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Saturday, October 1, 1960

No More Socialists

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 Columbia College, or whom I heckled on the soapbox in Union Square, New York. All the theories of Karl Marx have been laid to rest by experience. There are few to say a good word for his laboriously concocted labor theory of value, or to give lip serv­ice to his many-worded theory of surplus value, which was the key­stone of his theory of exploitation, which in turn was the basis of his indictment of capitalism. The Rus­sian “experiment” has shown that the State, far from being a man­aging committee for the capitalist class, can be superimposed on the proletariat, and his “withering away of the state” theory has gone the way of all his other theories.

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.

  • Frank Chodorov was an advocate of the free market, individualism, and peace. He began as a supporter of Henry George and edited the Georgist paper the Freeman before founding his own journal, which became the influential Human Events. He later founded another version of the Freeman for the Foundation for Economic Education and lectured at the Freedom School in Colorado.