Before Karl Marx, there was Robert Southey.
Southey was an English poet, historian, biographer, and essayist, rising to become Poet laurate of the United Kingdom in 1813, a position he held until his death. Americans outside the literary community likely have scant knowledge of Southey, but no doubt have been touched by his work – perhaps Southey’s most enduring contribution to literary history and Western culture is the children’s classic The Story of the Three Bears – the original Goldilocks story
As was the custom of the times – and continues today in different forms – the creative class (artists, poets, writers) was typically populated by radicals and activists, and in his early life, Southey fit that stereotype to a “T”. As the Western world began to transition from monarchy into some sort of rule by the people, there were a plethora of ideas about what society should become, many ideas orbiting around Utopianism, the quest for a perfect world.
Southey was smack in the middle of the Utopian movements. He came to mind, not for his tie to Goldilocks, but for another reason. Facebook friend Dave Ceely issued a challenge to me – to use the words aspheterism or aspheterist in a post – two words I haven’t heard or used since my econ classes in college.
The first known use of these words was in 1794, attributed to Southey. Aspheterism comes from the Greek words a- “not, without” + spheteros “one’s own,” from sphetrisomos “appropriation”. It is defined as the view that all property should be in common ownership and that no individual should benefit from private possession.
The physical manifestation of aspheterism is pantisocracy, another combination of Greek words meaning “equal or level government by/for all”. It was a utopian scheme devised in 1794 primarily by poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey as a model for a totally egalitarian community based on a system of government where all rule equally.
The idea went as far as their intent to establish such a community in America, choosing a site on the banks of the Susquehanna River. By 1795, Southey had doubts about the viability of this location and proposed moving the project to Wales, causing a schism with Coleridge. When they were unable to agree on the location, the Utopian project collapsed.
Interesting that, like similar egalitarian Utopian constructs of the day, this project fell apart due to disagreement. This being a simple difference between two people. I find it remarkable that these supposedly smart men never stopped to consider the question that hung directly in front of their eyes. The question that, if two people cannot agree, how would a community of multiple people ever come to the complete agreement necessary in such a society?
Southey was born in 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and died in 1843, 16 years before Marx published his first serious work, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, the point being that Marx spent years in the reading room of the British Museum, so it is very likely he was aware of Southey’s work – and possibly influenced by it – because Marx’s work is essentially aspheterism. Marx proposed that communism would eventually lead to a world without borders and governments where everybody would live and produce for the benefit of each other.
Marx attempted to answer the question that Southey and Coleridge never asked. He proposed the idea that the struggle for egalitarianism was based in the economic classes, basically represented as a war between the proletariat and the bourgeois, one that could only be won through revolution and force.
As Shakespeare would say, “Aye, there’s the rub.”
Marx never addresses how individualism is eliminated and why the defeated in the class wars would just give up willingly. The fact is, people have never surrendered more than temporarily to forces which oppose their beliefs and values and for that reason, the class war Marx envisioned is never ending and why oppression and autocracy is a feature of every attempt at creating a communist nation.
Marxism, for all the “My Little Pony” treatment it receives, is inexorably and historically linked to autocracy, tyranny, repression, deprivation, and death. While voluntary collectivism does work – as when people selectively band together all the time to solve problems of mutual concern – socialism, Marxism and communism have never existed in the history of the world without authoritarian rule.
It seems that we can never have a conversation about the right spectrum of politics without invoking the evils of fascism, Nazism, nationalism or anarchy, but if that can be considered a valid methodology, when we speak of the left and also discuss how Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” killed over 45 million Chinese in less than four years and how Stalin killed an estimated 7-10 million Ukrainians in the Holodomor (the Great Famine) in one year (1932/1933).
Somehow, I doubt that all these people went to their deaths by choice for the glory of the state – and there is no way a totalitarian leader starves or kills 55 million people if those people have a means to protect themselves, i.e., a Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Perhaps the best window to this idiocy is presented by Friedrich A. Hayek in his seminal works The Road to Serfdom (published in 1944) and Individualism and Economic Order (published in 1948). Hayek witnessed in real time the rise of collectivism in England in the post-WWII years and his conclusions have proven uncannily accurate in the 77 years hence.
To create an egalitarian society as conceived by Southey, Coleridge and Marx requires planning. Successful planning requires the elimination of variation for the plan to be successful, therefore, one can deduce designing and planning a human based economy or society to eliminate variation (the achievement of equal outcomes) must also eliminate individual choice.
But if one cannot choose, one can never be truly free.
The inescapable conclusion to this line of reasoning is that coercive collectivism, in any form, is an enemy of individual freedom.
Aspheterism and Marxism both focus on the equality of outcome, a condition that can never exist without taking from one to give to another, and contrary to Marx’s idea, “From those according to his ability to those according to their need”, equality of outcome must be the goal regardless of ability or need.
These ideas are antithetical to what America is and who we are as a people and more than that, are completely impossible to achieve, and as Hayek noted:
“What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.”