The Alluring Falsehood of Socialism
Max Forrester Eastman
February 5th, 2017
This is excerpted from Eastman's Reflections on Socialism, which was published in 1955.
Almost everyone who cares earnestly about freedom is aroused against the Communists. But it is not only the Communists, it is in a more subtle way the Socialists who are blocking the efforts of the free world to recover its poise and its once-firm resistance to tyranny. In Italy, by voting with the Communists, they ousted De Gasperi’s strong and wise government, and they are keeping his successors weak through the menace of similar action. In France, by refusing hearty collaboration with “capitalist” parties, they have made it impossible to form any stable government at all, producing just that chaos which the Communists desire. In Germany, after doing their best to oust Adenauer and his brilliant Minister of Economics, Ludwig Erhard, who accomplished almost single-handed “the miracle of German recovery,” they are as this is written opposing his plan of rearmament, which offers the sole hope of effective West European resistance to an invading Communist army. In England they made a recovery like that of Germany impossible; their government recognized Communist China; and they are pushing to confirm for all time the Communists’ hold on the impregnable land mass, or planetary fortress, of Eurasia. In Norway they have produced the closest imitation of an authoritarian state to be found this side of the iron curtain.
In America we seem remote from all this, but it is only because the Socialists in large numbers have abandoned the party label, adopting the Fabian policy of infiltration in other groups. Norman Thomas has withdrawn from the party executive and no longer functions as a political leader. Maynard Krueger, once candidate for Vice President on the Socialist ticket, resigned from the party, explaining that he did so not because his beliefs had changed, but because he thought devout American Socialists should associate themselves with the “liberal-labor coalition inside and just outside the Democratic party.” This liberal-labor coalition has already transformed the Democratic party from an organ of Jeffersonian resistance to centralized power into the recognized advocate of increasing state control. It played a major part in the follies of Yalta, Teheran, Potsdam, and the China Story, which gave away well-nigh half the world to the Communists.
Thus in America as elsewhere it is the socialist ideal, as surely as the communist implementation of it, that is working against freedom. To thoughtful Americans Lenin’s notion that a tiny group of detached zealots calling themselves the vanguard of the working class, after seizing the power and “smashing the bourgeois state,” could establish a dictatorship of the proletariat—or any dictatorship but their own—has grown to seem preposterous. And the belief that such a dictatorship, having taken charge of the economy of a country, could lead the way to a classless society in which all men would be free and equal, is getting difficult even to remember. When remembered it is seen to be what it is—a dangerous fairy tale.
But we are still beguiled by this other fairy tale: that a large group of liberal-minded reformers, not pretending to be a class, not seizing the power but creeping into it, not smashing the state but bending it to their will, can take charge of the economy and approximate a free and equal society. This second notion is really more utopian than the first. The bolshevik scheme at least designated a social force which was to carry the process through. It looked scientific to say that the working class, once the existing order was smashed, would conduct the economy without paying tribute to capital, and a classless society would thus result from the natural instincts of men. The belief that such a millennium could be brought into being by “some combination of lawyers, business and labor managers, politicians and intellectuals,” is hard to take seriously. And yet as Lenin s pseudo-scientific dream-hope evaporates, this more pure and perfect fantasy tends to take its place.
The phrase I quoted is from an essay contributed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., to a symposium on “The Future of Socialism,” in the Partisan Review for May-June 1947. In that essay Mr. Schlesinger defined socialism in orthodox terms as “ownership by the state of all significant means of production,” and declared it “quite practicable . . . as a long term proposition.” He has said contrary things both before and since, and it appears that these words did not express a clear or firmly held opinion. But that makes them all the better illustrate the danger I am speaking of.
For it is not the copper-riveted old-time believers in Marxian theory that we in America have to fear. Those old-timers, although calling themselves democratic, still give lip-service to the Marxian doctrine of progress through increasing class division. They do not seem to me really to believe in it any longer; in the present state of class relations in this country such a belief would require feats of mental gymnastics for which even Marx did not prepare them. But their formal adherence to this and the rest of the Marxian mystique isolates them in America. Their fairy tale is not plausible enough to be dangerous. It is the bureaucratic socializers—if I may devise that label for the champions of a lawyer-manager-politician-intellectual revolution—who constitute a real and subtle threat to America’s democracy. It is their dream that is moving into focus as that of Lenin grows dim.
