Social Justice Is Not What It Seems
Igor Shafarevich on Socialists' Response to Misery and Hunger
An excerpt from Chapter 7 of Igor Shafarevich’s classic book, The Socialist Phenomenon (1980). This post reproduces his response to the conception of socialism as social justice, point number 6. See the previous excerpt, with introduction, here.
Socialism is the expression of the quest for social justice.
It is an indisputable fact that almost all socialist doctrines and movements assign an extremely important role to protest against the injustices of the contemporary social order. Sympathy for the oppressed and the condemnation of oppressors are motifs that may be found in the works of Müntzer (especially in his “Discourse for Defense”), More (in Part One of Utopia), Winstanley, Meslier, Fourier, Bakunin, Marx and the Marxists.
Many who are not supporters of socialism (or who accept it only partially) also see its main driving force in its advocacy of justice. For example, the prime minister of India, responding to a correspondent who inquired what the word “socialism” meant to him, answered: “Justice. Yes, socialism means justice, the desire to work in a more equal society.” To a certain extent this point of view is shared by Karl Jaspers: “Socialism today is seen as that quest, tendency or plan which has as its aim universal cooperation and coexistence in the spirit of justice and in the absence of privilege. In this sense, today, everyone is a socialist—socialism is the main tendency of our time.” (108)
But Jaspers distinguishes socialism in the sense of gradual progress from communism, which preaches total planning and the achieving of happiness for humanity according to a scientific prognosis.
The view of socialism as an attempt to achieve social justice was widespread in Russian philosophy. For instance, Vladimir Soloviev wrote: “The attempt of socialism to achieve the equality of rights in material welfare, its efforts to transfer this material welfare from the hands of the minority into the hands of the popular majority, is absolutely natural and legitimate from the point of view of the principles proclaimed by the French revolution and which underlie all modern civilization.” (109: III: pp. 7-8) While he rejects socialism’s claim to being a supreme moral force, Soloviev does acknowledge that it “has the character of morality in its demand for social truth. … In any case, socialism is right to rise up against existing social untruth.” (109: III: p. 9) It is here that he evidently sees that “truth of socialism” which must be recognized in order to vanquish the “lie of socialism.”
Bulgakov, a former Marxist himself, developed this view of socialism in detail, especially in a pamphlet (110) that appeared in 1917, while the Revolution was at its height. Socialism, in his opinion, is a reaction to the misery, hunger and suffering of mankind. It is the thought that “first of all one must defeat hunger and break the chains of poverty.” (110: p. 5) Man is the prisoner of natural forces and his spirit longs for liberation from that captivity. Socialism shows him the way. It promises “freedom from economic factors … through economic factors, by means of the so-called development of productive forces.” (110: p. 9) But this is a false promise. “The economic captivity of man is not a root cause but a consequence; it is called forth by the shift in man’s relation to nature—the result of the sinful corruption of the human essence. Death came into the world; life became mortal, whence appeared man’s fateful dependence on food and the forces of nature, control over which will not save him from death.” (110: p. 11)
The idea of socialism was foreshadowed in Christ’s first temptation. By “turning stones into bread,” Christ would have become an earthly Messiah, who instead of overcoming the sinful condition of the world would have submitted to that condition. This temptation, to which a considerable part of modern mankind has yielded, constitutes the spiritual essence of socialism. But every temptation contains within itself some truth. In this case, it is a protest against human bondage to matter and the suffering that ensues from it. The positive meaning of socialism, however, is extremely limited. Bulgakov writes: “Socialism cannot be seen as a radical reform of life; it is philanthropy, or one form of it, evoked by modern life—and nothing more. The triumph of socialism would introduce nothing essential to life.” (110: p. 41)
Let us now move to a consideration of these views. First of all, it seems that socialism can by no means be identified simply with a striving for justice nor with a reaction to the suffering of mankind. This is already clear from the fact that we would not need to invent a new term for such a desire: “compassion,” “sympathy,” “active love,” are all old-fashioned words quite suitable for the definition of this equally old aspiration. But let us assume for a moment that socialism is a definite way to achieve social justice. In that case we should be able to see numerous confirmations of this fact in the known socialist doctrines as well as in the experience of the socialist states. Since it is unquestionably true that appeals to justice and the condemnation of the defects of contemporary life occupy a central place in socialist ideology, this question must be formulated more precisely: Is the aspiration for social justice the goal and the driving force of socialism or is the appeal to this aspiration only a means to achieve some other goals?
