Chesterton’s Critique of Socialism

In his 1926 work, The Outline of Sanity, vaunted English journalist and author, G.K. Chesterton put forth his arguments against both Capitalism and Socialism. Chesterton essentially argues that the problem with Capitalism is that it leads to Socialism. Now there’s a thought. All too briefly put, the tendency of both Capitalism and Socialism is to centralize power. Capitalism places power in the hands of the few rich who actually own capital, while the vast majority work as (wage) slaves for the rich who own the factories and shops. The result is a de facto plutocracy. Socialism places complete power in the hands of the government, which leads to individual freedom being subordinated to the will of the State. The result is a de facto totalitarian state. Both the plutocracy of the Capitalist state and totalitarianism of the Socialist state are particular manifestations of an oligarchy. The rich are always the privileged few, just as it is the few who hold real power in a totalitarian state. The common man, which is the mass of men, lose in either case, even if Capitalism is to be preferred to Socialism.

Below is Chesterton’s brief critique of Socialism and why it leads to totalitarianism, although he does not use that word. As I noted earlier, his critique of Socialism is brief because on this score he was preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, his critique is worth noting, even if it is a familiar critique of the Socialist State. From The Outline of Sanity (IHS Press):

Socialism is a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those affecting life and essential living. If anything important is sold, the Government has sold it; if anything important is given, the Government has given it; if anything important is even tolerated, the Government is responsible for tolerating it. This is the very reverse of anarchy; it is an extreme enthusiasm for authority. It is in many ways worthy of the moral dignity of the mind; it is a collective acceptance of very complete responsibility… A Socialist Government is one which in its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the Government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition.

You cannot go to the Sultan and say reproachfully, “You have made no arrangements for your brother dethroning you and seizing the Caliphate.” You cannot go to a medieval king and say, “Kindly lend me two thousand spears and one thousand bowmen, as I wish to raise a rebellion against you.” Still less can you reproach a Government which professes to set up everything, because it has not set up anything to pull down all it has set up. Opposition and rebellion depend on property and liberty… The critic of the State can only exist where a religious sense of right protects his claims to his own bow and spear; or at least, to his own pen or his own printing press. It is absurd to suppose that he could borrow the royal pen to advocate regicide or use the Government printing presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing presses are Government printing presses, printers may be oppressed. Everything is staked on the State’s justice; it is putting all the eggs in one basket. Many of them will be rotten eggs; but even then you will not be allowed to use them at political elections.

As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is certainly true of political power, as we have seen time and time again throughout history. The philosophy of Socialism is flawed in its very nature, but Chesterton thinks Capitalism is too. As was noted in my last post on this topic, and to once again quote Chesterton, “Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in opposite ways at once… [the capitalist] is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time.”

So what is the answer? Chesterton, among others, believed the answer is to distribute property to individuals, so they can be self sufficient and once again know the joy of true ownership and individual responsibility. Chesterton believed small business is better than big business. Chesterton believed being a free man working your own land is to be preferred to being a wage slave. But Chesterton also recognized that this is not the ideal of all. He suggests that while not all will immediately hold to this ideal, many will once they seriously consider their present state of affairs. Of course, a modern society cannot consist of only small farm owners; there must be a balance. However, Chesterton maintains that the common man in a Capitalist society is really worse off than he realizes; once this is recognized, the idea of Distributism will take hold. More on this and what Distributism is in a later post.


8 Responses to “Chesterton’s Critique of Socialism”

  1. 1 fallen_angel August 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    just outof curiosity, how’s that whole ‘capitalism’ ‘property’ thing working out for y’all?

  2. 2 Mike B) July 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    As Marx observed in CAPITAL Volume I, chapter one: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.” Neither Chesterton nor most of the critics and advocates of socialism get it. Socialism is not a system of buying and selling commodities produced by wage-slaves of the government. Socialism is common ownership of the collective product of labour in a classless society of political equality between all men and women, with the wage system and the political State of necessity being abolished by those very same men and women. Socialism is a CHANGE in the mode of production from production of commodities for sale with a view to profit to, production of wealth for use, distributed NOT BY CASH IN THE WALLET but on the basis of NEED.

  3. 3 whobeen January 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

    It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life. (Circa 1891)


    • 4 Mike Ballard January 21, 2015 at 6:42 pm

      Thus Pope Leo supported the continued robbery of the working class by the capitalist class via the wage system. The wage system consists in the the sellers of labour power marketing their skills to the buying employing class. The exchange is legalised by the political State. It is an exchange which workers are obliged to enter in order to make a living. It is pure and simple exploitation in that the price of labour power is always less than the product which issues out its employment. This exploitation takes place on a grand scale within an industrial sized division of labour with every necessary worker being employed for their price and the social product of their labour accruing to the capitalist employer. There is a reason why the annual Credit Suisse Report on wealth shows that the top 10% of the world’s population own 80% of the wealth produced by the other 90%. That reason is the wage system, the system which upholds what we call capitalism.

      • 5 whobeen January 21, 2015 at 8:55 pm

        Ref:”Thus Pope Leo supported the continued robbery of the working class by the capitalist class via the wage system.” Nowhere in the encyclical does Pope Leo XIII suggest this…you obviously missed the point. You might want to study it a bit more in depth before you reply again…that is, unless you are a die-hard communist un-willing to use a bit of logic in your thinking…if that is the case I cannot argue with you… A later pope…Pope John-Paul thought that the world was made much better as a result of Capitalism but he worried about the ‘greed’ aspect that seems to develop within the rank and file captilists. Further, most economist would agree that communism/socilaism is a failure from the start. In whatever system of government one lives under there always was, and there always will be the rich and the poor…it’s the struggle of human nature…and with that comes the good, the bad, and the ugly…and that is the nature of life. If you want everyone to be equal…then keep right on dreaming, it will never happen.

      • 6 Mike Ballard January 21, 2015 at 10:33 pm

        Pope Leo didn’t understand that social ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour would produce a classless society ergo one without a political State. But that’s to be expected, as most socialists didn’t get it either as their practice in the 20th century demonstrated.

        I’ll keep pushing for labour to control and own what it produces. To put it in your terms, because it’s the moral thing to do. The product of labour should belong to labour and it doesn’t under the wage system. The fact that the wealth labour produces doesn’t belong to it is, in itself, immoral and the basis of what most of the time results in what you call ‘evil’. ‘Evil’ isn’t innately in human beings. It is fostered through hierarchies of political power grounded in the possession of wealth or as the old aphorism goes: ‘money is the root of all evil’. And what is ‘money’ other than the representation of wealth.

        Common ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour would set the stage for a higher level of morality than we now realise. But, I realise that you don’t think such a society will ever happen and will wait for its possible occurrence after death, something, I don’t think will ever happen.

  4. 7 Snooper January 21, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Simply amazing that folks seem to think that socialism/communism/islamism is the “right thing” to do yet the Scriptures reveal the complete opposite. The overly babbling of the anti-Scripturites will one day face God Almighty face to face.

  5. 8 amarynow November 13, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    “The product of labour should belong to labour and it doesn’t under the wage system.”
    Name a system that this has worked in. Man is inherently flawed and no system built of man will be ‘fair’ or give the laborer his rightful due. Instead, every government is either capitalistic, or ends up depending on those societies that are capitalistic to trade with and buy their wares.
    Then name a system where the ruling party hasn’t been the materialistic benefactor of labor. The elite rule every government in all of history, including the very wealthy Stalin and Lennon.

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