Experiments in Collectivism

Mr. Barger is Editor of The Flying A, com­pany magazine of the Aeroquip Corporation at Jackson, Michigan.

According to an article that ap­peared several years ago in a pop­ular men’s magazine, a Bret Harte classic was once rejected for pro­duction on the Kraft Theatre be­cause the sponsor thought it pro­moted communism.

The article was an exposé of sponsor control of TV program­ming. Obviously enjoying his task, author Al Morgan drew an un­flattering picture of the average business sponsor. He was timid, petty, narrow-minded, fearful, and sometimes stupid. And since he saw Bret Harte (who died in 1902) as an ally of the Kremlin, he was obviously irrational about communism.

Here is what the sponsor ob­jected to as being communistic, according to Mr. Morgan:

In one scene, a group of miners got together and agreed that they would share equally in any ore that came out of the mine they were working.1

Well, if that was the chief rea­son for the shelving of Bret Harte’s classic, then the business sponsor did have a lot to learn about communism. And while Mr. Morgan’s example doesn’t prove conclusively whether sponsor con­trol is right or wrong, it does typify a popular misconception about Soviet communism. For de­spite all the twists and turns com­munism has taken since 1918, there are people around who still believe that it is essentially equali­tarian in the sharing of economic goods, and that this is its chief distinction. Numerous USSR ex­perts have assured us that the op­posite is true, that there are highly privileged groups in the Soviet Union, and that incentive plans are used in industry. Though "equal sharing" may still have a place in communist dogma, it has little existence in the real world.

But a more serious error is present here. For even if the Soviets had been able to follow their original aims on "equal shar­ing," their version differs radi­cally from that practiced by Mr. Harte’s miners. In every sense of the word, the miners’ collective ex­periment was voluntary. They agreed that they would share equally of their ore, and presum­ably any of them could withdraw from the bargain whenever he be­came dissatisfied with it. Far from being a kind of communism, their mining venture was simply a vari­ation of free enterprise. There probably have been millions of similar group ventures in the United States, involving every­thing from berry picking to the formation of giant steel com­panies. In many cases, people probably have shared in such a way as to unwittingly carry out the Marxist idea of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." But it is not unjust if all the parties in­volved agreed to it, if no fraud was involved, and, if they were not forced against their will to subscribe to the arrangement.

When we turn to real com­munist theory, we find something far more sinister than Mr. Harte’s amusing example. Another ele­ment is added: the iron fist of government police power. Under communism, the collective experi­ment is no longer voluntary, and the miners are forced to submit to the arrangement no matter how much they might dislike it. And even their right to share equally of their ore has been diluted, for now it has become the property of the state rather than of the men who extracted it.

Early Christian Communities

Let us not, however, belabor Mr. Harte. For, it is not only fic­tional experiments in collectivism that have been misidentified as communistic. Occasionally one reads, or hears, that the early Christian community of the first century was communistic. We know, for example, that "all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."2 But no state police power was present to enforce this, and indeed, the authorities of the day used their police power to perse­cute the community. And it is cer­tain that individual rights were still greatly protected even in this voluntary collective order. It was obviously a free association. Another venture in collectivism was the community established by Robert Owen, a wealthy British mill owner, in New Harmony, In­diana, early in the last century. A man of socialist leanings whom John Chamberlain identifies as the real author of "Fabianism," Owen founded at New Harmony "a Community of Equality, based on the principle of common prop­erty."3 The experiment quickly ran into rough weather, but its establishment was hardly a com­munist experiment, as some may mistakenly believe today. Owen had voluntarily put up his own money for the venture, and the participants had come of their own accord and were free to leave. No police coercion was involved, although Chamberlain advises us that Owen did become something of a dictator in his last frantic attempts to make the project suc­ceed.

The New Harmony colony, like the early Christian communal sys­tem and collective arrangements in the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, failed to achieve the idealistic goal of economic equal­ity. Its downfall came because of very understandable and predictable reasons: people simply do not put forth their best efforts in communes, and diligent workers soon catch on to the fact that they are supporting free loaders. Even exceptionally capable people could hardly make a permanent success of a collective, but the New Harmonites, John Chamberlain sur­mises, "must have been the most glorious collection of deadbeats ever assembled together in one place."4

An Inherent Weakness

But collectivism doesn’t fail simply because of betrayal by deadbeats. It also failed in the early Christian community, a gathering of inspired people lifted up by a powerful spiritual idea. There must have been dissension and dissatisfaction even in this saintly group, for the time came when the apostle Paul had to re­mind that "if any would not work, neither should he eat."5 After that, communal living did not seem to survive for long in the Chris­tian church, although it has been resurrected occasionally by small sects, who have eventually aban­doned it.6 The verdict of all these experiments in collectivism is that they do not work, even when their organizers move heaven and earth to make them succeed.

Despite everything the record shows, libertarians who point to these ventures as proof that com­munism goes against human nature are wasting their time in argu­ments with disciplined communists. For communists have known this right along, and have never in­tended to establish a new social or­der by proving that pilot collec­tives could be productive. Karl Marx called such utopian experi­ments (as the New Harmony fias­co) "castles in the air," and ended his sweeping Manifesto by stating:"The Communists disdain to con­ceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions."7

To Karl Marx and his followers, the miners in Bret Harte’s story would have been just greedy en­trepreneurs trying to become capi­talists themselves. It hadn’t the slightest resemblance to Marx’s concept of collectivism. He advo­cated, without apology or conceal­ment, a totalitarian doctrine.


1. Al Morgan, "And Now, a Word from the Sponsor," Playboy, December 1959, p. 95.

2. Acts, 2: 44-45.

3. John Chamberlain, The Roots of Cap­italism (Princeton, N. J.: D. Van Nos-strand, 1959), Chapter VI. 4 Ibid.

5. II Thessalonians, 3:10.

6. The community living of certain re­ligious orders, such as Trappist monks, has no bearing on this subject, since vows of poverty, obedience, and other disciplines prevent possible causes of dis­pute.

7. Karl Marx, The Communist Mani­festo (Gateway Edition; Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), Chapters III and IV.



Ideas on Liberty


Karl Marx completely rejected the only economic system on earth under which it is possible for the workers themselves to own, to control, and to manage directly the facilities of pro­duction. And shocking as the news may be to the disciples of Marx, that system is capitalism!

Here in America, ownership of our biggest and most im­portant industries is sold daily, in little pieces, on the stock market. It is constantly changing hands; and if the workers of this country truly wish to own the tools of production, they can do so very simply.

They do not have to seize the government by force of arms. They do not even have to win an election. All in the world they have to do is to buy, in the open market, the capital stock of the corporation they want to own—just as millions of other Americans have been doing for many decades.

BENJAMIN F. FAIRLESS, The Great Mistake of Karl Marx

Further Reading