Book Review from the March 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Socialism and Personal Liberty." By Robert Dell (Leonard Parsons, 4 s. 6d. net.)
In what was perhaps the finest novel of the 19th century, George Meredith wrote an aphorism, “Our new thoughts have thrilled dead bosoms." This aphorism at once springs to the mind on reading Mr. Dell’s book. The old Anarchist fallacies that were pulverised years ago are trotted out as new and profound truths. Moreover, to the anger, no doubt, of Anarchists, he hails the Guild Socialists as the discoverers of ideas that are nearly a century old in the Anarchist armoury. Thus he gives the Guild Socialists credit for the statement that “a human being as an individual is fundamentally incapable of being represented” (p. 39). As a matter of fact, this fallacy is as old as Stirner, though the latter certainly followed the idea to a logical conclusion, which the Guild Socialists do not. Mr. G. D. H. Cole is quoted as saying that:—
"He can be represented only in relation to some particular purpose or group of purposes ” (ibid).
As this is the only possible meaning to representation, Mr. Cole gives away his whole case, though Mr. Dell fails to see this glaring fact.
The objections he raises against the “State” are simply those of Bakunin, and have formed part of the Anarchist propaganda for over half a century. Mr. Dell, however, admits one or two facts that Anarchists deny. Thus he says :—
“In any form of society there will have to be regulations in collective production’’ (p. 32).
and on page 33 :—
“Socialism—the socialisation or collective ownership of the means of production—is now the only alternative to private monopoly.”
After placing himself in a dilemma by his contradictory attitudes, Mr. Dell flounders further in his attempts to reconcile the oppositions of his case. A, few years ago he supported the Syndicalists, who, in their crude ignorance, claimed that the various means of production should belong to those operating them, as: "The Mines to the Miners," "The Railways to the Railwaymen," etc. One enthusiast suggested that they should carry their list to a logical conclusion by adding such items as "The Sewers to the Scavengers," "The Prisons to the Convicts," “The Asylums to the Insane," etc; but his suggestions were not received with any enthusiasm.
Mr. Dell now realises that there are many difficulties in the Syndicalist case, and he finds partial salvation in Guild "Socialism." But his dread of democracy is so great that he wishes to combine certain features of both Syndicalism and Guild "Socialism." While Mr. Cole would have collective ownership of the means of production, with management and operation of the various industries by the different Guilds, Mr. Dell prefers that—except for certain collective services as railways, banks, posts, .mines, etc.—the workers in the various industries should have "absolute ownership" of their particular branch. The idiocy of this proposal should be apparent to a child. Food is of immensely greater importance to the members of society than railways. Yet the production and distribution of food is left in the "absolute ownership" of a particular group, while the railways are to be collectively owned! And this although he had previously admitted that "collective ownership of the means of production is now the only alternative to private monopoly."
The fear of democracy carries Mr. Dell into other contradictions. A long chapter is devoted to "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat," where he opposes both Marxian Socialism and the system established in Russia by the Bolsheviks. What does Mr. Dell offer as an alternative? This :—
“But democracy is impossible except in small areas where the elector can always be in close touch with his representatives, and no real control of representatives is possible without the right of recall, which can be efficiently exercised only in small areas. Democracy, therefore, involves decentralisation. Direct election should be restricted to small areas—the commune or ward— and the representatives so elected should send delegates to the provincial or national bodies ” (p. 39. Italics ours).
To the questions that at once spring forward, "Why is democracy only possible in small areas?" "Why cannot the right of recall be exercised in large areas?" no answers are given—and for the best of reasons. There are none that would bear a moment’s examination. But the cream of the joke is that this scheme of Mr. Dell’s is what operates in Russia, and which he condemns there.
We have criticised this anti-Socialist system before, and have shown that it is ruled by oligarchy, and is deliberately designed to prevent the members of society having control over the national executives. With all its faults, the Parliamentary system in England and France, that Mr. Dell condemns, does give this power to the electors if they care to exercise it.
Other contradictions and fallacies abound in this book, but we have no room to deal with them all. One other example, however, is worth noting. On page 64 he says that “an extraordinary ignorance of Marxism is general in England," and quotes a writer in the “Times” as an example. He then says (p. 65): “Everybody has not time to read ‘Das Kapital,’ which is not easy reading,” and he suggests that the “Times” writer might, at least, have read the “Civil War in France.” We know from experience that it is the common practise for journalists and others to criticise and condemn Marx before they have read his works, but this reads suspiciously like an apology for Mr. Dell himself, for in the section on pages 144-150 he not only confuses price and value, but displays a complete ignorance of Marx’s discovery of the base of value in social labour-time, when he (Mr. Dell) is dealing with two articles produced by two individuals. His other absurdities of money, wages, competition, employment of one person by another for private gain, etc., all being necessary under Socialism, shows how a lack of knowledge of Marxism may cause a writer to flounder among endless contradictions. Still, his taste in drama is exquisite. He believes Charlie Chaplin is a great artist.