Thursday, May 12, 2016

It Didn’t Start With Marx

An extraordinary book came my way, one which alters to some degree my own focus on the current conflict between socialism and conservatism, between secular political collectivism and religious political collectivism in America. This is George Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism, originally published in 1998 and reissued in 2001. Then, as now, it is largely unheralded by the doyens of socialism and conservatism. The book remains obscure for many reasons, not least of which is that its contents are a revelation which current socialists and egalitarians would prefer not become general knowledge. 

Many of the unsavory roots of socialism, as highlighted by Watson, are hardly complimentary or flattering and do not lend themselves to the unicorn picture of a humane political system in which no person wants for anything, neither free cell phone, an education, and two cars in every garage. But the sources and roots of socialism are basically unknown to modern advocates, who are genuinely ignorant and oblivious to what their forerunners had in mind. They are asking for something the true and inevitable nature of which they do not bother to examine in any depth other than quoting Marxist “scripture” out of historical context and often out of the context of a writer’s works.

Modern socialists are not holding fingers to their lips and urging sotto voce, “Shush! It’s really embarrassing what so many of our pioneer socialists said and did, it’s best that this knowledge not get around! If people knew, it could harm the cause!” No. They are utterly oblivious to the truth.  Watson notes that, overall, modern Marxists “were not just ignorant of the world. They were ignorant of Marx.” (p. 27)

In 1983, in one of his last books, Politics of the Ancient World, [Moses] Finley rightly deplored the vulgar habit of calling all class analysis Marxist, since, he said, it is in fact at least as old as Aristotle.

Socialism as an articulated, propagated cause, therefore, did not start with the publication of The Communist Manifesto (1848) or with Das Capital (1867). It had been growing long in the tooth for decades, even centuries before Marx was even born. Watson, a British Liberal, in his Preface, writes:

The literature of socialism is lost in the sense that it is unread….A lost literature is still a literature, after all, whether it survives in books, periodicals, or manuscripts, and it is the business of the literary historian to read it….

There is abundant evidence…that socialism was not always supposed to be left-wing or favorable to the poor, whether by its adherents or its opponents. It was not anti-racialist…and not always in favor of the welfare state.

Why have they not been heralded? Why have these classic works been ignored, that is, ignored in the sense that they are known and contain inconvenient ideas, not because they are known but snubbed and given short shrift? In the main, most advocates of socialism today do not understand what it is they are advocating. It is because Watson, in researching the sources and foundations of socialism and socialist thought, realized that most of the big names in the history of the development of socialist ideology were, practically to a man, conservatives!

That is, they wished to preserve the status quo of an elite cadre that governs men and disposes of their lives and property. They wished to have the power of Mandrake the Magigian to appropriate the wealth created by capitalism and create a new social order based on collectivism using that wealth, with themselves as the governing class above everyone else.

The vision they commonly held was one that projected an “idyllic” Medieval era, when knights jousted on brave steeds, the elite held court and ate well, and the general population existed at subsistence level or was locked into a guild socialism mosaic of trades and crafts, never to dream of leaving their assigned stations in life or aspiring to leave their allotted status as yeomen and servants for the privileged.

The Kennedy clan can be said to be the first full-fledged realization of a self-perpetuating aristocracy that lorded it over the rest of us. It was Joseph Kennedy, Sr.’s intent that his family should rule, and rule in the literal sense of the word, a rule that bought off the populace with socialist bromides and platitudes to placate the hoi polloi and plebeians with legislative crumbs.

There isn’t a howling socialist demonstrator or candidate for political office who does not want to be in that elite, from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Paul Ryan, and virtually every Democrat and Republican. They want to preserve the status quo so that they can rule, and rule from the vantage point of privilege and empowerment. The “revolution” they want to ignite is not a drive to higher heights of social organization, but a revolving door that puts them back in power, after some messy “revolutionary” disturbances, as the privileged class, insulated from the travails they impose on the population at large.

