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The Strange Adventures of the Word "Socialism"

Max Forrester Eastman
Editors note: This is an excerpt from Max Eastman's Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, originally published in 1955.

 

The word socialism was born a hundred and eighteen years ago in excited talk about the ideas of Robert Owen, a kindly English gentleman with shy eyes and a mighty nose and a great passion for apple dumplings. Owen came over to America in 1825 and bought a whole town and 30,000 acres of land out in Indiana on the banks of the Wabash. He issued a sweeping invitation to the “industrious and well disposed of all nations” to come out there and join him in the ownership of this property, and start living in cooperative peace and loving-kindness as nature had intended man to live. The place had been called “New Harmony” by a band of German monks who founded it, and that suited Owen’s scheme ideally.

Owen’s effort to attain beatitude in Indiana was repeated forty-one times in other parts of the long-suffering United States.

Owen was a shrewd and brilliant businessman, a sort of larger-visioned Henry Ford, and America welcomed him with her most royal gift of publicity. The Hall of Congress in Washington was turned over to him, and he explained socialism—and showed pictures of it—to an audience containing, among others, the President of the United States, a majority of both Houses of Congress, and most of the Justices of the Supreme Court.

“I am come to this country,” he announced, “to introduce an entire new state of society, to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened, social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals.”

In France the word socialisme had a slightly different origin, but not very different. Owen’s effort to attain beatitude in Indiana was repeated forty-one times in other parts of the long-suffering United States by followers of the French apostle of harmony, Fourier.[1] As they all had like results, we may take Owen’s little ramshackle paradise on the banks of the Wabash as typical of these recklessly noble attempts, by combining love with rationality, to bring heaven down to earth. It perfectly represents the meaning of the word socialism at its birth.

And it held together only so long as Robert Owen stayed there and bossed it. Left to themselves, its thousand-odd members fell to chiseling and snitching and indulging in rather more slander, if you can imagine it, than is usual. After two years they “divvied” up in a cool mood and quit. Owen thought it was because “the habits of the individual system” prevailing in the rest of the world were too strong.

Notwithstanding this dismal and swift failure, Owen’s idea—that if business were run on cooperative principles, life in general would become friendly and harmonious—gradually became the dominant one among radical minds the world over. It gave birth through the years to a whole litter of differently shaded ideas: syndicalist, communist, guild-socialist, social-revolutionary, bolshevik, menshevik, Fabian socialist, Christian socialist, I.W.W., anarchist, etc. They differed as to how the new harmony was to be achieved, but they did not differ importantly about Robert Owen’s fundamental general idea. For over a hundred years, even by many who could not subscribe to it as a practical measure, that idea, baptized with the name of socialism, was assumed to represent the highest hopes of civilization.

Three really big things happened to the socialist idea in the course of these hundred-odd years. Around the middle of the past century, a cocksure, angry, and pedantic genius by the name of Karl Marx undertook to prove that, although it had failed so dismally in Indiana, it was inevitably coming true throughout the world. Marx was personally more impractical than Owen. He was as far away as you can get from a successful businessman. He floundered in dire financial straits most of his life long, and hardly ever managed to finish anything he undertook to do.

Marx was not troubled with loving-kindness, either—not at all the type to usher in millenniums on a retail plan by personal example. But Marx had a brain like a high-powered locomotive engine, and when he set out to prove a thing, there was nothing for ordinary facts or practical considerations to do but get out of the way. Marx made his proof so comprehensive and so cloudy, and wound up so much true science with the romantic metaphysics out of which it was concocted, that he actually convinced the best radical minds of three generations that Robert Owen’s dream was inevitably coming true.

From a vessel of brotherly emotion, Socialism turned into the battle-cry of a class fight.

It was not coming true because some more benign Englishmen were going to subsidize some more credulous Americans and demonstrate how noble it was. It was coming true, noble or not, because the whole of present-day society was going to split violently in half like a growing acorn. In irresistible revolutionary struggle the under and larger half, those without property, were going to grab the land and industries and impose this dream on the upper half by state force. No more postcard utopias on the banks of the Wabash! No more trust in the “well disposed”! Hard-headed, hard-fisted proletarians were going to put the thing across. The owners of the world, hopelessly “bourgeois,” didn’t want a New Harmony—that’s why Robert Owen failed. Well, they were going to get a New Harmony whether they wanted one or not. And they were going to get it—to translate the Marxian state of feeling very exactly—“in the neck.”

That was the first big thing that happened to the word socialism. From meaning a practical experiment it came to mean a metaphysical certainty, and from a vessel of brotherly emotion it turned into the battle-cry of a class fight. It became the “war aim” of the workers in their impending inevitable robber raid against the whole capitalist class.

