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Posted by andreas from ( on Monday, December 09, 2002 at 9:59AM :

In Reply to: Re: Tolkien: Wraiths and race posted by pancho from ( on Monday, December 09, 2002 at 9:52AM :

: I hated the Tolkein stuff the minute I heard the first paragraph...I knew there was something wrong with it from the way people drooled over the crud...if for no other reason.

: It's neat when your uglies are repackaged for you.

+++ Tolkienmania:

Tolkien vs. Socialism
by Alberto Mingardi and Carlo Stagnaro

The "anti-capitalistic mentality," as Ludwig von Mises called it, is still particularly widespread among novelists. The tremendous machine of socialist propaganda has succeeded in enforcing its taboos, taking cunning advantage of popular culture. It is very common to run across socialist ("social") novels and plays. An indoctrinated public asks for them. Typically, as Mises pointed out, these works "describe unsatisfactory conditions which, as they insinuate, are the inevitable consequence of capitalism" (Mises 1972, p.53).

If it is true that an artist can display his mastery in the treatment of any kind of subject, it is also true that this "literary pauperism" tends to expel myth, legend, and generally "great stories" (as opposed to the small stories of everyday misery in this imaginary "capitalist" world) from the canon of literature.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was definitely not a writer of this sort. He was a storyteller amused by his own stories. He was a creator of myths and legends. A scholar of the languages of the past, he certainly was not ashamed of the best legacies of Western civilization.

Indeed, he was a lifelong opponent of central planning. Perhaps this is among the reasons why he is still not regarded as one of the major authors of the twentieth century. Notwithstanding this slight, several dozen millions of copies of his masterpiece, the over 600,000 words long The Lord of the Rings – have been sold. Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Fellowship of the Rings was a blockbuster last year, and the forthcoming The Two Towers is expected to repeat that success.

This is very good news for libertarians. In fact, if Hollywood movies and prominent authors have often became a powerful tool in the hands of so called "progressive" propagandists, Tolkien’s work can become just as powerful in the hands of defenders of liberty who are informed about the nuances of his opus magnum.

Tolkien demonstrated, on more than one occasion, a very clear mind about both the origins and the possible (almost certain, in fact) outcome of socialism. Being a devout Roman Catholic, he couldn’t stand those who regarded religion as nothing but the "opium of the people."

His letters are an important source of information about what he thought of the world around him. It should be kept in mind that The Lord of The Rings, which was published in 1954–55 for the first time, actually was begun in the 1930s. It was a time when the future looked black; the choice seemed to be between the Nazis and the communists; that is – as Tolkien soon realized – two twin brothers of the very same mother, the French Revolution (about his vision of the war, and his belief that the choice was between two evils rather than good and evil, see Stagnaro 2002).

Tolkien was deeply impressed by the experience of two world wars, during which he encountered a larger sense of the sadness of war. Literary critic Tom Shippey quite appropriately defines him as a "post-war writer." He also notes that Tolkien learnt at his own expense the lesson of the twentieth century, that is "that ‘violence breeds violence’, that (the British) victory in World War I bred only the desire for vengeance which erupted in World War II. The whole British experience of World War I moreover tended to show that there was no clear indication of right and wrong as between the two sides, no matter what official propaganda might say (...) In this context, Tolkien’s good, violent, kindly, bloodthirsty characters – the adjectives just used fit particularly well for Théoden King – seem much less eccentric, paradoxical or thoughtless than so many reviewers indicate" (p.90).

To put it differently, it must be understood that Tolkien didn’t see in his own life (and therefore didn’t transfer into his novels) a chance for power to act for the good, nor did he find in left-wing socialism (in neither the hardcore version implemented in Russia, nor the softcore one to become popular in the West) a convincing alternative to right-wing "national" socialism (as it had been interpreted by Hitler or, to a smaller extent, by Mussolini).

He had almost no faith in any form of organization. When people try to plan the future, they always forget (or pretend not to know) that life is much more complex than any system one might imagine; "chance" is by definition impossible to forecast. Moreover, human beings act following their own reason and their own will, not in any standard way predictable by the planners.

