12 – The Socialist Aristocracy

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From each according to his ability.
To each according to his need.
~ Karl Marx

Those words were spoken and written many times by Karl Marx during his life in London.  They became the mantra of socialists everywhere.

(“London?” I heard someone say.  “I thought Karl Marx was a German.”  He was born in Germany but was exiled from there and later from France for advocating revolution and the violent overthrow of the governments of those nations.  He spent the last third of his life in a London ghetto, living off the charity of friends.)

On the surface, those words seem to encapsulate a perfect society.  If you want to bake bread and I want to make shoes, we each do what we want.  When I need bread I get it from you.  When you need shoes, you get them from me.  When we need meat, we get it from the butcher.  When we need clothes, we get them from the tailor.

Everyone is equal.  Everyone contributes to the common need.  There are no rich people and no poor people, no bosses or workers.  Just everyone working for the common good, share and share alike.

Throughout history, even before Marx coined the term “socialism,” groups have tried to establish communal societies.  There was even a brief attempt to establish one in the New World (Plymouth Colony, 1620).  All such efforts have failed. Why?

Because to put it bluntly, we humans are imperfect creatures.  We have egos—some more than others, but all of us to some degree.  And the vast majority of us keep score.

Egos?  Keeping score?  What does that have to do with socialism?  Well, let’s go back to that communal society in which you baked the bread and I made the shoes…


You’re up at five o’clock every morning, making bread dough and putting loaves into the oven.  At six o’clock you unlock the door to the bakery and people start coming in to get bread.  There’s a steady stream of people all day long, until you lock the door at six o’clock that night.  Then you have to clean the shop and kitchen and get things ready to go again the next day.  It’s eight o’clock by the time you get home, and you barely have time to eat a meal before you fall into the bed to get some sleep before it all starts over tomorrow.

After a while you start to look around, and one of the things you notice is that I seem to have plenty of spare time to walk around the village, visiting and talking with people.  I spend some time in my shop every day, but since each resident only needs a pair of shoes once a year or so, I can keep up with the demand by working five or six hours a day instead of the fourteen or fifteen hours you work.

And yet—I have the same benefits you do.  When I need something, I get it from whoever furnishes that commodity.  Meat, or clothes—or bread.

Obviously, that’s not fair—or, couched in the terminology of a communal society, that’s not equal.  So you decide you’re going to start closing the bakery at three o’clock every day.  You’re going to create some leisure time to spend with your family and friends.

And you do.  People coming by at four or five o’clock to get a loaf of bread find the door locked and the shelves bare.

But in alleviating one inequality you’re created another.  One of the people who found your door locked and went home without bread was the butcher.  When you go to his shop a few days later to get some meat, you find him reluctant to give you any.  His attitude is, “If you’re not going to give me bread, I’m not going to give you meat.”  You encounter the same attitude from several other people in the village.


That’s the point where most communal societies in history have collapsed.  But a few—Soviet Russia in 1922, China in 1947, Cuba in 1959—tried to solve the problems of inequality.  Let’s look at what happened.


Eventually, the people in the village realize there’s an obvious solution.  Someone else has to bake bread, too.  With two bakeries instead of one, there will be enough bread for the whole village and both bakers will have leisure time to spend with family and friends.

But no one steps forward and volunteers to be the second baker.  Why?  Because everyone is already doing what they want to do.  In the words of the socialist mantra, they’re contributing to the village “according to their ability.”

There’s one man in the village who says his ability is to write songs and play music.  He strolls around the village with his guitar every day, singing his songs to people.  After due deliberation, the other villagers decide that although his songs are nice, they can do without them.  What they can’t do without is bread.  So they tell the village musician he must become the second baker.

The musician is hurt that the other villagers value bread more than his songs.  He argues, but in the end they make him an offer he can’t refuse—bake bread or be exiled from the village.

Once that Pandora’s Box is open, there’s no closing it.  Before long the greengrocer starts complaining that his whole family works night and day to grow the fruits and vegetables, harvest them, and make them available in their shop.  The village needs another greengrocer.

Then the tailor starts complaining that he needs some relief, too.

The residents of the village realize there’s only one way to deal with this problem.  They need to form a committee that will decide what the village needs and make sure those services are available in adequate quantity.  Soon, that evolves into a system wherein people who want to join the village are no longer allowed to do whatever they want.  They are required to perform one of the services the village needs or they will not be allowed to join.

As time goes by, this Central Planning Committee (that seems like a logical name for it, doesn’t it?) becomes more and more powerful.  Perhaps you complain that the musician-turned-baker isn’t baking much bread and the majority of the load still falls on you.  So the committee takes on a new authority—setting production quotas for the various shops in the village.  When the other baker doesn’t meet his production quota, the committee takes on yet another authority—meting out punishment to people who don’t live by the rules.

Eventually, the business of running the village, making and enforcing rules and regulations, becomes so time-consuming that the members of the committee no longer have time to be shopkeepers.  Being members of the Central Planning Committee becomes their full-time job.


Think about what has happened.  Once upon a time the committee members were productive members of the communal society.  They got bread from you, but you knew that when you needed meat or vegetables or clothes you could get it from them.  Now they still take your bread, but you can’t get any of your needs from them.

Even worse, they now have the power to do things that infringe on your happiness and your way of life.  They can tell you that you’re not baking enough bread and you must increase your daily output.  If they’re not satisfied with your increased output they can punish you.

In other words, they have become a privileged group within a society that was once dedicated to equality for all.  They still take, but they no longer give.


Let me quote from Commentary Number Five of this series:

There are three ways in which a society can be governed.

Rule by the few, which we call an aristocracy.  The drawback to aristocracies is that they create a two-class society—the rulers and the ruled.  With the passing of time the gulf between the two grows wider, with the aristocracy assuming more and more power and the masses declining to the status of peasants who live only to serve the aristocrats.

As I pointed out in that commentary, socialism is an aristocracy.  It’s a society in which a small number of non-productive elites rule over the much larger productive population.  It’s not a society that practices equality for all.

In its evolved state—Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, et al—it’s not a society that practices “from each according to his ability,” either.  Officials of the Central Planning Committee decide who is going to do what.  You may want to be a baker, but if the current need is for plumbers when you graduate from high school, you are trained to be a plumber.  At that point you have two choices.  You can spend your life as a plumber, or you can refuse to work as a plumber, in which case you will spend your life in prison for “crimes against the people.”

Neither is it a society that practices “to each according to his need.”  For the seventy-plus years the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ruled Russia, there were special department stores where the members of the various Central Planning Committees and their families shopped.  Those stores were stocked with all the necessities and luxuries imaginable—mostly imported from the U.S. and Western Europe.

The workers shopped at stores where many of the shelves were bare.  Even the most basic necessities of life, like toilet paper, were often unavailable.  Things like meat and eggs were often rationed.  Clothes and shoes (made in Russia) were of poor quality and didn’t last very long.


The government in Washington has been moving America steadily toward socialism since the Nineteen Thirties, when welfare, food stamps, and other forms of “public assistance” first started.  Since the election of Barak Obama the slide into socialism has accelerated at a frightening rate.

What is the most frightening—to me, anyway—is that a sizeable portion of the American population seems to be okay with adopting socialism.  They want free health care, free education all the way thru college, and government guarantees of a job, a house, and a retirement pension.

The Russian people had those things, too.  They just didn’t have toilet paper, meat, eggs, or shoes.