The Collectivist Movement in Practice


IN the realm of ideas a change in theory is reflected in practice only after a lapse of time, and, as Mr. Keynes has said, the active men of an epoch are generally applying the theories of men who are long since dead. Thus Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, and before his death in 1790 two English Prime Ministers, Lord Shelburne and William Pitt, had been converted to his ideas. Yet it was not until 1846 that the corn laws were repealed, and the free-trade system was not established until Gladstone brought in his budgets of 1853 and 1860. That great reversal of policy was the outcome of a change in European thinking which took about seventy-five years to mature.

In that period liberal philosophy was in the ascendant: conservatives like Sir Robert Peel, and revolutionists as well, thought of the future in terms of an increasing emancipation from prerogative and privilege. Freedom was the polestar of the human mind. When there was an evil to be dealt with, men looked instinctively for its cause in some manifestation of arbitrary power. They sought the remedy in the limitation of arbitrary power and the disestablishment of privilege. They believed in governments which were under the law, in the rights of men rather than the sovereignty of kings or of majorities, in free trade as against protection and preference. They held that improvement of the human lot was to be achieved by releasing thought, invention, enterprise, and labor from exactions and tolls, from the rule of princes, monopolists, great landlords, and established churches. Although some, conservative by interest and temperament, were opposed to drastic change, while others were in favor of radical reform, the terms of the controversy were whether existing prerogative and privilege should be maintained or should be withdrawn.

It may be said, I believe, that between, say, 1848 and 1870 the intellectual climate of western society began to change. At some time in that period the intellectual ascendancy of the collectivist movement began. A phenomenon of this sort cannot, of course, be dated precisely, but it is clear that after 1870 liberal philosophy was on the defensive in theory, and that in practice the liberals were fighting a losing rear-guard action. England, it is true, remained faithful to free trade until the Great War of 1914, but the protectionist doctrine grew everywhere in popularity. In 1850 a liberal like Herbert Spencer believed that the next phase of social reform lay in an attack on the great landed monopolies; as time went on he lost confidence and finally suppressed what he had written on the subject. John Stuart Mill, though he never became an authoritarian socialist, did begin, toward the close of his life, to write on the assumption that the benefits of liberal philosophy had all been achieved and that further progress lay in the direction of collectivism.

More than seventy-five years passed before the collectivist movement was dominant in actual affairs, but in this middle period of the nineteenth century it established itself in men’s thought. Both capital and labor became predominantly protectionist. The older theory that incorporation is a privilege was abandoned and the way was opened to the corporate forms of business organization and the adoption of general incorporation laws. The collectivist organization of industrial workers was legalized. Then, too, the conception of democracy changed. Once the popular movement had been chiefly concerned with the Bill of Rights and other limitations on the sovereign, but the rapid enfranchisement of the masses resulted in the belief that popular sovereignty must not be restrained, that the meaning of free government was the dictatorship of the majority.

Thus freedom ceased to be the polestar of the human mind. After 1870 or thereabouts men thought instinctively once more in terms of organization, authority, and collective power. To enhance the prospects of business they looked, not to competitive enterprise, but to tariffs, to concentrated corporate control, to the suppression of competition, to large-scale business administration. To relieve the poor and lift up the downtrodden they looked lo an organized working class, to electoral majorities, to the capture of the sovereign power and its exploitation in their behalf. Though great corporate capitalists continued to invoke the shibboleths of liberalism, yet when confronted by the collective demands of the workers or the hostile power of majorities they were thoroughly imbued with the collectivist spirit fostered by their attachment to protection and to the concentration of control. Their opponents talked of liberty when their attempts to organize were resisted or their plans for regulation by the state were attacked, or when one of their agitators was put in jail for disturbing the peace. But in their belief that popular sovereignty must be unrestrained, in their persistent demands for the magnification of government, in their fundamental aim to rationalize and perpetuate the private collectivism of the corporate system, they became the adversaries of freedom and the founders of a new authoritarian society.

The contemporary world is so thoroughly imbued with the collectivist spirit that at first it seems quixotic to challenge it. Yet the prospects of reversing the mercantilist policies of European states can hardly have seemed bright when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations; but now we know that the zenith of those policies had been passed. The Ancien Régime was doomed, though Europe still had to go through the wars and revolutions which marked its end. So it may well be today that the beginning of the end is at hand, that we are living at the climax of the collectivist movement, its promises already dust and ashes in men’s mouths, its real consequences no longer matters of theoretical debate, but of bitter and bloody experience.


The easy confidence of the pre-war generation has now been shaken by grave doubts as to whether the collectivist principle is consistent with peace and prosperity or with the moral and intellectual dignity of civilized men. A reaction, definite and profound as that which in the late eighteenth century set in against the Ancien Régime, has, I believe, already begun.

