(An essay by GK Chesterton)
"There Was A Socialist"
It has long been obvious that Socialists are interested in everything else except Socialism. There are indeed a few narrow and perfectly genuine Communists who are genuinely interested in Communism. But they have no power even to begin putting it in operation; and the interest attaches to those who have the power, or are supposed to have the power, to apply their principle, and therefore proceed to apply some other principle. We might be duly impressed by the audacity of the cry of Socialism in Our Time, if the Socialists had not been so unwise as to let us know, or guess, what they mean by Socialism. The writer whom I criticised last week, writing under the old heading of a famous Socialist paper, actually explained what he meant by Socialism; whether it was to come in our time or no. It appeared, to my startled gaze, that he actually meant the present social situation in Denmark. Now Distributists differ a great deal about whether Denmark is a sound or model Distributist State. But there is no doubt at all that it is not a Socialist State. In its primary principle or basis it is nearly the opposite of a Socialist State. The land is not nationalised, but owned privately by a multitude of small proprietors; and that is the fundamental fact by which all such definitions are determined. The writer in question seemed to be vaguely impressed by the fact that State assistance was given in various forms, and that many obviously public institutions are owned in the name of the public. It is not Socialism to make the railroads public, any more than to make the roads public. It is not Socialism for the State to endow hospitals, any more than for the State to support reformatories. Socialism is not a condition in which the government can help hard cases or protect and patch up economic evils; it has that power in every healthy Distributist community. Socialism is a condition in which the government never needs to help anybody or patch up anything; because it owns everybody’s property and runs everybody’s enterprise. That is what Socialism meant in the days when it meant anything. But there is nothing very revolutionary in supposing that a modern nation would soon be Socialist as Detroit. As apparently anything can be called Socialism, I suppose that the triumphant Capitalism of Mr. Ford can be called Socialism. If it means anything, it seems to mean Modernism; in the sociological as distinct from the theological sense. In both senses, it is generally a euphemism for muddle-headedness. But though we should need no great revolution in order to be as Socialist as Denmark, we should be uncommonly lucky even to be as Distributist as Denmark.
I mention this matter just now, because it is almost certain that in these days the Socialist government, or the government which was once supposed to be Socialist, will be flattered and complimented by a certain amount of Capitalist abuse. The Budget is bound in any case to be abused; partly because it is bound to be heavy taxation, partly because it is in many ways bad taxation. The Capitalist is often a simple soul and when he wants to abuse anybody, he calls him a Socialist. He therefore pays Mr. Snowden the wildly and grotesquely undeserved compliment of calling him a Socialist. There have been any number of ruinous or unjust taxes in history; and those who hated them called their inventors tyrants; but they did not call them Socialists. The exact truth about Mr. Snowden was playfully expressed by “Beachcomber,” that one bright spirit of the Daily Express, in his simple rhyme for the nursery: “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, banker’s man.” He is entirely of the modern world, which thinks in financial continents, and moves on the axes of a few colossal cosmopolitan combinations. Of course all the politicians submit to these international influences and interests; but Snowden would probably accept them in theory as well as submitting to them in practice. But even in assisting the advance of cosmopolitan finance he may cross the path of some local and limited forms of Capitalism; and certain rather provincial persons can be trusted to fall into the trap. They innocently shriek out “Socialist!” and Mr. Snowden smiles and makes a note of it. It will be useful; for instance, in debates with the Communists. A few more such innocent shrieks and the Labour Government may recover its backing among equally innocent Socialists. The only people who will remain unimpressed will be the really intellectual Socialists; and especially the old Socialists who remember the dim and distant days when the word actually meant something. The typical example, of course, is Mr. Bernard Shaw. He recently wrote an article in the Weekend Review which aroused extraordinary irritation in The Clarion and other papers supporting the government. I think I know the particular sentence that really produced the irritation. They are not really very much interested in the romance of King Magnus or the farcical costume of the American Ambassador. The precise phrase which hit them where it hurts was that in which G.B.S., ignoring all relative talk about taxation or the Trade, applied the deadly test, and said that the government dare not “nationalise a single industry.”
That is why it is well, amid all the fuss that follows the Budget, to repeat the real though obvious truth, as I have repeated it here. Socialism died before the War. The solid and sincere intentions of many intelligent men, indeed of most intelligent men, to build a simplified and centralised state, in which private property should become public property, reached its height in the days of the Fabian Essays and Blatchford’s Merrie England; and then began to break down; partly even then, perhaps, by the small efforts of the first few Distributists; much more by the titanic terrorism of the Trusts. The mere Labour politician represents these old idealists, just about as much as a corrupt Whig aristocrat, dabbling in the South Sea Bubble, represented the Puritan fanatics who killed a king; or about as much as a snobbish pork-butcher of the Primrose League, celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, resembled a romantic Highland Jacobite dying for a king over the water. Socialism remains as a term of abuse to apply to other people, or a term of flattery to apply to oneself; but its real origin is lost in history, like that of the words Whig and Tory.