Review of “Authoritarian Socialism in America” by Arthur Lipow

Moldbug included this book in his suggested reading list for progressives:

For hardcore progressives, a great place to start is Authoritarian Socialism in America, by Arthur Lipow. This was adapted from a Berkeley sociology dissertation, and Lipow was a student of Michael Harrington. Does it get more socialist than this? It does not. . . . If these works have not convinced you that Communism is as American as apple pie . . .

He also mentioned the book briefly here, here, and here.

Anyway, on to the review . . .

Lipow argues that there are two strands of socialism:

democratic revolutionary socialism based on a mass working-class movement, fighting from below for the extension of democracy and human freedom, versus the many varieties of "socialism from above" which have led in the twentieth century to movements and state forms in which a despotic "new class" rules over a statified economy in the name of socialism.

Moldbug, I think, is using the book to illustrate two points: 1) socialism has a long tradition in the US (that is independent of European socialism or that influenced European socialism); and 2) progressives have had some pretty scary authoritarian streaks in their lines of thought for a long time.

The book certainly makes these points.

Lipow’s two varieties of socialism allow him to call the first variety true socialism while he can dub the second variety a conservative or reactionary form of socialism which is designed to keep the people down. Everything bad that has happened under "socialism" then can be blamed on conservatives and reactionaries since they prevented the emergence of the true socialism. For Lipow, the essence of real socialism is absolute democracy. Any decision not made by the people is suspect. Lipow does not explain how a government, state or economy could actually function in such a world, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

The real point of the book, from Lipow’s point, is to discuss the second, malignant form of socialism. Particularly, Lipow wants to discuss one variant of this form that originated in America and was introduced by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward. I’ll let Wikipedia do the summarizing:

The book tells the story of Julian West, a young American who, towards the end of the 19th century, falls into a deep, hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up one hundred and thirteen years later. He finds himself in the same location (Boston, Massachusetts), but in a totally changed world: It is the year 2000 and, while he was sleeping, the U.S. has been transformed into a socialist utopia. The remainder of the book outlines Bellamy’s thoughts about improving the future. The major themes are the dangers of the stock market, the use of credit cards, the benefits of a socialist legal system, music, and the use of an "industrial army" to make tasks run smoother.

The young man readily finds a guide, Doctor Leete, who shows him around and explains all the advances of this new age; including drastically reduced working hours for people performing menial jobs and almost instantaneous, internet-like delivery of goods. Everyone retires with full benefits at age 45, and may eat in any of the public kitchens. The productive capacity of America is nationally owned, and the goods of society are equally distributed to its citizens. A considerable portion of the book is dialogue between Leete and West wherein West expresses his confusion about how the future society works and Leete explains the answers using various methods, such as metaphors or direct comparisons with 19th-century society.

Although Bellamy’s novel did not discuss technology or the economy in detail, commentators frequently compare Looking Backward with actual economic and technological developments. For example, Julian West is taken to a store which (with its descriptions of cutting out the middleman to cut down on waste in a similar way to the consumers’ cooperatives of his own day based on the Rochdale Principles of 1844) somewhat resembles a modern warehouse club like BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club. He additionally introduces the concept of credit cards in chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 25, and 26. All citizens receive an equal amount of "credit." Those with more difficult, specialized, dangerous or unpleasant work work less hours. Bellamy also predicts both sermons and music being available in the home through cable "telephone".

Interestingly, despite [I must intervene to object to this "despite," I would prefer "because of" and a specification that Bellamy was protestant, but I digress] his Christian Socialism (though he was loath to use the term "socialism"), Bellamy’s ideas somewhat reflect classical Marxism. In Chapter 19, for example, he has the new legal system explained. Most civil suits have ended in socialism, while crime has become a medical issue. The idea of atavism, then current, is extolled to explain crimes not related to inequality (which Bellamy thinks will vanish with socialism). Remaining criminals are medically treated. Although dissent and discontent is naturally absent in his utopian work, this may be similar to psychiatric treatment as punishment for dissidents in the Soviet Union, where they were diagnosed with sluggishly progressing schizophrenia. If the accused does not plead guilty a trial is held after which if convicted the sentence doubles, exactly like the legal system of many real-life socialist states. Obviously, this system has a tendency to convict the innocent, but Bellamy’s predictions were still startlingly accurate. One professional judge presides, appointing two colleagues to state the prosecution and defense cases. If all do not agree on the verdict, then it must be tried over. Chapter 15 and 16 have an explanation of how free, independent public art and news outlets could be provided in a more libertarian socialist system. In one case Bellamy even writes "the nation is the sole employer and capitalist".

The summary leaves out two issues that are important for our purposes: 1) the whole point of this society is that it is organized like an army – everything is highly militaristic; and 2) Bellamy endorses a ruling class based on merit that basically runs society. Such a class dovetails nicely with our modern use of the word "elites." The ruling class in Bellamy’s ideal world are "a precursor of the bureaucratic statist or ‘corporate’ liberalism which, more and more in the twentieth century, converges intellectually and politically with the antidemocratic current represented in authoritarian socialism." Bellamy’s elites are smarter than others and they make most of the decisions for the society.

Interestingly, Lipow seemed to fear the rise of an educated middle class that was neither entrepreneurial or industrial – he viewed this group as the one that would be drawn to the authoritarian brand of socialism. What could be better for this group than if society needed a massive bureaucracy to run everything. They could be in charge and in power and they wouldn’t have to actually . . . work.

The rise of the modern progressive state, can thus be seen as the total victory of authoritarian socialism of a peculiarly American variety.

6 Responses to Review of “Authoritarian Socialism in America” by Arthur Lipow

  1. Tschafer says:

    Moldbug’s solutions may be laughably unworkable, but he’s one of the best diagnosticians around, when it comes to the current state of American society

  2. josh says:

    I actually just read this last week. You’re leaving out the historically important aspects of the actual movement of Bellamy followers which is the meat of the book. The Nationalists, to some extent, commandeered the populist movement, created civil service reform in order to destroy the political parties and may have been a direct forerunner of the progressives.

    • Foseti says:

      Indeed. Thanks.

      Lipow spends lots of time tracing the political movements that immediate followed on Bellamy’s work. I would have liked it if Lipow went further by tracing it all the way to the Progressives, as you suggest.

      Thanks again.

      • josh says:

        I was hoping for the same thing. Finding connections isn’t too difficult now that I know what I’m looking for. For example Francis Bellamy (Ed’s cousin) published a weekly newspapers co-written by Ernest Hamlin Abbott who compiled speeches by TR in a book entitled “The New Nationalism”.

  3. Monex says:

    the degree of commitment that a society has to an ordered legal system. the Constitution we find that it is nothing more than something shown . wrongs are through the courts and at the ballot box and that no wrong .

  4. […] Review of “Authoritarian Socialism in America” by Arthur Lipow …Dec 16, 2010 … For hardcore progressives, a great place to start is Authoritarian Socialism in America, by Arthur Lipow. This was adapted from a Berkeley … […]

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