Gian Piero de Bellis
(2003 - 2014)
Socialism / Antisocialism
An ideological and material struggle between socialism and antisocialism has characterized most of the 19th and 20th centuries. This clash can also be qualified as the historical conflict between left and right wing parties, that some think to be still operating at the beginning of the 21st century.
The aim of this essay is to advance the belief that the antithesis socialism / antisocialism has been and still is, most of the time,
- theoretically illusory
- factually untenable.
The reason is that both socialist and antisocialist movements and organizations, even when fighting each other, were proposing and bringing about the same (or a very similar) program. This consisted in their taking control of the state and enlarging its role and functions, presenting it as the best way to implement their ideas of social regeneration, but actually having in mind their own preservation in power for as long as possible.
The thesis that is then put forward here is that statism, i.e. the coming to complete dominance of the state over individuals and communities, has been the implicit or explicit attitude and aim of both camps, beyond the smoke screen of their proclaimed polar differences.
The intention of this essay is to present theoretical statements and historical facts that, on both sides, pointed from the start to this common intent.
The theoretical and practical foundations (^)
The modern political and social debate, at least since the beginning of the 19th century, arose out of two main conceptual models of how society should be organized. They go under the name of liberalism and socialism.
It is necessary to stress from the start that they were not opposing views; the latter (socialism) should be seen as the radicalization and extension to everybody of the premises contained in the former (liberalism). As a matter of fact, the most robust and consistent socialist thinking, that of Marx and Engels, emerges from the development, to its extreme consequences, of their liberal ideas. An academic work on Marx and Engels' early period bears precisely the title "Marx and Engels from democratic liberalism to communism." (1958, Auguste Cornu).
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills highlighted the strict relationship between socialism and liberalism when he stated:
"What is most valuable in classic liberalism is most cogently and most fruitfully incorporated in classic Marxism."
"Karl Marx remains the thinker who has articulated most clearly - and most perilously - the basic tenets which liberalism shares." (1962, C. Wright Mills)
Besides a common theoretical background, both share the same principal aims. Liberalism and socialism are both in favour of:
- Internationalism. The abolition of feudal obstacles to the free circulation of people and goods is to be ascribed to liberal thinking and acting. This attitude was taken up by socialism and encapsulated in powerful statements such as "The working men have no country" or in vigorous exhortations like "Proletarians of all countries, unite!" (1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) in which national or cultural oppositions are disposed of as pre-historical remnants.
- Pacifism. The development of free exchanges at a global level meant, in the mind of liberal thinkers, that war was practically impossible given the amplitude of common interests shared by people everywhere on earth. For the socialists, the idea that workers of different regions would fight each other was simply inconceivable. Already in the middle of the 19th century it was remarked that "national differences and antagonisms are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world-market, to similarity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto." (1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)
- Civil Society. The general view of liberalism and socialism is based on the primacy of civil society composed of individuals who had liberated or were liberating themselves of the bondage and limitations imposed by political and economic masters belonging to a previous and fast decaying order.
These common conceptions were not always matched by common actions because differences also persisted concerning the
- rhythm of change: slow smooth adjustments vs. quick revolutionary transformations;
- nature of change: political freedom vs. economic equality;
- agents of change: enlightened individuals vs. labouring classes;
- ways of change: self-generated order vs. openly devised planning.
If these differences, sometimes more apparent than actual, had been resolved, the emergence and evolution of a universal civil society made of free cosmopolitan individuals and autonomous networked communities might have been a matter of one or two generations.
This would have required the free and direct elaboration and implementation of a plurality of experiments in the areas of production and distribution and in the organization of social concerns and human intercourse. As a matter of fact, this is what started taking place in the creative and practical phase of liberalism and socialism. The clearance of slums, the setting up of educational centres, the industrial and communitarian enterprises of Robert Owen, were some of the signs, amongst others, of the willingness to give birth to a New Moral World that involved in practical endeavours so many liberal and socialist activists.
Unfortunately this period soon came to an end. Qualified later on, in a slightly derogatory manner, as charitable liberalism and utopian socialism, it was to be superseded by new ideas and new actors that declared themselves to be more scientifically based and more capable of delivering better and wider-ranging results.
The theoretical and practical illusions (^)
The advance of industrialism throughout the 19th century, with larger factories replacing small workshops, started producing in the mind of some social critics the idea that industrial society was marching towards a concentration and centralization of power in the hands of a reduced group of industrialists in the different sectors of production. This small circle would push industrialization to its utmost limits, fighting each other for the control of the world market and introducing, in the process, all sorts of technological improvements that would increase production enormously.
However, the focus being totally on production, crises would regularly appear due to the impossible absorption of such a growing quantity of goods, given the exploitation of the working class and its reduced buying power.
The simultaneous presence of plenty and indigence would eventually lead to the collapse of the system and to the coming of socialism.
This dynamic is clearly portrayed in one of the most widely circulated texts of socialist literature, the Communist Manifesto.
In those pages, Marx and Engels set up the bases for what will be the theoretical underpinning and the practical strategy of future socialist parties. In the Manifesto they formulate a theoretical conviction, suggest practical measures of intervention and show what is bound to happen in the course of history. Unfortunately, in doing so they gave life to some illusions that would have disastrous consequences for the real advancement of socialism.
The analysis and recipes contained in the Manifesto consist of the following points:
- The subordination of political power to economic power. The conviction that political power is subservient to economic power is best captured by Marx and Engels' statement that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." (1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)
- The intervention of the state to assist in the transition to socialism. The advancement of industrialism is seen as characterized by large enterprises dominating and absorbing small ones. This process would continue up to the moment when only gigantic complexes existed, each one monopolizing a specific sector of production. At that point the state would intervene to expropriate the expropriators. Marx and Engels put forward specific measures for the transitional period that would lead to the installation of socialism. Amongst them we have:
- "Centralization of credits in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly."
- "Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State."
- "Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State."
(1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)
- The withering away of the state and the implementation of socialism. After a brief period characterized by the dictatorship of the proletariat, when the large majority of the population assumes power and uses it to neutralize the enemies of socialism, all political power disappears following the disappearance of the classes. This means that the state is made unnecessary and goes out of business. As stated by Engels in a later work, "the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not 'abolished.' It dies out." (1878, Friedrich Engels)
Unfortunately, all these assumptions soon proved to be either incorrect or just wishful thinking.
- First of all, the notion that economic power was prevailing over political power was perhaps true only in England and at the heyday of industrialism. In continental Europe (Germany, France, Italy) this has never been the case as a general rule. In reality, the trend has been in the opposite direction; since the end of the 19th century and during the course of the 20th century political power has got the upper hand in every aspect of life, prevailing against old rivals (the Church) and new challengers (the industrialists), subduing or incorporating all of them in the process.
- Secondly, while it was true that a certain increase in the size of industrial factories was partly due to historical (i.e. temporary) technological reasons, there were also political measures like protectionist tariffs and import quotas that favoured strongly industrial concentration and cartelization at a national level. Besides that, to invoke the monopolization of production under the state, as a remedy to the concentration of economic power, was a contradictory solution that would soon reveal itself to be worse than the problem it was meant to cure.
- Finally, the idea that the state, that is the state rulers and agents, would disappear spontaneously, of their own volition, after having concentrated in their hands all the power, was and still is total naivety, to say the least. As we will see, Marx and Engels tried to correct, in later writings, this view they held in 1848. In the Preface to the German Edition of 1872 of the Communist Manifesto they warned the readers saying that "no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today"; after the experience of the Paris Commune "... this programme has in some details become antiquated" especially, Marx would remark elsewhere, as far as the use of the ready-made state machinery for socialist purposes is concerned.
Nevertheless, the message that the Communist Manifesto left to all future socialist activists, the one that has been repeated most often and that has remained in people's minds is:
"The proletariat will use its political supremacy ... to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State." (1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels).
On the basis of that and similar statements, socialist organizations in every country have accepted and used politics (e.g. parties' fights) and the state (state apparatus) as the appropriate way and the indispensable agent for socialism.
The idea that politics and the state could be progressive liberating forces arose and was strengthened also by the fact that some protective measures were taken by parliaments in favour of the workers (limitation of working hours, provisions for the education of children, etc.). So, it was not at all an unreasonable position to view with favourable eyes the political activity conducted within and towards the state.
Furthermore, a series of electoral laws started the process of granting universal or near-universal male suffrage in many European countries (England 1867 and 1884, Germany 1871, France 1875, Spain 1890, Belgium 1894, Norway 1898). And that gave to the labouring masses the chance to elect to the national parliament representatives who were willing to introduce further legislative measures favourable to them.
The opening of this new avenue for the emancipation of the workers and betterment of their conditions pushed even more towards the establishment and strengthening of socialist parties in most European countries. These parties appropriated the tactic used by the liberal parties (the participation in the electoral process, the promises of improvements by legislation) in courting popular favour. They were so successful that a substantial body of socialist thinkers started believing that the implementation of a socialist society could take place mainly through legislative measures that would progressively transfer power from an élite to the masses.
In order not to be left behind (as it actually happened in England), liberal parties followed suit, introducing everywhere what were deemed to be socialist measures. In other words, they copied in their turn pieces of the agenda of the socialist parties, using the state as the tool to distribute resources and to resist further socialist advances.
So, while proclaiming the pre-eminence of individuals and civil society, both liberals and socialists became increasingly statists and active promoters of statism. In other words, although still talking of freedom and equality, they were in reality introducing control and uniformity.
In one of his writings, Marx warns that
"as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real being and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality." (1852, Karl Marx)
It is, then, necessary to highlight the main points of revision of socialist and antisocialist thinking because they will appear as attitudes and actions in the daily behaviour of party members and political leaders in many countries.
The theoretical and practical revisions (^)
During the course of the 20th century socialism became national state socialism. This formula means that the socialist parties of every country adopted and promoted a program in which society became identified with the national state and subsumed under the state apparatus, within a delimited territory.
This process of nationalization and statisation of socialism (that is, nationalization of the masses and statisation of society) was made possible because the most ambitious and the most unscrupulous of the socialist exponents succeeded in upholding ideas that would make it acceptable to expropriate the workers of their:
- capacity to act. The iron law of wages put forward by Ferdinand Lassalle (the leader of the German Workers' Association) depicts the workers' fight for better salaries as an impossible undertaking, as they are bound to remain always at or to be pushed back to subsistence level because of reasons intrinsic to the dynamic of the labour market (i.e. more people offering their labour after a wage increase).
- capacity to think. The conception of revolution, put forward by Vladimir Lenin (the leader of the Bolsheviks), portrays the masses as incapable of devising a strategy for their emancipation unless they are guided by a small élite of professional revolutionaries, totally dedicated to the cause.
In order to perform such deep transformations with respect to the original socialism, two new tenets had to be introduced in the socialist conception that would revise it in fundamental ways. They were:
- economic emancipation comes from an external body: the "socialist" state
- class consciousness comes from an external agent: the "revolutionary" party.
Needless to say that these two revisions run totally counter to the classic socialist thinking which proclaims that the emancipation of the workers is a task to be accomplished by the workers themselves and it has to be done through struggles with the dominant class, in a process leading not only to material improvements but also to the emergence of the capacity of self-organization and self-government.
