It is seized with the lust for power. The appetite has grown with the eating, and it will not be content until its grasping hands are laid on every section of the industrial and trading life of the nation.
That’s how Ivor Thomas described the British Labour Party in his 1951 book, The Socialist Tragedy. For six years (1942-47), he was a Member of Britain’s House of Commons—representing the very same Labour Party! Prime Minister Clement Attlee even appointed him Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and, later, Under-Secretary for the Colonies. But when Thomas expressed disillusion with socialism in late 1947, Attlee sacked him. Thomas then switched to the Conservative Party.
Ivor Thomas was a man of wisdom who “grew” in office, by which I mean he allowed sound principles to eventually take priority over party allegiance. His transformation from naïve socialist to an eloquent devotee of freedom and free enterprise didn’t take very long. As his understanding of economics improved, he viewed with alarm the Labour government’s penchant for the nationalization of industry in the late 1940s. When Attlee moved to seize the steel industry, Thomas realized that Labour was on a course to trash British economic liberty.
An incumbent MP jumping from one party to another is not unheard of in British history. Winston Churchill was a Conservative in 1900 until he became a Liberal in 1904, until he switched back to the Conservatives in 1925. For Ivor Thomas, jettisoning Labour was the outward manifestation of an inner, philosophical awakening. He had discovered that socialism is a deceit that promises progress and delivers disaster.
In a television broadcast explaining his change of parties, Thomas opined:
Today it is clear that between communism and socialism, there is no difference. Both lead to a condition of affairs in which the State counts for everything and the individual for nothing…It is impossible to build up a healthy society on class envy and class hatred.
You can watch that broadcast here:
Thomas’s 1951 book, The Socialist Tragedy, caught the attention of FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, who published a short extract of it as a FEE pamphlet titled “The Positive Approach to Personal Rights.”
I recently acquired a copy of that book and devoured it. Thomas had clearly learned a lot about socialism, in part because he experienced it up close and at the hands of the very government of which he was a part. Though I don’t know it for sure, I’m betting he read F. A. Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom, too.
The Socialist Tragedy is full of insights that deserve to be dusted off and re-read today. With that in mind, here’s a selection:
- "The blunt teaching of history is that socialism is not an advanced stage in the evolution of human society but one of its most primitive stages. A highly articulated form of socialism was practiced among the Incas, the tribe which Pizarro found in control of Peru when he landed there in 1527. All produce, whether agricultural, pastoral or industrial, was the property of the state…In fact, the Incas had not only 'communal ownership of the means of production' but a “planned economy”. All the basic features of socialism were present, and the feature which has specially attracted the attention of the archaeologist is that the Incas were in effect a huge bureaucracy… [T]he lesson of history is clear that communal ownership is normal among primitive people, and the institution of private property in the 'means of production' is the first big step on the road to civilization."
- "The state in practice, as we have seen, is capable of tyranny and oppression and brutality on a scale which would be impossible for a private person, and from which all except the most debased private persons would shrink. The power of the state is vastly greater than the power of the mightiest private owners of property; and men will commit cruelties and atrocities in the name of the state which they would be too ashamed to commit in their private capacity. We must be chary, therefore, of assuming that we shall cure any misuse of the power inherent in the private ownership of property by concentrating all ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange in the state."
- "Human beings are tiresome creatures from the planner’s point of view—always wanting something different; and to make it worse, the wicked capitalist supplies what they want. The planner would have it the other way round. Instead of supplying what people want, he would make them want what they are supplied with."
- "The rock on which socialistic experiments have hitherto always foundered is human nature. Any sound political system must be based on a correct appreciation of human nature; and socialism is bound to fail because it offends the best elements of human nature and panders to the worst."
- "The prime fact of human nature which the wise statesman must take into account is that men will exert themselves for their own benefit, or for that of their families, regarded as an extension of themselves, as they will exert themselves for no one else; and, in particular, men are not prepared to work for the state or for any other collectivity as they will work for themselves or for their families…If it is made impossible for him to advance himself or his family by his exertions, the average man will cease to exert himself. No motive comparable in its effects…has yet been known in the history of the human race…Because socialism expects the average man to exert himself for the state as he would for himself,…the socialist is doomed to disappointment when he comes to put his ideas into practice."
- "If the state were all-wise and all-good it is conceivable that it would not misuse its supreme economic power. But the idea that the state is somehow wiser and better than the best of its citizens is a metaphysical delusion. In practice the concentration of all economic power in the hands of the state…has hitherto always been followed by the enslavement of thought and action. “Power corrupts”, and states do not differ from individuals in this respect. But the tyranny of an individual is limited by the circumscribed area of his power, whereas the power of the collectivist state is boundless; and the concentration of all power in the hands of the state will in practice almost certainly be followed by the imposition of a rigid orthodoxy in belief."
- "We have seen in the twentieth century the dire consequences when all power is concentrated in the hands of the state. When power is widely diffused, it is difficult and normally impossible for any one man or a few to turn it all at once to evil use. But when all power is concentrated in the hands of the state, it is a simple matter for one man or a few men having control of the state mechanism to turn all that concentrated power in any direction they please; an unhappily their pleasure has usually been in the direction of evil."
- "It is now clear to me that socialism would not be a step forward in the evolution of society but a retrogression; it would not lead to an advance upon capitalism as great as capitalism was upon feudalism, but would take mankind back into semi-feudal conditions."