Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism

How is it that people who are infinitely brilliant came to conclude that Socialism, Communism, or Anarchism was anything more than a dogma?  That got your attention.  Well, probably not because you’re almost certainly a capitalist.  But you might have something in your head that the aforementioned theories had something to recommend themselves.  Well, let me disabuse you of that idea, if I can.

Bertrand Russell‘s Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism (1918) is something of an introduction-cum-persuasive piece on these three economic theories.  Russell gives a slightly nuanced definition of each of the three titular terms.  I’ll give you the brief one.  Socialism is the consolidation of all property to the ownership of the state, and therefore the people.  There is no private property.  Anarchism is simply the abolition of private property, but without government.  Syndicalism is the abolition of private property but with Trade Unions in control of the property.

Do you note a common thread?  That’s right.  No private property.  Why, you may ask, is private property something to be gotten rid of?

Karl Marx, Socialist

Well, according to Marx, it’s how it’s got to be.  Materialism.  I’ll let Bertie explain:

Marx holds that in the main all the phenomena of human society have their origin in material conditions, and these he takes to be embodied in economic systems.  Political constitutions, laws, religions, philosophies–all these he regards as, in their broad outlines, expressions of the economic regime in the society that gives rise to them.  … [E]conomics molds character and opinion, and is thus the prime source of much that appears in consciousness to have no connection with them.

Once you accept this and take a “scientific” journey through history, you see the pattern.  Economic forces are evolving and are predetermined to lead to Socialism through violent revolution and, finally, Anarchism.  I mean, just look at it, it’s obvious!  The bourgeoisie overthrew the aristocracy in the French Revolution and now, in 1848, the proletariat will overthrow the bourgeoisie capitalist pig-dogs.

This theory loosely reminds me of the Geocentric model of astronomy–the sun revolves around the Earth.  Before Copernicus, astronomers had followed this model and with what I might call ingenious mathematics could explain and predict the motion of the heavenly bodies.  It worked, but once you adopt a Heliocentric model, things get a little less complicated.

Isaiah Berlin, pluralist

I was at Barnes and Noble, leafing through 101 Great Philosophers: Makers of Modern Thought (2009) and in the entry of Isaiah Berlin it said that he rejected the idea that either all events were explained through systems or through great personalities.  To me, that sounds right.  Coming up with some kind of unified field theory for human behavior is just asking to be ridiculed.

I ridicule further by pointing to the absurdity of Marx’s scientific method.  Have you ever heard of confirmation bias?  It’s when you credit all information that supports your theory and discard or minimize information that undermines your theory.  I can’t imagine anything more easily open to this kind of game than the complete history of human behavior.

Mikhail Bakunin, Anarchist

If I’m coming up with a theory of human behavior, I probably start with…a human.  A person wants x, y, and z.  Another person wants a, b, and c.  Then things kick off from there.  To me, that makes sense and is roughly the starting point of microeconomics as I understand it.  It makes things a little less neat, but much more easily explained in individual circumstances without resort to buzzword claptrap.

But that’s not a real criticism is it?  Just because I have an aesthetic problem with it, that doesn’t undermine the theory if it’s true and correct.  Well here’s one I thought of (and I’m sure others have pointed out):  Why does it stop at anarchy?  

Surely, when humans first oozed out of the whatever there wasn’t much of a state structure.  So, if society evolves, wouldn’t we just be going to a primitive society that would then evolve into another state structure like feudalism or the city state?  I’m thinking this is where the mythology/teleology starts to show its spots, at least the spots that I see.  How fortunate that Marx was only one step removed from perfection.  Convenient some would call it.

The intense faith which enables him to withstand persecution for the sake of his beliefs makes him consider these beliefs so luminously obvious that any thinking man who rejects them must be dishonest and must be actuated by some sinister motive of treachery to the cause.

The confirmation bias is not only in the history before Marx, but in events that occurred after Marx that so clearly support his theory.  Like the violent revolution uniting the workers of the world.  Oh wait.  There actually wasn’t a class war as you may recall.  **Lesson: class warfare doesn’t mean pointing fingers and using rude words, it’s violent, brutal, and distinct.**  In fact, a middle class developed and expanded, making so many capitalists–how many take bonuses or benefits in the form of stock?–without anybody thinking anything of it.