Until Karl Marx came along, socialists who predated him thought of socialism in terms of rank, not class.  The difference between rank and class is purely “social,” and has little to do with “class warfare” or the evolution of capitalism to an ideal social state. Rank implies that one knows one’s place in society. You take orders, do what’s expected of you, and never presume to tell the next person up the ladder his business.

A promotional flyer for Watson’s book reads and captures the tenor of Watson’s opus:

…Watson examines the foundation texts of socialism to find out what they really say: the result is blasphemy against socialism and against socialism’s canon of saints. Marx and Engels publicly advocated genocide in 1849; Ruskin called himself a violent Tory….and [George Bernard] Shaw held the working classes in utter contempt. Drawing on an impressive range of sources from Robert Own to Ken Livingstone, the author demonstrates that socialism was a conservative, nostalgic reaction to the radicalism of capitalism, and not always supposed to be advantageous to the poor….Two chapters…study Hitler’s claim that the whole of National Socialism [Nazism] was based on Marx, and bring to light the common theoretical basis of the beliefs of Stalin and Hitler which lead to death camps. As a literary critic, Watson’s concern is to pay proper respect to the works of the founding fathers of socialism, to attend to what they say and not to what their modern disciples wish they had said….

Here is a sampling of what the “ancients” of socialism said. In 1862, John Ruskin (1810-1900), an art critic and essayist, and virulently opposed to the Industrial Revolution, published Unto This Last. Watson writes:

Whether medieval, Neolithic, or Paleolithic, socialism was from its origins a hierarchical doctrine, and it habitually venerated aristocracy and leadership. “My continual aim,” Ruskin wrote in Unto This Last,
...has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing such person or persons to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors according to their own better knowledge and wider will” (paragraph 54).
Those who have wondered why, in practice, socialists can be so snobbish may have their answer here. They were not snobs in spite of being socialists…but socialists because they were snobs. Capitalism, after all, is radically vulgar…and it can give spending power to the most dreadful people. (p. 48)

I may be an upper class twit, but I own you.
I do not know if Ruskin ever killed anyone, but V.I. Lenin (1870-1924) killed on a mass scale once the Bolshevik government was established in 1917. Yet, he hailed from the Russian aristocracy. His father was made an hereditary nobleman for his work in education. Lenin, for all his hard-scrabble revolutionary activities and periods of imprisonment and exile, had aristocratic pretensions. Watson sheds some light on Lenin’s aims:

The principle of socialist aristocracy was candidly announced by Lenin fifteen years before he seized power, and in What Is to Be Done?, a pamphlet written in exile, he put a blunt case for the rule of an intellectual elite….Lenin’s argument is uncompromising. Since Marxist revolution is based on theory, and only intellectuals can understand theory, only an intellectual elite can lead the revolution: “the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia.” (pp. 48-49)

The chief and overriding end of Lenin’s crusade against the Romanoffs and aristocracy was to replace them in fact and in political practice with Lenin and his commissars (and their successors). This is what happened. Soviet Russia, for over half a century, was ruled by a self-perpetuating aristocracy.

Socialism necessarily means government by a privileged class, as Lenin saw, since only those of privileged education are capable of planning and governing. [George Bernard] Shaw and H.G. Wells [both British Fabians], too, often derided the notion that ordinary people can be trusted with political choice….Socialism had to be based on privilege…since only privilege educates for the due exercise of centralized power in a planned economy….The next step was for the ruling elites of the socialist world to grant themselves the privileges, sometimes even hereditary privileges of a ruling caste. (p. 49)

On pages 62 and 63, Watson provides an note about the origin of key terms:

Socialism was first used as a term by Robert Owen in the “Cooperative Magazine” in 1827; and it was an English Christian Socialist, Goodwyn Barnby, who claimed in 1848 to have invented the word “communism” in Paris in 1840.

