An astute observer of the current political scene finds socialism in theoretical bankruptcy, though there remains the lust for power to control others.
I was a shaver of ten or twelve when I learned about Grand Street. This was, and is, a thoroughfare in downtown New York, but at the turn of the century it was also an institution, made so by a number of establishments along the street called "coffee saloons." These, I presume, served other articles of food, but when I patronized them in the afternoons the principal viands they purveyed were a mug of coffee and a hunk of cake—for a dime. The customers, or habitués, seemed to be less interested in eating and drinking than in arguing the metaphysics of Karl Marx or Kropotkin. The arguments went on all afternoon and, I was later told, all evening well into the night.
Each of these establishments acquired a character of its own, deriving from the particular ideology of its clientele, or from an interpretation of that ideology enunciated by some self-appointed pundit who had got a following. There was a "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, called the Social Democrats, had a rendezvous of their own where they delighted in concocting reform measures which, incidentally, were later taken over by the Democrats and the Republicans. But, on the whole, these socialists were evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; they dreamed of the day when capitalism will have decayed, from its internal deficiencies, and a mere push from the proletariat would topple it. They were willing to let the forces of history do the job, and contented themselves with talking; there was little inclination to help the forces of history along. That was 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, unless, perhaps, in the Kremlin. Gone are the doctrinaires, the "scientific" socialists, with whom I delighted to argue on the campus of
But, that is the way of empirical knowledge: it makes a mess of theories advanced by long-winded economists and ivory-tower social scientists. Capitalism, operating effectively on the mundane profit motive, has disproven Karl 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 time put into its production—by showing that value is purely subjective and has nothing to do with labor; but capitalism, disregarding all the textbooks, went about disproving the labor theory of value by simply heeding the dictates of the market place; if people did not want or buy a thing, it was not produced, and that was all there was to it. The surplus value theory held 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 in use the greater will be 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.
Even the nationalization of industry, once the top priority of all socialistic programs, has lost its lure. In England, the labor unions, which furnish the bulk of the finances for the Labor Party, have learned that a strike against a nationalized industry is a strike against the government, or a revolution; besides, the inefficiency of a bureaucratically controlled plant is too obvious to warrant discussion.
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 technological advances of the last hundred years 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; they have no postulates to guide them and must play "by ear." As a matter of necessity they are reduced to expediencies and as such have become mere politicians, not revolutionaries. In every country (save, perhaps, Russia) 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 aim.
Well, how does one acquire power in a country ruled by popular suffrage? By promising the electorate everything their hearts desire, and by being more profligate with promises than tie opposition. Thus, socialism has become welfarism, and with welfarism, of course, comes control of the economy. But, while Marxism aimed to control the economy for the grander purpose of destroying capitalism, modern socialism seems bent on controlling the economy for the sake of control.
In short, socialists have become "liberals." In Europe those of the socialistic persuasion 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. 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 office, and both offer to buy votes with tax money. The programs and tactics of the two are identical.
And neither one has any theoretical position, any philosophy of either government or economics, by which it can be judged. Both are opportunistic. Only capitalism—or conservatism or libertarianism—has a theory to go by. But, that is another story.