Bertrand Russell…uh..Guildist

As Russell says, to give up on materialism is not to give up on socialism or endorse the private property system.  There’s always the utilitarian argument: things would be better without private property.

This is where things get distinctly JV in the argument department.  How so?  Well, I’ll let the Brussel hang himself:

[In the context of three sources of domination.]
In a world where all men and women enjoy economic freedom, there will not be the same habit of command, nor, consequently, the same love of despotism; a gentler type of character than that now prevalent will gradually grow up.  Men are formed by their circumstances, not born ready-made.  The bad effect of the present economic system on character, and the immensely better effect to be expected from communal ownership, are among the strongest reasons for advocating the change.

You think so?  For someone who suggested that they weren’t entirely taken with the materialist view, Russell clearly buys into some of it.  This passage is in a larger context of the evils in life, which come from different sorts of domination.  And without the rat race of capitalism, our characters will be reformed.

This is not ludicrous on its face.  Perhaps our characters would alter.  But what makes him think so?  Intuition?  I share no such intuition.  People will be nasty no matter what things are like.  He accepts this, but to make this seem not so ludicrous, Russell uses words like “gradually,” “slightly,” or “immensely better.”  This is what I do when I want to assert something without any support.  And there are means of support in psychology and sociology, but that’s not here.

There might be economic arguments about production levels and their benefits to human advancement.  He’s got some of those, but they are in the same guarded language.  He presents no model or factual support for the idea.  Apparently Kropotkin did some of that.  Still, what is given is worthless to those who do not share the intuition and probably seems water-tight for those who do.

[In the context of the drawbacks of a socialist state.]
Any really great artist is almost sure to be thought incompetent by those among his seniors who would be generally regarded as best qualified to form an opinion.

I’m not sure that’s supported by the historical record–any great artist?

[In the context of making these characters more human to unsympathetic readers.]
The pioneers of Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism have, for the most part, experienced prison, exile, and poverty, deliberately incurred because they would not abandon their propaganda; and by this conduct they have shown that the hope which inspired them was not for themselves, but for mankind.

That’s a lovely sentiment, but I wonder at the idea that hope inspired them.  The theory always struck me as inspiring anger rather than hope for a better future.  I also wonder about most of them experiencing poverty.  Exile is certainly supported, without question.  But I can’t think of a single believer who did not come from wealth and had prospects.  That doesn’t have to mean that they’re all fools and their theory is a nonsense, but it does, in my view, reduce their authority on the subject of the worker.

Many others, though their activities in industry or finance, enjoy an income which is certainly very far in excess of anything to which their social utility entitles them.  On the other hand, it often happens that inventors and discoverers, whose work has the very greatest social utility, are robbed of their reward either by capitalists or by the failure of the public to appreciate their work until too late.

I’ve got a couple problems with this passage.

First is the central point that, I believe, first attracts people to Socialism, which is “fairness.”  A capitalist only provides capital and gets gobs of money for it and that isn’t fair.  He didn’t build anything, he didn’t make anything, he did virtually nothing.  Today, he did what one might do with a click of the button.

For those who are open to or convinced of Marx’s Materialism are not allowed to say such things.  Why?  Because this is the lion eating the gazelle, it’s just nature.  Fairness, with positive values attached to it, has nothing to do with it.

I am rather attracted to this naturalist approach to things at any rate.  What do I care about fairness if I’ve got food in my stomach and clothes on my back?  It’s like anti-gay marriage people who are just disgusted by the idea that two individuals with matching (or is it clashing?) wedding tackle are out there in the world.  These fair folk are upset by the very idea that things are unequal according to their values.  Get over it.  Both of you.

If you think people should be paid more for work, then they shouldn’t take jobs that pay less.  Man, who do I sound like right now?  But I totally buy it.  If your humanity drives you to require that people should be able to survive, have medical treatment, etc., then that’s where you should look.  Don’t complain that people aren’t paid enough, that’s to miss the point entirely.  Income and social utility are not related–just ask the teacher or Lady Ga Ga.