Watson cites numerous “unknown” advocates or critics of socialism throughout The Lost Literature, among them Alfred Sudre, a French lawyer and writer who published, in 1848, Histoire du Communisme.
Its subtitle was “an historical refutation of socialist utopias.’ Sudre opposed socialism and communism. He wrote that private property was the best defense of the poor against oppression by a stratified communist or socialist aristocratic establishment. Watson writes of Sudre that he averred that

The liberating claims of socialism…however sincere, are a chimera, and the nation that places economic power in the hands of a central authority, Sudre argues, will end with a tyranny like Plato’s guardians, ruled by fear and military discipline. It was the commitment of political thinkers in antiquity to the concept of a perfect state that led them into the monstrous errors that now threaten mankind, and Sudre was the first to notice how deeply indebted the early socialist thinkers were to the heritage of ancient philosophy, though his target was not Aristotle, who inspired Marx, but Aristotle’s master, Plato.

Sudre, writes Watson, was more radical than traditionalist, radical in the sense that he saw free enterprise and private property as a defense against socialist tyranny.

His case is both theoretical and practical. The real charge against communism is that, whatever its motives, its effects would be to create a privileged caste. It is more conservative, as an idea, than any group or party which, in a democratic age, chooses to call itself that. (p. 66)

Watson’s discourse is replete with discussions of obscure writers and excerpts from their works, pro and con socialism. Sudre, John Millar, David Hume, William Morris, Marx, Engels, and so on. It was not so startling, for example, to read that Hitler was first and foremost a socialist (thus the name of his Nazi party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party), but he was willing to allow some free enterprise in order to prop up his command economy. The striking thing is that, while he maintained a lifelong enmity for socialists and communists, he admitted in private that he and Nazism were indebted to Marx and Marxism – including the means to exterminate whole races as Stalin could, except he claimed that the Nazis were more efficient at it. 

I highly recommend Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism, especially to those socialists among us who wish to redistribute our lives, our property, and our futures. As a friend who has read it remarked, “there is a nugget on every page.” Socialists who heed my recommendation, however, may need to recalibrate their political philosophy.


The Lost Literature of Socialism, by George Watson. Cambridge, UK: The Lutterworth Press, 1998. 112 pp.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Preview of "Exegesis"


I expect to finish Exegesis by at least the end of May. I thought this would be a fitting inaugural post for the "new" Rule of Reason. I hope you enjoy it.


Foreword by the Author

It is late June, 1929. Cyrus Skeen has concluded his case in Stolen Words, in which he exonerated a prominent novelist of the charge of murder, even though the author had plagiarized other authors with the cooperation of the now defunct publisher. Skeen’s artist wife, Dilys, has returned from a visit to relatives back East in Massachusetts, and was preparing to work on her first painting. Skeen’s new secretary, Lucy Wentz, is quick on the uptake, and is working out fine.
But now a new nemesis has confronted Skeen, an unknown person who is killing people who have committed horrendous crimes. He writes Skeen and expresses his appreciation for Skeen’s crime-fighting acumen and skills, but wants Skeen to join him in a crusade to terminate all killers. Skeen has not killed any criminal gratuitously – he has killed in self-defense only when someone has threatened to kill him or someone who is a value to him – and wonders why his admirer thinks he would be open to the idea. Then the district attorney for San Francisco demands an explanation for why Skeen’s revolver was found next a murdered mass killer. More criminals are found dead. The unknown vigilante pins a note to each body, signed “Exegesis.”
In another unusual case tackled by Cyrus Skeen, the intrepid and unflappable detective delves into the mystery with his usual panache and certitude. 