But the popular and influential leaders of contemporary thought are in a quandary. Their settled convictions compel them to believe that a new and better order is being created in one or the other of the collectivist states; their instincts and their observations tell them that the coming of this new society is attended by many of the symptoms of a relapse into barbarism. They do not like dictatorships, the concentration camps, the censorship, the forced labor, the firing squads or the executioners in their swallowtail coats. But in their inmost convictions the intellectuals who expound what now passes for ‘liberalism,’ ‘progressivism,’ or ‘radicalism’ are almost all of them collectivists in their conception of the economy, authoritarians in their conceptions of the state, totalitarians in their conceptions of society.

Mr. Stuart Chase, for example, tells us that in order to achieve abundance we must have ‘centralization of government; the overhead planning and control of economic activity. . . . The United States and Canada will fall into one regional frame; similarly most of Europe. Economically supreme over these frames must sit an industrial general staff with dictatorial powers covering the smooth technical [sic] operation of all the major sources of raw material and supply. Political democracy can remain if it confines itself to all but [italics mine] economic matters.’

Thus, though Mr. Chase is the enthusiastic sponsor of dictatorship on a continental scale, he would like to preserve some remnants of personal self-determination. The problem for him, and for all the collectivists of his school, is to reconcile their theoretical belief in a dictated economy with their instinctive revulsion against the behavior of active dictators. For some the reconciliation is achieved by explaining away the barbarism of the dictatorship they happen to admire while denouncing it manfully in all others. Thus sympathizers with the communist effort are profoundly outraged by the German persecutions and the Italian deportations. But they have an abiding faith that the Russian persecutions and deportations have been exaggerated and misunderstood. Mr. George Soule, for instance, holding up the Soviets as an example, says with what is apparently an untroubled conscience that the land and capital of Russia are administered by the Communist Party so ‘that all these things shall be used for the benefit of the whole population (except of those whom the Socialist State regards as enemies or useless persons, like statesmen, priests, private traders and private employers).’ Others, who sympathize with the fascist effort, are certain that its brutalities are an unfortunate necessity in order to forestall the greater brutalities of a communist régime. By such casuistry as this men accommodate their faith in the collectivist principle to their recollection of what constitutes a civilized society.

Apologists for both communism and fascism, then, are compelled to believe that the absolutism which they see at work in these promised lands is transitory;1 that it is either an accidental blemish or a temporary necessity. They are greatly mistaken. A collectivist society can exist only under an absolut e state, a truth which Mr. Chase seems dimly to have appreciated when he said that ‘political democracy can remain if it confines itself to all but economic matters.’

The fascist conception of life, says Mussolini, ‘accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the state.’ Does communism accept the individual on any other terms? Does it recognize any right — to labor, to possess property, to think, to believe and to speak — which does not coincide with the interests of the state? It cannot. The ultimate ideal, the practical goal, the inescapable procedure of any full-blown collectivism, was summarized by Mussolini, who in his time has been all kinds of a collectivist, when he said, ‘All in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.’

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. A political providence is necessarily a jealous god — how jealous will depend upon how far the state is impelled to go in directing the social order. Of course the average humane collectivist does not wish to go all the way to the totalitarian state. He does not wish to go too fast or too violently to the point at which he would like to stop. This does not alter the fact that he has embraced a principle of social organization which has no other remedy for evil except to intensify the intervention of the state. For, unless the moderate collectivist believes that a little intervention will end all important evils, how can he say when he proposes to stop? Though no doubt most collectivists in western countries hope to stop a long way this side of absolutism, there is nothing in the collectivist principle which marks a stopping place short of the totalitarian state. Their tastes and scruples are the sole checks on their principles, which in themselves are absolutist. And, worse than this, the application of those principles is cumulative in its effect. As long ago as 1884, Herbert Spencer pointed out that ‘every additional state-interference strengthens the tacit assumption that it is the duty of the state to deal with all evils and secure all benefits,’ and at the same time there is a continually ‘increasing need for administrative compulsion and restraints, which results from the unforeseen evils and shortcomings of preceding compulsions and restraints.’

Spencer predicted that this tendency must lead to the transformation of industrial and quasi-popular régimes into ‘militant communities’ organized for ‘a state of constant war’ under a ‘revival of despotism.’ There may have been some doubt about that judgment in 1884. But now the course that Spencer predicted is unfolding itself before our eyes. Fifty years have passed since he wrote. During those fifty years there has been no stopping place in the progress of mankind toward ever greater regimentation in ever contracting societies. There has been no point in the expansion of tariffs, bounties, bureaucracies, inspectors, censors, police and armies, no point in the contraction of markets, the disintegration of states, the disunion of ethnic groups — no point at which the protectionists and the collectivists have been able to say: ‘Thus far and no further.’

