There is a good case to be made that the birth and spread of totalitarian socialism defines the twentieth century more than anything else. That is not what most schoolchildren are taught or what most people in the West believe, but it is a justifiable conclusion. Not only was totalitarian socialism directly responsible for provoking the bloodiest war in history; it has also been the biggest single cause of internal repression and mass murder in modern times.
According to The Black Book of Communism (1999), at least 94 million people were slaughtered by communist regimes during the twentieth century. This is a truly colossal figure, yet that’s the lowest estimate. Professor R. J. Rummel, in his landmark study, Death by Government (1996), puts the death toll from communism at over 105 million—and his detailed calculations do not include the human cost of communism in most of Eastern Europe or in Third World countries like Cuba and Mozambique. Even so, his figure is double the total number of casualties (military and civilian) killed on all sides during World War II.
The full horror of this totalitarian socialist holocaust cannot, of course, be adequately conveyed by these grim statistics. Behind them lies a desolate landscape of economic collapse, mass poverty, physical and mental torture, and broken lives and communities. In fact nothing illustrates the destructive impact of totalitarian socialism more vividly than the tsunami of refugees it has generated in every continent on which it has taken root. Between 1945 and 1990 over 29 million men, women, and children voted against communism with their feet in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America (For details and sources see my book Idealism Without Illusions: A Foreign Policy for Freedom, 1989). Had it not been for the land mines, border guards, and barbed wire lining their frontiers, the world’s communist states would have been emptied of their populations long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
What provoked this vast tide of human despair? What was it that made life intolerable for most of the inhabitants of these socialist countries? The greatest Russian writer of the last century has given us the answer. To quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Socialism begins by making all men equal in material matters. . . . However the logical progression towards so-called ‘ideal’ equality inevitably implies the use of force. Furthermore it means that the basic element of personality—those elements which display too much variety in terms of education, ability, thought and feeling—must themselves be leveled out. . . . Let me remind you that ‘forced labour’ is part of the programme of all prophets of Socialism, including the Communist Manifesto . There is no need to think of the Gulag Archipelago as an Asiatic distortion of a noble ideal. It is an irrevocable law” (Warning to the Western World).
It was therefore always predictable that by requiring the abolition of private property and the family, and monopolistic State ownership of agriculture and industry, the socialist pursuit of equality would necessarily produce the evil fruit of totalitarianism. One-party rule, the secret police, the imprisonment and torture of dissidents, concentration camps, mass executions, the political indoctrination of the young, the persecution of religious minorities—all these horrors have been the inevitable result of that concentration and monopolization of power that invariably corrupts the ruling elites and bureaucracies of all full-blown socialist societies. As an eminent Russian-born political scientist, the late Tibor Szamuely, wrote a generation ago in a pamphlet that should be read by the citizens of every civilized democracy: “How could it be otherwise? . . . How can there be any freedom when one’s livelihood from cradle to grave depends totally upon the State, which can with one hand give and with the other take away?” (Socialism and Liberty, 1977).
Unfortunately, left-wing intellectuals and other critics of free enterprise have always been reluctant to acknowledge the totalitarian logic of socialism, wedded as they are to a benevolent vision of the State and the dream of using its power to create a more just society. Consequently, despite all the evidence to date, many of them still pursue the phantom of “democratic socialism,” believing that democratic institutions can be relied on to prevent socialism from degenerating into tyranny. The great classical-liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century, by contrast, harbored no such illusions. Every single one of them discerned the incompatibility of state socialism with the maintenance of free and democratic institutions. They did so, moreover, long before the advent of the socialist tyrannies of the twentieth century.
One of the earliest warnings was sounded by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) more than 50 years before the Russian Revolution. In a now-famous passage in his essay On Liberty (1859), Mill declared: “If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free other than in name.”
As Mill understood, you cannot maintain freedom of speech and of the press, or freedom of assembly and association, if all the means of communication—newsprint, meeting halls, radio stations, and more—are in the hands of the State. It is equally impossible, in such conditions, for opposition parties to win elections, particularly since a State-controlled economy prevents them, in any case, from acquiring the capital to finance their campaigns. That is why democratic socialism is a contradiction in terms. Either socialism must be diluted or abandoned for the sake of democracy, or democracy (as well as liberty) will be sacrificed on the altar of socialism.
The Truth about Pre-Revolutionary Russia
What is so tragic about the Russian Revolution is that the triumph of communism in October 1917 aborted the embryo of a developing liberal society. As Szamuely points out, “[F]ew people in the West are aware of the extent of freedom in Tsarist Russia before the Revolution, in the early part of our century. It enjoyed full freedom of the press—censorship had been abolished, and even Bolshevik publications appeared without restrictions—full freedom of foreign travel, independent trade unions, independent courts, trial by jury . . . a parliament, a Duma with MPs representing parties of every political shade, including the Bolsheviks.”
By the early 1920s, by contrast, all this had been swept away. To quote Solzhenitsyn’s summary of the first period of communist rule under Lenin: “It dispersed the [democratically elected] Constituent Assembly. . . . It introduced execution without trial. It crushed workers’ strikes. It plundered the villagers to such an unbelievable extent that the peasants revolted, and when this happened it crushed the peasants in the bloodiest possible way. It shattered the Church. It reduced 20 provinces of our country to a condition of famine” (Solzhenitsyn: The Voice of Freedom, 1975).
