Frank Chodorov on Collectivism, Statism and the 20th Century

The following passage begins the introduction to “The Rise and Fall of Society” by Frank Chodorov, published in 1959:

RiseandFallofSocietyWHAT HISTORY will think of our times is something that only history will tell. But it is a good guess that it will select collectivism as the identifying characteristic of the twentieth century. For, even a quick survey of the developing pattern of thought during the past fifty years shows up the dominance of one central idea: that Society is a transcendent entity, something apart from and greater than the sum of its parts, possessing a suprahuman character and endowed with like capacities. It operates in a field of its own, ethically and philosophically, and is guided by stars unknown to mortals. Hence, the individual, the unit of Society, cannot judge it by his own limitations nor apply to it standards by which he measures his own thinking and behavior. He is necessary to it, of course, but only as a replaceable part of a machine. It follows, therefore, that Society, which may concern itself paternalistically with individuals, is in no way dependent on them.

In one way or another, this idea has insinuated itself into almost every branch of thought and, as ideas have a way of doing, has become institutionalized. Perhaps the most glaring example is the modern orientation of the philosophy of education. Many of the professionals in this field frankly assert that the primary purpose of education is not to develop the individual’s capacity for learning, as was held in the past, but to prepare him for a fruitful and “happy” place in Society; his inclinations must be turned away from himself, so that he can drop into the mores of his age group and beyond that into the social milieu in which he will live out his life. He is not an end in himself.

Jurisprudence has come around to the same idea, holding more and more that human behavior is not a matter of personal responsibility as much as it is a reflection of the social forces working on the individual; the tendency is to lay on Society the blame for crimes committed by its members. This, too, is a tenet of sociology, the increasing popularity of which, and its elevation to a science, attest to the hold that collectivism has on our times. The scientist is no longer honored as a bold adventurer into the unknown, in search of nature’s principles, but has become a servant of Society, to which he owes his training and his keep. Heroes and heroic exploits are being demoted to accidental outcroppings of mass thought and movements. The superior person, the selfstarting “captain of industry,” the inherent genius—these are fictions; all are but robots made by Society. Economics is the study of how Society makes a living, under its own techniques and prescriptions, not how individuals, in pursuit of happiness, go about the making of a living. And philosophy, or what goes by that name, has made truth itself an attribute of Society.

Collectivism is more than an idea. In itself, an idea is nothing but a toy of speculation, a mental idol. Since, as the myth holds, the suprapersonal Society is replete with possibilities, the profitable thing to do is to put the myth to work, to energize its virtue. The instrument at hand is the State, throbbing with political energy and quite willing to expend it on this glorious adventure. Thus comes Statism, or the worship of political power.

Statism is not a modern religion. Even before Plato, political philosophy concerned itself with the nature, origin, and justification of the State. But, while the thinkers speculated on it, the general public accepted political authority as a fact to be lived with and let it go at that. It is only within recent times (except, perhaps, during periods when Church and State were one, thus endowing political coercion with divine sanction) that the mass of people have consciously or implicitly accepted the Hegelian dictum that “the State is the general substance, whereof individuals are but the accidents.” It is this acceptance of the State as “substance,” as a suprapersonal reality, and its investment with a competence no individual can lay claim to, that is the special characteristic of the twentieth century. In times past, the disposition was to look upon the State as something one had to reckon with, but as a complete outsider. One got along with the State as best one could, feared or admired it, hoped to be taken in by it and to enjoy its perquisites, or held it at arm’s length as an untouchable thing; one hardly thought of the State as the integral of Society. One had to support the State—there was no way of avoiding taxes—and one tolerated its interventions as interventions, not as the warp and woof of life. And the State itself was proud of its position apart from, and above, Society.

The present disposition is to liquidate any distinction tween State and Society, conceptually or institutionally. The State is Society; the social order is indeed an appendage of the political establishment, depending on it for sustenance, health, education, communications, and all things coming under the head of “the pursuit of happiness.” In theory, taking college textbooks on economics and political science for authority, the integration is about as complete as words can make it. In the operation of human affairs, despite the fact that lip service is rendered the concept of inherent personal rights, the tendency to call upon the State for the solution of all the problems of life shows how far we have abandoned the doctrine of rights, with its correlative of self-reliance, and have accepted the State as the reality of Society. It is this actual integration, rather than the theory, that marks off the twentieth century from its predecessors.

One indication of how far the integration has gone is the disappearance of any discussion of the State qua State—a discussion that engaged the best minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The inadequacies of a particular regime, or its personnel, are under constant attack, but there is no faultfinding with the institution itself. The State is all right, by common agreement, and it would work perfectly if the “right” people were at its helm. It does not occur to most critics of the New Deal that all its deficiencies are inherent in any State, under anybody’s guidance, or that when the political establishment garners enough power a demagogue will sprout. The idea that this power apparatus is indeed the enemy of Society, that the interests of these institutions are in opposition, is simply unthinkable. If it is brought up, it is dismissed as “old-fashioned,” which it is; until the modern era, it was an axiom that the State bears constant watching, that pernicious proclivities are built into it.

The book can be found, like so many libertarian classics, over at the Mises Institute, where there is also a short clip of Jeffrey Tucker, singing its praises.

The subject matter reminds me of that Thatcher quote, which provoked such howls of rage, although, as Tom Woods noted very recently, it’s a little more difficult to demonise it if you quote it in its entirety.

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