C.S. Lewis: Political
and Cultural Conservative
Philip Vander Elst
Philip Vander Elst is a freelance writer and lecturer who lives in England. He writes about England, Britain, and Europe. He is a C. S. Lewis scholar, and a former editor of Freedom Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article below was first published in the American libertarian magazine, The Freeman (3/10/2012).
A Politics for a Fallen Humanity
Any consideration of C. S. Lewis’ writings on politics and culture must begin by stressing that he was not primarily a political philosopher. What Lewis did say about politics and society flowed from his understanding that Christianity illuminates all aspects of life in this world. With his characteristic vividness and lucidity, Lewis drew attention to truths whose neglect has blighted the modern world and whose recovery is essential if we are to preserve freedom, excellence, and human dignity.
Lewis was a sharp critic of many of the dominant ideological and cultural trends of the 20th century. To the extent that he saw himself as a lonely and beleaguered spokesman for that central tradition of Christian thought which once characterized Western civilization, Lewis can be properly regarded as a political and cultural conservative in the widest and deepest sense of the word. He was a critic of secular humanism and scientific utopianism, and an opponent of collectivism, egalitarianism, and “progressive” morality. Since this body of ideas and assumptions continues, in various forms, to characterize the mentality of most Western intellectuals, Lewis’s critique is still relevant.
In addition, Lewis’s opposition to theocracy and all attempts to use the power of the State to establish a perfect Christian society merits close attention given the rise, since his death in 1963, of new theologies which politicize the Gospel and seek to establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth by human efforts.
To understand Lewis’s political philosophy, we must begin with a question. If Christianity is true, what should be our attitude to life in this world? Only if we know the answer to this basic question about what should be our inner orientation can we begin to think intelligently about politics and society.
As Lewis understood, Christianity is neither a world-affirming nor a world-denying religion. It opposes the secular humanist view that there is no other life except the present one and no goals worth pursuing except our own material comfort and happiness. Christianity also rejects the view, implicit in pantheistic religions like Buddhism, that the road to inner wholeness and union with God (or with the soul of the universe) demands the renunciation of the flesh, including all personal commitments, affections, and even our very selves — everything, in short, which binds us to this world of suffering.
Hence, Lewis points out the maddeningly double-edged character of the Christian faith as seen from the outside. It is a religion which, as a matter of historical fact, preserved the secular civilization that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire:
“. . . to it [Christianity] Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilized agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighborhood. In a word, it is always either doing, or at least repenting with shame for not having done, all the things which the secular humanitarianism enjoins” (Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics).
But it must also be noted:
“. . . that the central image in all Christian art was that of a Man slowly dying by torture; that the instrument of His torture was the worldwide symbol of the Faith; that martyrdom was almost the specifically Christian action; that our calendar was as full of fasts as of feasts; that we meditated constantly on the mortality not only of ourselves but of the whole universe; that we were bidden to entrust all our treasure to another world” (Undeceptions).
To the Christian, Lewis argued, there is no real paradox here, since there is no inherent conflict between our allegiance to God and our appreciation and enjoyment of the world He created. How could there be? It follows from the very concept and doctrine of creation that we should both love and worship our Creator and rejoice in His works of which we are, in any case, a part.
Christians may indeed regard themselves, in Lewis’s memorable phrase, as pilgrims passing through the “Shadowlands,” knowing that true life lies ahead. But that does not mean they care any less than other people about fighting evil and alleviating suffering in this life. We follow one who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Lewis said, even though He was about to raise him from the dead, because death — the punishment of sin — is even more horrible in the eyes of the Creator, of Life Himself, than in our own.
Since the individual is God’s creation and an object of God’s love, dignified with the gifts of reason, conscience, and free will, he does not belong to the State as an animal belongs to a farmer, but has the God-given right to live within a social order that respects his freedom to determine his own destiny as long as he in his turn respects the rights of others. This implies that in the Christian view, the State is not an end in itself like the individual person. The State is only a means, in a fallen world, to enable people to live together in harmony and in obedience to the moral law so that they can use their talents, develop their relationships, and help each other to know God, enjoy creation, and fulfill their potential.
“The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way, the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose” (Mere Christianity).
Two other conclusions follow from his Christian view of man. First, that the primary cause of evil and suffering in the world does not lie in the structures of society or result from any particular set of laws and institutions, but stems from our fallen human nature. The wrong laws and institutions may greatly aggravate the human condition, and much of the evil in the world may indeed be due to the behavior of wicked governments and selfish and corrupt elites. Howerver, history as well as common sense tells us that no amount of social and political change, of tearing down and remodeling institutions, has yet succeeded in eradicating all selfishness, cruelty, incompetence, and tyranny. Old evils may mutate, taking new shapes and forms, but they do not disappear, as the course of revolutions prove. This proves the implausibility of the socialist and revolutionary claim that suffering, injustice, and crime can be removed by the elimination of poverty and inequality.
The recognition of this truth leads to the second conclusion about history and politics: that the 19th-century notion of the inevitability of human progress is false. As the record of our own century has demonstrated, man’s increasing knowledge and dominion over nature may have ameliorated the material lot of the human race, but it has also strengthened tyranny and increased the destructiveness and horrors of war.
Human beings, argued Lewis, cannot free themselves in this life from the limitations imposed by their fallen natures; therefore, their attempts to establish a perfect society inevitably backfire, tending to recreate and intensify the evils they were meant to abolish. This happens not only because all schemes of social engineering increase the power of the State — and power corrupts — but also because utopian ideologies typically reject the constraints of traditional morality.
Convinced that they possess the key to history and the secret of happiness, and promising heaven on earth, such ideologies invariably affirm that the ends justify the means and that ordinary moral rules are therefore subordinate to the cause of the revolution, the advancement of science, the survival of the race, the progress of mankind, or whatever the latest utopian shibboleth happens to be. But as Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man, and in a wartime essay on “The Poison of Subjectivism,” there can never be any moral justification for jettisoning the traditional precepts of the moral law, since the very idea of moral and political progress presupposes a common, objective, and unvarying moral standard. Otherwise, there is no measuring rod by which to determine whether a particular law, philosophy, attitude, or practice represents a moral advance or not. Moreover, the idea that traditional judgments of value can be replaced by a more “scientific” ethical system based upon supposedly “real” and “solid” criteria like the advancement of the species or the “survival of the planet” is illusory, because the moral justification for using these criteria is necessarily derived from the moral code which is supposedly being replaced on the grounds that it is “out of date.”
Although Lewis (given that he died in 1963) never wrote about such matters as abortion, euthanasia, or the use of aborted fetuses in medical research, his treatment of other moral issues and his general moral outlook illuminate some of the central dilemmas raised by these developments. Running through his writings on vivisection, modern sexual mores, and crime and punishment, for example, are three related themes: accountability, stewardship, and the abuse of power — which apply as much in these areas as in the ones he actually wrote about.
Leaving aside the obvious point, in the case of abortion, that unborn babies are fully human and therefore morally entitled to the protection of the law, the main principle underlying the proper Christian response to these questions is the one stressed by Lewis: our God-given human status entails, on the one hand, that we have the right to life and individual self-determination, and on the other, that we are accountable for our actions and are under a duty not only to fulfill our obligations to others, but to treat inferiors with kindness. Hence, argued Lewis, we should condemn adultery and avoidable cruelty to animals, and regard crime as a moral offense deserving punishment rather than a psychiatric disorder requiring treatment.
Lewis’s discussion of the morality of vivisection is particularly interesting in this context, not only because of its contemporary relevance but because it so clearly reveals his humanity and his hatred of cruelty and tyranny, attitudes rooted in his understanding of the Christian conception of natural law, with its insistence on man’s responsibility before God for his stewardship of creation.
Even if it is the case that the superiority of man over beast is a revealed truth rather than simply a prejudice in favor of our own species and therefore conforms to a hierarchical order created by God, it does not follow, argues Lewis, that we have the right to do whatever we like with animals. Their lack of a soul
“. . . makes the infliction of pain upon them not easier but harder to justify. For it means that animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts. ‘Soullessness,’ in so far as it is relevant to the question at all, is an argument against vivisection (Undeceptions).”
For Lewis, writing these words in 1947, the victory of vivisection represented the triumph of ruthless utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law, a retrogression also apparent in the area of penal reform. As Lewis explained in a famous essay on “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (1949), the modern “liberal” notion is that it is wrong to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, since this is mere revenge, and revenge is barbarous and immoral. Instead, it is argued, punishment should be regarded either as a deterrent to protect society or as a means of reforming the criminal. But, this supposedly “humanitarian” approach destroys the concept of justice and represents an assault on human dignity and the legitimate rights of offenders.
Retribution, argued Lewis, is the essence of justice, since it requires the concept of desert. It is morally right that the punishment should fit the crime because a person who knowingly injures another deserves to be treated in a similar fashion and forfeits his right to the freedom which he has abused. The very idea of punishment affirms the human dignity of the criminal, since it recognizes him to be a rational being possessed of free will and therefore capable of choosing between good and evil and being held responsible for his actions and behavior. The “humanitarian” theory, however, not only separates punishment from justice by rejecting or abandoning this notion of desert; it also treats the criminal as an imbecile or a domestic animal, and paves the way for the creation of a “reformatory” penal regime under which offenders have no rights but are left entirely at the mercy of “experts” whose special sciences and techniques lie outside the moral sphere.
To the objection that the humanitarian theory seeks to reform the criminal rather than punish him, and is therefore not vindictive, Lewis answers:
“. . . do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I have grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard” (Undeceptions).