With regard to life in military camps, Tolkien (1995) wrote to his son Christopher that

however it is, humans being what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars – nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation (...) All Big Things planned in a big way feel like that to the toad under the harrow, though on a general view they do function and do their job. An ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side... Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story! (p.78)

From this passage, we may deduce that Tolkien was quite pessimistic about history, leaving aside his infinite trust in Providence. He thought than any form of central planning, as put in place by self-conceited human planners, was impossible and doomed to failure. Anyway, he was as sure that humanity in general was acting within a higher plan, to be revealed at the end of the history with the coming of God in glory to divide the just and the unjust. To a certain extent, Tolkien also held a sort of millenarian view; indeed he said "I think there will be a ‘millenium’, the prophesied thousand-year rule of the Saints, i.e. those who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed heart and will to the world or the evil spirit (in modern but not universal terms: mechanism, ‘scientific’ materialism, Socialism in either of its factions now at war)" (1995, p.110). Not only does central planning not work, it is a sort of revolt against nature, in the sense that it marks man’s attempt to take the place of God himself. When men pretend to be able to completely manage their own destiny, they become so presumptuous as to say farewell to God. This is not just a fascinating theoretical analysis, but something empirically true. As any one may easily see, socialist regimes typically try to get rid of God. How successful these attempts have been is doubtful.

We won’t argue that Tolkien was at all acquainted with Mises’ analyses and ideas. It would be hazardous to say that the Oxonian professor ever read any economics. But it seems he acquired through his own experience a rather sophisticated understanding of how socialism does (not) work.

Speaking about the desire for knowledge and genuine curiosity in the organization of universities, he said:

It is not just a question of the degeneration of real curiosity and enthusiasm into "planned economy," under which so much research time is stuffed into more or less standard skins and turned out in sausages of a size and shape approved by our own little printed cookery book. Even if that were a sufficient description of the system, I should hesitate to accuse anyone of planning it with foresight, or of approving it wholeheartedly now that we have got it. It has grown, partly by accident, partly by the accumulation of temporary expedients. Much thought has gone into it, and much devoted and little remunerated labour has been spent in administering it and in mitigating its evil. (Tolkien 1983, p.227).

"I am not a ‘socialist’ in any sense – Tolkien added once – being adverse to ‘planning’ (as must be plain) most of all because the ‘planners’, when they acquire power, become so bad – but I would not say that we had to suffer the malice of Sharkey and his Ruffians here. Though, the spirit of ‘Isengard’, if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case. But our chief adversary is a member of a ‘Tory’ Government. But you could apply it anywhere in this days" (Tolkien 1995, p.235). From these words we may draw some preliminary conclusions. First, Tolkien did not have any sympathy towards socialism. Second, he soon realized that socialist ideas could be declined both right and left, and in both cases it implied a refusal of Christian heritage and traditional values. Third, socialism is not only evil in itself, but also presupposes a huge class of bureaucrats (planners), whose job is ultimately harmful for the society as a whole: it is not just a matter of inefficiency, but also of morals. Or, better, of the lack of moral of a system in which individuals don’t provide for themselves, relying instead upon the mercy of political power. Fourth, socialism had conquered "public opinion": both intellectuals and common people were going to endorse it as the best way to produce welfare, partly because they had lost any alternative.

Any serious criticism of socialism is based upon an appraisal of the fact that planning is ultimately impossible, because people’s behaviour can’t be predicted in any meaningful sense. "A man is not only a seed – JRRT argued – developing in a defined pattern, well or ill according to its situation or its defects as an example of its species; a man is both a seed and in some degree also a gardener, for good or ill. I am impressed by the degree in which the development of ‘character’ can be a product of conscious intention, the will to modify innate tendencies in desired directions (...) In any case, I personally find most people incalculable in any particular situation of emergency" (Tolkien 1995, p.240).

Speaking about Frodo’s alleged "failure" in destroying the Ring in the Cracks of Doom, he adds that

I dislike the use of "political" in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that Frodo’s duty was "humane" not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but a liberation from an evil tyranny of all the "humane" [including Elves, Hobbits and all "speaking creatures"] (...)

Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between Orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as a victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a "political" leader: sc. Gondor against the rest. (Tolkien 1995, pp.240–241).

