Did No One See It Coming?
Socialism, and its metastatic cousin, Communism, captured the hearts and minds of many in the 19th Century with its promise of Utopia. Few saw then what the actual bloody consequences would be.
In Western Europe, over a very long period of time, events transpired which would result in what we now call the Industrial Revolution. It’s widely accepted that it got underway sometime in the second half of the eighteenth century.
About one hundred years later something else got underway as a direct result of this. It was a school of thought which became known as Marxism.
In this very readable article, David Prychitko lays out the ideas which underpinned Marxism. He finishes with an appraisal in which he writes:
“Socialist revolutions … have occurred throughout the world, but never where Marx’s theory had predicted—in the most advanced capitalist countries. On the contrary, socialism was forced on poor, so-called Third World countries. And those revolutions unwittingly condemned the masses to systemic poverty and political dictatorship.
In practice, socialism absolutely failed to create the nonalienated, self-managed, and fully planned society. It failed to emancipate the masses and instead crushed them with statism, domination, and the terrifying abuse of state power.”
With hindsight, of course, we’re all geniuses. On the one hand, as Marxist ideas began to take hold, few could have predicted how they would play out in practice. On the other, equally, who at that time could possibly have seen just how much life would improve for the masses under capitalism?
When Friedrich Engels arrived in Manchester in 1842, he was appalled by what he saw – so much so he wrote a book about it – published in 1844. In this book he argued that the Industrial Revolution actually made workers worse off.
I daresay, at that time, more than a few would have agreed.
Then in 1848, he and Karl Marx co-authored and published the Communist Manifesto. It is perhaps best known for the following “quote”:
“Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Given the conditions under which workers and their families lived and toiled, it was not surprising this “call to arms” gained traction. Especially when intellectuals got hold of it — and things got organized — and it started to evolve into a “movement”.
When Das Kapital appeared in 1867 it was on its way.
As it gathered pace there was more and more talk of building a very different future. Of a property-less, classless and harmonious world – of a kind of “worker’s paradise” – or something like that.
Milton Friedman captured the academic mood, both then and in the many decades which followed, when he wrote:
“The conversion of the intellectuals was achieved by a comparison between the existing state of affairs, with all its injustices and defects, and a hypothetical state of affairs as it might be. The actual was compared with the ideal.”
As things turned out, the actual which emerged bore little or no relation to the ideal.
Returning to Prychitko:
“Marx just didn’t get it. Nor did his followers. Marx’s theory of value, his philosophy of human nature, and his claims to have uncovered the laws of history fit together to offer a complex and grand vision of a new world order. If the first three-quarters of the twentieth century provided a testing ground for that vision, the end of the century demonstrates its truly utopian nature and ultimate unworkability.”
Again, with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder if anyone at the time questioned what a total state, in a Marxian sense, would entail? Did no-one foresee the possible dangers or even the horrors which could unfold?
Well ... there was one man who most certainly did.
His name was Eugen Richter.
In 1891 he wrote a book entitled “Pictures Of The Socialistic Future”, which laid out, chapter and verse, almost precisely what would be involved. The accuracy of this prophetic work is almost chilling – and for any academic – breathtaking in its prescience.
There was no hindsight at work here:
“Decades before the socialists gained power, Eugen Richter saw the writing on the wall. The great tragedy of the 20th century is that the world had to learn about totalitarian socialism from bitter experience, instead of Richter’s inspired novel. Many failed to see the truth until the Berlin Wall went up. By then, alas, it was too late.” Bryan Caplan.
For anyone interested in this subject, Richter’s book is a must-read.