“Well, that’s just like them. And I suppose they are skulking outside, and your job is to do all the dangerous work and get what you can when I’m not looking–for them? And you will get a fair share? Don’t you believe it! If you get off alive, you will be lucky.”
–Smaug, the dragon; The Annotated Hobbit, p. 280.
Is The Hobbit a Socialist tract?
The short answer is: er, um, maybe.
The long answer goes something like this:
Who is the villain in this story? It is the dragon, Smaug, yet his only transgression lies in hoarding a massive amount of treasure (i.e. capital). This is not really a crime, merely the habit of the wealthy in extremis. On some level, the dwarves know this despite making a claim to rightful ownership of the treasure. However, most telling, they hire a thief to “steal” the treasure right back, and theft implies one has no legal claim to something, which raises the question: why not hire a dragonslayer instead of a sneaky hobbit?
Ah, well, the dwarves did not believe in such a bourgeoisie definition of the word “theft”. They adhered to a classic form of Marxist doublethink: When the powerful take from the masses, that is theft; however, when the masses take from the powerful, that is the highest form of justice, righteous to the core. Therefore, the dwarves decided they needed someone innocent ideologically to lead them back to their self-proclaimed birthright, that is Bilbo, the hobbit, the manchild.
The dwarves set their route home to an intentionally difficult path in order to radicalize Bilbo and mold him to their one true vision. First, in merrily ransacking the hobbit’s domicile they sought to shake him from his complacency and sense of order. Then, hobbits being hard-working folk, they seduced him with their theories of labor exploitation. Once they set out onto the road, the trials came one upon the other. The trolls, goblins and other nasty creatures (representing the criminal underworld) put a worldly fear into Bilbo and opened his eyes to the evils that fester in laissez-faire systems. His encounter with Gollum (representing the corrupt intellectuals who support the ruling class) demonstrated to him that theft takes on many forms, and afforded his first successful attempt at pilfering treasure which demonstrated to him that survival often requires remorseless hands. And most importantly, the encounter with the elves (the aristocracy and their aloofness toward the suffering of the lower classes) pushed Bilbo toward righteous anger, one a perfect match for dragonfire.
(Incidentally, the one benevolent character in the story, Gandalf, has only sporadic impact on the narrative, pushing it forward at crucial points but receding into the background right afterward. He is a stand-in for God. Tho Socialist regimes tend toward the atheistic, Marxism is grounded in Old Testament scripture. The upshot philosophically of this dynamic is that God is meant to save us from ourselves then go away and leave us to our utopia.)
The final twist in the story takes place in the planless climax. When Bilbo arrives at the Lonely Mountain (Cuba?) the problem of stealing mounds of treasure out from under the nose of the dragon becomes, only then, starkly apparent. What is needed is Revolution! After prodding the dragon’s arrogance and vanity, the hobbit realizes that violence is inevitable and he must expose authoritarianism’s infinite conflagration of rage with the provoking promise of pilfering power! Only then do the peasants below rise up, and the heroic hunter makes the System itself the object of his vengeance.
In conclusion, only one thing is inarguable: Tolkien himself was not a Socialist, for his protagonist in the end returned to an idyllic life in a cozy hobbit hole. What Tolkien may ultimately have been trying to communicate is that Revolution makes for a rip-roaring tale; however, ultimately it only serves to make a mess of tea time.