The assumption common to these two dreams is that society can be made more free and equal, and incidentally more orderly and prosperous, by a state apparatus which takes charge of the economy, and runs it according to a plan. And this assumption, though alluringly plausible, does not happen to be true. A state apparatus which plans and runs the business of a country must have the authority of a business executive. And that is the authority to tell all those active in the business where to go and what to do, and if they are insubordinate put them out. It must be an authoritarian state apparatus. It may not want to be, but the economy will go haywire if it is not.
That much was foreseen by many cool-headed wise men during the hundred-odd years since the idea of a “socialized” economy was broached. But the world was young, and the young can not be told—they have to learn by experience. (I was among the least willing to be told.) However, the actual experience of state-run economies, popping up one after another in the last thirty-five years, should be enough, it seems to me, to bring home this simple fact to the most exuberant. It is a fact which you can hardly fail to realize if you watch the operation of any big factory, or bank, or department store, or any place of business where a large number of people are at work. There has to be a boss, and his authority within the business has to be recognized, and when not recognized, enforced.
Moreover, if the business is vast and complex, his authority has to be continuous. You cannot lift him out of his chair every little while, tear up his plans, and stick in somebody else with a different idea of what should be done or how it should be done. The very concept of a plan implies continuity of control. Thus the idea that a periodic election of the boss and managing personnel is consistent with a planned national economy is lacking both in logic and imagination—you need only define the word “plan,” or present a plan to your mind’s eye. The thing is conceivable perhaps in a small enterprise, but where would you be if the nation’s entire wealth production and distribution were a single business? Even supposing elections could be genuine when those in office controlled all the jobs in the country. Suppose they were genuine—you might as well explode a bomb under the economy as hold an election.
The phony elections in totalitarian countries, the ballots with only one party and one list of candidates, are not the mere tricks of a cynical dictator—they are intrinsic to a state-planned economy. Either phony elections or no elections at all—that is what thoroughgoing socialism will mean, no matter who brings it in—hard-headed Bolsheviks, soft-headed Social Democrats, or genteel liberals. Even now, with government handling only a third of our national income, it took the most popular candidate since George Washington to defeat the party in power. Even he could not carry in a Congress heartily in opposition. How could you unseat an administration with every enterprise and every wage and salary in the country in its direct control? Not only private self-interest would prevent it, and that would be a force like gravitation, but public prudence also—patriotism! “Don’t change horses in midstream,” we say. But we’d be in mid-stream all the time with the entire livelihood of the nation dependent upon an unfulfilled plan in the hands of those in office. “Don’t rock the boat” would be the eternal slogan, the gist of political morals. That these morals would have to be enforced by the criminal law is as certain as that mankind is man.
 The whole passage about how this “long term proposition” might be achieved reads as follows:
“Its gradual advance might well preserve order and law, keep enough internal checks and discontinuities to guarantee a measure of freedom, and evolve new and real forms for the expression of democracy. The active agents in effecting the transition will probably be, not the working class, but some combination of lawyers, business and labor managers, politicians and intellectuals, in the manner of the first New Deal, or of the labor government in Britain.”
Mr. Schlesinger was quite savagely angry at me for quoting this passage correctly when the present essay was published in the New Leader (June 1952). He thought I should have known that he did not mean what he said. “In order to chime with the purposes of the symposium,” he explained, “I chose to write as if ‘democratic socialism’ and ‘mixed economy’ were the same. I made a mistake in so doing, as Mr. Eastman’s confusion suggests. . . . . I am tired of Max Eastman and his present conviction that liberty resides in the immunity of private business from government control. I wish he would grow up . . .”
My “confusion” consisted in not having read Mr. Schlesinger’s book, The Age of Jackson (1945), in which he “explicitly rejected the theory of socialism,” nor yet The Vital Center (1949), in which he “explained his rejection of socialism at length.”
I was indeed guilty of this confusion, but I have it now clear in my head that it was only during an interlude in 1947—a strange interlude, I must say—that Mr. Schlesinger came out explicitly for “ownership by the state of all significant means of production,” meaning thereby a “mixed economy.”
Max Forrester Eastman (January 4, 1883 – March 25, 1969) was an American writer on literature, philosophy and society; a poet, and a prominent political activist. He supported socialism early in his career, however, Eastman changed his views, becoming highly critical of socialism and communism after his experiences during a nearly two-year stay in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, as well as later studies.