Vital Signs

Why I Am Not a Socialist

Though Chesterton disliked socialism intensely, he did not regard it as the most serious danger facing Western civilization.  Writing in 1925, he describes the socialist state as something “centralized, impersonal, and monotonous” but suggests that this is also an accurate description of the societies in the modern industrialized West that regard themselves as enemies of socialism.  The coming peril was something Chesterton called “standardization by a low standard,” and that danger was as much a characteristic of the West as it was of the Soviet East.  The next great heresy, Chesterton insisted, was not Bolshevism but an attack on morality, especially sexual morality.  The locus of that attack would not be in Moscow but in Manhattan.  Hence the paradox: In one sense, socialism represented a fantasy that could never be fully realized; in another, it represented an evil that was already present.  “It is,” he writes, “only a thing that is as distant as the end of the world and as near as the end of the street.”

Perhaps the best summary of Chesterton’s critique of socialism is found in his contribution to a debate that took place in 1908 in the pages of an influential London socialist weekly called the New Age.  The protagonists in the debate were Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Belford Bax as spokesmen for socialism, and Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc as its...

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