Democratic socialists may object at this point that prerevolutionary Russia was not as free and democratic as Britain or the United States, and that the cause of socialism was compromised by the Bolsheviks’ violent seizure of power. But even if Lenin had triumphed in a peaceful election, his subsequent takeover of the economy and nationalization of all previously independent institutions would eventually have produced the same totalitarian outcome.
The inherently despotic nature of socialism, so vividly confirmed by the history of the Russian Revolution and all subsequent socialist revolutions, was clearly perceived by Mill’s great Italian liberal contemporary, Joseph Mazzini (1805–1872). In an essay on “The Economic Question” written in 1858 and addressed to the workers of Italy, Mazzini not only defended private property as an institution essential to human progress and well-being; he also denounced socialism with passion: “The liberty, the dignity, the conscience of the individual would all disappear in an organization of productive machines. Physical life might be satisfied by it, but moral and intellectual life would perish, and with it emulation, free choice of work, free association, stimulus to production, joys of property, and all incentives to progress. Under such a system the human family would become a herd. . . . Which of you would resign himself to such a system?” (The Duties of Man, 1961).
In addition, Mazzini pointed out, the establishment of a socialist society would, ironically, create the very worst form of inequality, because universal State ownership would require the establishment of an all-powerful ruling bureaucracy. “Working-men, my Brothers,” he asked, “are you disposed to accept a hierarchy of lords and masters of the common property? . . . Is not this a return to ancient slavery?”
The prophetic discernment of the nineteenth-century classical-liberal critics of socialism is again very apparent in the writings of Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850), the leading French economist and free-trade activist of his generation. A constant critic of statism in general, and socialism in particular, Bastiat summarized his objections in The Law, a short but lucid pamphlet published in 1850—the same decade, curiously enough, during which Mill and Mazzini raised their warning voices.
In this comprehensive analysis, Bastiat offered many valuable insights, of which three deserve particular mention. The first drew attention to a fatal contradiction within the ideology of democratic socialism, one which continues to characterize many of the attitudes of present-day European leftists and American “liberals.” On the one hand, complained Bastiat, socialists are passionately committed to the cause of democracy, insisting that all adults are responsible individuals who should have the vote and an equal share in all political decision-making; yet on the other, they consider the same sovereign people incapable of running their own lives without the intervention and supervision of all-powerful State officials. “When it is time to vote,” wrote Bastiat, “apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. . . . But when the [socialist] legislator is finally elected—ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize.”
As well as being arrogant, socialists were also deeply misguided, argued Bastiat, because they confused society with the State, and altruism with collectivism. As a result, he predicted, their economic program would only undermine the spirit of true fraternity and impoverish society, since moral and social progress depend on individual creativity and voluntary cooperation, not government planning and coercion. Finally, Bastiat pointed out, by concentrating all resources and decision-making in the State, socialism only offered a recipe for permanent social conflict and revolution, since it would arouse expectations that could never be satisfied, and encourage everyone to live at each other’s expense through the tax and benefit system.
The Second Generation of Anti-Socialist Critics
The intellectual assault on socialism mounted by Bastiat, Mazzini, and Mill in the middle of the nineteenth century was renewed by the next generation of classical-liberal thinkers in response to the rapid growth of socialist militancy throughout Europe during the 1880s and 1890s. During this period, its four leading figures in Britain—Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891), Auberon Herbert (1838–1906), and William E. H. Lecky (1838–1903)—condemned socialism with unsparing severity and prophetic insight.
“We object that the organization of all industry under State control must paralyze industrial energy and discourage and neutralize individual effort,” wrote Bradlaugh in 1884 (A Selection of the Political Pamphlets of Charles Bradlaugh, 1970). Lecky agreed with him. “The desire of each man to improve his circumstances, to reap the full reward of superior talent, or energy, or thrift,” he wrote in 1896, “is the very mainspring of the production of the world. Take these motives away . . . cut off all the hopes that stimulate, among ordinary men, ambition, enterprise, invention, and self-sacrifice, and the whole level of production will rapidly and inevitably sink” (Democracy and Liberty).
And so it has proved in the twentieth century, as anyone who reads David Osterfeld’s “Socialism and Incentives” (The Freeman, November 1986) or Kevin Williamson’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism (2011) can see.
Bradlaugh’s and Lecky’s objections to socialism were of course not confined to its material destructiveness. They, too, like their classical-liberal predecessors, perceived its hostility to freedom and the family. Bradlaugh even predicted that the imposition of socialism would require the ideological reconditioning of the entire population—a phenomenon that has proved characteristic of all communist regimes, notably China before and during the Cultural Revolution, and North Korea today.
Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert showed equal foresight in their wide-ranging critiques of socialism. They not only underlined its incompatibility with liberty as eloquently as all their other comrades-in-arms; they also anticipated the terrible violence and cruelty to which it would give rise. In a passage horribly vindicated by the seemingly endless pattern of socialist revolution, dictatorship, and civil war in so much of the post-colonial Third World, Herbert declared in 1885: “In presence of unlimited power lodged in the hands of those who govern . . . the stakes for which men played would be so terribly great that they would shrink from no means to keep power out of the hands of their opponents” (The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State).
With similar prescience, Spencer wrote in 1891: “The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful . . . [will exercise] a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen” (The Man versus the State).
It is a historic tragedy that all these warnings fell on deaf ears. Will they be heeded by those pressing for world government in the 21st century?
Philip Vander Elst is a British freelance writer, lecturer, and C. S. Lewis scholar whose many publications include Power Against People: a Christian Critique of the State (Institute of Economic Affairs). ..
© Copyright 2012 Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved. Used with permission.