Once these two revisions had been accepted (consciously or unconsciously) by the socialist movement, no wonder the state and the party were considered the indispensable entities for the success of socialism. The common conviction became that socialism would be achieved the moment the party occupied state power and proclaimed the establishment of the 'socialist' state. Clearly, by "socialism" was meant state socialism, or, more correctly, statism. The workers had finally become subservient, for their (supposed) emancipation, to a new master: the state and party élite.
For this reason, these two expropriations are more serious and more damning for the emancipation of the workers than any expropriation or deception carried out in the past by big landowners and industrialists.
With these new reformulations of socialist ideas and practices, the floodgates were open for all sorts of further betrayals of principles and for unprincipled individuals to move from so-called left to so-called right as it suited their ambition, the most famous example being that of Benito Mussolini. In reality they were showing some consistency in so far as they were all the time aiming for state power under any political label.
In each national society this course of events found a wealth of advocates and followers in (supposedly) opposite camps. It is then useful to highlight for some countries the historical itinerary that has made both socialist and antisocialist tendencies and policies converge under the sign of statism.
The French Pillars (^)
The idea that the diffusion of progress is identifiable with the growth of state power can be traced back to the French Revolution.
This Jacobean assumption and the related mental and material attitudes derive from philosophers and social critics (Morelly, Rousseau, Mably) for which the state was the summation of everything positive in society, being the representative of the general interest. For this reason, they reserved to the state an ever important role.
Morelly envisaged a situation where
"every citizen will be a public man, fed, maintained and employed by the public sector." ["Tout Citoyen sera homme public sustenté, entretenu et occupé aux dépens du Public."] (1755, Morelly)
"the state owner of everything distributes to individuals the goods they need." ["l'état proprietaire de tout distribue aux particuliers les choses dont ils ont besoin."] (1768, Mably)
The socialist advocates and sympathizers of the French Revolution incorporated in their plans this vision of an omnipotent state capable of redressing torts and redistributing wealth.
For instance, Gracchus Babeuf (1760-1797) wanted the government in control of trade and in charge of the general distribution of work and income.
The idea that the task of solving people's problems belongs to the state, and the confidence that the state is capable of performing that function, became then part and parcel of many socialist thinkers and activists during and after the Revolution.
Louis Blanc (1811-1882), qualified by Proudhon as representative of governmental socialism ["socialisme gouvernamental"] (1850, Pierre Joseph Proudhon) devised a plan according to which
"the government will be considered as the regulator of production and it will be given strong powers in order to accomplish its task." "Within our system, the State will slowly become master of all industries." ["le gouvernement serait considéré comme le régulateur de la production, et investi, pour accomplir sa tâche d'une grande force." "Dans notre système, l'État se rendrait maître de l'industrie peu à peu."] (1839, Louis Blanc)
Another important exponent of French socialism was Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881). He is considered the champion of the conquest of political power by a small group of revolutionaries who would implement the dictatorship of the proletariat, confiscating the properties of the Church and of wealthy families and installing the State as the educator of the masses. (1869-1870, Auguste Blanqui)
From the beginning then, French socialism was truly set on the path of statism, seeing in the state the essential means for its achievement.
This being the case, it is no accident that, mainly with reference to the French experience, Marx started revising his views on the state, previously expressed in the Communist Manifesto (1848).
In "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" he stigmatized
"... that peculiar malady, which since 1848 has ranged all over the Continent, parliamentary cretinism which holds those infected by it fast in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world." (1852, Karl Marx).
Marx realized that the French socialists were falling prey to the illusion that socialism was a social and personal liberation that could be achieved through legislation and state intervention. Those affected by parliamentary cretinism (socialists and liberals amongst them) were presenting the tactical tools for gaining political success and ascendancy over the masses as strategic instruments for people's emancipation.
This appeared openly in the French experience. The French, through Napoleon III, gave an original contribution to modern politics when they showed how to use the state in order to gain the support of the people, ensnaring and corrupting them in an entanglement of large prebends and petty favours. It is from this perspective that must be seen the first measures of state social insurance introduced in France under Napoleon III with the laws of 1850 and 1868; they were, more than anything else, a state policy against revolutionary upheavals.
Analysing the coming to power of Napoleon III, Marx modified also his previous conception concerning the place and role held by the state in society, from one of subservience to one of interpenetration with the economic élite. He wrote:
"it is precisely with the maintenance of that extensive state machine in its numerous ramifications that the material interests of the French bourgeoisie are interwoven in the closest fashion. Here it finds posts for its surplus population and makes up in the form of state salaries for what it cannot pocket in the form of profit, interest, rents and honorariums." (1852, Karl Marx)
In this new image the state is not any longer a useful toy, now at the disposal of the industrial bourgeoisie, to be appropriated later on by the proletariat for the transition to socialism, but an
"appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society and chokes all its pores" with "its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its vast and ingenious state machinery, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half a million." (1852, Karl Marx)
This view will lead to the conviction, expressed after the experience of the Commune (1870), that
"the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes." (1871, Karl Marx)
Historical analysis, especially of the civil war in France and the defeat of the Paris Commune, pushed Marx to declare:
"At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, State power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism. After every revolution marking a progressive phase in the class struggle, the purely repressive character of State power stands out in bolder and bolder relief." "State power, apparently soaring high above society, was at the same time itself the greatest scandal of that society and the very hotbed of all its corruptions." (1871, Karl Marx)
In his maturity, Marx expressed very forcefully the view that the state had transformed itself from a neutral subservient body to a parasitic imposing one, but this position has been ignored by later scholars and political activists, presumably because it did not fit with their state oriented agenda.
In any case, according to Marx, what the Commune made clear was the necessity, from the start of a revolution, of
"destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure - the standing army and State functionarism." (1871, Karl Marx)
With this statement, the idea of using the state in the phase of transition to socialism is practically put aside and replaced by the necessity of immediately getting rid of it. In fact, once the army and the bureaucracy have been suppressed, it is difficult to see what would be left of the state.
Underlining this exigency, Marx seems to have foreseen what was going to happen, more and more, in France (like in any other country) during the following decades, with the engagement of all parties, socialists and antisocialists alike, in the search for state positions, state employment, state protection.
Some years later an anti-conventional observer like Georges Sorel noticed this attitude intrinsic to all parties, and its development also within the socialist organization.
"The party has for aim, in every country and in every period, the conquest of state power in order to use it to foster the interests of the party and of its allies. Until recently, the Marxists taught, instead, that they wanted to suppress the state. Things have certainly changed once electoral successes have shown to the socialist leader that the occupation of power offers considerable advantages." ["Le parti a pour objet, dans tous les pays et dans tous les temps, de conquérir l'État et de l'utiliser au mieux des intérêts du parti et de ses alliés. Jusqu'à ces dernières années, les marxistes enseignaient, au contraire, qu'ils voulaient supprimer l'État. Les choses ont naturellement changé d'aspect lorsque les succès électoraux ont conduit les chefs socialistes à trouver que la possession du pouvoir offre de grands avantages."] (1908, Georges Sorel)
In simple terms and very forcefully, Sorel continues by describing what is happening to socialism once it has been taken up and monopolized by a party aiming, like any other party, at the conquest of state power.
"In order to understand well the transformation that has taken place in socialist thinking, it is necessary to examine what is the composition of the modern state. This is a body of intellectuals which enjoy privileges, defending itself against the assault of other circles of intellectuals aiming in their turn to profit from public offices. The parties are formed for gaining these appointments and they do not differ from the State. The statement expressed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto : 'All previous social movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities', could be reformulated by stating that all our political crises consist of replacing some intellectuals by other intellectuals; for this reason they always result in the maintenance of the state and, sometimes, even in its strengthening, increasing the number of those interested in its preservation." ["Pour bien comprendre la transformation qui s'est opérée dans la pensée socialiste, il faut examiner ce qu'est la composition de l'État moderne. C'est un corps d'intellectuels qui est investi de privilèges pour se défendre contre les attaques que lui livrent d'autres groupes d'intellectuels avides de posséder les profits des emplois publics. Les partis se constituent pour faire la conquête de ces emplois et ils sont analogues à l'État. On pourrait donc préciser la thèse que Marx a posée dans le Manifeste communiste : «Tous les mouvements sociaux jusqu'ici, dit-il, ont été accomplis par des minorités au profit de minorités»; nous dirions que toutes nos crises politiques consistent dans le remplacement d'intellectuels par d'autres intellectuels; elles ont donc toujours pour résultat de maintenir l'État, et parfois même de le renforcer, en augmentant le nombre de co-intéressés."] (1908, Georges Sorel)
The reality has confirmed Sorel's analysis. The state in France, in some respects more and earlier than elsewhere, became the battlefield of parties, all aiming at state power, manipulating and buying their support of the masses.
As previously pointed out, Napoleon III was a forerunner and a master in this game. One of his disciples, who would greatly outdo his teacher, was the then Prussian Ambassador to Paris, Otto von Bismarck, who discovered and learned there the rudiments of state intervention in view of capturing the favour of the people.
It is then to the German experience that we turn as one of the best examples of the striking similarity of the socialist/antisocialist positions and their substantial equivalence as statism.
The German Experience (^)
The French Revolution exerted a strong influence on many German thinkers. Amongst them, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose system and method of reasoning would have a wide and deep intellectual impact on advocates of socialism. Through the French Revolution (in its Jacobean phase) and Hegel's ideas (in the chair of philosophy at Berlin) the foundation of socialism as statism were theoretically (even if not directly) established.
For Hegel the state is
"the actuality of the ethical idea" ; the "supreme duty [of the individual] is to be a member of the state." (1821, W. F. Hegel).
This overvaluation of the state is a common thread that, throughout German history, links socialists and antisocialists alike.
A case in point is represented by Johan Karl Rodbertus, "a conservative monarchist [who] was also a votary of a certain type of state socialism that was acceptable to a large sector of the public." (1954, Joseph A. Schumpeter). Rodbertus advocated the intervention of the state for improving the conditions of the workers who, otherwise, left to themselves, would be incapable of claiming their share of the increase in production.
The central figure in the development of the conception of socialism as statism was Ferdinand Lassalle. His major idea (shared with Rodbertus) was the so-called "iron law of wages." According to Lassalle, there is an unavoidable tendency to keep wages at the level of bare subsistence due to the competition amongst the workers; in fact, a rise in salary would have only the effect of attracting more people to work, inevitably depressing the wages back to the previous level of subsistence. The operation of this law makes necessary the introduction of an agent, external to the working class, which can bring about economic measures favourable to the workers. This agent is the state that becomes then the engine for the advancement of socialism.
Lassalle's frame of mind is very state-oriented; he saw himself as the interlocutor and the alter ego of Bismarck, in a competition to gain popular support and achieve state power.
After the death of Lassalle (1864), the two main branches of the German socialist movement convened at Gotha in 1875 and gave birth to the Social-democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemocratische Partei Deutschland). The program that came out from that Congress was of clear Lassallean stamp and so it was under the sign of statism.
In his "Critique of the Gotha programme" Marx mocked these statist inclinations that equated socialism with a national struggle for political (i.e. state) power.
"Lassalle, in opposition to the Communist Manifesto and to all earlier socialism, conceived the workers' movement from the narrowest national standpoint." (1875, Karl Marx).