Tolkien also recognized the morality of "the Cause of those who oppose now the State-God and Marshal This or That as High Priest, even if it is true (as it unfortunately is) that many of their deeds are wrong, even if it were true (as it is not) that the inhabitants of ‘The West’, except for minority of wealthy bosses, live in fear and squalor, while the worshippers of the State-God live in peace and abundance and in mutual esteem and trust" (Tolkien 1995, p.244). But, as we now know well, the worshippers of the State-God experienced the blackest poverty that humanity has ever seen, for merely political reasons.

The last quotations help introduce the "empirical" part of this article. We want to show that not only was Tolkien perfectly aware of the inherent problems of socialism; he also wanted to put his position so clearly that he dedicated to it one of the most important (and regrettably less studied) chapters of his masterpiece: the VIII Chapter of Book Six, "The Scouring of the Shire." After the War of the Ring, the Hobbits get back to their homeland, but find a very bad surprise there: the evil Saruman (Tolkien’s fictionalization of a philosopher dreaming of being king) has taken power and established a socialist regime.

To understand to what extent Saruman modifies the economic and political situation of the Shire, it’s useful to see how things are before his arrival. Well, the Shire is a small piece of land blessed by the fact that its inhabitants do not know the meaning of the nasty word, "coercion": politically speaking, it is a sort of confederacy among four quarters (the "Farthings"). It "had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations." Once there was a king; at the time of the War of the Ring, however, the Shire has no sovereign. The Hobbits "attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were ‘The Rules’ (as they said), both ancient and just" (Tolkien 2001, p.9).

But when the four Hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) get back from their journey to destroy the Ring, they find regrettable changes in the way of life of the Shire. Saruman (who is known as "Sharkey") has managed to create a centralized power and a planned economy. He has also established Lotho, a figure simultaneously both victim and predator, on the "throne." At a certain point Lotho is secretly killed. It is interesting to look at the way Sharkey modifies even the landscape of the Shire. Despite a good harvest, Hobbits experience dramatic shortages: "It’s all these ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers’, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again" (Tolkien 2001, p.976). Moreover, "everything except Rules got shorter and shorter, unless one could hide a bit of one’s own when the ruffians went round gathering stuff up ‘for fair distribution’: which meant they got it and we didn’t" (p.989). Also, a multitude of new officers have been hired by the new government, because many rules require as many public officers to enforce them.

Central planning has completely spoiled the landscape of the Shire. Big, dirty buildings have been built, trees cut down, and industries are polluting land and waters. The old mill, for example, has been knocked down in order to build "a bigger one and fill it full o’ wheels and outlandish contraptions" (p.990). Sharkey is always aware of what Hobbits think, thanks to his spies (most of them Hobbits themselves). "This is worse than Mordor – cried Sam – Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined." "Yes, this is Mordor," replies Frodo. So they initiate a revolt, and Hobbits finally throw Sharkey and the other felons out (actually, Skarkey is killed by his own servant, Wormtongue). After it, there’s a restoration: "Before Yule not a brick was left standing of the new Shirriff-houses or of anything that had been built by ‘Sharkey’s Men’; but the bricks were used to repair many an old hole, to make it snugger and drier." That seems to indicate that socialism not only is unjust, but also inefficient: even a brick may be used in a more appropriate way thanks to a decentralized, free decision-making process.

Tom Shippey notes that "there is something suggestive also in Saruman’s notorious ‘voice’, which always seems ‘wise and reasonable’, and wakes desire in others ‘by swift agreement to seem wise themselves’. Gandalf’s harshness represents denial of Utopias and insistence that nothing comes free. Even Lotho ‘Pimple’, Frodo’s relative, has a place in the argument because he is such an obvious Gradgrind – greedy and bossy to begin with, but staying within the law till his manipulators take over, to jail his mother, kill her and eat her too (if we can believe the hints about Grìma Wormtongue). Jeremy Bentham to Victorian Capitalists? Old Bolshevik to new Stalinists? The progression is familiar enough, and it adds another modern dimension to Middle Earth – or rather a timeless one, for though in the modern age we give Saruman a modern ‘applicability’, his name, and the evident uncertainty even in the Anglo-Saxon times over mechanical cleverness and ‘machinations’, show that his meaning was ancient too. Saruman nevertheless does have one distinctive modern trait, which is his association with Socialism" (p.154).