How can they say so? The application of their principles creates such disorder that they are never without warrant for redoubling the dose. Without abandoning their central doctrine, how can they refuse to invoke the state as savior when there is obviously so much evil that should be remedied? There is no other principle they can invoke, for, like the secret of some ancient art, they have lost the principle of emancipation as the method of civilized progress.

They must not complain, then, if men look at Russia, Italy, and Germany to see where the cult of the state is leading them. There, in deeds visible to all, the idea is incarnate.


All régimes of authority have been established by armed bands who, by force or intrigue or both, have seized the coercive machinery of the state. This power they have used to imprison, terrorize, exile, or kill all who might be disposed to dissent, and to extirpate all organs of representation — such as elections, a free press, and voluntary assembly — through which dissent might be encouraged. To the innocent in foreign lands all this is explained as unpleasant but necessary: as the transitory measures in an emergency, like the martial law which, in a free community, might be declared after an earthquake. The implication of the argument is always that eventually constitutional government will be restored, and with it the right to dissent. But while this explanation is offered to foreigners whose feelings have to be placated, the plain truth is that the ‘ transition ’ is never completed and can never be completed while the régime lasts.

The authoritarian collectivists, when they are grounded in their principles and candid with themselves, know quite well that the right of dissent can never be restored without renouncing their principles and destroying their social order. When they speak of liberty, as they occasionally do, what they mean is that they hope eventually to train their peoples to desire only what the state desires, to have no purposes but the official purposes, to feel free because they have become habituated to conform. ‘Far from crushing the individual,’ says Mussolini, ‘the Fascist State multiplies his energies, just as in a regiment a soldier is not diminished but multiplied by the number of his fellow soldiers.’ Obviously, whatever the individual may gain by being a member of a regiment, he loses his right to dissent, to object to the strategy of the generals or the tactics of the officers, and all possibility of having something to say about what he will live and die for. It is solely when he has lost the will to dissent that he can find in the regimental discipline a more perfect freedom.

The crucial problem presented to the theorists of collectivism is how to eliminate the obstinate variety and contrariness of mankind. They realize that terrorism, however effective for a while, is revolting and cannot be sustained forever; no regime can be vigilant enough in perpetuity to crush opposition wherever and whenever it arises. There are instances, to be sure, of despotisms which have endured for centuries. But the experiment has never been tried in a population that has known freedom and is accustomed to a fairly high standard of life. Moreover, the ancient despotisms were established by conquest, whereas the new ones, at least up to the point where a coup d’état is practicable, have to rely upon conversion. The collectivist doctrine is obliged, therefore, to provide some kind of plausible formula which promises to abolish conflict in society.


The fascist version of the collectivist principle is less explicit than the communist. For, while the communist doctrine has an intellectual history which goes back to the earliest known speculation about the state, fascism, though it is also an ancient doctrine, has disguised its ancestry by adopting a very new ideology. There is no literature of fascism comparable in erudition or in pedantry, for that matter, with the literature of Marxism; there are only the speeches and tracts of agitators and the works manufactured by propaganda ministries. The fascist doctrine has been hastily improvised since the World War, and it has never been elaborated, as the communist doctrine has been, by men who could speculate and investigate at their leisure, criticizing and refining their theories under the conditions of freedom obtaining in capitalist democracies.

It is from the behavior of the fascists that the fascist remedy for human variety has to be deduced. The panacea would appear to be propaganda, drill, and education. Fascists make the assumption, never wholly explicit or completely stated, that there is only a marginal willfulness in human behavior; that the great mass of mankind is naturally docile; that, by exterminating the minority and drilling the mass, significant dissent will disappear. Hence the claim of the fascist states to an absolute monopoly of all agencies of education, intelligence, and culture, for without such a monopoly they could not protect the mass, whom they propose to discipline into unanimity, from the contagion of individual contrariety.

The preliminary step in the operation is to create about the fascists of the future a sterile area through which dangerous ideas cannot penetrate, to select with the greatest care the ideas and information which may be administered, and then to habituate their subjects to the official doctrine by continual and vehement repetition.

It is one of the most curious experiments ever undertaken: this attempt, in an age when the means of communication have been stupendously magnified, to control by government bureaus all the organs of intelligence in order to remake man, character, faith. The German experiment, except to those who are its victims, is particularly interesting, and, like the offer of a strong man to let himself be vivisected, a great contribution to political science. For the Germans are the most gifted and most highly educated people who ever devoted the full strength of a modern state to stopping the exchange of ideas; they are the most highly organized nation which ever devoted all the coercive power of government to the abolition of the intellectual life of its people; they are the most learned people who ever pretended to believe that the premises and the conclusion of all inquiry may be fixed by political fiat.

