December 28, 2017 Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is vast intellectual work to do to come to terms with the great delusion of the 20th century, namely that there would be a workers’ revolution against private ownership of capital that would end in something called socialism, whether of the right or left variety. Or perhaps what is needed is psychological work.

To believe in socialism, I’m convinced, requires a dogmatic theory of the direction of history. In this case, history means more than just stuff that happens. It postulates history as an actor independent of human choice, some kind of irresistible wind that buffets humanity from stage to stage.

This mental template is remarkably impervious to processing contrary information. Socialism is a case study in the capacity of the human mind to allow ideology to get in the way of good sense, to the point that nothing is what it appears to be.

It’s a common feature of all socialist ideology that it is dismissive of individual choice and replaces it with some form of Hegelian theorizing about what must be. It presumes that one’s own intelligence is capable of discerning directions of change that rise above normal human aspirations.

We like to think that this way of thinking is gone but this is doubtful. Socialist thought is the delusion that never quite fully goes away. It represents the fulfillment of a fundamental mistake, the belief that intellectuals can outsmart people’s choices in the course of their normal lives.

Gumballs on the Subway

What comes to mind for me is an amazing scene from 1917 New York. Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) was visiting the U.S. to cheer up the growing communist movement in the United States. He briefly hung out on the subway platform. He saw workers buying gumballs from machines and chewing madly as they rode. Trotsky might have been delighted that capitalism was providing such joy to regular people, but no: for him, the gum itself was evidence of exploitation and the inevitability of socialism.

“The car of the subway is jammed,” he wrote in a letter to friends. “In the subway are those who have become weaker. The color of their faces is greyish, their hands are hanging down weakly, their eyes are dim. . . . Only their jaws are moving, submissively, evenly, without joy or animation. . . . What are they trying to find in this miserable, degrading chewing? Capital does not like the working man to think and is afraid. … It has therefore adopted measures. … It has put up automats in each station and has filled them with disgusting candied gum. With an automatic movement of the hand the people extract from these automats pieces of sweetish gum, and they grind it with the automatic chewing of their jaws. . . . It looks like a religious rite, like some silent prayer to God-Capital.”

Look, I’m not a huge fan of gum, but honestly, this is just too much. Maybe gum is not evidence of the Marxist parable. Maybe instead people were just buying and chewing gum because they enjoy it?

Sombart the Great

To gain a grasp of this intellectual disorder and its tendencies, let’s look back at an early work of communist/Nazi Werner Sombart (1863-1941). He was a German professor of sociology and economics, a gigantically influential socialist whose works rocked European intelligentsia, as much as that of Karl Marx or Max Weber. He shaped the thought of several generations.

Most strikingly, Sombart, in the course of his academic career, easily made the transition from post-Marxist thought to embrace National Socialist ideology in the 1930s and even mapped out a vision of the planned economy that was celebratory of the rise of the Nazis. He was emblematic of the dexterity of his generation of intellectuals who had decided that liberalism and capitalism had to go and be replaced by a new form of socialist economic planning.

The Masterwork

Let’s take a look at his Socialism and the Social Movement of the 19th Century, published in English translation in 1898, at the height of the maturity of the age of laissez faire before it was shattered by World War I.

The book appeared at a time of astounding social and economic transformation incomparable to anything that had ever happened in history. The population in Europe was rising dramatically. People were on the move from the country to the city. New choices were available to more people than ever. New technologies from indoor electricity to flight to telephony to steel were changing everything. Cities were rising up in the air as never before, with skyscrapers and huge bridges that had previously been technologically impossible. Incomes were growing and migrant classes all over Europe and America were finding new riches.

Somehow Sombart looked at this scene with a sense of panic, that instead of the new birth of civilization he saw only rising misery and progressive impoverishment. The data defied his impression but no matter. He had it in his mind that capitalism would necessarily entail rising misery (forget that average people for the first time could buy books, makeup, train tickets, and even own homes) and that was it.

