Tolkien vs. Socialism
Alberto Mingardi and Carlo
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,
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
Ronald Reuel Tolkien (18921973) 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
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
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
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.
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."
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 195455 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).
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).
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).
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.
regard to life in military camps, Tolkien (1995) wrote to his son
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
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.
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.
about the desire for knowledge and genuine curiosity in the organization
of universities, he said:
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,
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.
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).
about Frodo’s alleged "failure" in destroying the Ring
in the Cracks of Doom, he adds that
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"] (...)
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.240241).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
von 1972  The
Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Grove City: Libertarian Press.
and STAGNARO, Carlo 2002 "Tolkien
v. Power," The Ludwig von Mises Institute, February
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.
A. 1992a The
Road to Middle Earth, London: Grafton.
Tom A. 1992b "Tolkien as a Post-War Writer," in Reynolds
and Goodknight (1992), pp.8493.
and the Ring," LewRockwell.com, July 25, 2002.
Ronald Reuel 1983 The
Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, London: George
Allen & Unwin.
Ronald Reuel 1995  The
Letters of JRR Tolkien, London: Harper Collins Publishers.
John Ronald Reuel 2001  The
Lord of the Rings, London: Harper Collins Publishers.
1992 "Tolkien the Anti-totalitarian," in Reynolds and
Goodknight (1992), pp.233245.
Mingardi [send him mail]
is a student in political thought in Italy.
Stagnaro [send him mail]
co-edits the libertarian magazine "Enclave"
and edited the book "Waco.
Una strage di stato americana." Here's his
© 2002 LewRockwell.com