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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


January 16th, 2000.

"Leacock's Views On Socialism."

"Socialism, therefore, starts with the idea of all people working together, under their own joint management and sharing up the product. It is a beautiful picture. There is only one difficulty with it - that it has never yet worked ... socialism has appeared and reappeared in altering forms, written out with a hundred variations. It is presented as the 'socializing' of all the nations into one productive machine, or as uniting the people in socialized municipalities, or joining them up into huge socialized industries, each a unit (syndicalism). It is presented as coming by catastrophe, by revolution, or by a single stroke of transformation (the government swallowing all the industries at once), or as coming so gradually that nobody need be afraid of it.
The most familiar picture of socialism shows a nation all organized into a disciplined army of workers, assigned to different trades and moved in and out according as to whether more of one thing or more of another is wanted. If the workers don't like any one kind of job, such as coal-mining, then the hours are shortened and wages increased, till the whole thing fits like a simultaneous equation in algebra. The direction of what to do and when and how to do it, is left to a board of elected officials, generally pictured as wise old men, if need be with flowing beards.
The delusion that beards flow and that old men are wise dies hard. But the notion will intrude itself that some of the wise old men might be clean-shaven and crooked, and give the soft jobs and the high pay to their own crowd. For there at once the difficult question arises - How are wages regulated? Do all people get the same? Or do some people get more if they are more skilled or more industrious? It's no use to say that under socialism people don't use money. A "charge account" or a "book credit" or a "labor-hour-certificate" is the same, then socialism only sets up a loafer's paradise. The socialist factory hand would feel a little tired and sleep until eleven. Even the benevolent old men would quit the office and go and play bridge in the club, if there was one.
The truth is, we are not so constituted as to work like that. Voluntary effort may last for a spurt of enthusiasm, may rise to heroic strength in emergency or danger or war, but as the day-to-day support of the world's work it would break like a reed.
But worse still would be to make everybody work ... to have underneath the wise old men a set of inspectors and time checkers ... there's no end to it. That's back again to the galleys, to the slaves, to Oriental despotism. The love of work is a glorious impulse, but there are sharp limits to it. People love to work on their own, for themselves and those near them; there is a "magic of property," of having something to call your own. No community-share in a public park can have the meaning of one square rod of a backyard garden, all your own. To say that inventors and scientists and thinkers work for work's sake is to be mixed as to what work is. They are not working; they are playing. So as a millionaire financier who never takes a holiday. He never needs one. It's all holiday to him.
It is proper, however, to pay to the idea of socialism, not to the practice of it, the tribute which fittingly belongs to it. There can be no doubt of the underlying inspiration which explains its appeal to younger minds, to people entering upon life and cherishing high ideals. The notion of all people working together in cheerful comradeship sounds vastly better, after all, than the stingy maxim, "every man for himself." The only difficulty with socialism, as said above, is that it doesn't yet work; it is too good; if the day ever comes when we are good enough for such a system, then we shall need no system at all."1


[For further views on socialism, see, blupete's essay, The Siren's Song.]

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NOTES:

1 Stephen Leacock's Our Heritage of Liberty (London: Bodley Head, 1942), p. 54-6.

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Peter Landry

January, 2000 (2011)