Furthermore, argues Lewis, fallen human nature is bound, sooner or later, to transform the humanitarian theory of punishment into an instrument of tyranny, for if crime is regarded as a disease, it follows that disease can be treated as a crime, and who is to say what state of mind some future government may choose to regard as a disease? In a chillingly prophetic passage, Lewis anticipated, in 1949, the employment by Communist dictatorships of psychiatric methods of torturing Christians and other religious and political dissidents:
“We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to ‘cure’ it? Such ‘cure’ will, of course, be compulsory, but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution” (Undeceptions).
Lewis’s shrewd calculation of the deadly consequences resulting from false philosophies allied to fallen humanity is the central theme of his political thinking. Opposing the modern egalitarian view of democracy, Lewis maintains that men and women deserve an equal share in the government of the commonwealth not because they are equally wise, which is clearly untrue, but because no one is good enough to be allowed irresponsible power over his fellows:
“I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, . . . learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.”
Not only is egalitarianism (as distinct from equality before the law) a false basis for democracy, and a threat to every form of human excellence — moral, cultural, social, and intellectual — but it is also incompatible with freedom, since economic and social differences inevitably arise from the free development and activities of unequally endowed individuals, and therefore cannot be suppressed except by force. That is one of the reasons why revolutionary socialist governments are always tyrannical. In addition, totalitarian rulers have a vested interest in discouraging independent individuals and alternative centers of economic, social, and cultural activity; hence their willingness to embrace the forms and rhetoric of egalitarianism and democracy in order to justify their removal of all significant social distinctions. As Lewis’s satirical devil, Screwtape, puts it in his speech to the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils, in Hell:
“. . . is it not pretty to notice how Democracy (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them ‘tyrants’ then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of corn, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus, Tyrants could practice, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will not of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks” (Screwtape Proposes a Toast).
Lewis’s awareness of the perils of egalitarianism and the paramount need to set limits to the power of the State echoes the views of Conservative and classical liberal thinkers like Burke, the authors of the American Constitution, Tocqueville, and Lecky. But unlike them, he failed to make a proper distinction between liberty and the rule of law on the one hand, and democracy — in the sense of majority rule — on the other; yet the potential conflict between the two haunted Conservatives and Liberals in the 19th century and is sadly relevant to post-colonial Africa and the political evolution of many Third World countries.
Although Lewis can be criticized for using the term “democracy” too loosely and for failing to engage in an explicit discussion of the difference between popular government and liberty, he must have been aware of the distinction since he was alarmed by what he saw as the despotic tendencies of modern democratic states. His anxiety was primarily aroused by the dangers inherent in government economic planning and in the humanitarian desire to use the power of the State to eliminate poverty and guarantee everybody’s material welfare from the cradle to the grave. Consequently, while accepting the (false) economic arguments for democratic socialism, which he didn’t feel qualified to criticize, Lewis warned of their likely political consequences in an article he wrote for the Observer in 1958:
“We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present. We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?”
Lewis’s awareness of fallen man’s inevitable tendency to abuse power explains his hostility to socialism, but it is nowhere more evident or eloquently expressed than in his opposition to theocracy. Whilst it might seem right in theory, Lewis argued, that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, or that a righteous Church should be given absolute control over society, the temptation to accept a theocratic form of government should be resisted. Christians are not only, like everyone else, fallen, and therefore subject to the same tendency to be warped and corrupted by excessive power, but they are likely to become even more oppressive tyrants than their irreligious counterparts, since their theocratic despotism is likely to be reinforced by a perverted self-righteousness which would suppress all inner doubts about their own behavior and silence that voice of self-criticism essential to the correction of all error and injustice:
“I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. . . . A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt” (“Reply to Professor Haldane,” Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).
One has only to recall the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, the ¨atrocities committed by the Anabaptist rulers of Münster in the same period, or the grim rule of the “elect” in Calvin’s Geneva, to agree with Lewis about the dangers of theocracy.
Lewis’s opposition to theocracy and to the use of compulsion and the power of the State in religious matters is not only expressed in his “Reply to Professor Haldane,” but also surfaces in his encyclopedic survey of English Literature in the 16th century (Oxford University Press 1954). There he notes with sadness the degree to which intolerance seemed a universal blind spot which afflicted Catholics, Calvinists, and Anglicans in equal measure. In deploring this, Lewis has powerful historical as well as philosophical arguments on his side. Quite apart from the moral undesirability of violating freedom of conscience, it can be argued that one of the principal consequences of religious persecution and sectarian hatred during this period was to discredit real Christianity and encourage the growth of an intolerant atheism and anti-clericalism. This not only contributed to the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, but has gone on to fuel all the totalitarian socialist movements of the 20th century.
Lewis’s detestation of cruelty and tyranny and his awareness of its ideological and spiritual roots, is the most interesting feature of his political thinking. Underlying it is a moral outlook pervaded by an acute awareness of the difference between goodness and power, merit and success. God, insists Lewis, should be loved and obeyed because He is loving and good, not because He is omnipotent, since to worship power for its own sake blurs the distinction between good and evil and is therefore both cowardly and diabolical. That is why, for example, one of the most attractive features for Lewis of Nordic mythology was its noble and heroic rejection of the doctrine that might is right. In a wartime article celebrating the inability of the Nazis to digest the moral content and grandeur of the story of Siegfried in the Nibelungs, especially Wagner’s version of it, Lewis commented:
“What business have people who call might right to say they are worshippers of Odin? The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The whole point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. . . . But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.”
It was C. S. Lewis’s great merit as a thinker, scholar, and Christian apologist that, like the heroes of his favorite Nordic myths, he never hesitated in all his writings to swim against the ideological and cultural tide, however dominant and threatening it seemed. *
Two Prophetic 19th Century
Philip Vander Elst
The Marxist Left in Britain and the USA always embraces with naïve enthusiasm new revolutionary socialist regimes, most recently the one in Venezuela, only to deny their truly socialist character when these inevitably become despotic and destructive. Yet the two prophetic 19th century anti-socialist satires reviewed below provide yet more proof of the fact that full-blooded socialism’s inherently totalitarian character was fully understood, exposed, and anticipated by classical liberal thinkers and writers long before the advent of these revolutionary regimes in the 20th century.
“I had spent an extremely interesting evening. I had dined with some very ‘advanced’ friends of mine at the ‘National Socialist Club.’ We had had an excellent dinner: the pheasant, stuffed with truffles, was a poem. . . . After dinner, and over the cigars (I must say they do know how to stock good cigars at the National Socialist Club), we had a very instructive discussion about the coming equality of man and the nationalisation of capital.”[i]
With these opening words, the famous 19th century English writer and satirist, Jerome K. Jerome (1859 - 1927), fired a satirical but penetrating broadside against socialism under the title, “The New Utopia,” one of a collection of essays and short stories first published in 1891.
Although he is best known and loved as the author of Three Men in a Boat (1889), Jerome deserves to be remembered for producing this anti-socialist literary gem, which combines great wit with acute political and psychological insight. It is, moreover, all the more interesting because it is not the work of a man who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and therefore anxious to preserve aristocratic privilege, but the product of one who grew up in poverty and suffered the premature death of his parents during his early teens.[ii]
Instead of being soured by early misfortune and filled with resentment toward the rich and successful, Jerome’s varied career as a railroad worker, actor, writer and journalist gave him a love of individuality and freedom which inoculated him against the socialist virus infecting so many of his Victorian contemporaries. Accordingly, his good-natured satire, The New Utopia, exposes the totalitarian logic of socialism and its soul-destroying egalitarianism with remorseless zest. Yet the sharpness of his attack is softened, and arguably made more effective, by its light-hearted tone.
Jerome K. Jerome’s Grasp of the Totalitarian Logic of Socialism
Right from the outset, Jerome reveals his grasp of the essential character and goals of socialism.
“Equality of all mankind was their watchword — perfect equality in all things — equality in possessions, and equality in position and influence, and equality in duties, resulting in equality in happiness and contentment. . . . Each man’s labour was the property, not of himself, but of the State which fed and clothed him. . . . When all men were equal, the world would be Heaven — freed from the degrading despotism of God. We raised our glasses and drank to EQUALITY, sacred EQUALITY; and then ordered the waiter to bring us Green Chartreuse and more cigars.”[iii]
Then, for the reader, the fun really begins as Jerome, in his imagination, returns to his lodgings after that dinner at the National Socialist Club and lies awake in bed thinking “how delightful life would be,” if the “State would take charge of us from the hour we were born until we died, and provide for all our wants from the cradle to the coffin. . . .”[iv] Not surprisingly, he then falls into a dream in which he imagines himself waking up from sleep only to find that he is lying under a glass case in a museum, in a new and unfamiliar socialist England in the 29th century.
Having been told by a museum official that his landlady forgot to wake him 10 years before “the great social revolution of 1899,” Jerome is then given a guided tour of the new socialist London, in the course of which we discover all the dramatic changes that have taken place since he fell asleep.
The tour begins with Jerome asking his guide whether all the world’s problems have now been solved, since:
“. . . a few friends of mine were arranging, just before I went to bed, to take it to pieces and fix it up again properly. . . . Is everybody equal now, and sin and sorrow and all that sort of thing done away with? ”[v]
This is a significant question, since the slightly flippant language in which it is posed shows a thorough understanding of the utopian social engineering mentality that underlies the socialist project. The naïve and arrogant belief, so widespread on the Left, that imperfect human nature can be reshaped by the enforced reorganisation of society by the State, is mercilessly lampooned in the ensuing dialogue between Jerome and his socialist guide.
Egalitarian Social Engineering Lampooned Mercilessly
“Oh, yes,” replies the guide to his original question, “you’ll find everything all right now. . . . We’ve just got this earth about perfect now, I should say”[vi] and we soon find out what he means by the word “perfect”: namely, total collectivisation and uniformity. Everyone now lives in the same government-owned barrack-like apartment blocs, wears the same identical clothing, and eats collectively cooked meals at prescribed times of the day — a chillingly prescient if light-hearted anticipation of social life in many 20th century Communist societies. When, in addition, Jerome asks his guide why everyone they meet has black hair, the reply he gets appeals to our sense of humour, as it is meant to, but at the same time focuses our attention on the necessary conflict between absolute equality and freedom.
