Wednesday, 7 July 2021

A Word to Socialists

Extract from Eimar O'Duffy, Life and Money (1933)

Socialism is almost a religion with the most earnest of its adherents; who, in consequence, are apt to shut their minds to arguments against it, much as the pious shut their minds to the seductions of unbelievers. They regard all non-Socialists as the heathen and the publican, and refuse to believe that those who do not accept their dogmas can be genuinely seeking social regeneration. As I was a Socialist myself in younger days, I can under­stand their mentality, and propose, therefore, to add a few words for their benefit, which non-Socialists may skip.

The first difficulty in dealing with Socialists is to get them to define Socialism. They differ among them­selves, both as to its end and as to its means. I have even known vigorous champions of the creed to declare that it means nothing in particular—a fine example of the mental chaos of this enlightened age. The most generally (252) accepted definition, however, is ‘the public ownership of all the means of production and distribution’. Some Socialists boggle at the ‘all’, but in doing so they give away their case entirely; for nearly everybody is agreed that some of the means of production and distribution should be publicly owned (many of them are publicly owned already), and if the Socialist is merely a person who wants public ownership more or less extended in scope, then there is no general Socialist position to attack or defend, but only a number of particular cases to be decided on their merits.

I take it, then, that Socialism means the public ownership of all the means of production and distribution. The arguments of ‘big business’ against that solution of our difficulties are well known, and mostly stupid, and Socialist writers can make short work of them. What Socialists fail to realise is that the instincts of the ordinary man and woman are against it, and quite rightly, for it is based on wrong first principles. It is true that eight million electors voted for the Labour Party at the general election of 1929 and that even more may be induced to do so in the future; but that does not mean that eight million people voted for Socialism as properly defined. Most of those votes represent either the natural desire of workers for better conditions, or the general yearning (253) for a better social life than the present muddle and scramble.

Socialism is fundamentally Procrustean. Its principle is that man exists for the state, instead of the state for man. Socialists have definitely maintained that proposi­tion in argument with me, and it is, moreover, implicit in all Socialist doctrine, whether individual Socialists deny it or not. Many Socialists (Bernard Shaw, for instance) assert that the state should have the right to enforce birth-prevention. If the state is to be responsible for production, they say, then it has the right to regulate the number of consumers. (Note once again that ‘regula­tion’ for Procrusteans always means ‘restriction’.) Of course there are Socialists who would not go so far as this, but if once the principle of ‘the state over all’ is admitted, there is no limit to the extent to which it might be applied. Socialism, in fact, involves an amount of government interference in people’s personal affairs which the ordinary man and woman will not tolerate. There is already too much of it—mostly due to well-meaning attempts to remedy notorious abuses—and we don’t want any more. An economic reform which runs contrary to that sound and healthy human instinct can never command general acceptance.

Though Socialism lays down no definitely Sisyphist principle, it is coloured throughout with Sisyphistic concepts, as I have already shown. Thus, Socialists usually express the utmost horror at the idea of the national dividend. ‘Why should some people have to work to maintain others in idleness?’ Faced with the fact that in an age of plenty there is not enough work to go round, they propose that everybody should be (254) compelled to do a certain amount of the work that is necessary—that Shelley should be taken from his poems to do a turn at a machine, while a perfectly competent mechanic is sent to lout about at a loose end. Surely it would be far better to leave Shelley alone, to dream on his dividend, and pay the mechanic handsomely to do the work he is fitted for and enjoys doing? Or, if you object to the exceptional example of the poet, is it not better to pay one mechanic to do the job properly than to compel half a dozen indifferent or unwilling men to do it badly?

‘Economic equality’, you object. But equality does not really matter if everybody has plenty. When writers and speakers deplore the ‘inequalities’ of the present system, their theme in reality is poverty: if there were no poverty, nobody would bother about inequality. In a society where an individual had a free choice between leisure at, say, £250 a year, and work for six hours a day at £600 a year, the inequality would not be an injustice. What we want to do is to abolish poverty and establish prosperity; and the only way to do that is to produce plenty of goods and equate our consuming power to the supply. Socialism, aiming at equality through restriction, work fetishism, and suppression of liberty, can only achieve an equality of poverty, or at best a general industrious frugality, like that of bees in a hive.

The process of reasoning which led to Socialism is fairly obvious. Karl Marx crudely divided mankind into Capitalists and Workers and declared that there was an essential clash of interests between them. This was true enough in an age of scarcity, though it would have been more accurate to say that there was a clash of interests between every man and every other man—(255) that each had to scramble for what he could get, and that the capitalists, being the best equipped, came off best. In an age of plenty, however, this conception of society has become as false as the doctrines of the bankers and orthodox economists. There is enough for everybody, and the interests of individuals no longer clash with one another, nor with those of the community, though the restrictions on plenty caused by a deficient currency make them appear to do so. The prosperity of each de­pends on the prosperity of all, if only people could be got to see it. The scheme proposed in this book shows how this can be realised in practice. By equating consumption to production we can make the self-seeking instincts of the ordinary individual work out to the benefit of the community as a whole.

 COMMENT: Spotted the above recently in O'Duffy's Life and Money. Published in 1933, it has dated very little with the passage of time. The whole document is available on the SOCIAL ART page of

1 comment:

  1. Like all the publications on this website this O'Duffy extract is a thorn in the side of "common knowledge". Thanks to Hutchinson and O'Duffy I have come to realise that common knowledge is untested knowledge - especially about economics. And so we are played by bankers and politicians as they contrive upon us policies that suit only them while the common man goes hang, to use an O'Duffy expression.
    Just as Swift used satire to extreme irony in his "A Modest Proposal" to target the politicians' cynical perception of the poor in designing their policies and projects - never so true as today -
    so O'Duffy uses ridicule to expose these masters of the universe.