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Sweden, despite what you’ve heard from some Democratic presidential candidates, is not a socialist land. As even Wikipedia tells us, “The vast majority of Swedish enterprises are privately owned and market-oriented.”
Sweden is a vast welfare state, with income taxes up to 57 percent and a value-added tax of 25 percent on most purchases. That’s still not the same as socialism, where governments own all but the smallest enterprises and return to workers the food, lodging, and medical care that will enable them to show up to work the next day, and at some point retire.
So, to understand how socialism works, which socialist regimes should we study? Maybe Venezuela, the formerly rich country where many now starve and from which millions flee, but a defender of socialism could blame stupidity among the leaders and—now—international sanctions.
No, I’d look to classic documents like George Fitzhugh’s “Southern Thought” (1857). Two years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Fitzhugh wrote that our supposed animal natures incline us toward socialism: “By observing and studying the habitudes of the bees and the ants, of flocking birds and gregarious animals, we must become satisfied that our social habits [are] a part of our nature.”
Looking back from the 21st century, we might ask: Why have all socialist countries become slave plantations?
In “Centralization and Socialism” (1856), Fitzhugh assessed the problem of capitalism: “Modern improvements, while they lessen the labor required to create wealth, and are vastly increasing its aggregate amount, beget continually its more unequal distribution. … Every day sends forth its new swarms of paupers. … The wealthy capitalist soon learns to look on them as mere human machines.”
Fitzhugh proposed a solution: Hold “property in common” and divide “the profits, not according to each man’s input and labor, but according to each man’s wants.”
Does that sound appealing? Congratulations, you have just applauded a major defender of slavery. Fitzhugh wrote in Sociology for the South (1854), “Our only quarrel with Socialism is that it will not honestly admit that it … is seeking to bring about slavery again.”
Fitzhugh called “domestic slavery … the oldest, the best, and the most common form of Socialism.” He saw slavery socialism as better than company employment because plantation owners purportedly “provide for each slave, in old age and in infancy, in sickness and in health.” He wrote in Cannibals All! (1857), “‘It is the duty of society to protect the weak;’ but protection cannot be efficient without the power of control; therefore, ‘It is the duty of society to enslave the weak.’”
Another Southern intellectual, Edmund Ruffin, fired at Fort Sumter in 1861 one of the first shots of the Civil War and was the first insurgent to enter the federal fort when its commander surrendered. In America’s Revolutionary Mind (Encounter, 2019), C. Bradley Thompson quotes Ruffin declaring, “So far as their facts and reasoning go, and in their main doctrines, the socialists are right”—but they don’t admit that in socialism “one directing mind and one controlling will” will take charge.
In slavery, Ruffin argued, the controlling power is “the mind and will of the master, for the good of all. … Our system of domestic slavery offers in use … all that is sound and valuable in the socialists’ theories and doctrines. … In the institution of domestic slavery, and in that only, are most completely realized the dreams and sanguine hopes of the socialist school of philanthropists.”
Looking back from the 21st century, we might ask: Why have all socialist countries become slave plantations? Because in a market economy the baker gets up early so he can sell tasty bread to feed his family—but in socialism his family will eat crusts whether he gets up early or not, so he’s likely to roll over and go back to sleep.
What then will the master of a society do? In today’s parlance, first he sends a text message: Going back to sleep is wrong! The baker ignores it. Next step: Give the baker a phone that sounds a blaring wake-up at 4 a.m. The baker turns it off. Next, send a loudspeaker he can’t turn off, like the one on the Soviet freighter that took me across the Pacific in 1972: The baker will find a way to cut the cord. Finally, the master sends a soldier to rouse the baker, march him to the bakery—and shoot him if he resists.
That’s the history of socialism.