To simplify our argumentation, we exclude from our discussion the practice of socialist states. After all, if it could be shown that dreams of socialist justice have not been realized in these states, that would not in itself contradict the possibility that these dreams did inspire the participants and the leaders of socialist movements: Life has a way of deceiving the best-laid plans. But in the socialist doctrines themselves, at least, we should uncover compassion for the sufferings of the victims of injustice and the impulse to lighten their burden. Yet this is precisely what is lacking! The alleviation of suffering is set aside until the victory of the socialist ideal, and all attempts to improve life at the present time are condemned as possibly postponing the coming victory. Particularly in the modern socialist doctrines proclaiming atheism, this point of view is in no way compatible with compassion for today’s victims of oppression, who will have no share in the future just society. It will be objected that striving to achieve justice in life for future generations is the very thing that inspires the followers of socialism. This point of view seems hardly plausible from a psychological point of view. We are asked to believe that a man can be indifferent to the suffering of those around him and at the same time devote his life to the happiness of a future world he will never see.
We list below several examples illustrating the approach of socialist doctrine toward the injustice of their day.
The Cathars, whose doctrines included some elements of socialism, categorically forbade charity, in stark contrast to the theory and practice of the Catholic Church. In the Cathar sects the “faithful” were obliged to make numerous donations but only to the leadership, the “perfect.” This doctrinal feature is extremely old and, consequently, is linked to the sect’s fundamental precepts. We meet the same principle among the Manicheans, in the second century A.D.
The society of the Moravian Brethren is a vivid example of the strictest community of property and of all aspects of life. In the sect’s voluminous writings, Christ’s law of brotherly love is often mentioned, but it is never used to justify communality. On the contrary, the demand for communality is closely linked to the striving for suffering. Communality is perceived not as an expression of compassion, but as a “yoke,” a voluntary cross. Communist life is a narrow path, leading through suffering to salvation.
Turning to the humanist literature, we might point to Thomas More, who gave a detailed commentary on the suffering of the poor; he condemned unjust life as a “conspiracy of the rich” and formulated a thesis, which later became popular, to the effect that criminality is in reality a crime of the unjust society. At the same time, he suggested what he thought was a more just approach: criminals should be made into slaves! Just how familiar More was with the life of the common folk is indicated by his list of idle parasites in society, in which women appear first.
The history of the socialist movement in Russia serves as another striking example. The appearance of revolutionary nihilist circles coincides exactly in time with the abolition of serfdom. The peasants were liberated in 1861. Chernyshevsky’s “Appeal to the Peasants of Landowners” appeared in the same year and his “To Young Russia,” where the style and spirit of the new movement were formulated, appeared in 1862. Chernyshevsky and others openly explained their antipathy to the reform of 1861 by asserting that a certain improvement in the peasants’ lot might turn them from the revolutionary path. Somewhat later we have Nechayev proclaiming the following: “The government itself might at any moment come upon the idea of reducing taxes or instituting similar benefits. That would be a real misfortune, because even under the present terrible conditions the folk are slow to rise. But give them a little more pocket change, set things up even one cow better, and everything will be delayed another ten years. And all our work will be lost. On the contrary, you should use any opportunity to oppress the people, the way the contractors do, for example.” (111: p. 137)
Apropos of the attempt to effect a socialist coup in France, Bakunin wrote: “Frenchmen themselves, even the workers, were not inspired by it; the doctrine seemed too frightening. It was, in fact, too weak. They should have suffered greater misery and disturbances. Circumstances are coming together in such a way that there will be no shortage of that. Perhaps then the Devil will awaken.” (Letter to Ogarev, 1871, 95: p. 246)
This pronouncement coincides with the views contained in the writings of the Moravian Brothers: there should be no attempt to seek release from suffering since suffering is essential in achieving the supreme goal. There is of course an important difference—the Moravian Brethren saw the goal in Christ, while Bakunin uses different terminology.