“There must be a specific kind of misery which characterises the proletariat,” he wrote. “I refer, here, particularly to those unhealthy workplaces, mines, manufactories with their noise and dust and heat, that have arisen with the modern method of production; I think of the conditions produced by these methods of production which tend to draw into the work certain categories of workers,—as women and children; I think further of how the concentration of population in industrial centres and in the great cities has increased the misery of external life for the individual.”

Sombart Knew Nothing of Factories

It’s certainly true that Sombart himself knew nothing of factories, but neither did he know of life on a feudal plantation or of poverty or of the hopelessness of peasantry in the countryside. His experience was of an academic, which is neither merchant nor worker.

Nonetheless, because of his theories and his pedigree, Sombart believed that he knew it all, whereas the people who actually chose to move to the cities, work in the factories, accept the wages, surely did not know what they were doing. For some crazy reason, the individual workers, he discerned, have made all kinds of choices over what to do with their lives that have actually increased their own misery. It was up to the socialists to save these poor slobs from themselves. His rhapsodic prose would sweep in a new stage of history and save humanity from liberalism.

One claim, in particular, strikes me: the idea that capitalism has increased the misery of external life. As compared with what they had before? That very much depends on what they did have before. To Sombart, the alternative to the factor was some kind of happy life of communist leisure in the countryside they left.

“With this vigour of life, however, is most closely united that which I would call the nervosity of modern times, an unsteadiness, haste, insecurity of existence,” he wrote. “Because of the distinctive character of economic relations, this trace of unrest and haste has forced itself into all branches not only of economic but as well of social life. The age of free competition has stamped itself upon all spheres of life. Every man strives with others, no one feels himself sure, no one is contented with his condition. The beauty and calm of rest are gone.”


But this is a strange claim. Since when was humankind contented with his condition? Certainly scratching in the dirt in exchange for minimal sustenance, security, a short life, no health care, constant infant mortality, and no economic advance, is no way to live. But this was precisely the plight of the working population 150 years earlier. The rise of opportunity and prosperity changed all that. But instead of celebrating the new aspiration of the average person to live a better life, through new forms of work in new places, Sombart could only regret and long for some mythical utopia of times past and future.

So despite all of Sombart’s pretense of favoring progress and social reform, there is a strange hint of reaction and revanchism about his whole line of thinking. He writes and complains about the world at the end of the 19th century:

“All is in flux—economics, science, art, morals, religion,” he observes. “All ideas on these matters are in such a process of change that we are impelled to the delusion that there is nothing now certain. And this is perhaps one of the most important considerations for the explanation of the real meaning of modern social agitation. It explains in two ways. In it we see the reason for that destructive criticism of all that exists, which allows nothing as good, which throws away all earlier faith as old iron in order to enter with new material upon the market. ”

Spoken like a true Tory! But actually it is worse. A good Tory wants preserve what is valuable. There is a whiff in the socialist sensibility that desires the turning back of the clock to a postulated time of the fantasy of communal joy. This is a joy that he alone would construct, heavily armed with the theories of Marx and Engels whom he celebrates unrelentingly in his 1898 book.

Sombart ends his opening salvo by decrying the “specific misery, contrast, uncertainty, springing from the modern economic system” and calling for “a reorganisation of all forms of life, through the tearing apart of earlier relations and the upbuilding of entirely new social forms upon a communistic basis.”

No surprise that reality in Europe and American did not conform, despite the revolution in Russia. Out of frustration for his revolution unrealized, he eventually came to move right, embracing anti-capitalist revolution wherever he could find it. In his case, it was with the revolt against liberalism in Germany in the 1930s. Sombart’s leftism became rightism but it was made of the same substance always: a loathing of regular people in their free choices and a longing for history to follow his own imaginings of what should be rather than what is.

Such is the core of socialist ideology: a delusion rooted in snobbery, fear of the uncontrolled, and, above all else, intellectual pretense.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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