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The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist

WHO is there that has not turned at times from the fever and fret of the world we live in, from the spectacle of its wasted energy, its wild frenzy of work and its bitter inequality, to the land of dreams, to the pictured vision of the world as it might be?

Such a vision has haunted in all ages the brooding mind of mankind; and every age has fashioned for itself the image of a "somewhere" or "nowhere"--a Utopia in which there should be equality and justice for all. The vision itself is an outcome of that divine discontent which raises man above his environment.

Every age has had its socialism, its communism, its dream of bread and work for all. But the dream has varied always in the likeness of the thought of the time. In earlier days the dream was not one of social wealth. It was rather a vision of the abnegation of riches, of humble possessions shared in common after the manner of the unrealized ideal of the Christian faith. It remained for the age of machinery and power to bring forth another and a vastly more potent socialism. This was no longer a plan whereby all might be poor together, but a proposal that all should be rich together. The collectivist state advocated by the socialist of to-day has scarcely anything in common with the communism of the middle ages.

Modern socialism is the direct outcome of the age of machine production. It takes its first inspiration from glaring contrasts between riches and poverty presented by the modern era, from the strange paradox that has been described above between human power and its failure to satisfy human want. The nineteenth century brought with it the factory and the factory slavery of the Lancashire children, the modern city and city slum, the plutocracy and the proletariat, and all the strange discrepancy between wealth and want that has disfigured the material progress of the last hundred years. The rising splendor of capitalism concealed from the dazzled eye the melancholy spectacle of the new industrial poverty that lay in the shadow behind it.

The years that followed the close of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 were in many senses years of unexampled misery. The accumulated burden of the war lay heavy upon Europe. The rise of the new machine power had dislocated the older system. A multitude of landless men clamored for bread and work. Pauperism spread like a plague. Each new invention threw thousands of hand-workers out of employment. The law still branded as conspiracy any united attempt of workingmen to raise wages or to shorten the hours of work. At the very moment when the coming of steam power and the use of modern machinery were piling up industrial fortunes undreamed of before, destitution, pauperism and unemployment seemed more widespread and more ominous than ever. In this rank atmosphere germinated modern socialism. The writings of Marx and Engels and Louis Blanc were inspired by what they saw about them.

From its very cradle socialism showed the double aspect which has distinguished it ever since. To the minds of some it was the faith of the insurrectionist, something to be achieved by force; "bourgeois" society must be overthrown by force of arms; if open and fair fighting was not possible against such great odds, it must be blown skyhigh with gunpowder. Dynamite, by the good fortune of invention, came to the revolutionary at the very moment when it was most wanted. To the men of violence, socialism was the twin brother of anarchism, born at the same time, advocating the same means and differing only as to the final end.

But to others, socialism was from the beginning, as it is to-day, a creed of peace. It advocated the betterment of society not by violence but by persuasion, by peaceful argument and the recognized rule of the majority. It is true that the earlier socialists almost to a man included, in the first passion of their denunciation, things not necessarily within the compass of purely economic reform. As children of misery they cried out against all human institutions. The bond of marriage seemed an accursed thing, the mere slavery of women. The family--the one institution in which the better side of human nature shines with an undimmed light--was to them but an engine of class oppression; the Christian churches merely the parasitic servants of the tyrannous power of a plutocratic state. The whole history of human civilization was denounced as an unredeemed record of the spoliation of the weak by the strong. Even the domain of the philosopher was needlessly invaded and all forms of speculative belief were rudely thrown aside in favor of a wooden materialism as dogmatic as any of the creeds or theories which it proposed to replace.

Thus seen, socialism appeared as the very antithesis of law and order, of love and chastity, and of religion itself. It was a tainted creed. There was blood upon its hands and bloody menace in its thoughts. It was a thing to be stamped out, to be torn up by the roots. The very soil in which it grew must be burned out with the flame of avenging justice.

Such it still appears to many people to-day. The unspeakable savagery of bolshevism has made good the wildest threats of the partisans of violence and fulfilled the sternest warnings of the conservative. To-day more than ever socialism is in danger of becoming a prescribed creed, its very name under the ban of the law, its literature burned by the hangman and a gag placed upon its mouth.

But this is neither right nor wise. Socialism, like every other impassioned human effort, will flourish best under martyrdom. It will languish and perish in the dry sunlight of open discussion.

For it must always be remembered in fairness that the creed of violence has no necessary connection with socialism. In its essential nature socialism is nothing but a proposal for certain kinds of economic reform. A man has just as much right to declare himself a socialist as he has to call himself a Seventh Day Adventist or a Prohibitionist, or a Perpetual Motionist. It is, or should be, open to him to convert others to his way of thinking. It is only time to restrain him when he proposes to convert others by means of a shotgun or by dynamite, and by forcible interference with their own rights. When he does this he ceases to be a socialist pure and simple and becomes a criminal as well. The law can deal with him as such.

But with socialism itself the law, in a free country, should have no kind of quarrel. For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong at all except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won't work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know. But the worst public policy to pursue in reference to such a machine is to lock it up, to prohibit all examination of it and to allow it to become a hidden mystery, the whispered hope of its martyred advocates. Better far to stand it out into the open daylight, to let all who will inspect it, and to prove even to the simplest that such a contrivance once and for all and for ever cannot be made to run.

Let us turn to examine the machine.