The success of the experiment would seem to depend upon the fulfillment of a paradox. All Germans must sink into docile but eager resignation, accepting the decisions of the Führer as the fellah accepts the will of Allah; and then out of this conforming mass must arise brilliant, adventurous, and supremely intelligent leaders.

It should be remembered that while the National Socialists lay great emphasis upon obedience they also extol the principle of leadership, recognizing quite correctly that the German economy, the German army, and the German state cannot be reduced to a routine. They know that to sustain so large a population on so poor a soil requires exceptional foresight, inventiveness, enterprise, and technical competence. So a population is dogmatically drilled, its curiosity is frustrated, it is forbidden to examine the premises or the conclusion of the official dogma, it is unable to exchange ideas at home or abroad — and then is required to produce leaders. This is the most puzzling paradox of the Nazi philosophy. The principle of leadership is highly individualistic. It presupposes the continual emergence of resourceful men; the principle of absolute collective conformity from birth to death would hardly seem calculated to develop and select them.

The truth is there is no formula anywhere in the fascist doctrine which even suggests how its social ideal could be realized. It seeks two inherently incompatible results: great leaders and a conforming nation. If it devotes itself to promoting conformity, it will not produce leaders. It will produce routineers, bureaucrats, and courtiers. If it devotes itself to producing leaders, it will destroy the conformity of the mass. If it establishes an hereditary ruling caste, it might produce enterprising leaders and docile subjects. But it would then have returned to a class division in society which is irreconcilable with its ideal of unanimity and national solidarity.


Although the inherent contradictions of the doctrine prove it to be a fantasy, if in Mussolini’s words it is held that ‘fascism, as an idea, a doctrine, an ideal, is universal,’ these paradoxes disappear once we descend from the level of universal pretensions to that of prevailing policy. We have only to adopt the hypothesis which both Mussolini and Hitler offer in explanation of their policies when they are not possessed by the ideological fervor. It is the simple hypothesis that they lack the physical resources to maintain their populations at a desirable standard of life and that they must conquer new places in the sun. This makes the whole fascist system and ritual easily intelligible, and all aspects of it, so strange when considered as a method of social reconstruction, are suddenly recognizable as perfectly familiar phenomena.

In saying this I am not intending to imply that the Italians and Germans are in fact crowded because they do not govern enough territory or that their difficulties can be overcome by conquering empires. This question must be examined later. I am merely saying that they believe this hypothesis and that this belief explains the two régimes.

Thus there is no doubt that the fascist revolutions were preceded by a severe class struggle in which the workers and peasants were threatening gradually to expropriate the industrial capitalists and the landlords. There is no doubt, too, that the devastation of the World War and the subsequent failure to restore the international economy intensified the struggle to the point where it was almost unmanageable. Both Italy and Germany are peculiarly dependent upon the outer world for necessary materials. They were unable to buy what they needed in sufficient quantity by the sale of their exports. In both countries there was a diminishing national income and a class struggle to share it. The contrast between their situations and that of the creditor nations possessing ample resources at home or empires abroad was striking enough, and both peoples became imbued with the idea that if they did not obtain access to greater opportunities they would be destroyed by civil war. With tariffs rising everywhere to impede their exports, dependent upon precarious and, as the event proved, capricious international credits, they felt wholly insecure. Rent by struggle at home, their standards of life sinking, unable to obtain substantial concessions abroad, they became possessed of the idea, as Hitler put it, that they must fight ‘tremendous battles for the existence of mankind’ and that ‘in the long run only the passion for self-preservation can win a lasting victory.’

There is no mystery in fascism, once its pretensions to being a universal formula of social reconstruction are put aside and it is recognized as the elaborate and intense militarization of a people for a war of conquest. Fascism is martial law, and there is no essential feature of fascism that is not perfectly familiar in any highly organized nation when it goes to war.

All the phenomena of a nation at war are reproduced. Strikes and lockouts are ruthlessly suppressed as treason against the safety of the nation. Hatred is fanned to a white heat, ruthlessness is exalted, pacifism and humanitarianism, as Hitler says, are treated as ‘a mixture of stupidity, cowardice, and superciliousness’; only the martial virtues are officially approved, and the people are taught, as Mussolini has put it, that ‘war alone brings to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to engage in it.’ Some persecution is necessary in time of war: it enables the noncombatants to feel they are at war with someone. It hardens the heart of the people, like bayonet practice, till they feel it is righteous to plunge the cold steel into their neighbor’s bowels. The exploitation of learning for propaganda, of science for military efficiency, is integral in the conduct of a war. And so, too, is an enchanting idealism that beyond the trenches and the cemeteries lies the Promised Land.