Chapter 7: An Evening at Maud’s 



Mrs. Maud Skipton, prominent society hostess and wife of the ever-absent Jerome Skipton, wealthy shipping magnate and Pacific trader, hosted lavishly catered parties in her Nob Hill mansion, which was directly opposite Carmel Towers on Sacramento Street on the other side of the Hill. Her wealth and ability to become Nob Hill’s social arbiter was sustained by her husband, who had interests in almost every facet of Pacific trade and shipping. Cyrus Skeen, private detective and a member of San Francisco "society," could recall meeting Mr. Skipton only once and very briefly years ago at another of his wife’s parties. He somehow managed to be away on business in the Far East every time his wife threw one of her get-togethers.
Mrs. Skipton was stout and aged fifty-two. Skeen and his wife occasionally attended her parties more for the kinds of people they might meet than out of any expectation of enjoyment. Dilys frequently referred to Mrs. Skipton as the "de facto dowager."
Skeen regarded Maud Skipton as a simple, charming and harmless woman who valued the beauty of a high society community into which she welcomed anyone with a certain amount of class and sophistication. Although she herself was not brilliant in any sense, she put great stock in the brilliance of her soirees. She tolerated Skeen’s ribbing and jesting about her because she knew he was not vicious. Her frequent and well-attended parties were an antidote to her cloying loneliness.
Skeen and Dilys walked from Carmel Towers to the Skipton Mansion across Nob Hill. It was a pleasant, warmish evening. The doorman recognized them and greeted them. The Skeens knew their way around the mansion and went directly to the grand staircase that led to the ballroom upstairs.
The dazzlingly lit ballroom beyond was thick with guests, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns, and servants circulating with trays of drinks. A band somewhere in the back played a popular tune at just the right pitch so as not to drown out conversation. Dilys gave the butler her black cape at the door. She and Skeen were instantly greeted by the hostess.
Maud Skipton, sporting three strings of pearls and in a silvery gown that did not attempt to disguise her stoutness, gave them an effusive welcome. “Thank you both for coming this evening, my two dearest neighbors! I could hug you both!”
“Thank you for inviting us, Maud,” said Skeen, resplendent in his tuxedo. Dilys was wearing a shimmering, blue satin, backless frock. Her blondish-brown hair featured a black feathered headband with a black feather.
“Happy birthday, Maud,” said Dilys.
Skeen presented the woman with a flat box gift-wrapped in sparkling green paper. “Something to keep you warm on chilly nights,” he said.
Attached to it was a small, enameled white cardboard with caricatures Dilys has drawn on it: Skeen was represented by a pair of probing eyes and a lock of hair over his forehead; Dilys represented herself with half-closed, seductive eyes and pouting lips. At the bottom of the card were Skeen’s and Dilys’s signatures.
Maud took the package and stared at the caricatures. “How ingenious! How marvelous! I shall keep the card alone!” She shook the box and looked quizzical. “What’s in here?”
Skeen grinned impishly. “Well, we found Mr. Skipton, dry-cleaned him, folded him up, wrapped some colorful ribbons around him, and fitted him into the box. He protested a little, but we gagged him.”
Skeen knew that he could jest about Jerome Skipton without hurting the woman’s feelings. It was a running private joke between Maud and him.
In the box was a sable shoulder wrap Skeen had found in Baum’s on Union Square.
The hostess laughed and squeezed Skeen’s shoulder. “You naughty boy! I ought to send you to your room without supper! In fact, you two are such dears to me I wish I could adopt you both as my children!”
“You’d regret it,” said Dilys. “We're unruly and misbehaved. Cyrus and I had to report to the Truancy Department twice just this week.”
“Dilys – may I call you Dilys? – ” Maud answered, touching Dilys’s bare shoulder, “you look enchanting. The feathers become you. And my hero here looks dashing, he’s my favorite real-life heartthrob, you know!”
Dilys leaned a little closer to Maud. “Just you keep your hands off of him, Mrs. Skipton,” she said in jest, “or we shall have to go three rounds.”
“Gladly, darling,” replied Maud. “You’re a sprite, and could probably fly circles around my head and make me dizzy. Well, here’s the to-do, the buffet is over there, drinks are on me, of course, and I’m sure you’ll want to meet old acquaintances. The band I hired sounds lively. Shoo!” She waved the couple inside the ballroom and handed the butler the gift. Another couple was waiting to be greeted.
Dilys remarked to Skeen as they went in, “She’s a pip.”
“A pip and a half.”
“Am I really a sprite?”
Skeen grinned. “You’ve had your spritely moments, darling, but you are most assuredly not a sprite.”
“What am I to you, if not a sprite?”
Skeen put his arm around Dilys’s waist and squeezed it. “You’re my very private vamp.”
Dilys pressed his hand closer on her waist. “Yes, I am. You had an exclusive on me a long time ago.”
“Do you like vamping me?”