Because of this, Marx remarks that
"the internationalism of the programme falls infinitely short even of the Free Trade Party." (1875, Karl Marx)
With reference to the programme's aim of a Free State, Marx stresses that
"it is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire the 'state' is almost as 'free' as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it, and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the 'freedom' of the state." (1875, Karl Marx)
Marx criticizes also the domineering role assigned, in the program, to the state in matters of education:
" 'Education of the people by the state' is altogether objectionable." "Government and Church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school." (1875, Karl Marx)
The statist inclination of the Gotha program prompts Marx to declare:
"The German workers' party - at least if it adopts the programme - shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical and libertarian bases." (1875, Karl Marx)
In conclusion, according to Marx,
"the whole programme ... is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect's servile belief in the state." "Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the 'socialist organization of the labour 'arises' from the 'state aid' that the state gives to the producers' co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers 'calls into being.' It is worthy of Lassalle's imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway." (1875, Karl Marx).
If proclaimed advocates of socialism and presumed followers of Marxism had properly examined Marx's position, perhaps many absurdities and ambiguities would have been avoided. Unfortunately, statism as socialism was presented as the only practical and sensible option, taken on board first of all by the intellectuals and, later on, by the masses.
It cannot be said that it was not politically rewarding. The electoral appeal of the new Social-democratic Party was so strong to convince Bismarck of the necessity to introduce, with the support of the National Liberal Party, Anti-Socialist laws (1878) that banned socialist meetings and publications. The socialist/antisocialist struggle for capturing the support of the masses in order to gain control of the state had started in earnest.
The following year (1879) the policy of free trade was abandoned with the support of some National Liberal representatives. During the 1880s the German Government under Bismarck introduced a series of social measures that were highly regarded and, subsequently, much imitated abroad. Amongst them: sickness insurance (1883), accident insurance (1884), disability and old-age insurance (1889).
What all this reveals is that Liberals and Conservatives had, by then, understood very well that the growing weight of the masses in the political and economic life of the country required using the state as a provident father in order to keep some unruly children reasonably satisfied and, especially, under tutelage and under control. If this meant enlarging the sphere of intervention of the state, liberals and conservatives did not hesitate for long to take that step even if it ran counter to their proclaimed principles.
When the Anti-Socialist Laws were repealed in 1890, the road was open for the Social -democratic party to take part, on equal terms, in the statist game and to become a political and electoral powerhouse. In every election from 1890 to 1912, the Social-democratic Party increased its share of vote (from 1,427,298 to 4,250,401) and the socialist electorate was repaid with a consolidation of the welfare state. By 1913 "15 million Germans had sickness insurance, 28 million had accident insurance, and 1 million received pensions." [2001, Adrian Shubert]
The enthusiasm for the state and the transformation of socialism into statism had already prompted Engels to remark, in the preface to the third edition of "The Civil War in France" dated 18 March 1891, that
"it is precisely in Germany that the superstitious belief in the state has been carried over from philosophy into the general consciousness of the bourgeoisie and even many workers. According to the teaching of the philosophers, the state is the 'realization of the idea', or the Kingdom of God on earth ... . And from this there follows a superstitious reverence for the state and everything related to the state, a superstitious reverence which takes root all the more easily since people are accustomed from childhood to take it for granted that the affairs and interests common to society as a whole could not be carried through and safeguarded otherwise than as in the past, i.e. by means of the state and its bureaucracy." (1891, Friedrich Engels)
And Engels continues his analysis declaring in very clear terms for those who want to listen, that
"the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy. And at best the state is an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victory in the struggle for class supremacy; the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, will be compelled to cut off the worst sides of the evil until such time as a generation which has grown up in the new, free social conditions is capable of throwing away the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap." (1891, Friedrich Engels)
This passage is all the more remarkable for having been written in 1891, when the German Social-democratic Party was busy reformulating socialism as statism, i.e. presenting the state as the necessary instrument for introducing and managing socialism. The intellectual tone of the party was set by, amongst others, Gustav Schmoller (exponent of the "Kathedersozialisten" or socialists of the chair) who qualified the state as "the sublime ethical institution in history," and Adolf Wagner who formulated the law of the expansion of the state in relation to the progress of civilization.
The social-democratic party had become so well integrated in the state and had identified itself so much with the state and the statism conception that it should not have come as a shock that the parliamentary group of the party voted, almost unanimously, for the war credits.
The German experience shows very clearly the contradictions in which the socialists plunge themselves once the statist option is taken. It shows also the vacuity of the socialism/antisocialism alternative once statism has been assumed as the basic platform of all parties.
The perfect identification of socialism with statism came with the foundation in 1919 of the German Workers' Party by Anton Drexler, a Munich locksmith, and of which a certain Adolf Hitler became a member almost from the start (party card n°7). In 1921 it changed its name to the National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party) and passed under the guidance of the ex-corporal Adolf Hitler.
In the meantime, while the national socialists were training and preparing themselves for the occupation of state power, minds and hearts were still under the influence of an experience assumed by some sectors of the socialist movement as an example to follow: the Russian revolution.
The Russian Example (^)
The Russian Revolution of November 1917 was portrayed by protagonists and sympathisers as heralding a new hope and era for socialists all over the world, after the betrayal of the German social-democratic party which had gone over to the camp of nationalism and militarism.
Some of the premises of the revolution seemed to bode well for the future, namely the anti-war stance of the masses and the anti-state views expressed by its major protagonist, Vladimir Ilich Lenin in one of his most celebrated texts written just on the eve of the November revolution.
In early July 1917, Lenin left Russia for Finland following a warrant by the Russian Ministry of the Interior of the Kerensky government for his arrest as a German agent. In Finland, during the summer, he wrote "The State and Revolution."
The main convictions expressed in this text are that:
- "every state is a special force for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is un-free and non-popular";
- "the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible ... without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
Once this apparatus has been destroyed, it is replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat for the short time needed to overcome and definitively
"suppress the resistance of the exploiters" who want to carry on with their exploitation "in the selfish interest of an insignificant minority against the vast majority of the people." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
The dictatorship of the proletariat, in the words of Lenin and along the lines of Marx and Engels, is nothing else than the temporary dominion of the previously exploited majority against the up-to-then exploiting minority. The role of the proletariat and the function of the dictatorship are to put an end to any exploitation in a very short term and to bring to fruition the socialist society. Lenin does not aim at the setting up of a free or popular state; this is a proposal he refers to only to reject it with total sarcasm. He is very clear in this respect:
"The notion that the proletariat needs a state is repeated by all opportunists, social-chauvinists and Kautskytes, who affirm this to be Marx's doctrine while 'forgetting' to add, firstly, that the proletariat (according to Marx) needs a state on the wane, i.e. a state so organized that it immediately begins to wither. And, secondly, the 'state' needed by the labouring people is to be 'the proletariat organized as the ruling class'." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
If the final part of this sentence can create some uncertainty as to the permanence of a proletarian state, Lenin dispels any possible misunderstanding, adding further below that
"this proletarian state will begin to wither away immediately after its victory because the state is unnecessary and impossible in a society without class contradictions." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
Certainly, there are passages in "The State and Revolution" where Lenin, the authoritarian leader, takes over Lenin the revolutionary thinker. It is when he identifies himself and his party with the workers and proclaims:
"We ... will organize large-scale production, ... establishing strict, iron discipline supported by the state power of the armed workers, we will reduce state officials to the role of simple executors of our instructions."
At the same time he is convinced that
"such a start, on the basis of large-scale production, will of itself lead to a gradual 'withering away' of all bureaucracy." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
Referring to the debate between Marx and the anarchists, Lenin stresses the fact that
"Marx deliberately underlines the 'revolutionary and transient form' of the state needed by the proletariat. The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as an aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must make temporary use of the instruments, resources and methods of state power against the exploiters just as a temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class is necessary for the abolition of classes." (1917, Vladimir Lenin)
On the whole, "The State and Revolution" is a powerful anti-state pamphlet. Not many texts, not even in anarchist literature, contain such strong statements against the state and in favour of its destruction.
Nevertheless, opportunism, that is the distortion and subjugation of theoretical principles to political practice, appears, once again, as the intrinsic trait of those who occupy positions of state power or are close to state power. This was true for the anti-militarism of the German social-democratic members of parliament who supported the war; this is again true for the anti-statism of comrade Lenin as soon as he conquered state power. From that moment onwards the state became the indispensable instrument of the revolution to be defended at all costs. The survival of the revolution against external and internal enemies represented, overall, a convenient pretext for the glorification and strengthening of the state. The term "renegade" that Lenin used so extensively (for instance against Bernstein and Kautsky) applies very fittingly to "comrade" Lenin if we compare what he wrote in "The State and Revolution" and what he did during his time in power.
In fact, notwithstanding his theoretical position on the extinction of the state for the implementation of a socialist society, there is no other revolution that has enlarged so much the power of the state up to the point of suffocating the entire society.
At the same time, the makers of the Russian revolution kept pretending that theirs was a successful socialist revolution while it was nothing of the sort.
What they certainly and extraordinarily succeeded in was to instil in people's minds the equation state = society = socialism. After their revolution, most people all over the world started believing that socialism was nothing else than statism, i.e. the state owning, directing, and controlling everything.
The tragedy of the Russian experience is not only the fact that millions of human beings participating (willingly or unwillingly) in the experiment were brutalized and died for an illusion and a deception, but also that this illusion and deception became the path to be followed and the truth to be believed for millions of people who believed they were dedicating their lives to the triumph of socialism.
As already remarked, the only real triumph of the Russian Revolution was the manufacturing of the (unwarranted) conviction that the broader and deeper the control exerted by the state on society, the better for socialism.
All the rest counted for nothing.
Even the reduction of differences in wages (celebrated by Marx with reference to the Paris Commune and advocated also by Lenin) was to become, in the words of Stalin, "a petty-bourgeois deviation." (June 1931). During the thirties, under "comrade" Stalin "the salaries of directors, chief engineers and administrators in the top stratum [were] up to one-hundred times higher than the average wage and up to three hundred times higher than the minimum wage." (1945, Arthur Koestler). On the whole, in "socialist" Russia industrial workers and peasants had to endure conditions much worse than those condemned by Marx with reference to the Industrial Revolution.
Even internationalism was regarded as suspect if it didn't mean submission to the policy dictated by the Soviet Union. One of the peaks of absurdity, from a socialist point of view, was reached when Stalin accused the Jews of the crime of being cosmopolitans.
Some voices warned that the Russian experiment had nothing to do with socialism but their words fell, to all practical purposes, on deaf ears. In fact, it was very convenient, even to opponents of socialism, to qualify the occupation of state power by the Bolsheviks as a socialist revolution. If this totalitarian power was equated to socialism, then those who opposed it could very well spread the message that they should be in control of the state in order to act as a bulwark against socialism (i.e. against totalitarianism). At that point it was clear enough that implementing socialism and opposing socialism were only one and the same identical pretext to gain state power. For this reason, as we will see later, the political struggle following the Russian revolution should not be characterized anymore in terms of socialism versus antisocialism, both systems having become in practice pure and simple statism.
In a backward country like Russia, statism was dominated by a party élite which qualified itself as communist and which had succeeded in championing the distribution of land to the peasants and the immediate ending of the war with Germany.