Finally we come to Marxism. Despite the role that the exposure of the injustice, cruelty and inhumanity of capitalism plays in it, we can encounter quite similar views. Thus, in the article “Expose of the Cologne Trial of Communists,” Marx writes: “We say to workers: you must survive fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil war and international strife not only to change existing relations but to change yourselves and become capable of political supremacy.” (3: VIII: p. 506) If we recall the cruelty and hunger which were the consequence of three years of civil war in Russia, we may imagine vaguely what those fifty years of civil war would mean—the years that the workers must survive, according to Marx. In describing the terrible living conditions of the workers of the day, Marx and Engels showed no interest in any improvement. On the contrary, they actually tried to see features of the future society in these conditions. It was impossible for the worker to have an uninterrupted family life? Well, in the future society the bourgeois family will wither away. Proletarian children were compelled to work? In the future society children would “combine education with productive labor.” At a time when “bourgeois philanthropists” such as Dickens and Carlyle were fighting against child labor, the Geneva Congress of the First International adopted a resolution composed by Marx: “The Congress regards the tendency of contemporary industry to draw on the labor of children and juveniles of both sexes in the great task of social production as a progressive, sound and lawful tendency, though under the rule of capitalism it turns into a terrible evil. In a rationally organized society, each child from the age of nine ought to be a productive worker.” (Cited in 112)
In the correspondence between Marx and Engels there are numerous utterances in the following vein:
“Dear Engels! I have just received your letter which brings up the very pleasant prospect of a trade crisis.” (Marx to Engels, 3: XXI: p. 228) “It would be a good thing to have a bad harvest next year in addition, and then the real fun will begin.” (Engels to Marx, 3: XII: p. 249) “It’s the same with me. Since the beginning of the crash in New York, I could find no rest in Jersey and feel fine amidst the general breakdown. The crisis will be as useful for my organism as the sea baths.” (Engels to Marx, 3: XXII: p. 255) “There is an improved mood in the market. May this be damned!” (Engels to Marx, 3: XXII: p. 295) “Here only two or three very bad years could help, but it seems that they won’t be quick to come.” (Engels to Marx, 3: XXII: p. 368) “Our fatherland presents an extremely pitiful sight. Without being battered from outside, nothing can be done with these dogs.” (Marx to Engels, 3: XXIII: p. 162)
During World War I, Lenin wrote as follows about war: “If the war now evokes among reactionary Christian socialists and the whimpering petite bourgeoisie only horror and fright, only an aversion to any use of arms, to blood, death and so on, then we must answer that capitalist society has always been and remains a horror without end. And if now the most reactionary of all wars is preparing an end with horror to this society, we have no reason to fall into despair.” (113: XXX: p. 136)
It is striking how socialist thinkers, in exposing injustice and exploitation of the people, refer so often to these very people with contempt and even malice. For instance, Meslier wrote on the cover of his Testament: “I came to know the errors and the misdeeds, the vanity and the stupidity of the people. I hated and despised them.” Describing the peasants’ suffering, he wrote: “It is justly said of them that there is nothing more corrupt, more crude and more deserving of contempt.” (114: p. 56) Fourier calls the same French peasants “living automatons” and adds: “In their extreme crudity, they are nearer to animals than to the human race.” (97: p. 93) In a letter to Marx, Engels calls the peasants Germanic bumpkins. (3: XXI: p. 39) And the French peasants are referred to as “a barbaric race,” that is “by no means interested in the form of government, etc., striving first of all to destroy the tax collector’s house … to rape his wife and to beat him to death if they should manage to catch him.” (Letter to Marx, 3: XXI: p. 312) About the workers he writes: “The masses are frightfully stupid.” (Letter to Marx, 3: XXIV: p. 160) Speaking of certain unjust contracts, Marx for his part calls them “contracts to which only the completely degenerate rabble could agree.” (Letter to Engels, 3: XXIV: p. 30) Another time he exclaims: “To hell with these popular movements, especially if they are pacifist into the bargain. The Chartist movement drove O’Connor mad (have you read his last speech at the trial?) made Garny weak in the head and caused Johnson to go bankrupt. Voila le dernier but de la vie dans tous les mouvements populaires.” (Letter to Engels, 3: XXI: p. 328)
