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Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Ambrose Bierce on Socialism

Socialists Withered Under Bierce's Analysis

Daniel Hager ([email protected]) is a writer and consultant in Lansing, Michigan.

Ambrose Bierce packed a pistol when he walked the streets of San Francisco. As a long-time editor and writer there, he made many enemies through the pungency of his pen. So he wisely carried a revolver in case of retaliation. He backed up that prudence with a reputation carried from the War Between the States that he was a crack shot.

Bierce’s range of verbal targets ran beyond the local to the universal. His habit was to dissect the illusions and vanities of human beliefs and behaviors and expose them to ridicule. He wrote essays, poems, and short stories so prolifically that his collected works total 12 volumes, including The Devil’s Dictionary, a compilation of hundreds of acerbic definitions.

During his 40-year literary career, Bierce amply observed the tenets and antics of socialists as they attempted to make inroads in America. They withered under his analysis. Witness his 1910 treatise, “The Socialist—What He Is, and Why.”

Today few persons admit to being socialists, but the basic beliefs are as epidemic as ever. The ideal is an egalitarian cooperative commonwealth that erases class lines and provides abundance for all but not too much for any. This result can be achieved only through a centralized planned economy, with bureaucrats pulling whatever levers are necessary so that everything will turn out “fair.” Redistributionism is key to realization of its vision. The leveling process requires confiscation of property from those who have “too much” and apportionment of it to those who deserve “more.”

Since redistributionism is a vital concept in today’s political discourse, Bierce’s essay, despite the lapse of a century, hits the bullseye as dead-center as if it were written last week.

Bierce faulted socialists on two grounds, the intellectual and the moral. The system founders when subjected to rational analysis, and it fosters ignoble qualities in its adherents.

“His unreason is what he is a socialist with,” Bierce wrote in prefacing his discussion of the socialist’s deficient grasp of simple economics (p. 38). He identified a primary misapprehension: “The socialist notion appears to be that the world’s wealth is a fixed quantity, and A can acquire only by depriving B. He is fond of figuring the rich as living upon the poor—riding on their backs, as Tolstoi (staggering under the weight of his wife, to whom he had given his vast estate) was pleased to signify the situation” (p. 42).

Contrary to the socialists, the sum of wealth will increase if wealth producers are allowed to exercise their talents and create new products and services. Bierce wrote, “In the youth of a nation there is virtual equality of fortunes—all are poor. Sixty years ago there were probably not a half dozen millionaires in America; the number now is not definitely known, but it runs into thousands; that of persons of less but considerable wealth—enough to take attention—into the hundreds of thousands” (p. 41).

Wealth builds additional wealth as new demands develop: “All the industries of the world are so interrelated and interdependent that none is unaffected in some infinitesimal degree by the new stimulation [of demand]” (p. 43).

Thus the redistributionist should work better to advance himself economically rather than lobby to appropriate others’ wealth: “The plain truth of the matter is that the poor live mostly on the rich. . . . A man may remain in poverty all his life and be not only of no advantage to his fellow poor men, but by his competition in the labor market a harm to them; for in the abundance of labor lies the cause of low wages, as even a socialist knows. As a consumer the man counts for little, for he consumes only the bare necessaries of life. But, if he pass from poverty to wealth he not only ceases to be a competing laborer; he becomes a consumer of everything that he used to want—all the luxuries by production of which nine-tenths of the labor class live he now buys. He has added his voice to the chorus of demand” (pp. 42–43).

America the Open

This chorus is amazingly open to membership in America, according to Bierce: “We have so good a country here that more than a million a year of Europe’s poor come over to share its advantages. In the patent fact that it is a land of opportunity and prosperity we feel a justifiable pride; yet the crowning proof and natural result of this—the great number that do prosper—‘the multitude of millionaires’—has come to be resented as an intolerable wrong, and he who is most clamorous for opportunity (which he has never for a moment been without) most austerely condemns those who have made the best use of it” (pp. 44–45).

Character shortcomings fuel the redistributionist movement, Bierce believed. The socialist “would substitute something ‘more nearly to the heart’s desire’—an order of things in which all would share the rewards of efficiency. Always it is the incapable who most loudly preaches the gospel of Equality and Fraternity—which, being interpreted, means stand and deliver and look pleasant about it” (p. 38).

He identified the driving force: “Riches and luxurious living provoke envy in the vast multitude to whom they are inaccessible through lack of efficiency; and from envy to revenge and revolution the transition is natural and easy” (pp. 40–41).

He observed that “the [socialist] ‘movement’ as a social and political force is, in this country, born of envy, the true purpose of its activities, revenge. In the shadow of our national prosperity it whets its knife for the throats of the prosperous. It unleashes the hounds of hate upon the track of success—the only kind of success that it covets and derides” (p. 46).

Bierce anticipated the New Deal and its confiscatory taxation policies that raised the top marginal rate on incomes to 91 percent. The momentum of hostility against the more efficient opened up an uninviting prospect: “It looks as if we may eventually have to prevent the multiplication of millionaires by setting a legal limit to private fortunes. By some such cowardly and statesmanlike concession we may perhaps anticipate and forestall the more drastic action of our political Apaches, incited by Envy, wrecker of empires and assassin of civilization” (pp. 46–47).

Among the envious who helped form the climate of hostility were “poets, muckrakers, demagogues and other audibles” adding their “howls of sensibility” (p. 43). In discussing this group, Bierce was also prescient regarding the Hollywood ideology of today. Since the movie industry’s nascence about the time he wrote his essay, it has remained the economic sector with the least regulatory interference and the closest current approximation of laissez-faire capitalism, and accordingly has yielded incredible levels of wealth to many of its participants. Yet the entertainment industry’s dominant creed is malice against capitalism and demand for expanded economic control by the state (its own industry excepted).

Bierce provided an explanation. He wrote that “the poet, the artist or the musician is almost invariably an audible socialist” because “he is not a thinker but a feeler.” Bierce added that “some of these ‘intellectuals’ . . . might better be called emotionals” (p. 42).

Some even in his day were already “fairly thrifty and prosperous” but could apparently not grasp that “in the redistribution of wealth which many of them impudently propose [they] would be first to experience the mischance of ‘restitution.”

Or perhaps they were like many of today’s university professors who advocate harnessing the producer classes into a socialistic economic ideal under which relatively few universities would exist to employ professors. Bierce wrote of these “emotionals” that “doubtless they do not expect their blessed ‘new order of things’ to come in their day. Meanwhile there are profit and a certain picturesqueness in ‘hailing the dawn’ of a better one, just as if it had already struck ‘the Sultan’s tower with a shaft of light (p. 42).

A century ago the dogma of socialist redistributionism was intellectually tawdry. Bierce with his flair tore it to bits. But its appeal survives on an emotional level—as he described it, through “the prevalence and power of some of the primal brute passions of the human mind” (p. 40).

Bierce did not include “socialism” or “socialist” in The Devil’s Dictionary but added a dig under “Troglodyte,” citing a “famous community” that lived with David in the Cave of Adullam. Quoting from I Samuel 22:2, Bierce wrote that “the colony consisted of ‘every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented’—in brief, all the Socialists of Judah.”

1. Ambrose Bierce,The Socialist—What He Is, and Why, in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. IX, Tangential Views (New York and Washington: Neale Publishing Company, 1911).

2. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, in Collected Works, Vol. VII, p. 352.

  • Daniel Hager is a writer and consultant in Montgomery, Illinois.