Long before his arrival in the Shire, Saruman had tried to convince Gandalf that evil actions may result in good ends: "We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our design, only in our means" (Tolkien 2001, p.253). As Tom Shippey (1992a) points out, "What Saruman says encapsulates many of the things the modern world has learnt to dread most: the ditching of allies, the subordination of means to ends, the ‘conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’. But the way he puts it is significant too. No other character in Middle Earth has Saruman’s trick of balancing phrases against each other so that incompatibles are resolved, and none comes out with words as empty as ‘deploring’, ‘ultimate’, worst of all, ‘real’" (p.108).

Saruman, hence, represents not merely socialism, but also the modern attitude to compromise, to renounce principles for power – and one may also suspect that he is intended to show that when one accepts a "dialogue" with evil, one risks playing by evil’s rules. So, every success will be temporary, and every victory Pyrrhic, because ultimately evil will prevail – unless one is strong enough (as Gandalf is, and as are partly Frodo, Sam, and the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring except Boromir) to refuse the evil from the beginning. The ends are the means, to a certain extent.

So, was Tolkien an anti-socialist novelist? Of course he was that – and much more. Jessica Yates (1992) is certainly right in pointing out that Tolkien’s criticism against nazism applies to communism as well. In fact, she defines him as "anti-totalitarian." The question is: what is "totalitarian"? There are two possible definitions, the one being "not democratic," and the other "anti-liberty." If you choose the former, then the "anti-totalitarian" label does not fit. Tolkien was certainly conscious of the dangers of democracy, as we showed in a precedent article (see Mingardi and Stagnaro 2002). In brief, he thought that democracy is nothing more than a means to govern people, and as such potentially harmful. Indeed, "I am not a democrat, only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and we get and are getting slavery" (Tolkien 1995, p.246). Tolkien was of course anti-totalitarian, but he was also anti-democratic for the very same reason.

We must therefore embrace an alternative definition of "anti-totalitarian." We may describe as "totalitarian" all those regimes which openly deny such natural rights as life, liberty, and property – that is, any modern state. From this point of view, it is easy to see Tolkien as an opponent of nazism and communism, as well as of modern social democracies. Democracy is at its best only a set of procedural rules, not a "moral" good itself.

We are of the opinion that Tolkien’s consistent vision can become a weapon for libertarians seeking to put an end to the barbarian statism which still characterizes our world. To popularize themes and reflections, to teach simple people in a simple language, novels are essential. Socialists understood that this is very important. Dickens has been perhaps as important to them as Marx. Let us, therefore, make Tolkien "our" Dickens.


MISES, Ludwig von 1972 [1956] The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Grove City: Libertarian Press.

MINGARDI, Alberto and STAGNARO, Carlo 2002 "Tolkien v. Power," The Ludwig von Mises Institute, February 26, 2002.

REYNOLDS, Patricia and GOODKNIGHT, Glen H. (editors) 1992 Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference. Keble College, Oxford, 1992, Altadena (CA) and Milton Keynes: The Mythopoeic Press and The Tolkien Society.

SHIPPEY, Tom A. 1992a The Road to Middle Earth, London: Grafton.

SHIPPEY, Tom A. 1992b "Tolkien as a Post-War Writer," in Reynolds and Goodknight (1992), pp.84–93.

STAGNARO, Carlo 2002 "Bush and the Ring,", July 25, 2002.

TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel 1983 The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, London: George Allen & Unwin.

TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel 1995 [1981] The Letters of JRR Tolkien, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel 2001 [1954–55] The Lord of the Rings, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

YATES, Jessica 1992 "Tolkien the Anti-totalitarian," in Reynolds and Goodknight (1992), pp.233–245.

December 9, 2002

Alberto Mingardi [send him mail] is a student in political thought in Italy. Carlo Stagnaro [send him mail] co-edits the libertarian magazine "Enclave" and edited the book "Waco. Una strage di stato americana." Here's his website.

Copyright © 2002

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