“What would become of our equality if one man or woman were allowed to swagger about in golden hair, while another had to put up with carrots? . . . By causing all men to be clean shaven, and all men and women to have black hair cut the same length, we obviate, to a certain extent, the errors of Nature.”[vii]
The same egalitarian principle, we discover, also applies to the issue of personal cleanliness, since it was found that it was impossible to maintain equality when people were allowed to wash themselves.
“Some people washed three or four times a day, while others never touched soap and water from one year’s end to the other, and in consequence there got to be two distinct classes, the Clean and the Dirty. All the old class prejudices began to be revived. The clean despised the dirty, and the dirty hated the clean. So, to end dissension, the State decided to do the washing itself, and each citizen was now washed twice a day by government-appointed officials; and private washing was prohibited.”[viii]
It would be easy, at this point, to dismiss Jerome’s attack on socialist egalitarianism as a whimsical satire, especially after his guide reveals that in this new socialist England, good-looking and intelligent people are subjected to mutilation and brain surgery to prevent them rising above the human average. But that would be a mistake. Jerome deliberately regales us with these absurdities to bring home the fact that the socialist project is necessarily coercive and totalitarian because it flies in the face of human nature and the human condition.
Jerome’s Satire Vindicated by the Experience of Communism in China
What is more, the truthfulness of Jerome’s analysis has been abundantly confirmed by the experience of socialism in the 20th century. In Communist China, for example, during the dictatorship of Mao Tse-tung (1949-1976), conformity of thought, behaviour and dress was rigorously enforced. During the infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), anyone who was considered to be of above average ability or education was denounced as an enemy of the people and subjected to savage humiliation and persecution.[ix]
Jerome’s satirical tour of socialist London explores three other prominent themes with the same acuity and lightness of touch, the first being the obliteration of personality and the family in order to facilitate the absorption of the individual into the collective.
“Why does everyone have a number [on their collar]?” asks Jerome. “To distinguish him by,” answers the guide. “Don’t people have names, then?” “No,” the latter replies:
“. . . there was so much inequality in names. Some people were called Montmorency, and they looked down on the Smiths; and the Smythes did not like mixing with the Jones: so, to save further bother, it was decided to abolish names altogether, and to give everybody a number.”[x]
When, a little later, Jerome asks his guide where the married people live, he is informed that marriage has been abolished. “You see,” explains the guide,
“. . . married life did not work at all well with our system. Domestic life, we found, was thoroughly anti-socialistic in its tendencies. Men thought more of their wives and families than they did of the State. . . . The ties of love and blood bound men together fast in little groups instead of one great whole.”[xi]
Here, once more, Jerome perceives the logic of full-blooded socialism, and once again his prophetic satire has been vindicated by history. Names may not have been replaced by numbers in the revolutionary socialist societies of modern times (except in concentration camps), or marriage abolished, but in every single one of them the family has been subordinated to the State, and individuals (especially the young) herded into compulsory mass movements and organisations.[xii]
The last few pages of The New Utopia unfold the remaining themes of Jerome’s critique of socialism. Thus we learn that in the new socialist England, all old books, paintings and sculptures have been destroyed and all freedom of thought and expression forbidden, in obedience to the will of the egalitarian “MAJORITY.” As the guide emphatically states earlier on in the tour, “A minority has NO rights,” revealing Jerome’s awareness, shared by all the great 19th century classical liberals, that democracy can be as destructive of liberty as traditional autocracy, especially within a socialist culture that sees individuality and personal excellence as a threat to social unity and equality. That has certainly proved to be the case throughout the post-colonial period in Asia and Africa, where time and again majority rule elections have spawned dictatorships, ethnic cleansing and genocide — the victims usually being the most productive members of society.[xiii]
German Liberal’s Satirical and Prophetic Literary Assault on Socialism
It is particularly interesting that Jerome’s satirical attack on socialism was not an isolated example of anti-socialist fiction in the 1890s. In 1893, only two years after the appearance of The New Utopia, a far more comprehensive literary assault on socialism was mounted in Germany with the publication of Eugen Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic Future.
A German lawyer, civil servant, and politician, Eugen Richter (1838-1906) was a strong advocate of free trade and a market economy, and as leader of the German liberals in the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament), one of the greatest critics of both the Social Democratic Party (the German socialists) and the policies of the Imperial Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. From 1885 to 1904 he was also the chief editor of the liberal newspaper, Freisinnige Zeitung, and it was during this period that he wrote his great anti-socialist satire.
Pictures of the Socialistic Future develops similar themes to those found in The New Utopia, but at much greater length and less fancifully. Whilst retaining its satirical tone, its vision of a socialist society is entirely realistic, especially in its prophetically accurate analysis of the impact and consequences of socialist institutions and policies.
Eugen Richter’s story begins on a note of celebration following a successful socialist revolution in Germany. “The red flag of international Socialism waves from the palace and from all the public buildings in Berlin,” exults the narrator, the proud father of a socialist family.
“The old rotten regime, with its ascendancy of capital, and its system of plundering the working classes, has crumbled to pieces. And for the benefit of my children, and children’s children, I intend to set down in a humble way, some little account of this new reign of brotherhood and universal philanthropy.”[xiv]
This he then proceeds to do, but with growing disillusionment.
The Utopian Socialist Dream Gradually Turns Into a Nightmare
As might be expected, the narrative is initially upbeat, presenting us with enthusiastic descriptions of all the new changes introduced by the socialist revolution. We learn that all private property has been confiscated, all industry and services nationalised, and all personal and family life subordinated to the needs and control of the State. In addition, we are informed that all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 21 and 65 are compelled to register for work, with the government alone deciding where and how they are to be employed. But instead of ushering in a new era of social harmony and plenty, these socialist measures and decrees eventually produce the opposite outcome. And here Eugen Richter is particularly skilful, because his satire reveals the unfolding consequences of socialism as they affect the narrator and his family.
The collectivisation of childcare, education, and housing, for example, is particularly painful in its effects. The removal of the narrator’s young daughter to a State orphanage, and of the narrator’s aged father to a government rest home, has a devastating impact on all the family, whilst the new decrees enforcing State control of the labour force have a similarly demoralising effect. Not only are the narrator’s son and prospective daughter-in-law forced to postpone their marriage by having to live and work in different towns, but also, the confiscation of their savings blights their ambitions and plans for their future. And as if all this were not bad enough, the enforced collectivisation and redistribution of dwellings and furniture, and the establishment of “State cook-shops” at which all citizens are obliged to eat communally provided meals, is a source of further demoralisation.
The rest of Eugen Richter’s narrative describes the processes by which the last socialist straw breaks the German camel’s back. The collectivisation of the economy and of all cultural institutions discourages effort, creativity, and production, destroying living standards and provoking the emigration of all the most talented and enterprising members of society. At the same time, the centralisation of all power and decision-making in the hands of the State and the need to discipline the increasingly restive and rebellious population produces a vast increase in the size of the State bureaucracy and security apparatus, assisted by a growing army of paid informers. As Richter’s narrator explains, democratic elections have become a farce since “every single individual is a spy on his neighbour.”[xv] Eventually, of course, simmering discontent, exacerbated by the closing of the frontiers and the gunning-down of all those seeking escape from the socialist paradise, erupts into full-scale counter-revolution and civil war.
Can anyone presented with this picture deny its prophetic anticipation of the course of socialist revolution in the 20th century?
[i] Jerome K. Jerome, Evergreens and other short stories, (Alan Sutton, Gloucester, England, 1982) p.72.
[ii] See the Wikipedia article on him.
[iii] Op. cit, pp. 73 - 74.
[v] Op. cit, p.76.
[vii] Op. cit, p.77.
[viii] Op. cit, p.79.
[ix] See: Clarence B. Carson, Basic Communism, (American Textbook Committee, Alabama, 1990) chapter 17.
[x] Op. cit, pp.78 - 79.
[xi] Op. cit, p.81.
[xii] See: John Marks, Fried Snowballs: Communism in Theory and Practice, (Claridge Press, London, 1990, and Clarence B. Carson, op cit).
[xiii] See, for instance, George B. N. Ayittey, Africa Betrayed, (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1992) and Freedom House’s annual global surveys of human rights.
[xiv] Pictures of the Socialistic Future, (Dodo Press, England, 2011, p.1)
[xv] Op. cit, p.76.
Labour and the Gulag: The Labour Party’s Record of Support for Totalitarian Socialism
Philip Vander Elst
In 1910, Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, declared that: “[Marx’s] memory is a consecrated treasure in the heart of millions of the best men and women of all lands.” A generation later, in 1948, Harold Laski, Labour’s leading political theorist of the 1930s and ’40s, wrote: “The Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.”
This reverential attitude towards Communism’s founding fathers, widely shared within the Labour Movement, has been such a familiar part of British political culture over the past century that its shocking nature escapes most casual observers and commentators. Yet in both their 1848 Communist Manifesto and in their private correspondence, Marx and Engels openly advocated violent revolution, the confiscation of private property, the destruction of traditional morality and the family, a State owned and controlled economy based on forced labour, and the physical elimination of their political opponents.
Not surprisingly, the insouciance of so many on the British Left in regard to such matters resulted, quite logically, in a warm welcome for the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, despite its violent overthrow of Russia’s fledgling post-Tsarist democracy, and the Red Terror subsequently unleashed by its leaders — principally Lenin and Trotsky — during the civil war provoked by the Communist seizure of power.