“Yes. Every minute. Because I know what to expect.”
“And you don’t have to bat a single eyelash.”
Dilys grinned broadly up at her husband. “But, if I batted one eyelash, I’d be winking at you.”
“I won't stop you.”
The ballroom was ringed with cafĂ© tables, each of which held a slim vase with a rose in it, a crystal ashtray, and tiny placemats on which were inscribed, “Happy Birthday, Maud.”. Skeen and Dilys found a vacant table and sat down. They were almost immediately approached by a servant who asked them what they would like to drink.
Skeen said, “Scotch and soda, please.”
Dilys answered, “The same, thank you.”
The servant disappeared into the milling crowd. Skeen broke out his cigarette case and lighter and placed them firmly on the white napkin before him. Dilys took a cigarette holder out of her tiny purse, which was attached to her wrist by a silver cord.
Couples sat at either side of the Skeens, and were busy with their own conversations. The crowd was decidedly middle-aged, with a generous sprinkling of older men and women. Carpeting had been removed to make room for a dance floor in front of the band, which sat on a slightly elevated platform. Close to it was an open bar manned by three bow-tied bartenders in white shirts. On the other side of the band was the buffet with a variety of food and desserts. At the end of the buffet was a table holding an enormous birthday cake of blue, green, and yellow icing. It was half gone by now; a woman in a maid servant’s uniform was handing out slices to guests. Multicolored paper ribbons and balloons hung from the ceiling and moved gently in the wafting air.
“The band sounds good,” Skeen remarked as he lit an Old Gold. “Better than the last time we were here.”
Dilys nodded. “I think the band leader or the drummer was drunk that night.”
“Yes, that’s right. The band leader couldn’t keep up with the drummer, or the drummer kept falling behind the notes. I don’t think Maud asked that band back again.”
The servant reappeared and gave them their drinks. He bowed once and went to other tables to offer to refresh the occupants’ drinks.
“That’s a nice tune,” remarked Dilys. “Never heard it until now.”
“I think it’s called ‘The Cat Walk.’ It was being played over the speakers at the Merry-Go-Round the other day when Millard and I had lunch there. I asked the waitress what it was. There was a singer, some of whose lyrics I couldn’t understand. But some of what he sang went, ‘It’s nice to hear you purr over me.’ Or words to that effect. His ‘meows’ were definitely off-key.”
“See anyone you want to talk to?” asked Dilys.
Skeen said, “I see a few people I’ve offended one way or another at past parties, but I don’t think they’d welcome another conversation with me. And at the moment, I don’t feel like introducing myself to strangers.”
“I hope Maud likes her present.”
“She will.”
“What’s that dance people are doing to ‘The Cat Walk’?” asked Dilys.
Skeen studied the couples, who were doing fantastic contortions and whirls and pausing now and then to stamp their feet on the floor. He shrugged. “I guess it’s a leftover from Isadora Duncan’s day. A combination of ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ an epileptic seizure, and the Argentine tango. I don’t think cats have anything to do with their gyrations.”
“It’s a horrible dance,” said Dilys. “It’s worse than the Charleston.”
Dilys asked Skeen, “Isn't that Louise Brooks over there? In the corner, at the buffet with that sour-looking fellow.”
Skeen looked at the object of Dilys’s attention. “Yes, I think it is. She’s looking particularly sultry this evening.”
They chatted amiably without consequence with some guests who came to their table, then went for slices of Maud’s birthday cake, which they brought back to their table..
Skeen blinked once after a few forkfuls. He said to Dilys, “Correct me if I’m imagining things, but I think the creator of that cake slipped in a few poppy seeds. The better to wish Maud a very happy birthday.”
Dilys smiled. “I’m feeling distinctly light-headed, too. I wonder if Maud knows, or if she gave the baker special instructions.” She paused and stared at her cake. “It might have been a whole bushel full.”
Skeen hummed to himself. “I think we’d better have a plate of the beef Stroganoff. And coffee. I suspect that Maud had had a few slices of her cake by the time she greeted us.”
“You know,” said Skeen, glancing at the glittering, noisy crowd before them, “I think most of the guess tonight are giddy from her birthday cake. They seem unusually chatty and bubbly.”
The party went on. As soon as Skeen and Dilys had finished their beef Stroganoff, a waiter came to sweep the porcelain away. A couple approached their table. “Excuse me, sir. Aren’t you Cyrus Skeen, the fabulous private detective?”
Skeen nodded. “And this is my fabulous wife, Dilys.”
The two couples exchanged nods.
“Pleased to meet you both, for sure. I’m Baxter Barnes. This is my wife, Josephine. We live in the Cow Hollow down the hill.”
“A pretty steep climb,” Skeen remarked.
Mr. Barnes chuckled. “It is! But, I just wanted to ask you what you thought of this Carlyle business? It’s just a shame that he chose to end it all. He was a pretty promising fellow. Could’ve succeeded Kragan, if he lasted long enough.”