The controlled economy which the fascist states adopt is designed to make industry self-sufficient for the supply of the army and the maintenance of the civil population. It is a planned economy. The objectives and the priorities, which determine exports, imports, capital investment, prices, and wages, are to be found in the necessities required by the general staff. There is martial law, a state of siege, the conscription of capital and labor. So it is idle to ask whether men like Mussolini or Hitler mean war or whether their protestations of peace are anything but ruses de guerre. Fascism is nothing less, and probably nothing more, than the latest and completest development of the nation in arms. It is militarism without qualification preparing for a totalitarian war.


The communists also profess to be creating a new civilization in which the diversity of human interests will have disappeared. This is the basic assumption of the collectivist philosophy, and we have found that in the fascist version the purpose which actually organizes uniformity out of diversity is the total mobilization of a people for war. It is the general staff which provides the specifications that the planned economy meets, and it is toward the inculcation of military morale that its cultural activities are directed. We must now examine the communist version with a view to determining whether a collectivist society can be organized for civilian ends; whether an economy can be planned for what Marx and Engels called ‘a free association of individuals’; whether, in the last analysis, collectivism can be anything else but the mobilization of a people for conquest or for defense.

The suggestion that there is such a question and that it may reach the heart of the collectivist philosophy may seem startling and eccentric to communists and their sympathizers. For they believe they have found the remedy which will end poverty, class war, international war, and usher in an era of peace and abundance. Holding this conviction, they refuse to believe that the dictatorship, the terror, the conscription of life and labor, which have prevailed in Russia for eighteen years are integral in a collectivist order, or that their striking resemblance to martial law during a state of siege is more than superficial and transitory. I venture to suggest that this is an illusion and that a close analysis of its theory and direct observation of its practice will disclose the patent fact that all collectivism, whether it be communist or fascist, is military in method, in purpose, in spirit, and can be nothing else.

The belief that the suppression of dissent and the extermination of dissenters are merely transitional in a communist society rests upon the assumption that a radical change in the institutions of property will eliminate the conflicts of interest among men. The communists also look forward, as Marx said, to ‘a remoulding of human nature,’ and while in Russia they have thus far sought to remould it by using a monopoly of the cultural agencies to drill the people, in the strict logic of their theory such discipline ought not to be necessary. ‘The mode of production in material life,’ said Engels,

‘ determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.’ Human nature should be remoulded, therefore, not by propaganda, but by the socialization of the means of production.

The argument is that if property used in the production of wealth were collectively owned, and were administered without personal profit by agents of the commonwealth, the social antagonisms in society would disappear. For it is supposed that they originate in the private ownership of productive capital, that this is the bone of contention, that all important social conflict is provoked by the fact that productive capital is privately owned. If this is true, then a harmonious and unanimous society should appear when productive capital has been socialized. The continuation of the dictatorship, the terror, and the propaganda could only be explained away on the ground that the process of socialization is not yet complete and that the capitalists who still hope to recover their property are not yet dead.

If we ask how the private ownership of productive capital engenders social antagonism, the answer must be that it results in a social inequality which inspires the Have Nots to aggression and the Haves to defense. It follows that the elixir in the communist prescription is not primarily the collective ownership of productive capital but its management on the principle of equality of reward. This is a vital distinction. It is easy enough to vest the title to property in the community; it is a wholly different thing to administer that property so that rewards shall be equal. Collective property can readily be administered for the benefit of a class. There is no magic in title deeds. There is nothing in the act of transferring the ownership of productive capital to the community which gives any guarantee that those who manage the property will not enrich themselves and exploit the community. On the contrary, collective ownership is entirely compatible with the division of society into hereditary castes. For what is there in the principle of collective ownership which precludes a distribution of income in which the political administrators take the lion’s share? There is nothing, and anyone who thinks there is should read Plato’s design for a communist society composed of stratified social classes.

Obviously, property may be collectively owned and its output unequally shared. But collectivism of this sort is not what the idealists of communism have in mind. For the inequality would, on their own premise, continue to provoke class struggles. They are committed to believing that these struggles will end only when there is nothing to struggle for. Since their philosophy does not permit them to believe that men will cease to struggle because they have lost interest in worldly possessions, or that competition may be reasonable and beneficent, communists are driven to the hypothesis that if worldly possessions are equally distributed men will cease to struggle for more than their allotted share.

The whole promise of communism — that it can end class war, imperialism, national war, personal acquisitiveness, and possessiveness — rests upon the two suppositions that equality of reward can be established and that it will be acceptable. So the correct way to state the communist theory is not that it means to abolish the private ownership of productive capital, — that is merely one of the means to the end, — but that it promises to administer productive capital according to the principle of equal rewards.