Labour Leaders’ Admiration and Praise for Lenin
“I have met all the men and women of my time considered great in the world of religion, literature, and politics; none compares with Lenin. He was a great man in every sense of the word,” gushed George Lansbury, Labour’s leader during the 1930s, in his autobiography published in 1928. In his chairman’s address to the Labour Party conference later that same year, Lansbury declared:
“It was Charles James Fox, 130 years ago, who said of the French Revolution: ‘How much is it, by far, the greatest and best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world?’ I would repeat those words today in reference to the great Russian Revolution which every one of us hailed with great enthusiasm.”
One of those who hailed this event with “great enthusiasm” was Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. In his book, Parliament and Revolution, published in 1919, he wrote:
“The Russian Revolution has been one of the greatest events in the history of the world, and the attacks that have been made upon it by frightened ruling classes and hostile capitalism should rally to its defence everyone who cares for political liberty and freedom of thought. . . . Labour is drawn to Lenin. . . .”
Even in 1947, with Stalin in power and the Iron Curtain coming down over Europe, Harold Laski still believed that: “The Russian Revolution is the greatest and the most beneficent event in modern history since the French Revolution.”
The Human Cost of the “Great Socialist Experiment” in Russia
To understand the perversity of these attitudes and judgments, forensically exposed in Giles Udy’s copiously documented and scholarly 2017 study, Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left (Biteback Publishing, London, 2017), meditate on this sobering passage from his book in which he summarises the eventual cost of the “great socialist experiment” so widely admired and defended by most British Labour politicians, intellectuals and activists between 1917 and the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s:
“Between 1917 and 1922, in the Revolution and its aftermath, nine million Russians died from violence or famine provoked by the Civil War, about the same number as total military fatalities on all sides in the ‘Imperialist’ Great War. During the years covered by the main portion of this book, 1929-31, when the second [minority] Labour Government [led by Ramsay MacDonald] was in power; another quarter of a million Russians were shot or died as a result of their imprisonment. Through the 1930s, the numbers would climb still further. At the height of [Stalin’s] Great Terror, in 1937-38, executions ran at over 10,000 each week. By 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Soviet Communism had been responsible for over twenty million deaths, almost three million of them in the gulag. Many of the fourteen million who survived the camps were so emotionally or physically damaged that they never fully recovered. The impact of major trauma travels through generations of a family. Hundreds of thousands were left with nightmare memories that did not lose their power — a parent or sibling taken, never to return, a sudden arrest in the night which changed lives for ever, children left behind and dispatched to barbaric state orphanages. Sometimes a survivor came home from the camps so scarred that life was never the same for the family to whom they returned. Psychologically disturbed parents raise damaged children who then become dysfunctional parents themselves. There are thousands alive today, in Russia and the other countries of the former USSR, who never knew the gulag era but have inherited its scars and still live with its wounds.”
Against this background, the unwavering support for Soviet Communism expressed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, G.D.H. Cole, and Bernard Shaw, the Labour Party’s most prominent 20th century intellectuals apart from Laski, is both astonishing and revolting, and is meticulously documented by Giles Udy.
In July 1935, for instance, Beatrice Webb boasted in her diary:
“The Fabian Society is the oldest and the most continuous and effective British centre of socialist thought and propaganda. Today it is from among its members that Soviet Communism finds its most effective exponents and defenders: Shaw and Webb, Laski and Cole. We have all been very comfortable and even honoured in the old civilisation of profit-making capitalism: we welcome and are welcomed to the new civilisation of revolutionary Communism.”
What is particularly ironic about this quote is the contrast between Beatrice Webb’s telling admission that whereas British capitalist society allowed its socialist opponents full freedom to campaign for its overthrow, the “new civilisation of revolutionary Communism” she and her fellow socialists so admired, was quite explicit about its absolute and brutal intolerance of all dissent.
Trotsky, admired to this day by 21st century British Marxists both inside and outside the Labour Party, justified the use of terror and mass murder in the Soviet Union in these chilling words written in 1922: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’” — a view shared by other Soviet leaders and explicitly restated in official Soviet Communist publications whose excerpts were reprinted in the West.
To quote, for example, from a pamphlet of the Young Communist League, “The Young Guard: the Life of the Komsomol,” published in 1927:
“The murder of an incorrigible enemy of the revolution is a legal ethical murder, a legal death sentence, for Communism does not recognise the metaphysical value of human existence.”
These dreadful sentiments were not an aberration but merely a logical and faithful reflection of the amoral inhumanity of Communism’s founding fathers, Marx and Engels, whose 1848 Communist Manifesto bluntly stated: “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality.”
Why, then, did so many prominent Labour figures persist in their support for the Russian Revolution given all these damning facts about Communist ideology and the true nature of the Soviet dictatorship to which it had given birth?
The Truth About Communist Rule Was Available but Ignored
It was not due to any lack of evidence about what was really happening in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. As Giles Udy demonstrates at exhaustive length in Labour and the Gulag, plenty of information was coming out of Russia during the 1920s and ’30s through a whole variety of credible sources, including locally based British and other foreign diplomats, businessmen, and sailors importing Russian timber, political and religious refugees, escaped prisoners, and last but by no means least, official Soviet decrees and documents, including the brutal speeches and pronouncements of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.
And what this mass of evidence clearly showed, was that this brave new world of socialism was a land of cruel oppression and death. The establishment of a vast archipelago of forced labour camps, mass executions of political prisoners, the savage persecution of religious believers, and the dispossession, imprisonment, and extermination of the “kulaks” — Russia’s entire class of independent peasant proprietors — were not things that remained hidden from view, but provoked outrage and campaigns of mass protest throughout the non-Communist world.
The terrible human cost of agricultural collectivisation, to mention only one of these crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet State, is spelt out at length and in unsparing detail in Giles Udy’s book, from which I quote the following summary:
“Between twenty-five and thirty-five million people (including women, children, and old people) were forced to join collective farms and surrender their homes and land to the State. A further 1.8 million were deported, hundreds of thousands of whom died over the next few years or in the purges of the Great Terror in 1937-38. A few years later, the resulting disaster in agricultural production brought famine, which led to a further three to five million deaths from starvation. For these, Stalin and the Politburo bear direct responsibility . . . not least because the Soviet Union was earning foreign currency by exporting ‘surplus’ grain even as millions of peasants were dying of starvation in Southern Russia and Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, the minority Labour Governments (1924 and 1929-31) led by Ramsay MacDonald, and their intellectual supporters, refused by and large to acknowledge the truth about Soviet Communism or condemn the Soviet Government. They were quick to find excuses for any crimes or failings whose existence they did eventually acknowledge, and in general, took the view that since the Communist goal of creating a collectivised, and therefore supposedly just and classless society was such a noble one, the end justified the means.
Shameful Statements by Labour’s Leading Intellectuals
An entry in Beatrice Webb’s diary for 18 August 1931 encapsulates the mentality of these Labour fellow travellers. Describing a visit to their home of Philip Snowden, the increasingly disillusioned anti-Marxist Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government, Beatrice Webb wrote:
“The Snowdens, who lunched here yesterday, were full of GBS’ speech [referring to a recent pro-Soviet speech of George Bernard Shaw’s] . . . ‘It was a wickedly mischievous speech,’ Philip muttered, whereupon they and we had a hot dispute over Sovietism, and they denouncing it as a cruel slave state and we upholding it as a beneficial experiment in organising production and consumption for the common good. It was significant of our completely different outlook on life.”
“A completely different outlook on life” to that of normal and sane people perfectly characterised Bernard Shaw’s political views because his total and unquestioning support for Soviet Communism included a clear-eyed and shockingly frank acceptance of the inherently totalitarian character of socialism. Shaw not only recognised that the Communist goal of total collectivisation inevitably involved the suppression of personal and political liberty, and the end of liberal parliamentary democracy; he openly advocated this, insisting in the process on the prior necessity of mentally reconditioning the population into accepting the overthrow of traditional Judaeo-Christian morality, with its concern for the individual and belief in freedom of conscience and speech, and the right to own property.
Shaw’s nakedly totalitarian outlook was most clearly revealed in his lengthy twenty-page article on “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” published in 1921 in Labour Monthly, and analysed and quoted from at length in Labour and the Gulag. At a time when Shaw “was a Labour hero to thousands of young socialist admirers,” writes Udy, “Shaw’s Socialism, for which this article is a manifesto, endorses compulsory labour, the execution of political opponents, and the suppression of parliamentary democracy.”
To quote, by way of example, two relevant passages from Shaw’s “manifesto”:
“. . . to take a man and kill him for something a man has never been killed for before: nay, for which he has been honoured and idolised before, or to fire on a body of men for exercising rights which have for centuries been regarded as the most sacred guarantees of popular liberty: that is a new departure that calls for iron nerve and fanatical conviction. As a matter of fact it cannot become a permanently established and unquestioned part of public order unless and until the conscience of the people has been so changed that the conduct they formally admired seems criminal, and the rights they formerly exercised seem monstrous.”
Shaw was equally blunt in his description of the coercive economic model that must always form the bedrock of any truly socialist society:
“Compulsory labour, with death as the final penalty, is the keystone of Socialism. . . . A Socialist State would make a million now work without the slightest regard to his money exactly as late war tribunals made him fight. . . . With compulsory social service [forced labour] imposed on everyone, the resistance to the other measures involved with Socialism would not only become pointless but injurious to the resisters . . .”
Bernard Shaw Supported Execution of Political Dissidents
Ten years later, in a radio broadcast to the United States in October 1931, Shaw openly defended the Soviet extermination of private capitalists and political dissidents in equally shocking language:
“In this they [the Russians] are merely carrying out a proposal made by me many years ago. I urged that every person who owes his life to civilised society, and who has enjoyed since his childhood all its very costly protections and advantages, should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence, which should be summarily and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it. . . . A great part of the secret of the success of Russian Communism is that every Russian knows that unless he makes his life a paying proposition for his country then he will probably lose it. I am proud to have been the first to advocate this most necessary reform. A well-kept garden must be weeded.”
