[This review was published in the May/June 1997 issue of Conservative Review, p. 40.]


Book Review


The Ethics of Socialism, Fascism, Capitalism

            and the Welfare State

John O. Nelson

Whiteing Publishing, 1996 


            John Nelson taught this reviewer symbolic logic at the University of Colorado almost 45 years ago.  After an illustrious career in the philosophy department as one of the few outspoken opponents of the Left on the Boulder campus (a considerable testament to his independence and courage), he retired a few years ago so as no longer to allow academic routine to interfere with his prolific writing and correspondence.

            With this brief volume, he has contributed much insight to the understanding of the ideologies that have competed for modern attention.  He searches for the "ethic," the central informing principle, that actuates each of the ideologies.  The explanatory value of such informing principles is best to be seen in connection with fascism and socialism.  Fascism, he says, adopts the ethics of external war; socialism, of internal class warfare.

            How do people normally act when their given society is faced with external war?  They draw together, come to see their nation in spiritual terms as something for which it is worthwhile to sacrifice and even die, find their own fulfillment in such battlefield virtues as courage and duty, emphasize action, repose trust in military elites and charismatic individuals, and delight in conquest and in such outer signs of national corporate unity as mass rallies and parades.  All of these things, normal to a people at war, make up the essence of fascism, which to maintain them must perpetuate a war posture even in time of peace.

            If, on the other hand, internal class warfare is the informing principle, how will people act?  Here, virtue will be seen in ruthlessness, vengeance-seeking, cunning, dissembling--all given moral sanctity as a more-than-justified response to the sufferings of the oppressed.  The leader here is not a military hero but a cunning plotter, and the State takes the form of an overweening  bureaucracy that must long continue to pretend that there are "enemies within."  By what better conception are we to understand the essence of Communism and the motive-force for its barbarities?

            Nelson discusses fascism in the context of Mussolini, and unfortunately does not seek to analyze Nazism.  To have done so might have been instructive, since we can see much "external war" as the moving idea in German national socialism, while at the same time an equivalent to "internal class warfare" was evident in its adversarial hostility to the Jews.

            The ethic of capitalism is that each person is responsible for his own survival.  The nexus is voluntary, and there is a duty to abstain from using force to acquire capital.  Its virtues are thrift, industry, foresight, the honoring of contracts.  Its vices include sloth, short-sightedness, over-spending and the breaching of contracts. 

            The welfare state is actuated by "the caring principle," which in its egalitarianism is tantamount, Nelson says, to "the slave's ethics."  Here, the strong are responsible for care of the weak, and no one is responsible for his own survival.

            Nelson is himself pro-capitalist, and his point of view becomes evident as soon as he starts his own critique, which comes at the end.  The long-standing influence of Ayn Rand on his thought is evident when he sees "individual freedom [as] a matrix for ennobling and praiseworthy action" (which, needless to say, is hardly the way a socialist perceives activity within a market-based society).  Nelson adds an extended appendix to discuss the nature of coercion, a concept central to much classical liberal theory.  The discussion is a good one, but this reviewer would prefer to see it taken into considerably greater depth and subtlety, since many of the classical liberal points about it have become cliched and there is a great deal more to say that could make a thinker like Nelson bring his incisive mind directly to bear on the many criticisms that socialist authors have leveled against capitalism.

            But that would make the book much longer.  As it stands, its brevity increases its usefulness as a book to include among the readings, assigned or merely recommended, in a course on comparative political philosophy.  Readers elsewhere will find it valuable for its provocative insights.


                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey