C.S. Lewis Versus Socialism

chavezSocialism is in the news, and we need not wonder what the prolific and wise C.S. Lewis would have thought about it.

In the United States, for example, one of the serious contenders for the presidential election this fall belonged to neither the Democrat nor Republican parties.

Bernie Sanders dropped the “D” descriptor he had, for political convenience, worn for several months. He did so soon after Hillary clinched the Democrat nomination, saying he was elected as an “Independent,” and would return to the Senate as one.

Elsewhere in the world we see one of the most recent experiments in socialism following the historic pattern. Venezuela has fallen from the ranks of successful nation states into the abyss of socialist turmoil.

Even liberal (progressive) voices are acknowledging the abject failure of socialism in a formerly comfortable country.

When a Venezuelan entrepreneur we know launched a manufacturing company in western Venezuela two decades ago, he never imagined he’d one day find himself facing jail time over the toilet paper in the factory’s restrooms. But Venezuela has a way of turning yesterday’s unimaginable into today’s normal.

The entrepreneur’s ordeal started about a year ago, when the factory union began to insist on enforcing an obscure clause in its collective-bargaining agreement requiring the factory’s restrooms to be stocked with toilet paper at all times. The problem was that, amid deepening shortages of virtually all basic products (from rice and milk to deodorant and condoms) finding even one roll of toilet paper was nearly impossible in Venezuela—let alone finding enough for hundreds of workers. When the entrepreneur did manage to find some TP, his workers, understandably, took it home: It was just as hard for them to find it as it was for him.

Toilet-paper theft may sound like a farce, but it’s a serious matter for the entrepreneur: Failing to stock the restrooms puts him in violation of his agreement with the union, and that puts his factory at risk of a prolonged strike, which in turn could lead to its being seized by the socialist government under the increasingly unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

So the entrepreneur turned to the black market, where he found an apparent solution: a supplier able to deliver, all at once, enough TP to last a few months. (We’re not naming the entrepreneur lest the government retaliate against him.) The price was steep but he had no other option—his company was at risk.

But the problem wasn’t solved.

No sooner had the TP delivery reached the factory than the secret police swept in. Seizing the toilet paper, they claimed they had busted a major hoarding operation, part of a U.S.-backed “economic war” the Maduro government holds responsible for creating Venezuela’s shortages in the first place. The entrepreneur and three of his top managers faced criminal prosecution and possible jail time.

Yes, it “may sound like a farce,” but thinkers like C.S. Lewis have recognized all along that socialism doesn’t work.

Europe took years to recover from the ravages of World War II. One consequence, common to many nations throughout the world during the war, was severe rationing.

The war’s end signaled a swift return to normal life in the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, in places like the United Kingdom, rationing continued, and some products (notably potatoes) were added to the list.

Rationing in the U.K. did not end until 1954, and one of Britain’s staples—tea!—was still rationed in 1952.

It’s in this context that we read the following letter that Lewis penned to one of his American correspondents. Vera Gebbert and her husband were among the Americans who occasionally forwarded food gifts which Lewis generously shared with others.

In 1954 he thanks her for her generosity and acknowledges the welcome end of rationing. In the same letter he offers a humorous political aside—at the expense of socialism.

Dear Mrs. Gebbert, Many thanks for your nice letter of the 15th, though it would have given both of us more pleasure if your account of your own state had been better: which I hope it now is.*

And I’m so glad that the Horse helped to see you through an illness, which I trust is now a thing of the past. My brother thanks you too for all the kind things you say of the Century,** and says he hopes to have another book out either late this year or early next, of which you shall have a copy.

I’m afraid it would be sheer dishonesty to pretend that we now have any kitchen needs; this government has done a magnificent job in getting us on our feet again, and a few weeks back, we solemnly burnt our Ration Books. Everything is now ‘off ration,’ and though at first of course, prices went up with a rush, they are now dropping.

But cheer up, if our friends the Socialists get back into power, you will be able to exercise your unfailing kindness once more by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!

‘How is Cambridge?’ Well, so to speak, it isn’t; in other words, I have not yet begun my Cambridge career. And when I do, the break will not be so big as you might imagine; for I shall be non-resident. Cambridge will be content with my presence there from Tuesdays to Saturdays in term time, so I shall be able to keep on the house at Oxford and become what I think you call a ‘commutor’ don’t you? Our sister college, Magdalene, has been good enough to give me a set of rooms, so I shall be very snug during the week.

The subject addressed above is not simply about toiletry scarcities or the eccentricities of antediluvian politicians. It dramatically affects the lives of real people.

Our thoughts and prayers should be offered on behalf of the victims of socialism. Just as we should recognize that unbridled capitalism does not nurture a paradise, either. However, it is unfathomable to imagine a contemporary democracy (based on capitalism) imposing serfdom on its citizens, as Venezuela is now doing.

So, it seems Lewis was correct about the propensity of socialism to undermine order and dishevel systems of proven success. After all, those supermarket shelves were not always empty before the Chaveznistas took over.


* Gebbert had shared with Lewis about her domestic problems which were culminating in an imminent divorce.

** The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV, was a well-received study Warnie had written.

16 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis Versus Socialism

  1. When I saw the title, the first thing I thought of was Venezuela.Once partying in oil money, now people fighting for crumbs of food and forced labor a real possibility. On our own doorstep, yet hardly a word raised about it here.
    It’s a worry how easy it is for a country to fail its’ people.
    Thanks for the glimpse of life for some afer WW II. ( I still have one of my parent’s old ration books. We grew up hearing tales of standing in lines for items during the war – like a treasured sewing machine.)

    1. I pity the people of Venezuela. Socialists promise so much, and almost always (like communist governments) simply foster rich oligarchies.

      Of course, all politicians promise more than they can deliver. That’s probably only “evil” when they know it’s a lie… and especially when they have no honest intention to honor them.

      Speaking of ration books, I have one that I salvaged from a trash pile a few years ago. (It was unwanted by some thirty-year-olds dealing with all of the “junk” in their aunt’s estate.) A small historical treasure… in my eyes.

    2. My grandfather was an academic, who took his family (including my mother) to Britain in 1950 in order to study records relating to Daniel Defoe. My mother’s family was delighted to eat all the corned beef they wanted – traded for rations of things like gasoline or clothing. After years eating corned beef, the British found it vile. For Americans, rationing was five years gone and corned beef was a special treat.

      1. Fascinating. (Daniel Defoe is a legendary author. Legendary. His Plague Year kept coming to mind with recent deadly outbreaks.)
        Britain and Europe suffered terribly from the war. Their resolve and fortitude important/critical to the recovery.
        I don’t know about corned beef as we never ate it or considered it a treat, but I do know that when dad came back from the war, he forbid mom to ever serve Spam or whatever canned substance they served soldiers on bread. Never wanted to ever see or smell it again.

      2. Yummy. The appeal of different meals definitely correlates to their availability or inaccessibility. When we were stationed in the U.K. an expatriate American who had lived their for years working with a London orchestra asked us if it would be possible to secure a box of cornmeal for making cornbread.

        No one except a criminal would become a black marketeer… but it’s certainly legal to purchase a modest gift on base to give, free of charge, to someone.

        Now, I love cornbread, but I’ve never before or since since anyone that jubilant about it…

      3. Regarding Spam… it’s amazing how popular it remains in Hawaii and Guam, where it was introduced during that same period. Sixteen cans a person–annually–in Guam!

  2. Rob, I have been thinking about this blog. Your readers might enjoy the pillorying of bureaucratic socialism in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”
    I might offer a tentative response, and apologize that as I am on the road and can’t properly do this well.
    First, it is clear that the Venezuela project is a failure. When I was there in the 90s it was clear that any pathway to recovery would be long. They’ve butchered it. I cannot think of a Marxist based socialism that has been a dynamic success, and all the communisms have been a failure in either freedom or economy (or both). Where socialism is most successful (say, Scandinavia), it is most successful where it is least Marxist.
    Second, I want it to be clear that I come from a socialism country. In Canada we have seized and redistributed wealth in most aspects of our culture. Our roads, some of our trains, the early years of air travel, our public broadcasting system, radio and television broadcasting, mobile phone airways (none of the companies or towers), ecosystem management, our primary and secondary education system, hospitals and health care, university and college, our welfare system, and parts of retirement are all in some way managed or supported by government (local, provincial, or national). We have very few private roads, so non-travelers subsidize travelers. We have fully paid and relatively equal (there is an urban-suburban-rural differential we have to address, and a regional deficit, but both are small on the international scale) education system, so the rich parents are paying far more for their kids to get the same education as poor kids. We even redistribute some money to help young families and support childhood development.
    All aspects of Canadian life is socialistic. One internationally renowned example is our banking system. We are a “big bank” country–really only a handful of firms. In the early 2000s they attempted to amalgamate, and our competition watchdog, advised by the finance minister, predicted a 2008-style problem and said no. As such, we weathered the “Great Recession” far better than most countries. We have an open market with specific and direct controls.
    We lack the population wealth of the U.S., but our quality of living is quite high and our education system far stronger. The ability to move from one social class to another is far more available in Canada than the U.S. We have profound cultural problems, both of us–including populations that struggle to connect meaningfully to work. We have more of those in Canada, though our youth population in that group is more active than American youth in that population.
    Still, as a whole, I am a fan of socialism in a liberal democracy when as many individual, collective, and market freedoms as possible are open to us. So I am biased in this discussion. I am a fiscal conservative by intellect, but as a Christian I very much believe that providing education and health care, and removing boundaries to growth and freedom when possible, are beautiful things.
    Third, C.S. Lewis doesn’t seem to have recognized the position he was writing from. The labour-socialist government very badly butchered post-war efforts, extending austerity measures by at least 2 or 3 years past what the conservative government of the time could have accomplished. It was bad, painful. But Lewis benefited from the redistributed health care and dental care of England, especially when his wife was ill. He lived largely within the older landowner estate/church controlled culture of Oxford and Cambridge, which were both systems of socialism (non-Marxist, of course). He comments in letters on the crudeness of American systems post-war.
    I’m not sure Lewis makes a great political critic, honestly. Where we can gain–even if it isn’t fully formed–is in his common sense criticisms of things we take for granted about politics, social life, law and punishment, education, and bureaucracy.
    Those are my thoughts. I think you are right about the Latin American projects of socialism (though church redistributism is working well at very local areas). The U.S. is a cautiously socialist country, but it is socialistic in some form. I think the American critique of Marxist socialism is strong and America’s project of liberal democracy will always be forefront to us all (both in its successes of individual freedom and wealth, and its failures like Manifest Destiny or McCarthyism). But I am pleased to live as a socialist in a country where it feels like there is possiblity, hope for change, and space for freedom within our rapid growth.

    1. Thank you, Brenton, for your thoughtful and vigorous response to this column. At the outset of my note, allow me to agree with you that Lewis doesn’t make a particularly “great political critic.” Of course he never pretended to be such, and the letter above offers a personal aside rather than an argument.

      I agree with you as well that there is a vast difference between the principles of socialism as practiced in Canada and democratic nations and what we see in Marxist nations, typically ruled by a “strongman” (or woman). In the former there is a conscious effort to temper the power of the state through a robust commitment to individual civil rights.

      Every Western nation, and most countries in our world I suppose, find themselves somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to being devoted to values that might be described as socialist. Why, here in the United States we have hundreds, thousands, or likely scores of thousands of programs (at national, state, county and municipal levels) devoted to the socialist principle of reallocating wealth. The monolithic grip of the Internal Revenue Service ensures that transfer on the national level.

      The only difference I see between our two nations is where we sit respectively on that socialist spectrum. Both countries desire to minimize the suffering of others.

      On the notion of educational quality, I won’t disagree. Our public education in the U.S. is excellent in some locales, abysmal in even more, and mediocre in most. Comparing our nations is a complex issue though, and I assume the populations being served may statistically vary in significant ways (e.g. percentage of intact family units, etc.)

      On the issue of generosity as inspired by one’s Christian values, I concur in the personal sense. We are to provide food, water and the gospel. We daren’t transfer that image though to the political realm. It seems to me potentially immoral to take property, against the giver’s will, to give to another. Shared elements of society such as roads, schools, the common defense… yes, we need to gather funds from all who are able to contribute to provide these. Free telephones and internet paid for by hard-working people who struggle to afford an internet connection in their own home… just might illustrate something else.

      And then there’s the issue of when the bill comes due. I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that some countries with short work weeks, lengthy holidays and early retirements, are inviting disaster. (I’m thinking of Greece in particular, but no offense to Greeks intended.) Here in my own homeland the impending bankruptcy of the Social Security system provides a similar example.

      Once again, Brenton, thank you for your comments!

      1. Thanks for the nice response. I wouldn’t want readers to miss a key point: when the state removes an incentive to work, there will be some who will miss the beauty and trouble of toil for food. In Canada, that means that individuals miss out and others pay more. In large social projects like in Venezuala, the entire system corrupts from the inside.

  3. Interesting article, Rob. It strikes me that the business owner ought to have gotten a local government official to designate an alternative item as “toilet paper.” So, for instance, roofing shakes, chunks of firewood or tree bark are all essentially the same as paper – given or take an industrial process. Then, the burden would have been on his employees to contradict the government and insist that firewood is not toilet paper.

    I say this because coercion and violence are inherent in the concept of socialism. Sooner or later, someone must be compelled to act against basic human nature. Violence, at some point, is assumed, since someone wants what someone else has, and must be made to agree on the theft.

    Because socialism requires agreement on principles that are flawed, murder is a key component of the system. Disagreeing with the system itself becomes a crime.

    For instance, you might need a motorcycle. The government provides for your needs by giving you a bicycle. Not only are you required to accept a bicycle in place of a motorcycle, you are also required to say the two are equal. If you will not say that a bicycle is a motorcycle, you are an enemy of the socialist state. Your level of enthusiasm will be noted and recorded as you make the false statement.

    Proponents of the system will argue that socialism is not communism (a distinction lost on others) and the problem is it has never been done right. Opponents might point out that Stalin appeared to be doing it exactly right.

    No one has ever made dung taste delicious for the very good reason that dung is repulsive and no one wants to eat it…even if it were done right.

    1. Witty, and true. As you remind me, one is free to be a socialist in a democracy, but the reverse is not true.

      Thank God we don’t live in the sort of place where we’d be saying, “pass the firewood…”

    1. The rights that protect individuals’ freedom of conscience are so very, very precious. Whenever they are infringed upon, everyone should be aware that their own beliefs could be the next ones to come under fire.

  4. Pingback: C.S. Lewis as Christian Political Philosopher: The Politics of Skepticism and Liberty – Center for Christian Thought and Action

  5. Pingback: C.S. Lewis, Clothes & Charity « Mere Inkling Press

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