In a more advanced and industrialized country, in the presence of a substantial middle class, the political crisis would consign state power over to the party more able to capture the favour of an expanding petty bourgeoisie. This is what happened in Italy.
The Italian Recipe (^)
The Italian workers' movement started getting organized towards the middle of the XIX century, first as a series of mutual aid groups (società di mutuo soccorso) and workers' fasci (fasci operai). Finally, in 1892, the Socialist Party of Italian Workers was founded at the Genoa Congress. A push in that direction came when some prominent protagonists of the anarchist movement (first of all Andrea Costa) decided that a long political struggle for progressive improvements was more likely to be successful than a social revolt for immediate emancipation.
Many aspects were beginning to operate in that sense. First of all, the new electoral law (1882) that allowed for an enlargement of the male right to vote that was left to grow progressively in direct relation to the increase in literacy. In 1912, universal male suffrage was eventually introduced, putting more weight on electoral and parliamentary politics.
Similarly to what was happening in other countries, the Italian state, under conservative or liberal governments, passed the first measures of social legislation such as sickness insurance (1886), accidents insurance and pensions (1898). More was to come under the governments of Giovanni Giolitti, a liberal, especially the restrictions on the employment of children and the protection of women in the work place (1907).
This is really nothing new. The liberals, in Italy as elsewhere, were the true sowers of the seeds of statism in that they were replacing, with the state, friendly societies and self-help experiments (see 1996, Lorenzo Gaeta and Antonio Viscomi) that were already in existence and could have grown to represent the true backbone of personal and social care.
Furthermore, they did not limit their intervention to introducing more humane rules in the work place but went on to extend the presence of the state in the economy, an example being the nationalization of the life insurance industry (1912) under Giolitti. A critical commentator of this evolution that was marred also by financial scandals of political origin, remarked that
"economic liberalism becomes state socialism" ["il liberismo diventa socialismo di Stato"] ; and that "Giolitti had the heroic cynicism of presenting as liberal this politics of state pillage." ["Giolitti ha avuto l'eroico cinismo di presentare come liberale questa politica di saccheggio dello Stato."] (1924, Piero Gobetti)
As a matter of fact, the Italian state had been dirigist and interventionist almost from its inception, granting protective tariffs to agricultural and industrial producers, promoting imperialist adventures, and finally participating in the First World War. These were all policies promoted by so-called liberal or bourgeois governments.
The situation in the socialist camp was no different if we believe what Engels wrote in 1872 concerning the Italian members of the International. According to him
"all the self-proclaimed sections of the Italian International are run by lawyers without lawsuits, doctors without patients, students of billiards, salesmen and other traders, and, especially, journalists of the minor press with a more or less dubious reputation." (1872, Friedrich Engels).
This statement should not detract from the fact that there were also nuclei of workers and self-help societies not linked to the International, which were really working for socialism and social emancipation.
In any case, many years later, to confirm Engels' words, another sharp observer, Antonio Gramsci, referring to the political parties, some of which were the heirs of the International, stressed the original
"negative aspect common to all the political parties, which were born as electoral machines." ["la deteriorità dei partiti politici, che nacquero tutti sul terreno elettorale"]. "The fundamental issue at the Genoa Congress [where the Socialist Party was founded in 1892] was the electoral question" ["al congresso di Genova la quistione fondamentale fu quella elettorale."] (1929-1935, Antonio Gramsci)
According to Gramsci
"the parties were not an organic component of the people (a vanguard, an élite), but a bunch of canvassers and intriguers, a gathering of petty provincial intellectuals, emerging from a selection gone awfully wrong." ["i partiti non furono una frazione organica delle classi popolari (un'avanguardia, un'élite), ma un insieme di galoppini e maneggioni elettorali, un'accolta di piccoli intellettuali di provincia, che rappresentavano una selezione alla rovescia."] (1929-1935, Antonio Gramsci)
With this human background and in the presence of the new opportunities offered by the political struggle to gain power and influence through the state, it is no wonder that the Italian Socialist Party developed a strong statist inclination, shared in different ways by those who said they wanted to change the state pacifically and gradually (the reformists) and by those who proclaimed they wanted to subvert and conquer it violently and swiftly (the revolutionaries). The only result coming out of this internal fight was the inability to take any effective decision of any nature (reformist, revolutionary) for fear of permanent divisions.
Eventually, the inevitable split took place in 1921 with the founding of the Italian Communist Party.
Within a very short period, socialism in Italy would be obliterated by another movement led by an ex-socialist that would take from state socialism most of its ideas and, especially, most of its electorate: Fascism.
If we consider that the Italian Socialist Party received 32.4% of the electoral consensus only 3 years before the installation of fascism, we realize the enormous shift in political favour that took place in such a short time. This could happen only because the two movements were proposing the same recipes, i.e. the occupation of state power. Fascism succeeded because it looked more modern, more dynamic and more national.
Fascism was a mixture of socialist or populist verbiage sweetened by nationalistic and patriotic declarations. The outcome, which would be summed up later on in the slogan "Italy proletarian and fascist," became acceptable to many different strata of the population, even, in the end, to the monarchy and the aristocracy.
In other words, Fascism is a national socialism capable of appealing to a wide area of the electorate (it would obtain 65% of the popular vote in 1924), from the industrialist and the landowner to the rebel and the downtrodden, and especially to the average person who wanted peace and quiet, security and the trains arriving on time. It was the classic Italian minestrone that received the support of the main liberal newspaper (il Corriere della Sera), the nationalistic patriotic circles, the petty bourgeoisie working for the state or aspiring to a secure job within the state machinery. It needed only the approval and the consecration of the king, and that duly arrived on the 29th October 1922.
In later historical reconstructions and interpretations, fascism has been portrayed as a reactionary movement in total opposition to socialism. This is true if for socialism we mean a conception and praxis where pre-eminence is given to civil society and individuals. Otherwise, with socialism deformed and reduced to statism, not much weight should be assigned to the contraposition fascism vs. socialism other then considering it as a fight (harsh and violent) by two political groups having, as already stressed, the same goal, i.e. the appropriation and occupation of state power.
The similarities between the two movements were clear from the start if Karl Radek, a communist propagandist and activist, already in an article written in 1923, was able to qualify fascism as a sort of "socialism of the middle classes." (1923, Karl Radek)
Mussolini used many aspects of socialist analysis, derived especially from Blanquism and early Marxism. For him, the concentration of the means of production in a few hands required the centralization of political decisions, that is the intervention of the central state, an ethical institution in defence of the exploited masses and the planning brain of economic and social life, against the selfishness of the big capitalists and the (supposed) disorder brought about by capitalism. Moreover, he salvaged the theme of the class struggle which, in the era of the nation state, was transformed into the fight conducted by the proletarian nations against the plutocratic countries. (1910, Enrico Corradini).
Mussolini even openly recognized the affinities between fascism and communism when in an intervention before the Italian Chamber of deputies (1/12/1921) he declared: "fascists and communists, subjected to daily harassments by the police, could very well end up by associating for a period before eventually fighting each other for the share of the state spoils, considering, as I do, that between us although there are no political affinities, there exist philosophical ones. We believe, like you, that a centralized unitarian state is a necessity, a state capable of imposing to every individual an iron discipline; the only difference is that you reach this conclusion through the concept of class and we through the concept of nation." ["fascisti e comunisti, sottoposti quotidianamente ad un martellamento di polizia, potrebbero finire anche per intendersi salvo a combattersi energicamente dopo per la ripartizione del bottino, anche perché io riconosco che fra noi e i comunisti non ci sono affinità politiche, ma ci sono affinità intellettuali. Noi, come voi, riteniamo che sia necessario uno Stato accentratore ed unitario, che imponga a tutti i singoli una ferrea disciplina; con questa differenza, che voi giungete a questa conclusione attraverso il concetto di classe, e noi vi giungiamo attraverso il concetto di nazione."] (1950, Angelo Tasca)
The fascist recipe brought about what was then foreseeable from the start, that is a programme of massive intervention by the state as regulator of the economic and social life of the nation, i.e. of the individuals. Large state institutions were set up to control the distribution of financial resources (IMI) and to give succour to the needs of the industrial structure (IRI). A modern historian has defined Mussolini as "the great priest of state collectivism." (1997, Denis Mack Smith)
Finally, an ex-socialist had realized in Western Europe the dream of the state socialists of enthroning the state as the supreme regulator of society. For this reason, Italian fascism should not be characterized as antisocialism but as a modern version, compared with the Russian experience, of 20th century state socialism.
The English Path (^)
The English are those who have been most consistently and for the longest period immune from extensive statism.
In England, the free initiative of enlightened and caring individuals, and the activities of the organized labour movement were responsible for setting up a process of continuous improvement in living conditions that, in the course of some decades, might really have brought about a society were exploitation, poverty and hardship were a distant memory.
This social dynamic was altered by the introduction of the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. These Acts, granting the right to vote to working men, made possible the political representation of their interests, paving the way to the introduction of a series of parliamentary measures in their favour.
This had the effect of transferring gradually the struggle for the emancipation of the individuals from the social to the political arena and from the social movements to the political parties.
In England, the Liberal Party was the one that, right until the beginning of the 20th century, represented the interests of the workers. The party had undergone a radical transformation with respect to its basic principles according to which the only justification for intervention by the state in the life of individuals was to prevent harm and watch over grievances.
In the United Kingdom, better than elsewhere, we can observe the trajectory of the Liberal Party, from one in favour of civil society to one keen on introducing more and more statist measures to regulate and, supposedly, to ameliorate social life. As remarked, with a hint of satisfaction, by a supporter of state intervention, Sydney Webb,
"the National Liberal Federation adopts the special taxation of urban ground values as the main feature in its domestic program, notwithstanding that this proposal is characterized by old-fashioned Liberals as sheer confiscation of so much of the landlords' property." (1889, Sidney Webb, The Basis of Socialism - Historic)
For that matter, the conservative party was even more keen on state intervention:
"Mr. Chamberlain and the younger Conservatives openly advocate far-reaching projects of social reform through State and municipal agency, as a means of obtaining popular support." (1889, Sidney Webb, The Basis of Socialism - Historic)
They were all following on the trail of French and German experiences. Bismarck's welfare programme had a big influence on the introduction of social legislation between 1908 and 1911.
What all this amounts to is that, before statism became the benchmark of the socialist party, the road to statism had been very well prepared and inaugurated by other parties (liberal and conservative) who were supposed to be marching on a very different path.
Thanks to this statist inclination of all political parties, Sydney Webb could not help noticing (already in 1889) the omnipresence of the State and of its considerable power:
"The State in most of the larger industrial operations prescribes the age of the worker, the hours of work, the amount of air, light, cubic space, heat, lavatory accommodation, holidays, and meal-times; where, when, and how wages shall be paid; how machinery, staircases, lift holes, mines, and quarries are to be fenced and guarded; how and when the plant shall be cleaned, repaired, and worked. Even the kind of package in which some articles shall be sold is duly prescribed, so that the individual capitalist shall take no advantage of his position. On every side he is being registered, inspected, controlled, and eventually superseded by the community; and in the meantime he is compelled to cede for public purposes an ever-increasing share of his rent and interest." (1889, Sidney Webb, The Basis of Socialism - Historic)
"Even in the fields still abandoned to private enterprise, its operations are thus every day more closely limited, in order that the anarchic competition of private greed, which at the beginning of the century was set up as the only infallibly beneficent principle of social action, may not utterly destroy the State. All this has been done by "practical" men, ignorant, that is to say, of any scientific sociology, believing Socialism to be the most foolish of dreams, and absolutely ignoring, as they thought, all grandiloquent claims for social reconstruction. Such is the irresistible sweep of social tendencies, that in their every act they worked to bring about the very Socialism they despised; and to destroy the Individualist faith which they still professed. They builded better than they knew. " (1889, The Basis of Socialism - Historic, by Sidney Webb)
There is nothing to object to in this analysis and portrait of historical reality other than to point out that what Sidney Webb defines as socialism is nothing else than statism, with society identified with and subsumed under the state. A confirmation of this view comes, indirectly, from Sidney Webb's own words, when he stigmatizes economic competition as totally detrimental to the State, with no mention of society and individuals, supposedly included under the term state.