This promise is, of course, conditional upon the ability of the rulers of a communist state to define equality in actual practice, to administer the economy by offering equal rewards, and to discourage, suppress, reëducate, and, if necessary, exterminate those who demand more than an equal reward.

Now it is no easy problem to deduce from the general principle of equal rewards the criteria by which they can be determined. I use the word ‘rewards’ because it is evident that the hypothesis could not be satisfied if all incomes derived from useful labor were equal in terms of money. Identical money wages would merely enhance the desirable advantages of inequality in other things. In an army all private soldiers are paid the same wage, but it makes a vast difference to the soldier whether he is paid for service in the front-line trenches or for being the chauffeur of the minister of war. It must be obvious, particularly to communists who pride themselves on having a realistic appraisal of human selfishness, that only total equality of reward could, according to their theory, end the struggle for privilege. The total satisfactions, the real income measured not only in money, not only in goods, but also in place, power, repute, safety, adventure, interest, relief from monotony, would have to be so equally divided that no one would wish to have any other job than the one which is open to him.

But, though the communist diagnosis demands it, equality in this sense cannot be defined in theory or arranged in practice. The reason is that equality of reward has only a subjective meaning, whereas wage schedules, occupational requirements, the recruitment of labor, and the selection of managers and officials are objective decisions. The two cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Thus, if money incomes are equal, how shall the pleasure and pain of the effort expended be equalized? How many hours in a coal mine are equal to how many hours in the commissar’s office? If wages are proportioned to the effort needed to acquire them, money incomes will be unequal. If wages are proportioned to the product, the coal miner will get a larger return in a good mine than in a poor mine. If he is deprived of this economic rent, wages cannot be equalized with productivity. If opportunity is equal, achievements will be unequal. For ability is not equal. If ability is equalized, — say by putting a good farmer on poor land and a poor farmer on good land, — then opportunity is not equal.

All this has been said many times, but it is none the less true. Total equality is impossible unless all human satisfactions as subjectively experienced can be reduced to a common measure. In an exact and total equality everything would have a price — not merely goods, services, and work, but honor, power, taste, effort, and sacrifice. If such a calculus were possible, it would be conceivable that all rewards, all careers, could be so equalized that all men ought to feel that to desire more would be to quarrel with perfect justice.

But such a calculus applied to any actual economy would have results that are not even hinted at in communist literature or in the Five-Year Plans. There would have to be an individual wage for each worker, separately calculated, and an individual price separately calculated for each customer for each article consumed. For only by an elaborate objective economic inequality could the sense of subjective equality be satisfied. The wage would have to be what the man feels his labor is worth to others, and the price what the product of other men’s labor is worth to him. This is, of course, an absurdity, but in reducing the argument to an absurdity the gulf between the practical formula? of communism and its ideal pretensions is disclosed.


In practice, what the communists propose to do is to stop the payment of incomes to the owners of productive capital, to landlords, bondholders, and shareholders. The assumption is that, if income is paid out in wages alone, then rent, interest, and profits will no longer produce social inequality, and that this will end the class struggle, war, and the other social evils of an acquisitive society. But the truth is that the inequalities provoking ambition and antagonism will remain even though wages are equal. For the difference between working in a mine and in a government office, between working on poor land and on good land, with good tools or poor ones, with laborsaving machinery or without it, will still persist. The fact that the landlords and capitalists had disappeared would not mean that no substantial advantages were left to struggle for. If a ditchdigger were paid as much as a commissar, it would still seem preferable to be a commissar. Unless the communist state can find a way to make each man’s lot seem to him as good as any other man’s, there will, if the communist interpretation of human nature is correct, be social advantages which men will strive to obtain and fight to hold.

One kind of privilege in particular would be absolutely ineradicable in a communist state. That is the privilege of ruling it. In a planned economy some must make the plan and administer it, the rest obey it and be administered. It is impossible to imagine a method which would eliminate from the exercise of such vast power all the familiar characteristics of a privilege. It might be stipulated that those who are to exercise this power shall be eunuchs chosen by lot, imprisoned like the queen bee, and then, when they have served a fixed term, put to death and buried with honors. Some such arrangement might discourage the struggle for place and power. But if communist rulers are to be less drastically dealt with, if they are to be trained for their special tasks and provided with the conveniences, the freedom, and the authority which the exercise of responsibility requires, they will live better and be more important than other men.

To rule in the communist state must and will remain an object of ambition. To rule means to decide how the collective savings shall be invested, how and when the population shall work, and what each man shall receive. How is it possible to imagine that occupational and regional grievances and hopes will not unite with personal ambitions to create factions and parties? Shall a new plant be built in the Ukraine or in the Urals? Shall an old plant be modernized or shall the money be used to increase the pay of the army? Shall there be more schools or more roads, more clothes or more steel, more food for the people or more imported machinery bought with the money the people need for food?

