Another Strategic Theft, Another Strategic Defeat

In his recent essay "George Washington: The Dark Side," Henry Gallagher Fields writes of how thieving consolidationists obliged true federalists to resort to the term "Anti-Federalist," and he goes on to describe "the dismal American tradition whereby Lincoln could orate about defending self-determination while pulverizing its remnants in the Southern States; socialists could steal the term 'liberal'; and technocratic tinkerers could steal the term 'libertarian.'" That type of strategic thievery isn't committed only by Americans. The theft of "liberal" by socialists, for example, actually began in England and Germany.

Now I've come across a passage in James Billington's Fire in the Minds of Men that reminds me of something I started to recognize in my college days when I was a left-libertarian: "socialism" and "socialist" themselves represent an important act of -- well, I'll say misappropriation instead of theft, because no one else previously "owned" the terms. Billington writes:

"[Saint Simon's] followers in the 1830s first gave widespread use not only to the word 'socialism' but also -- in the course of 1831 alone -- to 'socialize,' 'socialization,' and socializing the instruments of labor. These usages were at times only an extension of older Saint-Simonian terms like organization and association, but they carried new suggestions of social control and of challenge to liberal individualism." (p. 216)

We suffered an important early defeat when the liberals of the time -- especially the French laissez-fairists -- failed to "homestead" and secure the term "socialist," and use it to emphasize the fundamental distinction between society and the state. No doubt the chances for that were ruined by the developing democratic ideology, which claims that the state rightfully emerges as the free choice of society. But by all rights, "socialized" medicine -- for instance -- should be understood as a profession and industry altogether separated from the state and stripped of all state control and influence. Instead, 170 years ago, "socializing" an activity came to mean "statizing" it and removing it from the control of men acting freely and spontaneously: that is to say, acting socially.

Early American individualist-anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker opposed "capitalism" as it was developing in the 19th century (i.e., state-capitalism), and they even misguidedly attacked some elements of real capitalism, such as interest and rent. But as I recall from my reading of Tucker (in my college days), he associated himself with the label "socialist" not only because of his critique of capitalism but also because he saw plainly, and insisted upon, the distinction between society and the state. I myself, owing to Tucker's influence, began sometimes describing myself as a "socialist," proclaiming that "socialist," rightly understood, was synonymous with "anarchist."

Some other young libertarians of the day were on the same wavelength. At the big antiwar demo in Washington in April 1971, the Radical Libertarian Alliance comrades with whom I marched described themselves to the surrounding statist-leftists as "people's market socialists." Now you may detect, in that, a bit of sucking up to the Left (also known as creative "outreach"), but I think the RLA guys were sincere. The actual leftists (and drugged-out hippies) around us, though, just scratched their hairy heads. Some probably assumed we were spies for John Mitchell who hadn't quite got the lingo down pat -- along the lines of undercover cops trying to infiltrate the Yippies while wearing buzz-cuts and white socks.

What lesson did I learn from that, comrades? The lesson that important linguistic defeats are irreversible. They are permanent, out in the great world, or at least as permanent as any social phenomenon can be. What, then, is to be done? As I see it, we ought to continue to protect our own language and talk plainly among ourselves -- and try to do it without becoming utterly unintelligible to the people around us. A tall order, I admit, in our era of epistemological chaos. (What edition of the Newspeak Dictionary are we on now?)

Here's a taller order. Though we won't able to stop further Orwellian thefts and reversals in popular language, we can try getting something across to the few who may heed us: Our rulers distribute, to the ruled, subsidies and welfare "benefits," and we know what those things really are; but the language distributed by the ruling intelligentsia is often stolen property, too. And stolen property of the most profoundly corrupting kind: the kind that actually prevents thought.

Yes, you'll probably just be rewarded with more head-scratching. But you never know -- enough massaging of the scalp, and a fellow may eventually jostle some brain cells into waking up.

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Nicholas Strakon's picture
Columns on STR: 9