The attraction of statism was proving irresistible in every political quarter especially because it was rewarding in terms of electoral consensus.
It should then appear as a normal and predictable development that socialist thinking, in England too, was becoming more and more statist oriented, mainly, but not only, through the activities and writings of the Fabian Group.
One of the most important protagonists of the group was George Bernard Shaw. In 1889 he had contributed to the "Fabian Essays" with a piece on the economy of socialism in which he advocated
"some agency having the power and the goodwill to distribute them [the resources] justly according to the labor done by each in the collective search for them. This desire is Socialism; and, as a means to its fulfilment, Socialists have devised communes, kingdoms, principalities, churches, manors, and finally, when all these had succumbed to the old gambling spirit, the Social Democratic State, which yet remains to be tried." ( The Basis of Socialism - Economic by G. Bernard Shaw)
In 1927 Shaw expressed his political views in "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism." It became a very popular and widely read book and so the notion of socialism depicted in those pages had a strong influence on the future connotation of the term. What emerges from those pages is an image of socialism as a reality based on the distribution of income and administration of services by a bureaucratic paternalistic entity, the State.
"until the Government has acquired all the power of employment that the private employers now possess" ... "it cannot distribute the national income equally" and so "it cannot practise Socialism." (1928 - 1937, George Bernard Shaw)
Shaw was convinced that, in order to reach socialism, the state
"must [itself] become the national landlord, the national financier and the national employer." [1928 - 1937, George Bernard Shaw]
He was then quite sympathetic to the Bolshevik experiment (changing his mind only in a later period) to the point of declaring in a 1931 speech, after his journey to Russia:
"I have been preaching Socialism all my political life and here at last is a country which has established Socialism, made it the basis of its political system, definitely thrown over private property, and turned its back to Capitalism." (G. B. Shaw in Michael Holroyd, Biography of Shaw, vol. III, 1992).
The irony of the case is that, in the same year (1931) Stalin was branding as "a petty-bourgeois deviation" the very economic equality that Shaw thought could be achieved once the State became the only owner of all the means of production.
Another sympathizer and supporter of socialism was H. G. Wells. For Wells, socialism is "the organized civilized world state" (1908, H. G. Wells, First and Last Things). With this phrase he sums up the visions and expectations of his age, i.e. the idea of socialism not only as a world system but also as centred on a world state.
The liberal idea that society is a self-organizing system through personal free choices and the socialist vision of a society which
"organizing production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will dispatch the whole state machine ... to the Museum of Antiquities, side by side with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe" (1884, Friedrich Engels),
have been, in the end, displaced and replaced by the statist conception based on the need for a controlling centre assumed as an indispensable datum. In Wells we go beyond national state socialism but we are still well inside state socialism, and in his case, Super State socialism.
On the whole, the ideas that Shaw and Wells expressed and qualified as socialist are symptomatic of an age where the State was the unquestioned point of reference for everybody, however they defined themselves, socialists or antisocialists.
In this respect, not very much will differentiate the ideas of the liberal Keynes and the liberal Beveridge from those of many labour leaders and activists. When the British Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt in a speech made in 1888 famously declared "We are all socialists now" he was only expressing a general conviction. He could have more appropriately said "We are all now in favour of state intervention" but the substance would have not changed in so far as for socialism it was already meant state socialism or statism.
The English path of continuous abandonment of classic liberalism and socialism towards statism would have, amongst other things, a certain influence on the USA which represents an exception with respect to the socialist/antisocialist discourse, but only in so far as the direct appeal and circulation of the term socialism is concerned.
The American Exception (^)
To call the USA experience with regard to socialism and antisocialism an exception, derives from the fact that no socialist party with a substantial following and clear statist inclination, like in Europe, has ever existed in the USA. However, this does not mean that statism has not appeared and prospered there, but only that those who introduced statist measures did so while, at the same time, proclaiming vehemently their anti-statism and pro-individualism credo (2000, Cato Policy Report). A sign of this is the fact that, in the USA, those in favour of state intervention have called themselves liberals, turning upside down the historical meaning of that word and avoiding the risk of using more appropriate but also less appealing labels.
From the beginning, the USA Federal and State governments have been very keen on making people believe, and the American people have been exceptionally willing to believe, that the presence of the state in American society is minimal.
American history shows that this is far from the truth.
Already in 1821 John Taylor was writing his "Tyranny Unmasked" to oppose the introduction of protectionist measures; unfortunately that became reality in 1826. This is one of the clues that the collusion between business and government was spreading and consolidating.
Moreover, since the time of Andrew Jackson (1829) if not earlier, the capturing of state spoils and their distribution amongst supporters and sympathizers of the victorious party was considered the natural outcome of gaining state power. In this respect, the introduction of democratic representation was marching hand in hand with the democratization of political corruption.
By the end of the century, the phenomenon was so manifest that Engels dwelled upon it in a long passage in his 1891 introduction to Marx's "The Civil War in France." He wrote:
"Nowhere do 'politicians' form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America. There, each of the two major parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions. It is well known how the Americans have been trying for thirty years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and how in spite of it all they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch of the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. And nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends, and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it." (1891, Friedrich Engels)
Besides this robbers' statism, there were also well-intentioned individuals and currents of thought emerged advocating what, by some, would be considered socialist measures, that is the intervention of the state for regulating most aspects of social life.
In 1888 Edward Bellamy came out with his futuristic novel "Looking Backward 1888-2000" in which he dreamt of a society totally administered by an entity that he called the nation.
In this anticipation of things to come we find all the seeds that make the spirit of the era:
- the rejection of individualism and the plea for its conquest: "the excessive individualism which then prevailed was inconsistent with much public spirit";
- the irresistible trend towards concentration and centralization: "the movement toward the conduct of business by larger and larger aggregation of capital, the tendency toward monopolies, which had been so desperately and vainly resisted, was recognized at last as a process which only needed to complete its logical evolution to open a golden future to humanity";
- the need for increasing intervention by the government: "the idea of such an extension of the functioning of government is, to say the least, rather overwhelming." (1888, Edward Bellamy)
For all these reasons,
"the industry and commerce of the country ... were entrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation ... became ... the sole employer, ... a monopoly in the profits and economy of which all citizens shared." (1888, Edward Bellamy)
There is no mention of socialism or collectivism in Bellamy's text but the brand of European "socialists" who were more and more leaning towards the state would have agreed with his analysis and solution.
In 1891 Ignatius Donnelly wrote a political novel prefiguring the coming 20th century, when private schools are abolished and the state "owns all road, street, telegraph and telephone lines, railroads and mines, and takes exclusive control of the mails and express matter." (1891, Ignatius Donnelly). In this text the state was seen, once again, as the main actor in a stupendous progressive future.
At the same time, in academic circles, Lester Ward was attacking the principle of laissez-faire in favour of an active intervention of the state in many social fields. To stress again the exceptional and paradoxical situation of the USA, it must be said that the pro-statism messages of Ward were apparently less successful than the contemporary anti-statism writings of William Graham Sumner; however, while "Ward was forgotten and Sumner extolled, government and economy were moving along the lines charted by the former rather than by the latter." (1950, Henry Steele Commager)
Moreover, as pointedly remarked by the same Ward "those who denounce state interference are the ones who most frequently and successfully invoke it." (1895, Lester Ward)
In 1884, a group of young economists convened to found the American Economic Association. Amongst them there was Richard T. Ely, who prepared a draft of the association charter in which he expressed some very strong ideas, quite likely shared by a certain number of his colleagues, concerning the role of the state in society: "We regard the state as an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress." (in 1950, Henry Steele Commager)
At the beginning of the 20th century, the election of Theodore Roosevelt marked an important point on the road to the extension of the power of the federal state. Another was the participation in the First and the Second World Wars. During the inter-war period the Americans accepted a level of interference in their lives that not many people would have accommodated. The prohibition of the manufacture, sale or transportation of liquors, the state-upheld racial segregation, the intrusion of the Inland Revenue Department in personal affairs, they all bear to witness a pervasive and domineering state.
For this reason, in the history of the USA more than anywhere else, the opposition to socialism, presented as upholding the freedom of individuals against subjection by the state, is, in many respects, totally fake, just part and parcel of political gimmick and chicanery, certainly not to be taken at face value by any social scientist.
The peculiarity of the USA position consists, then, in the fact that, in theory and as a matter of principle, mainstream politicians of different extraction proclaim to be all against socialism identified with statism; in reality, once in power, they do everything to implement statism and call it liberalism.
However, historians and social scientists, in general, have been quite unwilling to separate propagandist declarations from matters of fact, probably because they were more interested in upholding political positions than scientific truth. This is especially evident in the socialist-antisocialist struggle of the first half of the 20th century. However, before examining the following periods, it is necessary to ponder briefly the experiences previously sketched.
Some considerations on the socialist and antisocialist experiences (^)
The experiences examined lead us to highlight some aspects of the almost irresistible march towards statism of the so-called socialist and antisocialist ideas and policies.
Statism has been the lethal virus that has infected both liberalism and socialism and has led them to an inevitable death. The virus was incubated by populist and conservative state leaders (Napoleon III, Bismarck), inoculated by self-proclaimed liberal politicians and intellectuals (Lloyd George, Sydney and Beatrice Webb), spread and made acceptable to the masses by authoritarian and national socialist figures like Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler. Statism has finally become an unquestionable reality for every political activist, ignorant of the fact that, for his forerunners, it was almost axiomatic that the state was an entity with a very limited role (liberals) or that was deemed to disappear with the advancement of progress (socialists).
The success of statism is then in direct relation with the debacle and rout not only of classic liberalism but also and especially of true socialism. In fact, it is necessary to stress as clearly as possible that statism is totally incompatible with socialism, being based on:
- nationalism instead of internationalism
- militarism instead of pacifism
- state apparatus instead of civil society.
The death of liberalism first and socialism later, together with the success of statism, are due mainly to the existence of three self-supporting justifications that made the theory and practice of statism:
- Politically correct. The enlargement of the electoral suffrage and the advancement of representative democracy did make acceptable the regulation and control by the state of the life of individuals. The simple fact that people elect their rulers seemed, and still appears, to many, a plausible and sufficient reason for accepting the existence of individuals with powers wider than most hereditary kings of the past. Clearly, there is nothing objectionable to voluntary servitude if only it didn't involve, because of majority rule and the principle of territorial sovereignty, people who are not at all sympathetic towards the idea and reality of this transfer of power.