The mere fact that the state is the owner of the factories, its managers agents of the government rather than of the shareholders, would have little influence upon the desires of employees to redress their grievances or to improve their lot. Some industries, and in each industry some workers, are strategically more indispensable than others; is there reason to suppose, especially on the materialist hypothesis, that they will refrain from exploiting their advantages? In determining how much capital to save out of current production, in allocating it for new investment, the communist government has to choose among industries, regions, occupations. Though the planning were done with incorruptible wisdom, it would result in a series of vital decisions favoring the present generation or the next, this kind of industry or that, this region or another. It would be astonishing indeed if those least favored in the plan did not persuade themselves that if they controlled the state they could plan the economy with greater satisfaction to themselves and therefore with an even more incorruptible wisdom.

These questions of advantage arise out of the variety of life itself. They spring up in any society, capitalist or communist. But since a communist society is politically administered, and highly centralized in all vital matters, the social conflict is concentrated in the field of politics. Everything is decided politically, all conflict becomes political, and power becomes the key to all other possessions.

In short, communism when it abolishes private property in productive capital establishes a new kind of property in the public offices which manage the collective capital. The commissars replace the capitalists, exercising the same powers or greater ones, enjoying the same social privileges or greater ones, and though their money incomes may be smaller, their luxuries less florid, they have everything that could tempt the less favored to envy them, to challenge them, and to strive to replace them. The social situation and the psychological mechanism which exist to-day, and which, according to communist theory, divide society into antagonistic classes, remain intact in the communist order. The only difference is that whereas under capitalism social advantages give political power, under communism political power gives social advantages. The struggle for wealth is simply transmuted into a struggle for power.


This analytical examination of the contradictions in the communist theory suggests that we must look elsewhere than in the official doctrine for the working principles of the Russian planned economy. It is not possible to understand the practical government of the Russian State by studying the Marxian dogmas. The dogmas accompany the action but do not direct it, like the songs that soldiers sing when they go to war.

That there is some kind of radical cleavage between the Marxian theory and the historic Soviet State is most readily visible in the fact that before 1917 no orthodox Marxist could have imagined that Russia would be the first communist society. It had been laid down in the theory that communism must appear first in the most highly industrialized countries. Although some attempts have been made to explain away this discrepancy, there can be no doubt that Marx and all his followers up to the Russian Revolution thought that capitalism would develop gigantic monopolies and that socialism would come through their nationalization. The new order was supposed to be developing as an embryo within the old order, and the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat was to be ‘the midwife,’ as Marx put it, of ‘an old society pregnant with a new one.’ But when it came to the historic test, the oldest capitalist societies, like England, Belgium, Germany, and the United States, were not pregnant and could not be delivered, whereas agrarian Russia, with its feeble and semi-colonial industries, gave birth to communism.

This contradiction between the prophecy and the event is extremely significant. It not only shows that communism is not a necessary development out of capitalism, as all good communists used to believe, but it indicates that communism as it appeared in Russia may be fundamentally unrelated to the evolution of capitalism, that it may have its roots in a wholly different set of circumstances.

There is fairly good reason for thinking that on the eve of his conquest of the Russian State Lenin held the orthodox Marxian view that the new order must already exist, pre-formed within the old one. But within a year, by the summer of 1918, Lenin knew that this method of realizing communism had failed, that the Marxian theory of the old order pregnant with the new did not hold in Russia.

Communism did not come into the world as a development of the maturity of capitalism in Russia; it did not develop from the capitalism existing there, but had deliberately to be fabricated on its ruins.

This is, I believe, a crucial point in any effort to understand the inwardness of the communist régime. The circumstance which compelled Lenin to depart from the Marxian idea of controlling the economy organized by capitalists and to adopt the idea of organizing a new economy was the civil and international war which broke out in July 1918 and lasted until November 1920.

It was in the interval, known officially as the period of ‘war communism,’ that the fundamental principle of the planned economy was adopted, because, as Lenin put it in January 1920, ‘the centralization of the national economic administration is the principal means at the disposal of the victorious proletariat for developing the productive forces of the country.’ The means was a centralized administration, the end was the support of the Red Army in a defensive war on many fronts and also in an offensive war against Poland.

At the critical period of this war the Russian Soviet State was practically surrounded by enemies. There were German and Austrian troops in the Ukraine, a White Army in the Caucasus, a Czech army in Siberia and the Urals, a British, French, and American army at Archangel, French naval forces in the Black Sea ports; and then, within this ring, the counter-revolutionary armies of Kornilov, Denikin, Wrangel, and Kolchak. Red Russia was cut off not only from the outer world but from the Russian regions which produced wheat, meat, coal, and oil. In this desperate struggle the communists had to create an army and supply it.