Whilst Bernard Shaw was the most prominent and extreme left-wing supporter of Soviet totalitarianism, some of the Labour Movement’s other leading intellectuals were equally unapologetic about their admiration for Soviet Communism and their willingness to accept the need to suppress liberty and parliamentary democracy in order to build socialism in Britain.
G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959), for instance, was one of Oxford’s most famous and prominent academics of the first half of the 20th century, and Chairman of the Fabian Society during most of the 1940s. In his pamphlet, “The Intelligent Man’s Review of Europe To-Day,” co-authored with his wife, Margaret, and published in 1933, Cole declared:
“Socialism . . . must create for itself a [new] political instrument [model of government] . . . actively in opposition to capitalist notions of property and individual rights. In seeking for a basis for this new instrument of socialisation Communists repudiate not only the capitalist conception of the rights of property but also the capitalist conception of individual liberty.”
Not surprisingly, given such views, Cole experienced no difficulty in defending and whitewashing Communist tyranny within the Soviet Union:
“Though the Soviet system in its present working does undoubtedly restrict individual liberty very seriously in certain directions, above all in the expression of political views hostile to the system itself, it has resulted in other directions in an enormous extension of the liberties of the great mass of the Russian people. Observers who come back from Russia, unless they are too prejudiced to notice what they see, practically all report that there exists among the Russian people of to-day, in non-political matters, a sense of freedom and of self-expression quite unknown among the mass of the people in any capitalist country.”
With the advent of the Cold War, preceded by the forcible Soviet occupation and subjugation of Eastern Europe after 1945, the leadership of the Labour Party, and most of its MPs and activists, lost their previous illusions about Communism and maintained a commitment to peaceful change and debate, and parliamentary democracy, but this never prevented a sizeable minority of them from expressing their sympathy and support for new totalitarian Communist “liberation movements” and dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Africa during subsequent decades.
Labour’s Current Pro-Communist Leaders and Attitudes
Today, tragically, the pro-Communist Left has regained control of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. And one symbolic and significant result of this is that both of them, together with some of their leading advisers, have expressed their admiration and support for the failed 21st century Marxist revolution and dictatorship in Venezuela.
Thus, despite their destruction of Venezuela’s oil-rich economy through extensive nationalisation and price controls, their suppression of economic and political liberty, and the enormous exodus of poverty-stricken refugees provoked by their ruinous socialist policies, the late Hugo Chavez and his ideologically faithful successor, President Nicolas Maduro, earned these plaudits from Labour’s leading duo.
In March 2013, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted on Hugo Chavez’s death: “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world.”
In a 2014 documentary entitled “Hugo Chavez: A Portrait from Europe,” John McDonnell had these words of praise for Chavez’s socialist regime in Venezuela: “Here you had the contrast between capitalism in crisis and socialism in action.”
And a year earlier, Labour frontbencher, Richard Burgon, tweeted: “Victory for the Labour Movement in Venezuela: bus driver, trade unionist, and socialist elected as President of Venezuela.”
Corbyn and McDonnell’s support for Venezuela’s totalitarian socialist revolution is, of course, totally consistent with their distorted Marxist vision of the world.
Following the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, for instance, Corbyn, a long-time supporter of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, said that despite his “flaws,” he was a “huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th century socialism . . . Castro’s achievements were many.”
That is the tribute paid by the Leader of the Labour Party to a Communist dictator responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 Cubans, the flight of well over a million refugees to the U.S.A. since 1959, and the imprisonment of 500,000 others over the same period.[i]
As for John McDonnell, in reply to the question “Who has been most significant in terms of your thinking?” put to him over a decade ago during an interview with the ultra left-wing group, Alliance for Workers Liberty, he replied: “The fundamental Marxist writers: Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.”
Labour’s Threat to Economic and Political Freedom
The resurrection and current dominance of Marxist thinking within the Labour Party should concern us all because it poses a long-term threat to both our democracy and liberties. It does so, in the first place, because economic freedoms, such as the right to own property, run a business, choose one’s employment, or leave money to one’s children, are in themselves vital components of personal liberty. And that includes the right to buy private health care and education rather than having to submit entirely to monopolistic “public services” controlled by politicians and bureaucrats wielding the coercive power of the State, and able to impose their potentially intrusive and damaging political and ideological agendas on an effectively captive population.
Such economic freedoms are not only the most important ones in the lives of ordinary people, and all too easily taken for granted; they are also the bedrock of all other freedoms — of conscience, speech, association and assembly, since these require the safeguard of economic independence from the State. As Trotsky himself admitted in 1937:
“In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”
Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, by contrast, with its ruinously expensive proposals for massive re-nationalisation, its hostility to private landlords and second home owners, and its desire to clobber the “rich,” raise taxes, rob shareholders, and undermine the economic position of independent schools, ignores these truths, exploits the politics of resentment and envy, and reveals a total inability or unwillingness to heed the lessons of history. *
[i] See: Philip Vander Elst, The Communist Holocaust and its lessons for the 21st century, http://www.cobdencentre.org/author/philipvanderelst.
Politically Incorrect Truths about Colonialism and the Third World
Philip Vander Elst
At a time when left-wing “anti-racist” activists are seeking to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes and other historical figures associated with what they deem to be the shameful colonial past of Western democracies like Britain, there is a need to set the record straight and challenge the ignorance and double standards fuelling this movement. To that end I reproduce below a slightly expanded version of a speech I made in an Oxford Union debate in the autumn term of 2009, opposing the motion that “This House would make reparations for colonialism.” Open-minded readers willing to study the controversial issues I raised in my speech in more detail should read the books I mentioned. And to that list should be added Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey’s seminal book, Africa Betrayed, an excoriating and copiously documented indictment of post-colonial African tyrannies.
Opposing: “This House would make reparations for colonialism”
Thirty-six years ago, Mr. President, I stood at this despatch box to oppose the motion “That the power of the State has increased, is increasing and should increase still further.” As a classical liberal who remains distrustful of government, I am the last person to take a rosy and uncritical view of Western colonialism. All too often it has been associated with the worst abuses of State power. But it is a disservice to historical truth, Mr. President, to dismiss the entire colonial era as an unrelieved tale of imperial greed, racism, and exploitation — with no compensating achievements or benefits.
If this House wishes to consider a more balanced view of the Western colonial era and its impact on the Third World, I invite it to study the writings of the late Professor P. T. Bauer, one of the great development economists of the 20th century according to contemporary Asian scholars like Deepak Lal, Parth Shah, and Razeen Sally. I also urge you all to read the works of African-American economist Thomas Sowell, particularly his two books, The Economics and Politics of Race and that most recent, Conquests and Cultures: An International History.
If you do this, you will find that whilst both Bauer and Sowell are often extremely critical of the colonial authorities, they emphasise two basic historical facts: (1) the material backwardness and barbarism of much of the pre-colonial Third World, and (2) the role of the Western colonial powers — especially the British — in establishing peace and order, and with it, the material and organisational infrastructure of modern economies and societies — roads, railways, ports, factories, schools, hospitals and universities. Sub-Saharan Africa, Mr. President, offers the clearest illustration of all this.
According to Sowell, the development of pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa was gravely handicapped by the lack of navigable rivers and natural harbours, the ravages of the tsetse fly (whose parasites are fatal to draft animals), and numerous tropical diseases which debilitated and decimated Africans. As a result, almost no pre-colonial African community south of the Sahara managed to harness draft animals to pull ploughs and wagons. “The pre-colonial technology of the region,” writes Sowell, “was incapable of using wind or water power for milling grain. Tribal warfare, military raids, slavery, and serfdom were widespread throughout the area.” [i]
Western colonialism, by contrast, brought progress. To quote Bauer, who spent many years living and working in Asia and Africa:
“. . . the basic ingredients of modern social and economic life, including public security and health, wheeled transport, modern forms of money and scientific agriculture, were brought to sub-Saharan Africa by Westerners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were introduced by the colonial administrations, or by foreign private organisations or persons, under the comparative security of colonial rule and usually in the face of formidable obstacles. . . . The coercion and the hardships, though far from negligible, seem slight when we think of both pre-colonial and post-colonial Africa. . . . The number of Africans who lived longer, more securely, in materially better conditions and in peaceful contact with their fellow men was much greater, probably by several orders of magnitude, than the numbers who were harmed.” [ii]
Colonialism Brought the Rule of Law and Economic Progress: African-American economist, Thomas Sowell, reaches a similar conclusion to Bauer. Whilst acknowledging that not all parts of the colonised world were primitive, and that the coming of Western civilisation did not always represent progress in all aspects of life, Sowell concludes:
“By and large European colonialism brought to the Third World what Roman imperialism had brought to Britain: (1) a reduction or cessation of internal fighting that had plagued these regions for centuries, holding back economic and social progress, (2) a unified system of law as a framework for stable expectations and the security and individual planning that law makes possible, (3) features of a more advanced system of technology and organisation, and (4) contact with a wider world, enabling creative potential to emerge from the restrictions of insularity.” [iii]
My opposition to this motion, Mr. President, is not simply due to a belief that it is based on a distorted and one-sided evaluation of Western colonialism. It is also fuelled by the conviction that the demand for Western reparations is morally compromised by double standards, as well as being backward-looking and unfair to contemporary Western taxpayers.
The case for Western reparations involves double standards, Mr. President, because it overlooks the fact that nearly all ethnic groups, tribes, and nations have engaged, at one time or another, in wars of conquest, land seizures, slavery, and genocide. If Western taxpayers are expected to pay for the sins of previous generations of Western colonialists, for which they were not responsible, should modern day Zulus and Apaches pick up the bill for the tribal wars and massacres perpetrated by their ancestors in southern Africa and North America? Should the present-day inhabitants of Mongolia and the Arabian Peninsula offer financial compensation for the wars of conquest waged by Genghis Kahn and Arab-Islamic rulers in Asia and the Mediterranean?
