Adam Smith was an innocent man; we could not class him with Marx and Gobineau as the mastermind behind a disastrous tyrannical system, could we? Marxism birthed the Soviet Union and Gobineau helped to birth National Socialism. These men led to what we call “extremist” ideologies, quite reprehensible. Of course, “extremism” means very little; it is mostly a measure made by the consensus formed from the media, state bureaucracies, universities, and the intellectuals; propositions that would seem very extreme, even in the 1990s, such as the idea children can remove their genitals, are regarded as moderate now: people who oppose these ideas are extremists.
Yet Adam Smith would be—if I controlled the consensus—designated as an extremist and not lauded as a key Enlightenment thinker, if that is really a compliment; indeed, the Enlightenment really is a dirty word; and the partisans of Enlightenment were always dangerous extremists—as they demonstrated when they drenched France in blood. Smith claimed that man is primarily a trader. The claim sounds harmless enough in itself; as with all such reductionist claims—as with Marx’s class theory or Gobineau’s race theory—it is pitched in a positive way. If man is a trader, then wars and social strife are aberrations—probably caused by religion, the aristocracy, and the king—and, if reason prevails, social strife will end; at last, the world will only peaceably trade. We will war no more once every nation has a McDonald’s in its capital city.
This vision is, in its way, as unrealistic as the communist utopia; and in many ways it prefigures that utopia. For Smith, man is a trader and, further, he is productive: the industrious Scot had little time for the unproductive, and by the unproductive he did not only mean the unemployed; among the unproductive classes, Smith included aristocrats, soldiers, monks, priests, artists, and acrobats—in short, many professions that make life worthwhile. Smith granted that soldiers and priests were necessary, but only in a very grudging way; from his tone—his condemnations of aristocratic extravagance—Smith conveys a deep contempt for those who do not produce: to produce and trade, the two purposes of man in life; if you are Scottish and middle class, anyway—or did I just do a postmodernism, with such relativity?
It was the Smithian attitude that contributed to the French Revolution—to all the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Man was a productive trader; and so everything unproductive should yield to the productive; but, of course, once the aristocracy and religious orders were kicked clear—very rationally—there was nothing to stop the revolutionary momentum. After all, certain intellectuals, men like Marx, began to ask just how productive the middle-class merchants really were. Not as productive as might be thought, and so the revolution rolled on to its next phase.
The idea that everything in life can be a trade—so ending social and international war—was liberal utopianism. It reduced politics to a deal, a material matter, and excluded the divine and martial; it undid hidden protections. Men like Smith and Thomas Carlyle—non-stop Scots—contributed to the rise of that very 20th-century phenomenon, the labour camp. “Work sets you free,” so went the famous Nazi slogan over their camps; the middle class or the Jews or the aristocrats would be made to do real work—productivity would set them free.
Contrast this to Nietzsche’s aristocratic attitude: everything beautiful comes from leisure and superfluity, not “hard graft”. The free marketeer, the man like Smith, opens the door to socialism because he reduces life to pure labour, production, and exchange. Man is productive and man does trade, but there is more to him than these two traits; yet even today, the disciples of Smith are in the saddle—they tell us about marvellous new iPhones and how much you can make in the West—and, just the same, they pave the path to communism. They are the extremists we cannot see.