These were the circumstances under which the primary institutions of a Planned Society were established: the centralized administration, the dictatorship and the terror, the ‘planning’ of production, the conscription of labor, and the rationing of consumption. These are the familiar features, not merely of communism, but of all modern national war economies. It is highly significant that Lenin was driven to a dictated collectivism because he had to fight a war, that he had not intended to bring in communism in this way until he was forced to fight a war. What he created under the compulsion of events was not a Marxian state but a military state. No doubt the Marxist aspiration and ideology reënforced the morale of the people, as the Wilson ideology reenforced the Allied morale in 1917, as the fascist ideology reenforces German and Italian morale. But the directing purpose of the planning and of its execution was not the Marxian promise but grim military necessity. Any Russian règime compelled to fight such a war would have had to adopt essentially the same political and economic organization.


This brings us to the question of whether in its subsequent development Russian collectivism has continued to be predominantly military in its aims and its methods. To prove that it has been, the argument must go deeper and must show that the purpose which has dominated the fundamental decisions of those who have planned the Russian economy is a military purpose, that the economy is organized not to improve the popular standard of life as rapidly as possible but to make Russia a formidable military power.

The proof is to be found in the fact that the two Five-Year Plans have had as their primary objective the creation of heavy industries in the strategically invulnerable part of Russia, and that to finance this industrial development the Russian people have been subjected to years of forced privation. If the primary purpose of these plans was the improvement of the standard of life, can it be seriously argued that the erection of steel plants would have been put ahead of the manufacture of clothes, that food would have been exported while the people went hungry in order to buy machinery to make goods which could have been bought direct at cheaper prices? No doubt the idealists believe that in giving the people steel instead of bread they are creating for the future a self-sufficient industrial system on the socialist pattern. But why is it necessary to make Soviet Russia self-sufficient? Why was it necessary to aim at self-sufficiency even in the years when Germany and most of central Europe were ruled by social democrats? Because, as the communists have repeatedly insisted, they lived in dread of an ‘imperialist’ war. In other words, they did not choose steel rather than bread in order to prove that communism could do anything that capitalism could do; they chose steel because they wished to be self-sufficient against a military blockade.

I do not mean to argue that Russian Communists have not done many incidental things which are not military in purpose. But I think it evident that the fundamental decision as to the form of the political state, the plan of the economy, the determining policies of the règime, are what they are because Russia has been preparing for war on her European and her Asiatic frontiers.


If this analysis is correct, then it has been demonstrated that the totalitarian states, whether of the fascist or the communist persuasion, are more than superficially alike as dictatorships, in the suppression of dissent, and in operating planned and directed economies. They are profoundly alike. For they have the identic controlling principle, which is the militarization of a people to the maximum degree. That the fascists and the communists hate each other and regard their respective doctrines as antithetical does not impair the generalization that they are both organizing for war. Their hatred merely supports the generalization: it means that they have also the will to fight the war.

We may go further and say that, though the planned economy is proposed as a form of social organization which will provide peace and plenty, thus far in all its concrete manifestations it has been associated with scarcity and war. From 1914 to 1918 all the belligerents were driven step by step into a planned and politically directed economy. The bolsheviks, as we have seen, were driven into it by the civil and international war they were forced to fight. They have continued with it under the Five-Year Plans, which in their strategy and in the order of their priorities are fundamentally military. The fascists have adopted collectivism more or less frankly proclaiming their intent to solve their social problems by developing their military power. In all the nations which are still democratic and capitalistic, plans are drawn for their rapid transformation into totalitarian states. The only difference is that here they are not described as schemes of social reconstruction. They are called more candidly the plans of mobilization, and they are drawn up in War Colleges, Committees of Imperial Defense, in General Staffs and Naval Boards.

That is where all planned economies have originated and must in the very nature of things originate. For it can be demonstrated, I am confident, that there is only one purpose to which a whole society can be directed by a deliberate plan. That purpose is war, and there is no other.

In the next issue Mr. Lippmann will discuss the crucial question whether a dictated collectivism essential for waging war can serve the purposes of peace and prosperity. — THE EDITORS
  1. Cf. Engels’s letter to Bebel (1875): ‘Since the State is only a transitional institution which must be utilized in the struggle, in the revolution, in order to crush our enemies by force, it is pure nonsense to speak of a free people’s State: as long as the proletariat needs the State, it needs it, not in the interests of freedom, but in order to crush its enemies, and when it becomes possible to speak of freedom, the State as such will cease to exist.’ — AUTHOR