We may omit here all discussion of the historical progress of socialism and the stages whereby it changed from the creed of a few theorists and revolutionists to being the accepted platform of great political parties, counting its adherents by the million. All of this belongs elsewhere. It suffices here to note that in the process of its rise it has chafed away much of the superfluous growth that clung to it and has become a purely economic doctrine. There is no longer any need to discuss in connection with it the justification of marriage and the family, and the rightness or wrongness of Christianity: no need to decide whether the materialistic theory of history is true or false, since nine socialists out of ten to-day have forgotten, or have never heard, what the materialistic theory of history is: no need to examine whether human history is, or is not, a mere record of class exploitation, since the controversy has long shifted to other grounds. The essential thing to-day is not the past, but the future. The question is, what does the socialist have to say about the conditions under which we live and the means that he advocates for the betterment of them?

His case stands thus. He begins his discussion with an indictment of the manifold weaknesses and the obvious injustices of the system under which we live. And in this the socialist is very largely right. He shows that under free individual competition there is a perpetual waste of energy. Competing rivals cover the same field. Even the simplest services are performed with an almost ludicrous waste of energy. In every modern city the milk supply is distributed by erratic milkmen who skip from door to door and from street to street, covering the same ground, each leaving his cans of milk here and there in a sporadic fashion as haphazard as a bee among the flowers. Contrast, says the socialist, the wasted labors of the milkman with the orderly and systematic performance of the postman, himself a little fragment of socialism. And the milkman, they tell us, is typical of modern industrial society. Competing railways run trains on parallel tracks, with empty cars that might be filled and with vast executive organizations which do ten times over the work that might be done by one. Competing stores needlessly occupy the time of hundreds of thousands of employees in a mixture of idleness and industry. An inconceivable quantity of human effort is spent on advertising, mere shouting and display, as unproductive in the social sense as the beating of a drum. Competition breaks into a dozen inefficient parts the process that might conceivably be carried out, with an infinite saving of effort, by a single guiding hand.

The socialist looking thus at the world we live in sees in it nothing but waste and selfishness and inefficiency. He looks so long that a mist comes before his eyes. He loses sight of the supreme fact that after all, in its own poor, clumsy fashion, the machine does work. He loses sight of the possibility of our falling into social chaos. He sees no longer the brink of the abyss beside which the path of progress picks its painful way. He leaps with a shout of exultation over the cliff.

And he lands, at least in imagination, in his ideal state, his Utopia. Here the noise and clamor of competitive industry is stilled. We look about us at a peaceful landscape where men and women brightly clothed and abundantly fed and warmed, sing at their easy task. There is enough for all and more than enough. Poverty has vanished. Want is unknown. The children play among the flowers. The youths and maidens are at school. There are no figures here bent with premature toil, no faces dulled and furrowed with a life of hardship. The light of education and culture has shone full on every face and illuminated it into all that it might be. The cheerful hours of easy labor vary but do not destroy the pursuit of pleasure and of recreation. Youth in such a Utopia is a very springtime of hope: adult life a busy and cheery activity: and age itself, watching from its shady bench beneath a spreading tree the labors of its children, is but a gentle retrospect from which material care has passed away.

It is a picture beautiful as the opalescent colors of a soap bubble. It is the vision of a garden of Eden from which the demon has been banished. And the Demon in question is the Private Ownership of the Means of Production. His name is less romantic than those of the wonted demons of legend and folklore. But it is at least suitable for the matter-of-fact age of machinery which he is supposed to haunt and on which he casts his evil spell. Let him be once exorcised and the ills of humanity are gone. And the exorcism, it appears, is of the simplest. Let this demon once feel the contact of state ownership of the means of production and his baneful influence will vanish into thin air as his mediŠval predecessors did at the touch of a thimbleful of holy water.

This, then, is the socialist's program. Let "the state" take over all the means of production--all the farms, the mines, the factories, the workshops, the ships, the railroads. Let it direct the workers towards their task in accordance with the needs of society. Let each labor for all in the measure of his strength and talent. Let each receive from all in the measure of his proper needs. No work is to be wasted: nothing is to be done twice that need only be done once. All must work and none must be idle: but the amount of work needed under these conditions will be so small, the hours so short, and the effort so slight, that work itself will no longer be the grinding monotonous toil that we know to-day, but a congenial activity pleasant in itself.

A thousand times this picture has been presented. The visionary with uplifted eyes, his gaze bent on the bright colors of the floating bubble, has voiced it from a thousand platforms. The earnest youth grinding at the academic mill has dreamed it in the pauses of his studious labor. The impassioned pedant has written it in heavy prose smothering its brightness in the dull web of his own thought. The brilliant imaginative mind has woven it into romance, making its colors brighter still with the sunlight of inspired phantasy.

But never, I think, has the picture of socialism at work been so ably and so dexterously presented as in a book that begins to be forgotten now, but which some thirty years ago took the continent by storm. This was the volume in which Mr. Edward Bellamy "looked backward" from his supposed point of vantage in the year 2000 A. D. and saw us as we are and as we shall be. No two plans of a socialist state are ever quite alike. But the scheme of society outlined in "Looking Backward" may be examined as the most attractive and the most consistent outline of a socialist state that has, within the knowledge of the present writer, ever been put forward. It is worth while, in the succeeding chapter to examine it in detail. No better starting point for the criticism of collectivist theories can be found than in a view of the basis on which is supposed to rest the halcyon life of Mr. Bellamy's charming commonwealth.


Stephen Leacock

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