Skeen scoffed mildly. “He was promising, but apparently he didn’t deliver on that promise.”
“That’s a rather cryptic observation, sir.”
“Read tomorrow’s Observer-World for more details about Mr. Carlyle. I’m not at liberty to divulge them at the moment.”
Mr. Barnes smiled and wagged a finger. “I knew you had something to do with it! You’re always involved in some scandal or other!”
Skeen shook his head. “Maybe, Mr. Barnes, and I’m not even a scandalmonger.” He rose and said, “You’ll please excuse us, but my wife and I would like to take a turn on the floor.”
Dilys rose in answer.
Mr. Barnes offered his hand. “Well, nevertheless, sir, I’d like to thank you for keeping our streets free of criminals.”
Skeen shook the man’s hand and replied, “The irony of it is, Mr. Barnes, is that most of the criminals I’ve collared have never endangered or harassed the public at large.” He smiled, took Dilys’s hand, and led her away.
Skeen and Dilys danced a fox trot to “Double Talk, Trouble Talk,” and then a slow dance to the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
When the numbers were finished, they went directly to the bar, ordered fresh drinks, and returned to their table. Skeen lit another cigarette, and lit one for Dilys after she had fitted one into her holder.
She noticed a small, cream-colored envelope sitting atop Skeen’s old drink. It was addressed to Skeen. “I think someone’s left you a mash note, darling. Please, don’t let it be from Maud.”
Skeen grinned, took the envelope, and slit it open. He took out the note that was inside, unfolded it, and then put down his new drink.
Dilys glanced at his face. It was grim.
Skeen said, “He’s here.”
“Who?”
He handed her the note.
Dilys read the note, her brow becoming dark with anger. The elegantly written note read:

“Mr. Skeen:
Well played, sir. I regret that the experiment cost Mr. Carlyle his life. I had not intended that. I was hoping he had the stamina and bottom to work to replace the implacable Mr. Kragan, some day, at least, but that is now not to be. But, I was certain you would have had enough of the matter that you would take matters into your own hands and, like, Theseus, venture into the Minotaur’s own lair. Your unintended slaying of the poor fellow at his own game was a masterpiece. My hat is off to you.
                                  ‘Exegesis’”

Dilys handed the note back to Skeen. “Where is he?” she asked, her eyes busy scanning the crowd.
‘I don’t know, darling,” said Skeen. “I’ve never set eyes on him. But if he’s here, then he must be on the guest list.”



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