Capitalism: Thoughts by H. L. Mencken, 1935

Capitalism: Thoughts by H. L. Mencken, 1935
H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken (Sept. 12, 1880--Jan. 29, 1956) was an American journalist from Maryland. His work is characterized by sharp criticism and satirical observations about government, cultural institutions, and powerful people. He was witty, iconoclastic at times, and a master of the English language. His works are always an interesting read.

In this selection, Mencken gives his views on the impending collapse of the "capitalist system," as some where prophesying, and its replacement by "something nobler" and more "scientific."

Interestingly, capitalism is still attacked as an unjust system and many on the Left of the political spectrum call for its destruction and overthrow today. Consequently, Mencken's views, though decades old, still seem relevant to modern debates.

August Glen-James, editor

When the Bolsheviki, a gang of frauds almost comparable to our own Brain Trust, took over the control of affairs in Russia, they had to throw overboard at once one of the cardinal articles of their ostensible creed. That article was to the effect that all the sorrows of the world were due to the fact that the workingman, under capitalism, had lost ownership in his tools.

All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalist system is on its last legs, and will presently give place to something nobler and more “scientific.” There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better. The most that may be said is that the capitalistic system is undergoing changes, some of them painful. But those changes will probably strengthen it quite as often as they weaken it.

We owe to it almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale, and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.

We owe to capital the fact that the medical profession, for example, is now really useful to mankind, whereas formerly it was useful only to the charlatans who practiced it. It took accumulated money to provide the long training that medicine began to demand as it slowly lifted itself from the level of a sorry trade to that of a dignified art and science—money to keep the student while he studied and his teachers while they instructed him, and more money to pay for the expensive housing and materials that they needed. In the main, all that money came from private capitalists. But whether it came from private capitalists or from the common treasury, it was always capital, which is to say, it was always part of an accumulated surplus. It never could have been provided out of the hand-to-mouth income of a non-capitalist society.

When the Bolsheviki, a gang of frauds almost comparable to our own Brain Trust, took over the control of affairs in Russia, they had to throw overboard at once one of the cardinal articles of their ostensible creed. That article was to the effect that all the sorrows of the world were due to the fact that the workingman, under capitalism, had lost ownership in his tools. All the classical authorities on Socialism, from Marx and Engels downward, had stressed this loss heavily, and the Utopia they visioned was always one in which the workingman should get his tools back, and become an independent producer, working for himself alone, and giving none of the value he created to a wicked capitalist. But the moment the Bosheviki came into power they had to shelve all this, and since then nothing has been heard about it save from their American gulls. A shrewd set of shysters, eager only to run Russia as their private preserve, they saw instantly that their main job was to accumulate capital, for without it half of their victims would starve. The old capital of the country had been destroyed by war. An easy way to get more would have been to borrow it, but no one would lend, so the Bolsheviki had to accumulate fresh capital of their own.

This they managed to do by sweating the Russian workers in a manner never before seen on earth, at all events in modern times. The workers, at the start, resisted, especially the farmers, and in consequence Russia had a couple of famines, and the hat had to be passed in the capitalistic countries to feed the starving. But by slaughtering the rebellious farmers and organizing the jobless into a huge army, the Bolsheviki presently managed to bring the workers of Russia to heel, and since then those poor fish have been worked like prisoners in a chain gang, and have got pretty much the same wages. All the produce of their labor, over and above subsistence far more suitable to rats than to men, has gone into the coffers of the Bolsheviki. Thereby the Bolsheviki have accumulated a store of new capital, and now they use it not only to build ever larger and larger factories, each manned by hordes of workers who own nothing but their hands, but also to provide luxurious quarters for themselves, including an embassy at Washington so gaudy that it is the envy of every banker in town.

Thus one of the fundamental principles of Marxism has been reduced to absurdity in the house of its professed disciples. They may be scoundrels, and no doubt they are, but they also have a considerable cunning, and are thus well aware that nothing properly describable as modern civilization can be carried on without capital. And by capital I mean precisely what they mean when they denounce it for foreign consumption—that is, I mean a surplus accumulated, not in the pockets of workers, but in the pockets of persons who provide them with the means of work, and not under control of those who produce it, but under the control of those who have managed to collar it. The shabby politicians, puerile pedagogues and briefless lawyers who have raged and roared at Washington since 1933 would go the same way if they had the chance. Some of them, perhaps, are actually stupid enough to believe that the world could get along without capitalism, but others surely must be shrewd enough to note what has happened in Russia. But whether they are only plain idiots or clever rogues, they all talk grandly about capitalism’s decay, and even those who allege that they are trying to save it keep on mouthing the nonsense that it is on its deathbed. You will find the same hollow blah in all the organs of the More Abundant Life, and every day it issues from some dotty pedagogue yearning for a Government job.

There is no sense in it whatever. The modern world could no more get along without accumulated capital than it could get along without police or paved streets. The greatest change imaginable is simply the change that has occurred in Russia—a transfer of capital from private owners to professional politicians. If you think this would do the individual any good, then all you need do to be undeceived is to ask any American letter-carrier. He works for a master capitalist named Uncle Sam—and he will be glad to tell you how hard he has to sweat for every nickel he gets.