Second point is that the researchers are robbed of their reward by capitalists.  That’s just sheer nonsense.  It’s only robbery if you don’t pay for it.  If you pay little for it or “less than its worth,” then somebody’s got egg on their face.  What’s more, if the capitalist robbed the scientist, then the socialist robbed the capitalist and called it progress.

I read this book in the hopes of getting an insight into socialist and anarchist theories.  I mean, this is the author of A History of Western Philosophy (1967).  Well, it didn’t really get me any further on socialism, but it did educate me on anarchists and the compromise theories between the two–if between is the word I want.  However, if  you want to get the best argument they’ve got (which is what I wanted), then this isn’t the place to look.

He does provide his own views on how things should be ordered and he believes that it is practical.  It’s a very English compromise and does not include violent revolution.  Well, I’ll leave you to it if you’re interested, but I’ll not try to explain.  For utilities sake, here’s a taste:

People will be taught not only, as at present, one trade, or one small portion of a trade, but several trades, so that they can vary their occupation according to the seasons and the fluctuations of demand.  Every industry will be self-governing as regards all its internal affairs, and even separate factories will decide for themselves all questions that only concern those who work in them.

Is it me, or does this sound like something you might say in college?  Russell was 46 when this came out.  If someone gave you the time to spout out all your varied thoughts and theories on society, you may come to a similar statement.  “People would value [things I like] and wouldn’t waste their time on [things I don’t like].”  That’s a little sillier than the quoted passage, but it’s not as far from the mark as Bertrand F. Russell ought to be.  How do you differentiate this from Tolkien?  Creating a new world populated with creatures from your imagination?

Here’s another.  “For the great majority of children it will probably be found desirable to have much more outdoor education in the country.”  Now what’s wrong with that?  Nothing.  Maybe in Middle Russell, we’ll be able to do that, but what does that have to do with Socialism, et. al.?  He’s telling us how we should think about things–not framing the issue, but reorganizing our values.  What’s more, they’re values of Bertrand Russell which include education, art, and leisure.

So where does that leave us?  This book is a presentation of three main branches of non-capitalism for our premises.  Either it does not give us their best or their theories do not have much to say for themselves.  This book also gives us Russell’s view on how things would be in his Utopia.  That requires abolition of private property as “a necessary step.”  Considering Russell has money, government, a market, and incentives, I’m not sure how we got to this point.  What is money if I don’t own it?

This is my central problem with the book and the theories, they lacked the imagination to see the world as it would become when they thought they saw things so clearly.  A fair criticism?  Yes, I think so.  Russell admits early in the book that Marx’s theories proved to “show many flaws” in light of the development of the middle class and the improvement of the lot of workers (“though in a lesser degree than the capitalists”).  He saw and made note of the trajectory history had taken to 1918.  He should be expected to imagine that trajectory’s future path and should not be excused to engage in flights of fancy and call it practical.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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4 Responses to Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism

  1. William Li says:

    I think some of your reaction/criticism stems from your legal training. I know that reading some of the quoted passages, I expected a citation at the end of each sentence, and when one wasn’t forthcoming, I just had to ask “well says who?”

    • There’s definitely something to that. I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression of the book. He goes to great length quoting Marx, et. al. on their various thoughts and maybe those thoughts are supported by something, I don’t know. But I just don’t think many of those statements, especially about social side-effects of an economic system, could be supported by any authority I would find convincing.

      I would allow, without citation, a statement along the lines of “If we get rid of property, then you remove the motive for robbery.” Perfectly sound. I would not allow, without citation, “Without private property, men and women will share in an egalitarian society.” Or that thing about kids in the countryside. Where is he pulling this from? Maybe these are susceptible to abstract proofs, but I didn’t see any.

  2. If any reader is not particularly moved by my observations might be persuaded if you watch this interview (below), between Ron Paul and William Buckley. When Paul talks about how things will change under a Libertarian society and it sounds very similar (in form, not substance) like Russell’s despite being diametrically opposite. “Two ships passing in the night” is a phrase that leaps to mind. If you scoff at Paul as hopelessly misguided–and I’m obviously addressing Russell supporters–you might see how I look at this book by Russell (though probably with more disgust than disappointment).

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