- Economically advantageous. The widening of the sphere of intervention of the state has swollen incredibly the number of state bureaucrats, state-related occupations, and state-distributed favours. For many this has represented the principal reason for supporting or not opposing statism. At a certain point the choice ceased to be between anti-statist or pro-statist parties but which party is likely to gain state power and so it is thus expedient to support in order not to be left aside or behind when the division of the spoils takes place.
- Morally captivating. Statism has presented the state as the only real defender and protector of the masses, usually after having first destroyed or abolished existing autonomous institutions of self-help and self-protection. The moral argument has been used, for instance, by the state socialists against capitalist exploiters or presumed enemies of the people, and by the "antisocialists" (e.g. the national socialists) against the "plutocratic" nations and the "bloodsucker" Jews. These campaigns against the rich and powerful, besides the brutality and the horror with which they were conducted, should not blind us to the fact that they created new rich and powerful figures, namely those that assumed the control of the state coffers and of the state levers of power.
The betrayal of principles and the putting forward of appealing justifications were both possible because the parties, and especially the socialist parties that emerged in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century, were assuming, in different ways and forms, the characteristics of:
- A national sect. The socialist parties, founded in every country, became national parties with national interests to protect at any cost in order to capture the national electorate. The idea that a national entity could foster internationalism is a simple illusion. In this context, the only conceivable internationalism is the one represented by a centre (Berlin or Moscow) which all the other parties model themselves on (e.g. the German social democratic party) or take orders from (e.g. the Russian Bolshevik party).
- A militant sect. The conviction in the regenerative powers of the class struggle and in the righteousness of their own positions pushed the most militant components of the sect to a series of internal struggles for the control of the party (e.g. between revolutionaries and reformists) or for the control of the movement (e.g. between communists and anarchists in the Spanish war, or between communists and social democrats, called social-fascists, in Germany before Hitler's rise to power). The militant activists increasingly resembled military soldiers, fighting opponents and heretics.
- A bureaucratic sect. The celebrated Social Democratic Party of Germany modelled its organization on the Prussian state and bureaucracy. Given its extraordinary electoral success, other European socialist parties copied the German social democracy. This assimilation and replication of authoritarian and bureaucratic forms of organization produced socialist parties whose daily working was in total contradiction with the professed ends of a socialist society.
Already in 1911 a member and an acute observer of the German Social-democratic party like Roberto Michels remarked that
"the party of the workers has ended up acquiring a vigorous centralization of its own, based upon the same cardinal principles of authority and discipline which characterize the organization of the state. It has thus become a governmental party, that is to say, a party which, organized itself like a government on a small scale, hopes some day to assume the reins of government upon the large scale." (1911 and 1925, Roberto Michels)
"In the long run ... the party organization, whatever advances it may make in the future, will never succeed in becoming more than an effective and miniature copy of the state organization." (1911 and 1925, Roberto Michels)
And he concluded his assessment of the German social democratic party with words that could not have been more clear and sarcastic:
"we have now a fine conservative party which continues to employ revolutionary terminology." (1911 and 1925, Roberto Michels)
Amongst the revolutionary socialist terminology was the battle cry of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As advocated by Marx and Engels, the dictatorship of the proletariat means simply the rule of the many (exploited) over the few (exploiters). And this is also what the supporters of representative democracy advocate and what an insightful mind like Tocqueville has called "the tyranny of the majority." (1835, Alexis de Tocqueville).
We could add that the dictatorship of the proletariat came to be, in a backward country like Russia, the brutal dominion of the party over the masses, and the tyranny of the majority is, in more advanced countries, the suffuse dominion of the government (or the parliamentary majority) over the masses. The difference, albeit striking, is only in the levels and forms of the constriction and is more related to the stage of civility reached by the subjects than to a presumed temperate nature of the power. It does not then represent a distinction in the conception of power insofar as they are both (the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dominion of the majority) a legacy of the current of ideas that has Rousseau as one of its exponents and culminated in the Jacobinism of the French Revolution.
This is a further aspect of the fact that the opposition socialism-antisocialism is a deceitful one, being more manufactured than real, with respect to alternative ideas and practices. This emerges very clearly during the war years when the clash between the two factions reached its highest level.
Socialism and antisocialism during the war years (^)
The first half of the 20th century has been characterized as a period of total struggle between reaction and revolution, the former represented by Fascists and Nazis and the second by Socialists and Communists.
In reality, no historical phase has seen such a widespread intermingling of ideologies and individuals passing from one camp to the other, keeping nevertheless the same faith in statism but under a different flag and political formation. In fact, in many cases, what to an observer more worried about form (labels) than substance (content) appears as disloyalty and inconsistency, on closer inspection reveals itself to be only a tactical shift through which the original political conception is kept while the external shell (i.e. the original party one belonged to) is dropped. Too many cases have happened in too many countries for this phenomenon to be simply qualified as betrayal of ideals or, even worse, swept it under the carpet as unpalatable and disgraceful occurrences.
However, this is what has happened. Most of us at school have been presented with a reconstruction of events that tries to suppress ambiguities and dark aspects in order to convey only the convenient and appealing image of a fight between good and evil, with the good prevailing in the end.
Unfortunately, this image is far from the truth.
A more inclusive exposition and explanation of events points to the fact that, out of state socialism, already well developed theoretically and practically at the beginning of the 20th century in its nationalistic and bureaucratic features, first arose authoritarian state communism (Russia), then authoritarian state socialism in the forms of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. They all originated from the same root, that is state socialism. For this reason an unconventional participant and observer of the events in those years has defined the clash between fascism and socialism in Europe as "a civil war within socialism." (1938, Ignazio Silone)
The amount of evidence in support of this view is overwhelming. The fact is that for many historians and social scientists it was a disturbing piece of evidence, either because they wanted to forget their own involvement on the side of the losing faction or because it shattered the image of purity of the other faction to which they belonged or had recently moved to.
Let us look at some episodes and protagonists of that period.
What characterizes the main actors of the political struggle during the turbulent years that prepared and saw the disaster of the world war (1914-1945) is their obsession with a single aim: the gaining and holding of state power.
In Russia, from November 1917 and during the following years up to his death, Lenin threw over board all his Marxism and imposed his personal dictatorship as a new czar who knew better than anybody else how to push towards forced industrialization, while calling it socialist emancipation. He was also promoting Russian supremacism defining it as communist internationalism.
In Italy, Mussolini, the revolutionary socialist who had been arrested in the past (1911) for demonstrating violently against the Italian imperialist war in Libya and who had signed the manifesto against the War (July 1914) of the Italian Socialist Party, had moved (October 1914) to a position favourable to the intervention in the conflict. Behind this decision there was, as always, the need to be at the centre of the action and of the attention. The same exigency common to many individuals after the war, who will feel not only disconcerted and dispirited by the emptiness of bureaucratic and parliamentary socialism but also forgotten and abandoned in their aspirations and will migrate to the fascist movement.
Even after having been expelled from the Party and dismissed from the editorship of the Party daily paper (L'Avanti) Mussolini reaffirmed his socialist roots giving the new paper he founded and directed (Il Popolo d'Italia) the subtitle "socialist daily." However, it was not only the leader of the movement, Benito Mussolini, who was a socialist-ex-socialist. From socialism came major figures like Roberto Farinacci, the one who was defined "the fascist prototype," and some revolutionary trade-unionists (like Edmondo Rossoni) besides the large bulk of the followers. Full of socialist themes and aims was the original programme of the party ("Programma dei fasci italiani di combattimento" (1919), not a single point of which got implemented during the 20 years in which the party was in power.
In Germany, the claim of National Socialism to be part of socialism is openly declared in the very name of the party; the fact that it gets shortened to Nazism might be only a clever way to hide an unpleasant association, be it real or pretended.
As a matter of fact, the original program of the National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei adopted in 1920 was, like the fascist one, full of what were considered socialist demands, centred on the state intervening extensively in economic activity (see articles 7 and 13) and in the life of individuals (see articles 20 and 21). (1920, Programme of the German Workers' Party)
For this reason, at a certain point in time many socialists and communists became favourably disposed to the new national socialist party.
The masses, which had been instructed to expect from the state the solution to their problems, once they found themselves in dire straits and had to choose between empty internationalist verbiage coming from Moscow and national socialist promises by a German party, were ready, in the end, to align themselves under the national socialist flag. All of a sudden, many activists, disappointed by the inertness and inconclusiveness of their party, left bag and baggage and marched with the national socialists. As related by one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, "it was a total surprise for the people of Berlin to see one day the typical 'Schalmeienkapellen' of the communists joining in a street parade in brown uniform." (1938, Ignazio Silone).
This outcome had been prepared by the common organization and participation of communist and national socialists in strikes and demonstrations (like the Berlin public transports strike of 1932), by the common disparagement of and attack against any surviving trace of liberalism and liberal thinking, and, above all, by the common extolment of the state as the only truly social entity.
Besides that, the idea that the state was also an empty shell to be filled by anyone for any possible purpose, was proving to be irresistible. Even at the moment of the electoral landslide of the National Socialist Party in March 1933 (more than 17 million suffrages, i.e. 44% of the electorate), the communists were hopeful that their time had almost arrived. They considered those results "a big step forward in the direction of the final victory of the proletariat." (1938, Ignazio Silone).
Their battle cry was: "After the Nazis - We." (1982, Lewis A. Coser)
The experiences in Italy and Germany could be considered two abnormal degenerations of "socialism" were it not for the fact that, all over Europe, we witness the same evolution of "socialists" becoming "national socialists" and then "antisocialists" while remaining, all the time, in search of an entity (the leader, the party, the state) capable of guiding them towards total regeneration or, sometimes more concretely, granting them daily security.
The aspiration to total renewal, ending in total illusion and disillusion, is epitomized, for instance, in France, by the trajectory of Georges Sorel. He started as a liberal conservative and became the leading theoretician of revolutionary syndicalism; after becoming disappointed by syndicalism, he entered the monarchist movement of "Action Française," and finally, ended up declaring himself in favour of the Bolshevik revolution. Sorel's experience, albeit quite extraordinary, is not unique. (see 1976, Zeev Sternhell)
One of the most renowned examples of an individual in search of a political path is that of Pierre Laval, elected in 1914 as socialist deputy (of the extreme left), who became sympathetic to National Socialism and was, for a time, prime minister during the German occupation of France. Even more interesting is the case of Marcel Déat, one of the most brilliant minds of European socialism. Having graduated from the École Normale, he started teaching philosophy and in 1926 was elected as a socialist MP. After having contributed to the development of socialist thinking, during the thirties, he was amongst the founders of the "Parti Socialiste de France," a nationalist organization in opposition to the socialist party of Léon Blum. He became the most outspoken admirer of Hitler and an active supporter of National Socialism as leader of the "Rassemblement National Populaire."
The mutual fascination between socialism and nationalism is not circumscribed to declared socialists. Jacques Doriot, a communist expelled (1934) from the party for his Trotskyist positions, founded the "Parti Populaire Français" (1936), which would cooperate closely with the Germans during the occupation.
In Belgium we find Hendrik de Man, the president of the Belgium Workers' Party and "one of the most original socialist philosophers of the twentieth century" (1976, Zeev Sternhell) who in 1940 welcomed the collapse of the plutocratic democracies as the prelude to a new era for the working class and for socialism. He collaborated with German National Socialism, convinced that the future of socialism belonged to them.