Anti-Western Double Standards Absurd in Relation to Slavery: Anti-Western double standards about the past, Mr. President, are particularly absurd when it comes to the subject of slavery. As Asian-American scholar, Dinesh D’Souza, points out in his massively documented 700-page critique of politically correct multiculturalism, The End of Racism: “. . . slavery was widespread in Africa from antiquity” and also existed among the native Indian tribes of North America, many of whom also owned black slaves.
“The three powerful medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Songhai and Mali all relied on slave labour. Nor were these slaves exclusively black Africans. . . . The Ashanti of West Africa customarily enslaved all foreigners.”
African complicity in the slave trade, states Dinesh D’Souza, was
“. . . epitomised in the proposition advanced to Europeans by an African chief in the early 19th century: ‘We want three things: powder, ball, and brandy; and we have three things to sell: men, women and children.” [iv]
Perhaps the most poignant comment on African participation in the slave trade, Mr. President, are these words of Zora Neale Hurston, the great black feminist writer of the Harlem Renaissance, in the early part of the 20th century:
“The white people held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true, and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: my people had sold me. . . . My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut.” [v]
What, by contrast, it is important to note about the West, Mr. President, is that principled opposition to the historically universal institution of slavery primarily emerged from within Western culture. Starting with the Quakers and the Methodists, and continuing with the great anti-slavery campaign of William Wilberforce and his Evangelical friends, a vast humanitarian movement came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries, which not only stamped out slavery in most places, but established the foundations of that very concern for human rights and national self-determination to which everyone pays at least lip-service today. To quote Thomas Sowell’s tribute to what he describes as Britain’s leading role in the destruction of the international slave trade, and then of slavery itself:
“The magnitude of this achievement is hard to appreciate without first recognising that slavery was a worldwide institution, entrenched on every inhabited continent, subjugating people of every colour, language, and religion, and going back thousands of years.” [vi]
Arab Slave Trade Depopulated Whole Regions of the Congo: And before we leave the subject of the slave trade, it should be noted that it was particularly destructive in Central Africa. There its cruelties and massacres, mainly the work of Arab slavers and their Muslim African allies, and exposed to international opinion by Dr. Livingstone and other eyewitnesses, depopulated whole regions of the Congo. [vii]
It is therefore appropriate, given the constant and one-sided attacks on the Belgian colonial record, to recognise that it was in fact the Belgians who liberated the Congo from the genocidal ravages of this Arab-dominated slave traffic. Indeed, the very same independent investigative judicial commission whose 1905 report rightly condemned the serious abuses of the early years of Belgian colonisation, credited the early colonial administration with having put an end to tribal warfare, cannibalism, and the slave trade.[viii]
Patrice Lumumba’s Little Known Tribute to the Belgians: Even Patrice Lumumba, who became the Congo’s first black Prime Minister when independence was granted in 1960, paid this tribute to the Belgian suppression of the slave trade in his 1958 book, Congo, My Country:
“When we pass the graves of those heroes who gave their lives for our safety, and thanks to whom we can now utter the words ‘independence — autonomy,’ let us be silent for a few moments and bow our heads respectfully in their memory. . . . Other countries — which were more powerful than Belgium — remained indifferent to our fate and left us to perish. Belgium, moved by a very sincere and humanitarian idealism, came to our help, and with the assistance of doughty native fighters, was able to rout the enemy, to eradicate disease, to teach us and to eliminate certain barbarous practices from our customs, thus restoring our human dignity and turning us into free, happy, vigorous, civilised men.” [ix]
The problem with this motion, Mr. President, is not only that it is based upon double standards and an unbalanced historical perspective. Its exaggeration of the evils of colonialism also evades the glaringly obvious fact that so much of what has gone wrong in the Third World since the 1960s has been due, not to Western exploitation, but to the aggrandizement and abuse of State power by corrupt and frequently incompetent post-colonial ruling elites. This has been true of countries like Algeria, Burma, and others in Asia, and the Middle East. Above all it has been true of Africa.
To quote Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey:
“One word, ‘power,’ explains why Africa is in the grip of a never-ending cycle of wanton chaos, horrific carnage, senseless civil wars, and collapsing economies; the struggle for power, its monopolisation by one individual or group, and the subsequent refusal to relinquish or share it.” [x]
At Least 13 Million Africans Killed by Own Leaders since 1960: That, Mr. President, is why, as George Ayittey, points out, more than 13 million Africans have been killed by their own leaders since 1960.[xi] That is why of the 180 African heads of state who held power between 1960 and 1998, only 20 relinquished it or retired voluntarily.[xii] That, too, is why, according to the African Union’s own estimates, Africa loses $148 billion a year — a quarter of its entire GDP — to corruption. [xiii]
Some years ago the distinguished Guinean novelist, Camara Laye, lamented that all too many African leaders:
“…do not serve Africa. They make Africa serve themselves. They are far from being builders, organisers, city administrators, but are rather jailers who deal with the men, women, and children of our people as if they were cattle.” [xiv]
As you ponder these words and reflect on the way dictators like Robert Mugabe use anti-colonialist rhetoric as an excuse for their crimes against their own people, ask yourselves whether giving credence to the demand for Western reparations would really help the poor and the oppressed of the Third World.
Mr. President, I beg to oppose!
1 Thomas Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race, (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1983), p. 26.
7 For more information on this subject, see: (1) Belgian explorer and naturalist, Jean-Pierre Hallet’s semi-autobiographical history of the Congo, Congo Kitabu, (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967), pp. 62-68, & pp. 414-416. (2) George Martelli, Leopold to Lumumba: A History of the Belgian Congo 1877-1960, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1962), pp. 126 & 175. (3) Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures, p. 110, (4) Dinesh D’Souza, op cit, p. 74.
11 George Ayittey, “Dr Ayittey offers a quick response to the questions addressed to him by Sadiq Manzan,” (http://www.utexas.edu/conferences/africa/ads/273.html), 2006.
Freedom and Community: A Conservative Perspective
Philip Vander Elst
Living as we do in the age of the Internet and 24/7 radio and television, our lives and perspectives are now dominated as never before by the daily news cycle and the insistent pressures of the immediate present. The resulting shortening of our time horizons, combined with digital information overload, tends to blot out the past, and by doing so, reduces our ability to learn its lessons and benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us. One particularly damaging consequence of this is that our Western societies have lost sight of the necessary moral, philosophical, and cultural foundations of political and civil liberty. Too few amongst our “educated” classes have read and absorbed the great classics of the old Western liberal and conservative tradition – a pardonable oversight perhaps, given the overproduction of modern academic books and publications, and the consequent lack of time available to university and college students to read anything else in the course of their studies. But however it has come about, this cultural blind spot has both paved the way for and been reinforced by “political correctness.” Instead of allowing what C.S. Lewis called “the clean air of the centuries” to blow through their minds via the reading of ancient texts, all too many people have become imprisoned in a kind of intellectual provincialism of the present, unable to question or challenge modern ideas and assumptions, because they cannot compare them with those of previous ages and cultures. As a small contribution to countering this phenomenon, I am therefore resurrecting, for 21st century readers, a slightly amended article I wrote in October 1995 about the relationship between freedom and community, and what we can learn about both these important subjects, and their interconnectedness, from the writings of the great classical liberal and conservative thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. As I think many readers may agree, its subject matter is arguably more relevant today than it was at the time it was originally written.
Freedom and Community: A Conservative Perspective (1995)
Tory MP John Redwood’s recent suggestion that young single mothers should be encouraged to seek financial support from their families or consider having their babies adopted before becoming eligible for State aid, has predictably aroused a storm of controversy, but his concern for the moral and social fabric of society is symptomatic of an increasingly significant trend in British politics. The traditional post-war preoccupation with economic issues, while still very much alive, is increasingly making room for a growing political debate about moral and social values, as journalists, academics, and politicians respond to public anxieties about rising crime, family fragmentation, and the general coarsening of art, entertainment, and city life in Britain.
A similar trend is also visible in other industrialized countries, notably the United States, and suggests that most of our technologically advanced Western societies are in the throes of a very serious cultural crisis, the response to which will determine whether or not we succeed in preserving our liberties and a civilized social order in the coming century.
Although this cultural crisis has a number of different though interrelated causes, two stand out with particular clarity: the weakening and destruction of communal values outside the State; and equally important, the subversion and erosion of the virtues, values, and traditions upon which freedom depends. Both these causes feed each other and have their roots in ideological changes that have been gathering force in Britain and elsewhere since the second half of the 19th century, producing a mental and moral climate which would horrify the great proponents and architects of Western liberty were they alive today to observe it.
This reference to the thinkers of the past who have been instrumental in advancing the cause of freedom — men, for instance, like Adam Smith (1723-1790), Tocqueville (1805-1859), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) — introduces the central theme of this article: that most of our troubles stem from the fact that we have retrogressed in our understanding of human nature and society, because over a long period, our intellectual leaders and opinion-formers have ignored or forgotten some of the most important truths propounded by these famous exponents of the Conservative and classical liberal traditions.
The first neglected insight we must strive to recover is that since society is not identical with the State, the preservation or restoration of the ideal of community should not be seen as a recipe for increasing the powers and functions of government — the great historic error of the Left. By the same token, looking at the reverse side of that coin, the supporters of capitalism and the market economy should free themselves from the illusion that the pursuit of rational self-interest provides a sufficient motive for human action and an adequate ethic for a free society.