The second big thing that happened—and life was seventy more years getting this ready—was that such a raid did actually occur. It occurred in Russia, the last place where anybody was looking for it, and it occurred largely because a great political genius gave his heart to Owen’s dream and his mind to Marx’s metaphysics.

Lenin was personally more like Robert Owen than like Karl Marx. He combined the same grandiose idealism with the same canny gift for getting things done. He had no special zeal for apple dumplings, but he had a similarly homelike love for cats. He had a hearty affection for people, too, that was notably lacking in Marx. He looked like an able executive who had lost his hair, though none of his vigor, sitting at a desk bossing a big industry. He was an able executive, and could have bossed a big industry. As head of the “Community of Equality” at New Harmony he would have made, while he lasted, a thriving success.

Lenin promised a New Harmony and the result is now well known: Officialdom gone mad.

But Lenin’s role in history was totally shaped and determined by the writings of Karl Marx. He believed fanatically—if that means absolutely and to the last detail—in the whole Marxian system. In his penciled comments on the margins of the Marxian texts he studied, there is not one word of dissent or disagreement. He learned Marx like a schoolboy, slavishly and with adoration. And yet in practice he was independent, alert, flexible, cunning, alive to new developments—possessed of a native intelligence superior, in my opinion, to that of his master.

In the name of socialism Lenin took charge of an actual revolution, led it to victory, and set going on the scale of the Russian empire the same romantic experiment that Robert Owen failed with on the banks of the Wabash ninety years before.

And the results were not better than Robert Owen’s but a million times worse. In his speeches before he seized power, Lenin promised the same wonderful things, and even more wonderful than Owen had promised at New Harmony:

“Democracy from below!” he shouted. “Democracy without an officialdom, without police, without a standing army . . . Immediate preparation for a state of things where all shall fulfill the functions of control and superintendence, so that none shall have the opportunity of becoming bureaucrats at all. . . . The state itself will wither away, by virtue of the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the innumerable horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to the observation of the elementary rules of social life, known for centuries, repeated for thousands of years in all sermons. They will become accustomed to their observance without constraint, without subjection, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the State!”

That is the New Harmony Lenin promised, and the result is now well known: Officialdom gone mad, officialdom erected into a new and merciless exploiting class; the largest peace-time standing army in the world; the people universally disarmed; the functions of control and superintendence gripped in the fist of a ruling clique which, when needful, wages armed war on the people; the “slavery . . . horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation” so far outdone that they are talked of in secret as a lost paradise; bureaucrats everywhere, and behind the bureaucrats a gigantic army of high-paid state police; death for those who question or protest, death by execution without trial or by state-planned starvation in a slave camp.

Socialism survived long enough to show what was in it: tyranny, namely, and that new perfection of tyranny, the totalitarian state.

There are, strangely enough, specimens of the human brain whose owners still insist that this is a New Harmony in the making. Knaves, many of them, who have a job or prestige requiring that they say so; mental cowards, others, who, having put their faith in Lenin’s Marxism, lack the pluck to live without that faith. To honest men with courage to confront facts it is clear that Lenin’s experiment, like Robert Owen’s, failed.

It failed, however, in a different way. It did not drop naturally apart because the boss went home and let it run itself as it was supposed to. The boss, alas, stayed all too firmly on the job. It failed because it was prevented by military force from dropping naturally apart—by bayonets, machine guns, spies, chain-gangs, concentration camps, murder, massacre, and engineered starvation. It failed as a libertarian and humane hope because as a going concern it survived. It survived long enough to show what was in it: tyranny, namely, and that new perfection of tyranny, the totalitarian state. That new bloody thing wears, on all the maps of the world, the name of “socialist.”

Such is the main road traveled in a hundred and fifty years by the word socialism. It wandered down a branch road during the nineteenth century, and arrived on the emblems of another bloody police state—National Socialist Germany. It seems to know better than its creators and gentle-minded proprietors where it belongs. They will have trouble erasing it, anyway, from the histories of this whole epoch, the maps of the earth, the banners of the armies of fourteen nations. Might it not be better, instead of clinging to the word socialism, trying with mere adjectives to drag it back in the direction of its origins, to find out, if we can, what the basic mistake was of those who started it off on this strange and dreadful adventure?


[1] St. Simon is generally mentioned with Fourier and Owen as one of the fathers of utopian socialism, but his utopia was of so different a kind from theirs that its character was distorted somewhat by the very application of the name. See in this connection “Les Deux Socialismes” by Robert Louzon in La Révolution Prolétarienne for March and April 1948.

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