In Holland, the fascist movement of Anton Mussert called itself "Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging" and this fact confirms, once again, that fascism was mainly state socialism with a national mark.
In the Northern European countries too the appeal of National Socialism was strong for many socialists and communists. The most famous of them was Vidkun Quisling in Norway. He was sympathetic to the Russian revolution and to the Bolsheviks, associated himself with the leaders of the Norwegian labour movement and was in touch with the Norwegian communists. Finally, his ideas of the fusion of nationalism with socialism led him towards the most dynamic and energetic leader of National Socialism, Adolf Hitler.
In Sweden the social-democratic party, which came to power in 1932 during a time of economic crisis, looked with interest and sympathy, in the following years, to German National Socialism and to the experiments of state intervention in the economy that would lend weight to their own statist construction already in progress.
In England, the economic crisis following the crash of 1929 brought onto the scene individuals who were looking for new solutions to face the growing unemployment. The most brilliant of them was Sir Oswald Mosley, a socialist MP.
In 1930 as a Labour minister he advocated a large plan of state intervention in industry and public works to promote employment, state control of the provision of credit and state regulation of international trade. The plan was rejected and he left the party. After a failed attempt at setting up a socialist party alternative to the labour party, in 1932 he founded the British Union of Fascists.
While Mosley was progressively marginalised from political life and finally put under arrest because of his sympathies for German national socialism, his ideas of state intervention and state regulation survived and were given academic status by John Maynard Keynes and practical implementation by the American administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt .
The same ideas had been previously picked up and put to work by Hitler's administration in Germany. In those years, a financial expert of the Roosevelt circle expressed the conviction that the German national socialists had developed some very good technical economic ideas (see 1949, Benjamin M. Anderson) hinting that they might be of some use also in the USA.
American intellectuals (economists, social scientists, law experts, etc.) did much to promote this attitude favourable to massive state intervention. It meant new employment possibilities for them and for their children. With respect to employees in the federal executive civil service, including war and navy departments, we have the following figures:
- June 1916 : 480,327 employees (1910 pop.: 91,972,266)
- June 1946 : 2,748,545 employees (1940 pop.: 131, 669,275)
Even considering the increase due to the war, it remains an impressive growth if compared with the growth in population. The simple explanation is that the statist road undertaken required swelling the ranks of state employees. The national socialist vision of a pervasive and ubiquitous state had, then, succeeded in the most unsuspecting place.
The list of interpenetration of ideas and policies between so-called socialist and antisocialist personalities and movements could go on and on.
The fact that some of the figures previously listed found themselves on opposite war fronts is not proof that they were pursuing different aims. The war made strange bedfellows (e.g. the conservative Churchill siding with the "communist" Stalin) and strange enemies (the fascist Mussolini fighting against the fascist Metaxa). For this reason we should avoid using opposing categories like socialism versus antisocialism or freedom versus totalitarianism to interpret and portray the events of that period.
It would be better to talk of a phenomenon of generalized state socialism or, more precisely, statism. Within this common statist attitude and behaviour we could then distinguish between those motivated by calculated cynicism and those animated by misplaced idealism, because it is with reference to these two aspects that we could understand, at least from the psychological point of view, the phenomenon of state socialism during the period of the long European and World war (1914-1945).
An example of calculated cynicism is the pact Molotov-von Ribbentrop, when the emissaries of two state criminal gangs got together to devise an accord and make plans for some future looting (dismemberment of Poland). The national socialist von Ribbentrop, decorated with the order of Lenin, exemplifies with his colleague Molotov, once for all, that there is no difference whatsoever between "socialism" and "antisocialism" the moment they have become both state socialism, that is statism. (see 1934, Voline; 1939, Otto Rühle).
A case of misplaced idealism is represented by Nicola Bombacci. Revolutionary by profession, he was with Lenin when the white guards were advancing on St. Petersburg and the communists were prepared for a withdrawal. He was with Mussolini when the Anglo-American forces were entering Milan and the fascists were forced to withdraw towards Como. He died at the hands of a firing squad, guilty of being at the wrong time on the wrong side of an inexistent divide because, from the theoretical and practical point of view, they all were and will continue to be statists, all united by the myth of the state.
Socialism and antisocialism after the war years (^)
The statist ideology was so ingrained in people's minds, (thanks also to the indoctrination passed down by the state school system) that, even after the War and the direct experience of what the state was capable of (massacres, concentration camps, suppression of freedom, manipulation of minds, etc.) there were many who had not lost their confidence in the state and were still advocating its intervention for the regeneration of society.
In Italy, the statist mental attitude that was present in the pre-fascist period, had been perfected during the fascist period to such an extent that the exponents of all the parties who emerged in the post-fascism period shared it. They were still idealizing the state and expecting from the state the solution to every problem. Carlo Levi, a doctor and writer sent by the fascist regime to obligatory confinement in Southern Italy, after having met in Turin friends and acquaintances of different political orientations summed up the situation with these words:
"They were men of various opinions and dispositions: from the most enflamed extremists to the most rigid conservatives. ... They were all, fundamentally (it seemed to me now very clear) worshippers, more or less unaware, of the State; idolaters without their knowing it. It didn't matter if their State was the present one, or one they dreamt about for the future: in either cases it was the State, seen as something transcending individuals and the life of the people; tyrannical or fatherly provident, dictatorial or democratic, but always indivisible, centralistic and far away." (1945, Carlo Levi)
Fortunately, after the fall of Fascism and National Socialism the two most totalitarian states (Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany) had to abandon such extreme statism and to get, almost necessarily, on a path of relative liberalization and socio-economic openness. Moreover, in Germany, the memory of horrendous inflation caused by the political authorities led to the granting of autonomy to the Bundesbank, i.e. freedom from political interference. Both Germans and Italians were rewarded with an economic miracle that made, within fifteen years from the end of the war, the German economy the most powerful in Europe while in Italy an exceptional transformation was taking place that marked the definitive passage from a relatively backward and stagnant society to a more advanced and dynamic one.
Having said that, deep and diffuse vestiges of the past still remained, such as, for instance in Italy, a state institution like IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale) set up by fascism for rescuing ailing or obsolete industries.
But this was nothing compared to what was happening in other countries.
In England, an electoral landslide brought the Labour party to power in 1945 and this was seen as the historic opportunity to transform society according to the lines already sketched by the liberal Beveridge in his famous report of 1942 and envisaged by the members of the socialist Fabian Society (see 1943, Plan for Britain). The illusion that a government could solve on a mass scale, by the magic of its intervention, personal problems of poverty and ignorance was never so strong, reinforced by the resurgent myth of a socialist Soviet Union victorious against fascism. In the words of Harold Laski, one of the most renowned political scientists, the Soviet Union under Stalin was
"the audacious inventor of a new idea - the idea of a planned freedom." (1943, Plan for Britain).
Another famous intellectual, G. D. H. Cole, was on the same line of thought when he expressed the hope for
"the vast practical example of the Soviet Union to impress itself on the mass imagination of the British people as having a bearing on the future quality of their own lives." (1943, Plan for Britain).
We could accept the good faith of these intellectuals and forgive their total ignorance of all the existing data on the exploitative and un-free nature of the Stalinist regime; the fact remains that, spreading their faith in the thaumaturgic power of the state, they were embarking English society on a thirty year journey of socio-economic crises and unsustainable budget deficits that would diminish continuously the value of the pound. The post-war rise in the standard of living came through technological progress linked to individuals' ingenuity and tenacity, not out of state sponsored assistance and state run companies.
In post-war France there was no need for "socialists" in power to push for state intervention and direction of society. It was already in the French mental constitution, since the time of Colbert, later through the Jacobeans and Napoleon (the I° and the III°) and right down to the Front Populaire and to the Vichy government. Towards the end of the 1950's, with the return to power of General de Gaulle, the role of the state was stressed even more than usual, highlighting once again the fact that increasing the power of the state was, in the post-war period, the common platform of "socialists" and "antisocialists" alike.
In the United States, the election in 1952 of a Republican president, General Dwight Eisenhower, brought an extension and expansion of social security programmes managed by the federal state. As remarked by a leading American socialist,
"this Republican president, avowed foe of 'creeping socialism,' has given us the most comprehensive program for a welfare state yet set forth by a high official." (Norman Thomas in 1967, Charles I. Schottland ed.).
The culmination of this fascination with statism was reached when another Republican president, Richard Nixon, the anticommunist and antistatist par excellence, declared, at the beginning of the seventies: "We are all Keynesians," meaning that all politicians and all political experts and commentators were, almost without exception, in favour of state intervention.
What the politicians, experts and commentators were failing to notice, at the same time, was that, in every country after the war, the tenacity and ingenuity of the people, when left free to operate, even in a partial and circumscribed measure, had produced technological and socio-economic progress contributing, more than all state interventions put together, to the reduction of poverty and insecurity.
However, there was an exemplary case to which some, fascinated by state intervention, referred when they wanted to extol the wonders of state socialism. This is the Swedish case.
In Sweden from the beginning of the 20th century, the provision of assistance for the poor and the aged granted by the old village communities was codified in laws and taken up by the state. As usual, a Liberal government started the process of the Welfare State with the introduction in 1913 of old-age pensions. This confirms, once again, that the Welfare State is certainly not a socialist invention; what the socialists did was only to expand and strengthen it.
When the Swedish social democratic party came to power in 1932, all energies were channelled towards the recovery of production and the redistribution of economic wealth. In 1939 industrial production was 65% higher than in 1929; and while the other European countries were preparing for war, Sweden was overtaking all of them in economic wealth and social security.
However, this model was economically successful only during the period of growth in production. When the growth halted, the state got into serious financial trouble (the state sector deficit would reach 12% of GDP in 1993), besides being unable to keep all its promises in terms of provision of social services. With unemployment that would reach in 1996 more than 12% of the active population and 3 major devaluations of the krona (in 1976-1977, 1981-1982, and 1992) each of about 20% or more (1997, SNS Economic Policy Group Report) we have a picture of a state socialism that has run its course.
At the beginning of the '70s a critical observer was already qualifying the Swedish model of socialism as a totalitarian experiment, abhorring individuality and stifling creativity. (1971, Roland Huntford)
Up to then, the large majority of commentators of socialist inclination were stating that Sweden was not socialist enough because most industries were still privately owned. They were totally discounting the fact that the state controlled the economy in the most pervasive way through loan allocations, permit granting, centralized wage bargaining and so on. For these reasons the Swedish state was certainly not interested in the formal ownership of something over which it had substantial mastery.
At the beginning of the 80's the Swedish model appeared finally for what it was at root: unsuitable for creative individuals and unsustainable for society in the long run, based on a bloated state sector that supposedly promoted employment but actually fed parasitism and inefficiency, a state centralized decision making process that minimized flexibility and fostered passivity, and ever increasing taxation that had reached its limits of personal acceptability.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, it became, in general, more and more evident that not only was Soviet-like state ownership a totalitarian nightmare but that also Swedish-like state socialism was a dead end reality.
Also in other countries, the idea that the state can successfully manage the economy and appropriately regulate society would be put to rest, in the socialist and antisocialist camps. New state leaders realized that something had to be done in order to save the state from scorn and bankruptcy. What they put in place was a new model of statism that would be taken on board, in the years to come, by "socialists" and "antisocialists" alike.
