Resisting Socialism in early 20th Century Britain

“The foundations of economic freedom are weakening around the world, according to the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. Particularly concerning are the rise of populist ‘democratic’ movements that use the coercive power of government to redistribute income and control economic activity,” wrote Ambassador Terry Miller, in The Wall Street Journal of 9 January 2013. Earlier this year, an article in the Economist, ‘Venezuela: The revolution at bay’ (14 February 2015), confirmed the truthfulness of that warning issued by the Heritage Foundation two years ago.


“Sixteen years after Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela, and two years after he died,” said the report in the Economist, “ his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ faces the gravest threats yet to its survival. The regime is running out of money to import necessities and pay its debts. There are shortages of basic goods, from milk and flour to shampoo and disposable nappies. Queues, often of several hundred people, form each day outside supermarkets. Ten patients of the University Hospital in Caracas died over the Christmas period because of a shortage of heart valves.”


Despite being the beneficiary of the greatest oil boom in history, receiving around $800 billion in oil revenue between 2000 and 2012, “or two-and-a-half times as much in real terms as in the previous 13 years,” the report continued, “He [Chavez] spent the money on ‘21st century socialism’…As well as rewarding supporters with State jobs (the public payroll has more than doubled in 16 years), Chavez expropriated or nationalised 1,200 companies, from steelworks to a maker of cleaning products. Most now lose money or require government loans just to meet their payroll, according to Victor Alvarez, Chavez’s industry minister in 2005-06. The State subjugates the still large private sector through price controls, which discourage investment and production. The result is that Venezuela imports much of the food and consumer goods it used to produce, though not enough to meet demand.”


Finally, notes the Economist, growing political repression has accompanied the socialist erosion of economic freedom in Venezuela: “The authoritarian state he [Chavez’s successor Maduro] commands is sliding towards totalitarianism…Chavez seized control of the judiciary and all the other constitutionally independent branches of the State…Under Mr Maduro, what the government calls its ‘media hegemony’ is now all but complete. Regime insiders, acting through front men, have bought up opposition media after these were financially weakened by officially promoted advertising boycotts and government refusal to approve the import of newsprint.”


Anti-Socialist Union (ASU) formed in 1908

None of this would have come as a surprise to those resisting the spread of socialist ideas in pre-World War 1 Britain. During the preceding half century, classical liberal thinkers had warned that the growth of democracy would encourage the politics of plunder at the expense of productive minorities and individuals (See my Cobden Centre paper: Vindicated by History: Statism’s 19th century critics, 9 December 2012). Their ideological successors repeated these warnings during the first decades of the 20th century, at a time when socialism was becoming the dominant ideology of the British labour movement, and the newly formed British Labour Party was becoming an increasingly potent political force in central and local government.


Leading the anti-socialist resistance, was the Anti-Socialist Union (ASU), an amalgam of disparate groups alarmed by the growing threat of big government to property rights and liberty. Establishing its London headquarters in 1908, in the former Victoria Street home of Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer and famous partner of Gilbert’s, the ASU launched a national campaign of popular education to innoculate British public opinion against the virus of socialism. This objective it continued to pursue during the inter-war years, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. (For a detailed history of the ASU, see: Kenneth D. Brown, Essays in Anti-Labour History, London: Macmillan, 1974, pp.234 – 261).


To achieve its educational goals, the ASU produced a huge quantity of anti-socialist literature, including a regular newspaper, the Anti-Socialist (later renamed Liberty). In addition, it set up a central speakers’ school to train lecturers to carry the intellectual fight against socialism into every corner of Britain. In this way, the ASU deliberately aimed to counter the propaganda of the increasingly influential Fabian Society, established in 1883 as the intellectual socialist wing of the British labour movement. To that end, the ASU’s two months training course gave students “a basic training in public speaking, elementary economics, politics, and the history and fallacies of socialism. After oral and written examinations the best of the students were creamed off and offered full-time posts.” (Kenneth D. Brown, op cit, p.242).


During the second general election of 1910, only two years after its formation, 250 ASU lecturers were already at work in different parts of Britain, and over five tons of anti-socialist literature were distributed to the general public. A decade later, in the immediate post-war period of 1919 – 1923, the ASU claimed to have held nearly 10,000 meetings and it was estimated that 20 million people a year were being reached by its literature.


What was impressive about this early 20th century British anti-socialist movement, was not only its dedication and activism in the service of freedom, but also the prophetic and scholarly nature of its wide-ranging critique of socialism. Just as the formation of the ASU foreshadowed the educational mission of contemporary libertarian and conservative organisations like FEE, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, so too its literature anticipated some of the key themes of their contemporary indictment of State intervention and big government.

The ASU’s anti-socialist handbook for speakers and candidates

The single best example of this was the publication in 1908 of The Case Against Socialism: A Handbook for Speakers and Candidates (reprinted by Bibliobazaar, 2013, 537 pages). Originally produced by the London Municipal Society, one of the ASU’s member organisations, with revised editions published by the ASU under slightly altered titles in 1911 and 1914, the Handbook offered a comprehensive and well documented refutation of the socialist attack on capitalism, as well as a closely reasoned critical examination of the socialist agenda. In doing so, it drew on the work of a number of contemporary anti-socialist scholars, especially the writings of W.H. Mallock (1849 – 1923), a leading British conservative thinker whose many books included Property and Progress (1884) – a critique of Henry George – and A Critical Examination of Socialism (1908).


The central theme running through the ASU Handbook was expressed in eight simple words in italics on the inside of its ‘Contents’ page: “Economic rights form the bulwark of human liberties,” a truth highlighted in today’s world, not only by the Heritage Foundation’s annual global surveys of economic and political freedom, but also by those compiled by the Fraser Institute and Freedom House.


In keeping with this central insight, the Handbook exposed the falsity of the socialist claim that capitalism breeds mass poverty and exploitation, and drove home the message that the collectivisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange – the core of the socialist programme – would inevitably lead to misery and tyranny. In a socialist economy where all jobs and resources would be controlled by the State, it would not only become impossible to exercise personal choice or express political dissent, argued the Handbook; but it would also result in the frustration of creativity, the destruction of incentives, and the creation of an all powerful and oppressive ruling bureaucracy. Thus, in the very act of seeking to end all existing poverty and class divisions, the socialist pursuit of ‘equality’ would simply intensify the very evils it was intended to abolish.


To quote the ASU Handbook’s powerful conclusion: “…the lives and happiness of the millions of our fellow-countrymen and women, the industries of our land, the products of years of mental and bodily toil, the future of our children – all these are the stake with which the Socialists would gamble – and for what? For the annihilation of private wealth, in order to win an equality of misery and of poverty; for the overthrow of personal freedom, so that the tyranny of officialdom might be firmly enthroned…All these must be the inevitable concomitants of Socialism triumphant.” (Ibid, p.529).


That these words were written in 1908, nine years before the Russian Revolution and its creation of the first of many totalitarian socialist states, is a tribute to their perspicacity. The persistence today of socialist dictatorships in countries like Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, to name only a few, underlines their continuing relevance.