. Less than half a century ago Joseph Schumpeter, no friend to socialism, declared in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1943) that free enterprise could not survive in the West, adding that his verdict was “in itself completely uninteresting,” being widely held among experts: many who hated the prospect of things to come still saw the death of capitalism as utterly inevitable. George Orwell, shortly before, had remarked that nobody believed in capitalism now except a few old gentlemen in expensive clubs. It would have been a rare prophet on either side of the Atlantic, in the last years of World War II, who would have predicted popular shareholding 40 years on, or majority home-owning, or the rapid retreat of the state.
But by now all that is simply taken for granted, and you do not have to be a liberal or a conservative to believe in it. In 1987 a Labour government in New Zealand announced its own privatization program—as if anxious to prove to the world that the craze for individual ownership could be satisfied even by parties calling themselves socialist (it even engaged a former Conservative parliamentary candidate from Britain to organize it). Meanwhile China and India, which between them comprise nearly half the human race, are actively promoting the private sector; and even the Soviet empire is said to be stirring, at least economically, from its long statist sleep.
Why is this? The likeliest answer may lie outside argument altogether, in the evidence of one’s eyes and ears. Competition gives people what they want—especially poor people. Any old woman trying to live on a tiny pension knows—when she takes her supermarket wire-basket in hand—that the bargains are to be found in commodities where competition is keenest, and that monopoly— whether state or private—favors the rich. Why else would she travel by competitive private buses rather than by state-owned, monopolistic British Rail? She can know all that without ever having heard words like monopoly or competition, or being aware of what they mean. Competition favors the poor, and you do not need a conceptual intelligence to notice it. In fact, conceptual intelligence can be rather good at thinking of reasons for not noticing it. If socialism is naturally and inevitably monopolistic, then socialism favors the rich. That, some will object, is a big If. But there is no reasonable doubt that socialism has been heavily disposed to favor monopoly since its earliest days in the I840’s, and in the late Victorian heyday of the Fabian Society; no doubt that socialist governments have created vast monopolies wherever, east or west, they have gained power; no doubt that, as in Britain today, they have implacably resisted any shift towards competition—whether by way of privatization or anything else. That is what makes the New Zealand instance so astounding. The identification of socialism with monopoly is well supported by theory and practice alike, at least till yesterday, and socialists only have themselves to blame if it is widely accepted. No wonder, then, if the notion that socialism favors the rich has long since ceased to look like an intellectual paradox. It is what every man and woman knows. (At least we all behave, wire-basket in hand, as if we know it.)
The deeper causes why socialism proved right-wing are now widely and deeply explored. One reason is that, Utopian though socialism was, it never looked far enough in its revolutionary aims. Ten years ago Sir Henry Phelps Brown, professor at the London School of Economics, remarked in The Inequality of Pay (1977) that Marx and his followers were always narrow-mindedly concerned with inequalities of capital ownership rather than of pay. They cared enormously about who owned the land, the mines, and the factories. It was nothing to them—east of the Iron Curtain today it is still nothing to them—that socialism allows, even guarantees, vast inequalities of income and privilege. “The inequalities that mattered,” wrote Phelps Brown of the Marxists,
were those that arose out of the division of the national product between land and capital, on the one hand, and labour on the other. Inequalities between one worker and the other escaped attention.
That principle of socialist inequality, as he noticed, is followed in the Soviet Union to this day, where top managers are paid 20 times as much as the lowest-paid worker. (In Soviet universities the disparity of pay between the highest and the lowest—between the president and the porter—is said to be nearly 20 times as great as in capitalist Britain.) Given a one-party state, freedom from elections and a judicial system that enforces obedience to a ruling elite, socialism is by now the world’s great guarantor of privilege—rather like the Bourbon monarchy before the French Revolution. Most West Europeans, like most Americans, hear enough news from eastern Europe and China to know that is true. Inhabitants of eastern Europe do not doubt it for a moment. Socialist privilege is highly overt, after all, much as it was in the France of Louis XIV. A friend returning from Mao’s China once told me that high party officials could be recognized by curtains on the backseats of their chauffeur-driven cars and the deference with which they were treated in public places. A high official, for example, in Maoist China did not stand in line when booking into a hotel: he was led to the front. Another aspect of the essential conservatism of socialism, both economic and social, lies in the fact that it abolishes the threat to big capital from small capital.