It is possible to suggest various logical explanations for such statements, but it is absolutely improbable psychologically to consider that they are engendered by compassion for the people or by sympathy for the victims of hunger and war. And we can see that the main achievements in social justice of the last century in the West—the reduction of the working day, social insurance, an extraordinary rise in the living standard of the workers—were accomplished with very little participation on the part of socialist movements. The main factors were the struggle of the trade unions (condemned by the socialists as “economism”), increased productivity of labor due to technological progress, and the moral influence of “bourgeois philanthropy.”
How, then, is socialist ideology connected with the idea of struggle for social justice? It seems that we have here two quite different approaches toward life which, nevertheless, intersect in a certain area. Their point of contact is the condemnation of social injustice and the exposure of the suffering it brings. From this starting point, they develop in two entirely different directions, one being the path of correcting social injustice, the struggle against the concrete evils of the present. The other path regards social injustice as an absolute evil, an indication that the existing world is doomed and must be completely destroyed. Sympathy for the victims of injustice is more and more squeezed out of the picture by all-consuming hatred of the existing social structure.
3. K. Marx and F. Engels. Sochineniia (Works, in Russian), vols. 1-15, 17-19, 21-29. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928-48.
95. Michail Bakunins sozial-politischer Briefwechsel mit Alexander Ivanovitsch Herzen. Stuttgart, 1895.
97. Charles Fourier. La Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales. (Quotations refer to the Russian translation, Teoriia chetyrekh dvizhenii i vseobshchikh sudeb. In: Izbrannye sochineniia, vol. I, Moscow, 1938.)
108. K. Jaspers. Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich, 1949.
109. V. S. Solov’ev (Soloviev). Sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh (Collected Works, in Russian). 10 vols. St. Petersburg, 1911.
110. S. Bulgakov. Khristianstvo i sotsializm (Christianity and Socialism, in Russian). Moscow, 1917.
111. B. P. Koz’min. Nechaev i nechaevtsy (Nechaev and the Nechaevists, in Russian). Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
112. D. Riazanov. “Marks i Engels o brake i sem’e” (“Marx and Engels on Marriage and the Family,” in Russian). In: Letopisi marksizma, v. III, 1927.
113. V. I. Lenin. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Collected Works, in Russian), fifth edition. 55 vols. Moscow, 1958-65.
114. C. Hugo. Der Sozialismus in Frankreich im XVII und XVIII Jahrhundert. (Quotations refer to Russian translation, Sotsializm vo Frantsii v XVII i XVIII stoletiiakh, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, 1924.)
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Socialism and social justice exist almost exclusively for the emotional gratification of its adherents.
Another great article by the way.
Socialism is envy.
Socialism is the denial of reality, the want to live in an earthly utopia, in the mind of the dreamer without concern for his neighbor. It cannot survive without deception.
Socialism is collectivist, which means what is yours is mine for the collecting, including your freedom and sovereignty.
Socialism is an infantile belief for its masses, and a malevolent vehicle for its masters.
The socialist must be atheistic, for to believe in God would necessitate a belief in the devil, which is about the only way to explain the ability for socialism to keep replicating itself, given its colossal past failures.
Thank you for your writings, summarizing lengthy reads, which many of us have not, yet, consumed.