Socialism and antisocialism towards the end of the 20th and at the dawn of the 21st century (^)
By the final quarter of the 20th century it was clear that the more the state intervened, especially in the economy, under the pretext of socialism or of any other general conception opposed to socialism (keynesism, welfarism, national duty, national interest, law and order conservatism, etc.) the faster it reached the end of its ascent and the beginning of its long descent from power to decadence and oblivion.
Some unconventional political figures (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan) were brought to office having envisaged and in part promoted a shift of attitudes towards the state.
In England, the sale of some assets owned by the state and the beginning of a liberalization of trade and finance, allowed the British economy to come back to life after decades of stagnation if not decay.
At the same time, the USA were also embarking on a process of liberalization and reduction of state intervention in the economy, that actually started under president Carter (Democratic party), was taken up and given some momentum under president Reagan (Republican party) and continued under president Clinton (Democratic party).
These policies of economic liberalization and denationalization have been generally qualified as anti-socialist; nevertheless, they proved to be quite successful from the point of view of economic performance and the rise of state revenues so that they were taken on board in recent years by many governments, especially "socialist" governments.
In France, the brief experience of old style nationalizations undertaken by president Mitterrand at the beginning of the 80's came to an abrupt halt when it was clear to everybody that the general economic situation was seriously deteriorating. The crisis was followed by a quick retreat and by a change in economic policies that, in due course, would see the nationalizations of the "socialist" François Mitterrand replaced by the denationalizations of the "socialist" Lionel Jospin.
In Italy, the participation in power of the socialist party at the beginning of the 1960's had marked the revival of nationalizations, the strengthening of state economic intervention, and, at the same time, the end of the post-war exceptional growth. During the 90's, the coming to power of the communists (or ex-communists) would instead be marking the beginning of the denationalization of the economy through the sale of state firms.
Only in Germany, has the unification-annexation by West Germany of East Germany introduced, in this panorama, a discordant note. The '90s saw a resumption of state intervention characterized, above all, by economic choices dictated by political motives (e.g. the 1 to 1 conversion of the East Germany currency for the West Germany Deutsche Mark). The politicians (in this case the Christian Democrats under Chancellor Kohl) were again meddling in monetary matters with negative consequences. The result is that it is taking longer for the new Germany to come out of the problems brought about by the unification than it took for West Germany to resurge from the destruction and ravages of the last war. This is most likely due to the different paths undertaken: personal free initiative then, state managed intervention now.
Outside Europe, one of the most interesting examples of de-nationalization of the economy took place in New Zealand during the 1980s under a Labour government.
In general it could be said that, while in the past the liberals initiated state intervention and acted like "socialists," now some socialists are promoting economic liberalism and are acting like "liberals." In this impersonation game, in which the terms socialist and liberals have lost their original meaning, what should, in any case, never be overlooked is the fact that the state is still there, with its huge presence.
In fact, even if state socialism has collapsed in Eastern Europe and is on the retreat almost everywhere, we should not confuse economic retreat with political disappearance.
What has happened is that the decline of the economic role of the state has permitted the strengthening of its political role. This means that the state rulers are focusing their attention less on managing directly the economic machine and more on letting it grow freely in order to extract resources out of it; less on providing employment (this is now the task of the economic actors) and more on controlling people through the state security apparatus and manipulating them through the mass media, owned by the state or fed with news manufactured by state spin doctors.
In other words, the new conception of the role of the state is that the state should leave more room to the economy for working (almost) undisturbed in order to produce goods and services in growing quantity. The aim is to drain resources from a productive apparatus in better shape through high taxes on goods and services (in Europe on average between 15 and 20% of the final price). The resources so absorbed are then used to pay state employees, to assist, as far as possible, some categories of state subjects, and to protect the ruling élite from what are considered internal and external menaces (dissidents, migrants, minorities).
The new role taken up by the state could be compared to that of a rentier to whom is destined between 40 and 50% of all the income generated in a country, and who is, at the same time, not only unable to spend it wisely and efficiently, but is also accumulating increasing debts. That was once the role and behaviour of the decaying aristocracy and monarchy in pre-revolutionary France.
In the 2002 presidential campaign in France, the candidate of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen characterized his political stance as:
- socialement de gauche (socially on the left)
- économiquement de droite (economically on the right)
- nationalement français (nationally French).
Probably he was not aware that he had highlighted also the traits of the new rentier state that the state politicians of all colours and denominations are trying to build, albeit with different stresses and with some corrections and widening of the horizon (e.g. the adjective French being replaced by the term 'European' or 'French in Europe').
For those who still believe in the original socialist message of the withering away of the state and are willing to work for this to happen, this right-left-national state is only the last absurd but ever recurring pastiche of a useless and dangerous entity.
It is time to go beyond the state and so beyond the silly and fake opposition of socialism vs. antisocialism, convenient masks both hiding the unsavoury reality of statism.
Beyond socialism and antisocialism (^)
To go beyond socialism and antisocialism means to go beyond a fake opposition and a fabricated deception.
As already repeatedly pointed out, socialism and antisocialism implemented in the course of history both amount to the same phenomenon: statism.
Certainly, it could be objected that not all statist experiences are the same and that some of them should not be dismissed so lightly, having done a lot to promote socio-economic security.
For instance, state socialism as implemented in Northern European countries has greatly contributed to the welfare of the common man. While this should be openly acknowledged and not unduly belittled especially where and when life conditions were harsh as in the Nordic environment of the past, it is fair to say that there are individuals in other countries (e.g. Switzerland) that have adopted a non-centralistic, non-statist model of development and have been the same if not even more successful in their socio-economic endeavours, achieving a good standard of living for the population at large. Moreover, the centralistic-paternalistic model, while it might be successful in the early stage of development, is likely to form a regimented person, not so well adapted not only to create new realities but also to cope with new realities.
And this is the core of the question.
In both socialist and antisocialist thinking and acting the central concern has been identified in the economic security of the common man. But economic security:
- should not be an aim in itself but one of the conditions that facilitate the attainment of a variety of personal and social ends;
- should not be a demand made upon the political authorities but a personal conquest originating from and leading to the strengthening of the personality and the development of enriching social relations.
When economic security is presented and becomes the overwhelming preoccupation of the people and when the people are led and start to believe that a superior political organization is capable of granting it to them, at that moment the conditions are in place for the state to replace the Church as the authority which provides paternalistic tutelage to the common man. With the state we reach the most totalistic form of tutelage ever implemented in history, under terms that are not, any longer, voluntary but inscribed in compulsory laws through administrative entities, affecting (almost) everything and everybody, with soft manipulation or harsh persuasion. Personal freedom becomes conditional and subordinated to political and economic security, and the individual becomes through and through a state subject (i.e. somebody lying under the state). In the final stance, human life is reduced to a full-time job and a full belly, with the human being becoming part of a physically satiated and morally insensitive herd.
In this state of affairs we find the most complete implementation of the pact that has existed throughout history between a master and his servants: security and assistance in exchange for freedom and obedience.
This is what state socialism and antisocialism have amounted to: the re-proposition of the old relationships of master and servants, proper for instance to feudalism, under the modern apparel of statism. This could have been avoided if both socialism and antisocialism had stressed aspects and aims different from those they did, namely:
- Social dynamics instead of political confrontation
Social dynamics does not require permanent leaders and representatives because it arises from situations that are not (fully) pre-ordained. It is only when a free social dynamic is obstructed or manipulated (e.g. institutionalized) that professional leaders and representatives emerge. At that point it is very likely that the debate and the action move to the terrain of political power instead of taking place in the area of social relations and possibilities. Political power involves the concentration and exertion of dominion by one group over another group; social relations and possibilities refer to the continuous widening of horizons and options to new groups and individuals.
- Personal emancipation instead of state tutelage
In the socialist and antisocialist experiences the individual is somebody to be disciplined and controlled, assisted and cared for, because the human being is considered to be basically:
- weak : unsteady and helpless
- ignorant : unwise and improvident
- vicious : unmerciful and violent.
In due course, many individuals assume the traits that are attributed to them and behave in the way they are treated; and so they become weak, ignorant and vicious as it has been assumed they were from the start.
In the past, some classical socialists presented the passage from capitalism to socialism as the movement from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of liberty. According to their view, the evolution of capitalism (technological progress) and the social struggle would produce a fully developed polyvalent individual. Instead, what the revised socialist model has put forward, even in its most promising experiences, is a belittled and mutilated individual, kept on the leash by the state for fear that he could do harm to himself and to others.
That socialists and antisocialists stressed political confrontation and state tutelage was an unavoidable choice once they adopted power politics as a means and state power as an end of their activity.
This is, once again, the re-actualization and modernization of a past reality. In the modern world, political conflicts have replaced the wars of religion. It follows that the imposition or the attempt, conducted more or less vigorously, to convince everybody of the universal superiority of a political creed has taken the place of forced conversion or moral indoctrination as to the supremacy of a religious faith and of its related practices (1967, Henry Kamen). The results have been even more terrifying and destructive for the body and for the mind. In the most favourable cases, the general outcome has been a crushing of moral, mental and material energies, already foretold by Tocqueville long time ago. (see 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville)
The idea that diverse political beliefs cannot co-exist as personal convictions but that, rather, they should fight each other to gain state power and, having achieved it, impose on everybody their articles of faith in the form of laws of the state, is like the belief that various religions could not live side by side but one had to prevail and root out or expel all the others present in a specific territory, imposing all its paraphernalia of rules and rites. Clearly, a creed that tries to force itself on everybody through powerful entities like the Church or the State should not be called either a moral or a political conception but simply a totalitarian yoke.
The wars of religion ended when the Church lost a great deal of moral authority and religion was dissociated from temporal power; once that happened, religion became a spiritual and personal experience and religious freedom was accepted as a matter of fact, almost automatically.
The political struggles for dominion will end when political creed will be dissociated from monopolistic state power imposed on everybody living in a specific area (territorialism) and affecting every aspect of their social life (totalitarianism). At that moment the state will cease to exist as territorial and totalitarian power; individuals will then be free to profess and, what is important and different from now, to practice any political creed (or no political creed) of their organization, following the rules that they have freely subscribed to, without any imposition on others who do not want to be part of that association or who have stipulated a different contract with different rules (1860, P. E. de Puydt). Certainly, the essential requirement for the validity of any contract is the presence of free will amongst the contracting parties and the absence of any coercion towards those external to it.
Furthermore, it is very likely that, once individuals are left free to develop and associate without allegiances or restrictions imposed on them from birth, we will find that in every political creed or religious faith or agnostic conviction freely professed and practiced there are the same basic principles proper to a free human nature and to gratifying social intercourse (universal brotherhood/sisterhood, care and mutualism, justice and fairness).
The freedom to practice different political creeds, following different rules, requires, naturally, the disappearance of any monopolistic pretension by any organization, be it the Church in the past or the State in the present. Only at that moment could we really consider ourselves civilized individuals having gone not only beyond fake convictions (like the socialist and antisocialist opposition) but also beyond our idiotic and pathologic fixation with shaping and dominating society at large. Then, each of us will concentrate on the more humble and necessary task of becoming a real, rational and truly relational human being.
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