The small capitalist is the biggest threat to big capital there is, and the biggest there could ever be. Socialism is hardly a threat at all. One monopolist, after all, has little to fear from another. That is especially true if a monopoly is not required to make profits. British gas and electricity, for example—both public monopolies since the Labour government of 1945-51—are now being privatized: that will only help the ordinary man if these utilities compete more eagerly to give the consumer what he wants; and they will compete all the more eagerly if their new shareholders and managers insist on profits. What is more, if small competitors grow up to challenge the big energy-suppliers, the consumer—and everyone consumes energy, even the poorest—will benefit from them. Privatization, then, favors the poor—but not every sort of privatization. That is a lesson the British Labour Party, unlike its counterpart in New Zealand, is still reluctant to heed. But in 1987, after its third election defeat, it opened a campaign called “Labour listens.” (And if it really listens, it is certain to be told that competition is what ordinary people want. It will be interesting to see what, if anything. Labour does about it.)
The rich, many now realize, have little to fear from socialism, as the Soviet system shows, and might even benefit from it. The poor have everything to lose. The claims of competition to be socially radical run deeper and wider—it is now clear—than socialists in the past century and a half ever understood. Literature has a part to play here; I am delighted as a literary historian to report that 1849, besides Harrod’s and Marx’s, was the year of Dickens’ David Copperfield, which might have been subtitled “History of a Yuppie,” had Dickens known the word. Competition and the romantic spirit are deeply allied. There is an “autonomous, self-illusory hedonism” at the heart of modern consumerism, as another British analyst, Colin Campbell, has recently suggested in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism—English romanticism of the late 18th century and after, matching the industrial revolution that began simultaneously in England in the 1760’s. That is a profound historical perception linking industry and the arts—though I do not know what is self-illusory about pleasure-seeking, or hedonism, and suspect that those who strive to distinguish between being happy and merely imagining it are trying to drive a wedge through a gap that is not there. There is nothing illusory about the joys of fine porcelain or fresh bed linen, even if they do not last. But the pursuit of happiness—even its fulfillment—as an individual quest is now so deep-rooted in the way we live—in a thousand stores humbler than Harrod’s, in a million supermarkets in the Western industrial world, in the exotic restaurants in our cities that lavish ethnic choices on tired palates—that it is unsurprising if no free people has ever actually voted for socialism. (No, not even Britain in 1945: Labour only polled 48 percent.) It looks as if Lenin was right, in his candid little pamphlet What Is to Be Done? when he told the world at large and the Bolsheviks in particular that the workers would never choose socialism for themselves: it would have to be forced upon them or it would not happen at all.
But something else happened in 1849, far less well known than Marx’s emigration to London or the founding of Harrod’s. It was an article by Friedrich Engels.
In January-February, in the same momentous year, Engels contributed an article called “The Hungarian Struggle” to Marx’s journal Neue Rheinische Zeitung. It has been reprinted several times in this century, notably in the East Berlin collected edition of the writings of Marx and Engels (which establishes its party orthodoxy), but I have never met a Marxist who was aware of it. It announced that racial extermination was essential to socialism.
Engels’ arguments in 1849 have nothing to do with eugenics, which entered only later into socialist thought. Socialism requires genocide, he believed, because advanced capitalist societies embrace backward communities that have not yet abandoned feudalism; Scottish Highlanders, Bretons and Basques, for instance—not to mention Yugoslavs, as they are now known, who to the dismay of German socialists were encouraging the Russian advance into Europe. As a German, Engels was clear that such communities were “racial trash,” and he saw no future for them after the Revolution but extinction:
Until its complete extermination or loss of national status, this racial trash always becomes the most fanatical bearer there is of counter-revolution, and remains that. Its entire existence is nothing more than a protest against a great historical revolution.
In the days when he was busy reading revolutionary literature, in pre-1914 Munich, the young Hitler could easily have read that genocidal essay in a 1902 collection called Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Marx, Engels und Lassalle, edited by Franz Mehring. It figures in no recent anthology of socialist scripture, however, and it has been efficiently forgotten.
It was not forgotten by socialists before Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. Stalin alluded to the 1849 article in his 1924 The Foundations of Leninism with approval. Lenin, in his six or seven years of power, had already established the first concentration camps in European history, and they were officially so described in the Soviet media. H.G. Wells, writing in 1902 as an English socialist at the beginning of the century, had already called for the extermination of incurables and inferior races in his Anticipations as a necessary consequence of socialism: “They will have to go.” And Bernard Shaw, a passionate admirer (unlike Wells) of the Soviet system, had called for extermination in his 1933 play, On the Rocks, which was promptly translated into German.
Shaw’s English preface to On the Rocks is as neglected as Engels’ genocidal article of 1849. Like Wells, he is openly contemptuous of the sanctity of human life, which he sees as founded on the exploded notion that human beings have souls; and he is as certain as Wells that extermination can be humanely, even painlessly, effected. As he puts it at the beginning of his 1933 preface, it “must be put on a scientific basis if it is ever to be carried out humanely and apologetically as well as thoroughly.” The mass-murderer must now murmur “Sorry.”
