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Sunday, October 1, 1989

A Reviewers Notebook: A Critical Examination of Socialism

“All through our childhood they hung around the houses of our minds, the Four Uncles: Uncle Shaw, Uncle Wells, Uncle Galsworthy, and Uncle Bennett.” The quotation, which is from memory, is from Rebecca West’s essay on the Four Uncles, written for the old New York Herald-Tribune.

I cite it here because it did much to fix in peoples’ minds the idea that Fabian Socialism had taken over in England for good. The two Uncles who contributed to the Fabian essays, Shaw and Wells, were powerful voices.

Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, was an early objector to the idea that England, under Fabianism, was lost to the West. Bid-ing his time, he has projected the idea of a series of books to be published under the general heading of the Library of Conservative Thought.

“Our Library of Conservative Thought,” he says, “will not amount to a corpus of infallible writings from which zealots might derive a conservative Thirty-Nine Articles; rather, we mean to recognize the diversity of conservative ideas—if you will, the varieties of the conservative experience.”

As the first book in his series, Kirk has picked A Critical Examination of Socialism by William Hurrell Mallock (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 302 pages, $37.95 cloth). “This book,” Kirk writes in his introduction, “grew out of a series of lectures that William Hurrell Mal-lock delivered in the United States during 1907. Mallock was an English man of letters, of an old Devonshire family; he had risen to celebrity as a wit at the age of twenty-eight, when he published The New Republic, or Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in an English Country House. He had been born a year after the Communist Manifesto was published; he would live to see the destruction of the old order in eastern Europe and other lands . . . . this Critical Examination has been selected . . . because the debate into which Mallock entered more than eighty years ago has not yet ceased, and bemuse the book is a good example of Mallock’s polemical skill.”

Mallock crossed swords with all the theorists who believed in some variant of the labor theory of value. To him, the theory only accounted for muscle work, not brain work. The principal producer of wealth, according to Mallock, was ability. “Ability,” he wrote, “is a kind of exertion on the part of the individual which is capable of affecting simultaneously the labour of an indefinite number of individuals, and thus hastening or perfecting the accomplishment of an indefinite number of tasks.” It is, adds Kirk, “the faculty that directs labor; that produces inventions, devises methods, supplies imagination, organizes production and distribution, maintains order.”

Labor without ability, says Kirk in his interpretation of Mallock, “is simply the primitive effort of natural man to obtain subsistence. Recognizing that mankind cannot prosper by mere labor, society hitherto has endeavored to encourage Ability by protecting Ability’s incentives. In destroying those incentives, the Marxists would bring down civilization. So Mallock told his American audiences in 1907, and so, in much of the world, it has come to pass.”

Socialists think that men of ability should work out of pure idealism. But the man of ability presumably has a family and the prospect or reality of heirs. What chance does idealism toward an abstraction called the Star, have in competition with the family?

Kirk finds sustenance for these opinions in a very odd place. Mikhail Gorbachev, in his book Perestroika, says, “Equalizing attitudes crop up from time to time, even today. Some citizens understand the call for social justice as ‘equalizing everyone.’ But society persistently demands that the principle of socialism be firmly translated into life. In other words, what we value most is a citizen’s contribution to the affairs of his country. We must encourage efficiency in production and the talent of a writer, scientist, or any other upright and hard- working citizen. On this point we want to be perfectly clear: socialism has nothing to do with equalizing.”

Gorbachev, says Kirk, “unlike Shaw, finds it necessary to take into account the claims of Ability, so strenuously advanced by Mallock eighty years ago.” Maybe “capability” would be a better word to use when talking about the subject—it has a slightly broader sound. But it makes no real difference.

There is an implicit bargain between the man of organizing ability and the ordinary muscle worker. Neither can do without the other. The organizer must have someone to organize. Just to keep things happy the organizer, after his own family has been cared for, will allow a portion of brain- work profit to go to the muscle worker.

Socialists, according to Mallock, do not have the mental qualifications to understand machinery. “They have never made two blades of grass grow where one blade grew before. They have never applied chemistry to the commercial manufacture of chemicals. They have never organized the systems or improved the ships and engines by which food finds its way from the prairies to the cities which would else be starving . . . . They would never set themselves to devise, as was done in the English midlands, some new commodity, such as the modern bicycle, which was not only a means of providing the labourers with a maintenance, but was also a notable addition to the wealth of the world at large. They fail to do these things for the simple reason that they cannot do them; and they cannot do them because they are deficient alike in the interest requisite for understanding how they are done, and in the concentrated practical energy which is no less requisite for the doing of them.”

Mallock does not use such terms as “entrepreneur,” or even “enterpriser.” The words change; the realities remain the same. Capable men will seize opportunities without worrying about definitions of the word “ideology,” which has some strange uses in the dictionary. Kirk doesn’t like the word, and he offers Mallock’s book as helpful to freeing us “from the chains of ideology.” Whatever those “chains” may be, it is good to be reminded that the man of ability need not respect them.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.