To acknowledge that we have duties and responsibilities towards our neighbour beyond simply looking after our families, doing our jobs, and respecting other people’s rights and property, is not a threat to personal freedom but simply a recognition that helping others in the right way adds to the sum of human dignity, happiness, and achievement, by giving individuals opportunities they might not otherwise have to develop their talents, widen their horizons, and live life to the full. To celebrate what Adam Smith called “benevolence” is therefore not to condemn or belittle enlightened self-interest, but to recognize, as he did, that a good and healthy society cannot live by the commercial ethic alone. Conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke (1729-1797) have additionally reminded us that not only are we members of society rather than an island unto ourselves, but society itself is an organic compact between past, present, and future generations which we ought to honour and cherish. Just as we benefit by inheriting the wisdom, achievements, and advances of our ancestors, so we ought to be good stewards of this accumulated moral, social, and intellectual capital, adding to it in our lifetime for the benefit of posterity as well as for ourselves.
For all these reasons, it is unfortunate that one prominent American libertarian thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), whose philosophical novels have exerted a huge influence on American and British libertarians, should have made the serious mistake of identifying altruism with collectivism. Whilst her eloquent celebration of personal independence and creativity in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged provides a much-needed corrective to the collectivist notion that the individual exists only for the sake of the community, her depiction of altruism as the morality of self-sacrifice, and therefore incompatible with the idea that individuals are ends in themselves, is simply false. As the Christian concept that we should “love our neighbour as ourselves” makes clear, there is no conflict between the recognition that we have a duty to help the innocent victims of misfortune and, at the same time, have a legitimate right to the fruits of our labour which justly limits the claims others can make upon us. In both cases, respect for the individual is the value that should govern our outlook. By promulgating an oversimplified and unbalanced philosophy of freedom, Ayn Rand’s writings ironically reinforce the erroneous socialist assumption that charity and capitalism don’t mix, and therefore only the State can ensure the relief of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Her influence has also helped to persuade many libertarians of the equally mistaken proposition that all taxation is theft, a view based on the questionable idea that private property rights are absolute whereas in reality there is a trade-off between these rights and other moral obligations and considerations.
Mazzini’s and John Stuart Mill’s More Balanced Conception of Liberty
The writings of 19th century classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, by contrast, express a more generous and balanced conception of liberty, and reveal a more profound understanding of human life and society which is extremely relevant to any potential resolution of our current cultural crisis. It is, for instance, particularly interesting that the great 19th century prophet of Italian liberalism and nationalism, Joseph Mazzini (1805-1872), combines in his great book, The Duties of Man, a stern critique of selfish individualism, support for workers’ co-operatives, and eloquent advocacy of the Brotherhood of Man, with fierce opposition to socialism. His perceptive condemnation of the destructive totalitarian tendencies of collectivism provides the clearest possible demonstration of the falsity and shallowness of those ideologies on both the Left and the Right that see an inherent conflict between individualism and community. The example of Mazzini shows, on the contrary, that a desire to combat greed, snobbery, exploitation and materialism in no way implies any belief in the inherent desirability of enlarging the sphere of the State.
This truth is vividly conveyed in John Stuart Mill’s illuminating Principles of Political Economy, which was first published in 1848 and remained the bible of English economics for most of the Victorian period. In this wide-ranging and very readable book, as well as in some of his other works, Mill examines the whole question of what is the legitimate province of government and what ought to be left to individual and private initiative, and develops a coherent philosophical position which is both critical of the extreme laissez-faire position that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of persons and property against force and fraud, and at the same time constructs a formidable case against extending the powers and functions of government in ways which threaten freedom and undermine personal responsibility and human dignity.
Just as he defends the role of trade unions but insists that membership of them should be voluntary and their activities non-coercive, so Mill displays the same balanced approach in his attempts to determine the proper conditions and limits of State action. Having argued that State intervention is morally justified if it provides opportunities for personal growth and social advancement which would not otherwise come into being, he subjects this argument to four extremely important qualifications which are as relevant today as they were when he first enunciated them.
His first rule is that the State should never organize or undertake any activity that can be provided or organized more effectively by private groups or individuals. Secondly, even if the State can provide a particular service more efficiently than the private sector, it may still be preferable that it should refrain from doing so if the provision of that service or the discharge of that function by non-governmental bodies offers individuals the possibility of training their characters and stretching their abilities in a manner which enables them to handle greater responsibilities. Thirdly, he argued, public provision for those in need should be so organized and directed as to encourage its recipients to become self-reliant and independent rather than a permanent drain on the taxpayer. Finally, Mill insisted, even if the case for government intervention is an overwhelming one, the State should never be allowed to monopolize the provision of that particular service. Every effort should instead be made to allow the maximum possible room for private initiative and experimentation, not only in order to stimulate all those personal qualities and attributes essential to human enterprise and progress, but also in order to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of government officials. As Mill put it most eloquently in his famous essay On Liberty (1859), no country can remain free otherwise than in name if government controls all the roads, railways, banks, large companies, universities, and other significant social institutions — even if it still remains a democracy.
Mill’s Analysis Vindicated by the History of the 20th Century
The history of the 20th century, including the global experience of socialism and the growth of State welfare in the Western democracies, has fully confirmed the truth and wisdom of Mill’s analysis. As Dr. David Green has shown in his book, Reinventing Civil Society, first published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1992, the growth of publicly funded and government controlled health care, education, and social insurance in Britain, has produced a degree of monopoly and levels of taxation which have largely (though not entirely) crowded out private provision, self-help, and philanthropy in these vitally important areas, halting in the process the hopeful advances in these fields which so strikingly characterized Victorian England. We are thus confronted by the irony that the socialist attempt to strengthen communal values by increasing the power of the State, has undermined civil society, encouraged the formation of a perpetual underclass dependent on State handouts, and helped to produce a materialistic culture in which people have more incentives to acquire personal computers and go on foreign holidays than to play an active part in the education of their children or the care of their ailing relatives.
The destructive impact of collectivism, however, is not, as I indicated earlier, the only reason for the sad condition of our present day culture and society. The rejection of traditional values and the abandonment of high standards of personal behaviour have played an equally significant part in corroding our social fabric. And here again we can learn valuable lessons by rediscovering the ideals that not only inspired and motivated eminent classical liberal philosophers and statesmen like John Stuart Mill and Joseph Mazzini, but also inspired and influenced the attitudes and conduct of millions of ordinary men and women during the Victorian era.
In that regard, two excellent books by American historian and sociologist, Gertrude Himmelfarb — On Looking Into the Abyss (1994) and The De-Moralization of Society (1995) — contain a great deal of relevant and useful material on this subject, documenting, on the one hand, the virtues and achievements of the Victorians, and on the other, contrasting them with the values which currently prevail in our coarse and morally dysfunctional society. Interested readers should therefore consult them for a more exhaustive discussion than is possible in this article. What I would emphasize here is that many of our present difficulties arise from the fact that contemporary Western culture has largely abandoned the ideal of duty and service because it rejects the notion that there is an objective and eternal Moral Law, or standard of Right and Wrong, by which we ought to live and set our goals. This means that a culture that once valued liberty and independence as necessary conditions for the pursuit of goodness, beauty and truth, has been replaced by a culture that increasingly denies or derides these concepts, and regards freedom simply as a license for sensual gratification and the promotion of self at the expense of other people and higher ends. The result of this development is not only the barbarization of society and the transformation of market economies into stressful jungles in which all too often the greedy and ruthless get to the top, but also the eventual discrediting and destruction of the ideal of liberty itself. After all, why should anyone value freedom and strive to preserve it, if it fulfils no objectively useful or transcendent purpose?
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, the erosive impact of growing selfishness and immorality on families and communities reinforces collectivism by encouraging people to look instead to the State as the primary instrument of social cohesion and stability, despite the moral frailty of politicians and officials and the obvious dangers of concentrating too much power in their hands.
The lesson from history we therefore most need to recall is that moral relativism and cultural anarchy paves the way for tyranny. That was true of ancient Rome, pre-revolutionary Russia, and the Weimar Republic. It will be true of us too if we do not heed this lesson in time. *
Revolutionary Socialism and Sexual Politics
Philip Vander Elst
“Social liberalism” has become the universally accepted label applied to all those in the Western democracies who support the Left’s political and cultural agenda of “sexual revolution.” The very use of such terms as “gay liberation” “transgender rights” “pro-choice” and “sexual equality,” implies, like the word “liberalism,” that this increasingly victorious cultural agenda represents a genuine movement of human emancipation. But is this really true? Do the overthrow of traditional Judeo-Christian morality and the advance of moral relativism and sexual permissiveness represent an extension of personal liberty or a threat to its long-term survival? Growing evidence suggests the latter is the case, including four powerful and exhaustively documented books described below.
The first two books, by American feminist and lesbian writer, Tammy Bruce, are revealingly entitled, The Death of Right and Wrong (2004) and The New Thought Police (2003). They show how the rise of left-wing McCarthyism, with its politically correct speech and thought codes, is eroding religious freedom and the civil rights of all those, especially Christians, who dissent from the current “liberal” orthodoxy about sex and the family. The third American book, The Homosexual Agenda (2003), by Alan Sears and Craig Osten, tells the same story in equally compelling detail. In particular, it exposes, with abundant chapter and verse, the extent to which militant homosexual activists are determined to use the coercive power of the State to change public attitudes and enforce compliance with their practical demands. Finally, the fourth book on this list, The Global Sexual Revolution: destruction of freedom in the name of freedom (2015), is the work of a brave German female sociologist, Gabriele Kuby, and is a comprehensive and damning analysis of both the philosophical and historical roots (reaching back to the French Revolution), and the practical consequences, of the Left’s morally and socially destructive cultural agenda.
Those seeking a full and comprehensive understanding of this subject should obviously read these four books, but they may also be interested in reading a paper of mine, first published in 1981, examining the ideological connections between revolutionary socialism and “sexual politics” as expressed more than a generation ago in the writings of various British Marxist and gay activist groups and publications. If they do so, and view its contents against the background of current events and the information provided in the above-mentioned books, they will see the degree to which my 1981 paper (see below) has proved to be prophetic in its analysis of the destructive impact of the gay/socialist alliance on the rights and liberties of the heterosexual majority.