Shaw’s 1933 argument is lengthy and elaborate. Some human beings, to begin with, are simply dangerous in themselves, being criminals, and the political necessity for killing them is “precisely like that of the cobra or the tiger.” But that, though it “disposes of the dogma of the unconditional sacredness of human life,” is only a beginning: “only a corner of the field opened up by modern powers of extermination.” The socialist must be clear what, in his program of purification, he is about. The extermination of Jews is impractical, Shaw writes in 1933, since interbreeding has long since destroyed the means by which Jews can be distinguished from Gentiles. “The exemption of the Jew as such figured for a few mad moments in the program of the Nazi party.” Still, it is helpful of Hitler to have put extermination where it belongs, he argues, on the agenda of history: at least we now have a government in Europe that sees how necessary it is. There is even better news from the Soviet Union, he continues, where “the extermination of the peasant is in active progress,” meaning no doubt the
starvation of the Ukraine. That of “ladies and gentlemen of so-called independent means” is already almost complete, 16 years after the October Revolution; and Shaw fantasizes happily about exterminations already under official consideration in Britain and the United States. He calls urgently for the killing of incurables, which is where Hider’s program was to begin six years later, and goes on to praise the work and purpose of the Cheka and OGPU in Stalin’s Russia:
Are you pulling your weight in the social boat? are you giving more trouble than you are worth? have you earned the privilege of living in a civilized community? That is why the Russians were forced to set up the Inquisition or Star Chamber, called at first the Cheka and now the Gay Pay Oo (OGPU) to go into these questions and “liquidate” persons who could not answer them satisfactorily
. . . the security against abuse being that “the Cheka had no interest in liquidating anybody who could be made publicly useful, all its interests being in the opposite direction.” So Shaw believed that indolence should be a capital offense. Rightly considered, in fact, liquidation by the OGPU is not punishment at all—as the victims and its relatives should try to understand: it is merely “weeding the garden.”
At about the time Shaw was penning these prefatorial words, Hitler was remarking to a friend and colleague, Hermann Rauschning: “I have learnt a great deal from Marxism, as I do not hesitate to admit.” In fact, as he went on in Hitler Speaks (1939), “the whole of National Socialism is based on it.” Years later, in 1972, Ulrike Meinhof of the West German “Red Army Faction” announced a similar point from the dock at her judicial hearing:
How was Auschwitz possible, what was anti-semitism? People should have explained all that, instead of accepting Auschwitz collectively as an expression of evil. The worst of it is that we are all agreed about it, Communists included.
In fact, as she had come to realize in her days as a Marxist guerrilla-fighter, anti-Semitism was essentially virtuous, being anticapitalist. Auschwitz, she told the court,
meant that six million Jews were killed and thrown on the waste-heap of Europe for what they were: money-Jews. Finance-capital and banks, the hard core of the system of imperialism and capitalism, had turned the hatred of men against money and exploitation—and against the Jews. The failure of the Left—of the Communists—had lain in not making these connections plain.
Several years ago, in The Idea of Liberalism (1985), I summarized the evidence of Hitler’s debt to socialist doctrines of genocide in a chapter there called “Hitler’s Marxism.” I was told then—and should have believed it—that modern socialists would offer no argument in the matter: least of all Marxists, whose knowledge of the writings of Marx and Engels is studiously limited. That prophecy has proved correct. Tell a Marxist that Marx and Engels publicly advocated genocide, and he will look blank and change the subject. But the struggle, it is good to report, has now reawakened in Germany, where it began in 1849. It is known as the Battle of the Historians—and it promises to rage for no little time, not least in the columns of that lively London monthly Encounter. Ernst Nolte of the Free University in West Berlin challenged a Harvard audience some years ago, after quoting Hitler’s exterminatory program: “Where have we seen this before?”; and to cries of unbelief he answered his own question: “In the writings of Karl Marx.” Marx’s own Ethnological Notebooks have just been published in Holland for the first time, in 1972; and Marx’s own racism, it is to be expected, will become more and more widely known—not to mention Stalin’s applause, and Hitler’s, for Marx’s dogma of genocidal terror. But the neo-Marxist principle of self-defense through silence still prevails. If a text is inconvenient, do not read it. If it is proclaimed by dictators, forget it. And if dictators act on it, pretend they must have had something else in mind.
Meanwhile the Battle of the Historians, like the escalators at Harrod’s, rolls on, and what began in 1849 is moving onwards still. The history of England since that year could be written in terms of that struggle—hedonistic consumerism versus the intellectual dream of a mankind purified of selfish ambition and the racial defilement of tainted blood. No need to ask which of the two contenders has won in England, or which will go on winning. This is a nation eternally dedicated to the creative delights of rational pleasure. Long may that dedication last. But as for the worid beyond, that is anybody’s guess.