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.