Revolutionary Socialism and Sexual Politics (July 1981)
Two centuries ago Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”[i] Lenin (1870-1924), on the other hand, declared in 1920: “We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose the falseness of all the fables about morality.”[ii] The opposition between these viewpoints reflects the fact that while Burke wanted to defend the traditional social order, Lenin’s mission was to overthrow it. This suggests that there is an intimate link between revolutionary politics and attempts to overturn, or deny, traditional moral values. What then is the nature of this connection?
The freedom and stability of our society are primarily sustained by two institutions: private property and the family. Private property guarantees personal independence and decentralizes power, while the family provides children with the secure and loving environment their development requires. The health and happiness of the family rests in turn upon the institution of marriage, which is based on the mutual loyalty, commitment, and understanding of adult men and women. Without these qualities and the codes and institutions which nurture them, society fragments and breeds disharmony, resentment, bitterness and alienation. For that very reason revolutionaries are moral nihilists. They detest normality, contentment and stability. They wish to destroy the present social order and build a new one upon its ruins, and that cannot be done unless the restraints imposed by morality, property, and the family are swept away.
However, the apostles of revolution also have positive as well as negative reasons for their repudiation of these institutions.
Marxists oppose the family, for example, because it represents a focus of loyalty outside the collective and gives individuals an emotional and material base from which to resist communal pressures and demands. They dislike the way it encourages individualism and the accumulation and transmission of private property. The advocates of “sexual revolution” or “sexual politics,” on the other hand, reach the same ideological position from the opposite end. They oppose private property because it strengthens the traditional family, and in doing so, reinforces the traditional belief that marital faithfulness and heterosexuality must be defended, and homosexuality and promiscuity condemned, or at least criticized.
Although revolutionary socialists and sexual revolutionaries are not entirely overlapping groups in Britain, many of their activists are revolutionaries in both senses and share a common desire to overthrow “capitalism” and “sexism.” They are by the same token united in the “struggle for socialism,” though they may differ in their interpretation of what precisely constitutes “socialism,” Their pro-abortion militancy is also significant as an expression of their common hostility to the rights of unborn children and the responsibilities of motherhood. This again reflects their dislike of the family and their rejection of traditional morality.
The Evidence from Their Own Writings and Publications
The identity of interest between political and sexual revolutionaries is stressed in many far left and radical publications, as the following examples demonstrate. In the 10th issue of Gay Left (June 1980), a homosexual socialist journal that had just completed five years of publication, there is a “collective statement” on the relationship between “democracy, socialism and sexual politics.” After remarking that: “The Women’s movement and the Gay movement have politicized and radicalized sections of the population untouched by traditional socialist organizations,” the collective statement adds: “Feminist and Gay politics provide a subversive challenge to conventional ideologies and aspirations, and socialism cannot grow without such challenges.” In another article in the same issue (“Workplace politics: Gay politics”), Nigel Young writes:
“I feel that only by piecing together our gayness and our socialism and combining it with collective action can we defend and advance the gains of the gay and women’s movements.”
This theme is underlined in an even more explicit and uncompromising way by Don Milligan, in his pamphlet, “The Politics of Homosexuality,” first published by Pluto Press in 1973 and reprinted in August 1978 by the Edinburgh Gay Activists Alliance. As he puts it:
“The movement for women’s liberation and gay liberation are important because they make us aware of the ways in which we are drenched in myths and prejudices that support the way things are — enabling capitalism to continue.”
“Homosexual liberation is not possible under capitalism,” he continues [erroneously, as it has proved!] though “it is not guaranteed under socialism.” Since “Socialism is not simply about economics” and “workers’ control of industry . . . would create only the possibility of gay liberation. . . . Gay liberation groups must also aim to spread our ideas throughout the labour and socialist movement.” This, Milligan appears to have achieved according to the review of his pamphlet in Gay News (No.148), by Jeffrey Weeks: “. . . the SWP [Socialist Workers Party], along with most of the other far left groupings, now have advanced positions on gay liberation to which this pamphlet’s arguments probably contributed.”
The link between feminist and revolutionary politics is emphasized by the Trotskyist International Marxist Group (IMG), in a pamphlet published in 1979, on “Abortion, Liberation and Revolution.” It argues:
“Transformation of society can only be achieved through a united onslaught on the power and privileges of capitalist society. All the movements of the oppressed, women, racial minorities, youth, must join with the organized working class.”
In particular, “. . . all those fighting to change society will have to participate in the struggle against women’s role in the family.” This is necessary because:
“If women had complete freedom — the freedom not to reproduce or the freedom to reproduce with any man they desire — then there would be no way in which the male of the ruling class could be sure that his property would be passed to his children.”
The IMG pamphlet further alleges that restrictions on abortion represent an attempt “to force women out of the labour market and back into the home,” consequently it demands that there should be “no governmental restrictions on abortion, contraception, and sterilization, for all women — including minors.”
Like the other far left groups, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) is also aware of the need for co-operation between political and sexual revolutionaries. In the 5th edition of the Party’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, it is emphasized that
“. . . capitalism not only exploits people at work, it impinges on every aspect of their lives. . . . Hence the broad democratic alliance needs to be not only an expression of class forces, but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production.”
That is why it insists that “the fight for women’s liberation is an integral part of the struggle for socialism, and needs to be taken up by the whole labour movement.” In that cause it advocates: “Women’s control over their own bodies, with freely available abortion.” In addition to proclaiming its support for “the overcoming of sexism,” the CPGB welcomes “the development of the gay movement, which aims to end prejudice and discrimination against homosexual men and women.”
The explicitly subversive nature of “sexual politics” is most clearly revealed in the hatred expressed for traditional values and the family, especially on the homosexual left. Don Milligan denounces the family as the origin of sexual repression: “The family denies the sexuality of children, represses that of adolescents and reduces fidelity to an expression of property rights.” Parents are attacked because they “ ‘bring up’ their children in their own image” and so “fulfill a basic function for capitalist society — that of soaking each new generation in the values of bourgeois society and male supremacy.” Milligan further complains that “If homosexuality were fully accepted, many more people would have gay relationships.” To that end he concludes his pamphlet with eight demands, three of which call for:
“An end to exclusively heterosexual sex education in schools. Abolition of all restrictions which prevent gay people from caring for their own children or adopting children. Abolition of all laws relating to the age of consent for boys and girls.”
Campaign Group Demand Legitimization of Sex with Children
This last appalling demand finds an echo in Gay Left, in which there is an advertisement on behalf of the Campaign Against Public Morals (CAPM), established after the arrest, in July 1979, of several members of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), an organization devoted to the legitimization of sex between adults and children. Not only does this advertisement demand “that the laws against PIE be dropped.” It also goes on to deplore the way in which the trial of PIE members
“. . . could be used to cut back the ideological space in which ‘dangerous’ subjects like child sexuality could be discussed, as well as the havoc that it will produce in the lives of self-professed paedophiles and of other perceivedly ‘deviant’ adults.”
The rejection of traditional ideas about heterosexuality, marriage, and the family is also explicit in a pamphlet by the Coventry Women’s Education Group, a self-proclaimed body of “socialist feminists.” Entitled, “Please Yourself: Sex for Girls,” the aim of the booklet “is to provide a feminist approach to sex, for girls of about 13+.” Its object, moreover, is not simply to provide information about pregnancy, contraception, and abortion, “But most importantly it is about female sexual pleasure and how to obtain it.” In short, the pursuit of sexual pleasure is urged as an end in itself that overrides all other considerations. This is implied in some casual statements regarding lesbianism and abortion: “sexual relationships may be with boys or with other girls. If you have a sexual relationship with another girl, it will usually be based on mutual masturbation.” This clearly suggests that indulgence in either a heterosexual or lesbian relationship is merely a matter of personal taste, even when minors are involved. The authors take a similarly cavalier attitude to the ethics of abortion: “Abortion carried out in the early weeks is simple and safe. It does not stop you from getting pregnant again when you want to.” Even the possibility that abortion raises a moral dilemma is ignored. Convenience and the pursuit of pleasure is all that counts. It is hardly surprising, in the light of these remarks, that this pamphlet shows no special regard for marriage: “Some people may be happier to live as a married couple but people shouldn’t feel that they have to in order to be happy.”
The relationship between revolutionary socialism and “sexual politics” is finally most instructive in what it teaches us about the link between totalitarianism and permissive morality, or more accurately, amorality.
Permissive philosophies say or imply that people can do what they like with sex. Totalitarian ones say or imply that people can do what they like with power. Both are therefore different sides of the same coin in that both are rooted in a rejection of the notion that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. This follows from the fact that if there is no such thing as an eternal or universal Moral Law, the abuse of power by a dictator is as much beyond criticism as the sale of child pornography. In other words, if there are no moral rules governing human behaviour, there is no evil or perversion in which men and women cannot indulge with a clear conscience. All things then become permissible to those who claim the right to remake the world according to their desires. There is thus a logical connection between totalitarianism and permissiveness, whether or not sexual and political revolutionaries overlap in any particular case.
Lenin’s Ruthless Embrace of Moral Relativism and Totalitarianism
It was no accident that Lenin despised the idea of everlasting morality and at the same time formulated, in 1920, one of the most ruthless definitions of revolutionary government that has ever been written: “The scientific concept, dictatorship,” he declared,
“. . . means neither more nor less than unlimited power, resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restricted by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.” [iii]
Could there be any clearer proof that the defense of traditional values is tied up with the defense of the free society?
[i] Edmund Burke, Letter to a Member of the [French] National Assembly, 1791.
[ii] Vladimir Lenin, “Speech to the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League,” 2 October 1920.
[iii] Vladimir Lenin, A Contribution to the History of the Question of Dictatorship, 1920.