Herbert Spencer and the Equation of Collectivism, Socialism and Totalitarianism

The Libertarian Right in the American Republican party and the Conservatives over here tends to see Socialism as identical to Communism and collectivism. It’s why Obama has been loudly shouted down as a ‘Communist’ and ‘Nazi’ when he introduced Obamacare and the idea of a single-payer health system. Much of this comes from von Hayek, of course, and Ayn Rand, but it also goes further back to Herbert Spencer in the 19th century. Spencer was the founder of ‘Social Darwinism’, the attitude that state legislation to protect the weak was bad, because it stopped the operation of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ which would lead to the gradual emergence of a new, better, fitter, variety of humanity in the course of evolution. And according to G.C. Peden in British Economic and Social Policy, it was also Spencer who identified collectivism as socialism, and claimed that it aimed at the total ownership of the individual and their enslavement, instead of, as Socialists believe, their liberation. Peden states

In his On the Origin of Species, which also appeared in 1859, Darwin portrayed the natural world as one of ceaseless struggle which ensured, by natural selection, the survival of the fittest. It was possible, by analogy, to draw the conclusion that efforts to protect the weak at the expense of the strong would retard the natural evolution of society. Social Darwinism is now most commonly associated with Herbert Spencer, whose( Man Versus the State (1884) certainly made use of biological analogies and accepted that suffering was a necessary aspect of progress. Spencer also equated collectivism with socialism, and socialism with ‘slavery’, in the sense that society became the owner of the individual. P. 3).

Now Spencer does have a point, in that Communism and other totalitarian, collectivist states did enslave their citizens. However, that does not mean that collectivism and socialism are automatically totalitarian, or even forms of Communism. This does show how Victorian ideas have persisted in the transatlantic Right, most vociferously in the Republican party in America, but also very much over here in the attitudes of many Tories. It’s why the media pundits in the Land of the Free have accused Bernie Sanders of being a Communist, and why, for example, two Tory activists in one of the northern towns at one point decided it would be jolly japes to dress up as Red Army soldiers to bate the ruing Labour council. And it explains Margaret Thatcher, who gave a speech to the Tory faithful in Cheltenham in the 1990s attacking socialism as a nasty foreign import related to Communism. Historically, it is, but the attitudes can be very different, as you can tell from the way committed Communists hated and despised ‘Reformism’ and democratic socialism at every opportunity.


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