Modern American conservatism has been marked by a fascination with ideology. Despite arguments that conservatism is not an ideology or is opposed to all ideology, American conservatives have regularly attempted to systematize their own beliefs. Moreover, they have often attempted to define themselves by reference to ideologies they oppose. Opposition to Soviet communism played a major role in uniting conservatives of many different varieties throughout the Cold War. More recently, neoconservative apparatchiks such as Norman Podhoretz, Victor Davis Hanson, and Christopher Hitchens have sought to portray President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” as part of a protracted global struggle against “Islamofascism,” and Jonah Goldberg has made a bid to become the conservative movement’s Mikhail Suslov by spending four years writing a book arguing that “fascism” is the intellectual taproot of American liberalism.
Somewhat overlooked in all of this has been the ideology that has enjoyed the most political success in the modern era: socialism, the object of this enjoyable study by Thomas Fleming.
The reader of a book as brief as this will hardly learn all there is to know about socialism, but he will encounter a thoughtful overview of this important subject, from such forerunners as Plato, Christian millenarians, and Enlightenment philosophes down to the present day. What is more, he will encounter an original thinker and witty writer. Any book that contains such lines as “Rousseau had a very high regard for freedom, especially his own” and “The Fabians may have believed in economic and social equality, but they refused to abandon their belief in the superiority of intellectuals” is well worth the read.
[amazonify]0761426329[/amazonify]Fleming describes Sir William Harcourt’s observation that “We are all socialists now” as “an accurate, if somewhat extreme, description of all the major parties of Europe and the Americas.” Despite the dismal failure of avowedly socialist parties in America, Fleming notes that American socialist Norman Thomas “lived long enough to see most of his socialist policies enacted by Democrats and Republicans.” Citing such facts as the inflation-adjusted 500-percent increase in government spending on education over the last four decades, and the federal government’s ownership of 28 percent of all land in America, Fleming argues that “the United States has developed its own tradition of democratic socialism, but rarely under that name.” Indeed, as Fleming notes, in the United States “socialist parties have always been misleadingly described as ‘liberal.’” The ideology undergirding American liberalism is in fact socialism, not “fascism,” a defunct left-right hybrid that combined “a belief in the nation and its traditions” with domestic policies that were “primarily socialist.” A “belief in the nation and its traditions” is markedly absent from the rhetoric of many American liberals, which is the major reason the Democratic Party has been at a disadvantage in so many recent electoral contests. Indeed, the leading contender (as of this writing) for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, has a wife who did not feel pride in America until her husband began winning primaries and a minister who prefers “God damn America” to “God bless America.”
Fleming sees the essence of socialism as egalitarianism—an emphasis on “the duty of society to ensure social and economic fairness and equality.” This is both socialism’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is socialism’s greatest strength because the enduring inequality that is part of the human condition means that “the socialist revolution will never run out of enemies.” The persistence of inequality explains the “protean” nature of socialism and why “there are an almost infinite variety of socialist experiments.” Conversely, human nature means that socialism’s vision will never succeed: “Ever since Plato’s time, socialist theorists have had to wrestle with the fact that human nature may not be up to the demands put on it in an ideal society.” The desire to create the perfect society by eliminating the imperfect led to the greatest blot on the Marxist record, the unequaled mass murder that accompanied communism. But the reality of human nature means that even peaceful socialist experiments will inevitably end in disappointment and failure.
The initial focus of socialism was on economics, and socialism has certainly had a profound impact on economic life around the world. Every major industrialized nation has some form of governmental safety net, and Fleming observes that “some aspects of socialism . . . are probably inevitable in the vast countries and complex economies created by liberals and nationalists over the centuries.” But too much taxation and regulation kills economic initiative, and these days not many socialists are calling for nationalized industry and central planning. As an example of the dead end to which socialist economics leads, Fleming cites Sweden, where in the mid-70’s Ingmar Bergman was being taxed at a rate of 139 percent. By the 1980’s, inflation in Sweden was twice the European average, growth and productivity were stagnant, and taxes represented 55.3 percent—and government debt, 75 percent—of GNP. Even the enthusiastically socialist Swedes felt the need to cut back on spending and taxes, and by 2005 government debt had dropped to 52 percent of the GNP. Of course, far more dramatic departures from socialism occurred elsewhere, and the “1980s witnessed a virtual free market revolution” with the ascendancy of Reagan, Thatcher, Chirac, and Kohl. The end result has been something of a stalemate, with none of these figures enjoying “major success in slowing, much less reversing, the moral and social revolution that had taken place,” but with their socialist opponents emerging from the 1980’s having accepted the “proposition that the market should be allowed to operate within more or less strict limits.”
If the socialist revolution has arrived at something of an impasse in the economic arena, it has been making great advances on other fronts—in the culture, in the family, and in its war against the nation-state. Fleming rightly sees Antonio Gramsci, who died in one of Mussolini’s prisons, as “one of the most influential socialist thinkers of the twentieth century,” and the “long march through the institutions” to which he gave birth has been spectacularly successful in turning the culture-forming institutions of the West toward the left. In America, the Gramscian revolution was carried out under the auspices of members of the Frankfurt School such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who fled Hitler to ensconce themselves at the New York School for Social Research. The Frankfurt School was the intellectual wellspring of the New Left of the 1960’s, which has gradually succeeded in undermining traditional morality and habits of thought in the United States.
Cultural leftism hardly began in the 60’s, though. The Marxist left has, from its inception, been hostile to both the family and the nation-state. Engels “saw the traditional family as oppressive,” and “there has been a strong tendency in socialist thinkers . . . to deny legitimacy to the institutions of marriage and family and celebrate sexual freedom.” Gunnar and Alva Myrdal campaigned in the 1930’s for “aggressive sex education for all children” and “legal contraception and abortion to liberate women from childbearing.” The Myrdals’ vision now holds sway throughout the Western world. Marx called “for the end of the nation-state” with the “ultimate goal, already anticipated by the Communist Manifesto, of world government.” Although we are not there yet, NAFTA and GATT have served to undermine American sovereignty, and many of the same forces that helped push us into those supranational compacts are now pushing for a North American Union modeled after the European Union. Interestingly, many of the strongest proponents of NAFTA and GATT were not socialists at all, but classical liberals.
One of the great strengths of Fleming’s book is that it demonstrates that, in spite of the important contributions by such seminal figures as Friedrich Hayek to the critique of socialism, classical liberalism remains an uneven opponent of socialism—and is sometimes even a kindred spirit. Fleming cites German socialist Eduard Bernstein, who
understood that socialism, rather than being in conflict with basic liberal principles, could be seen as an extension of them. Liberals had worked to end restrictions imposed by religion and aristocracy. What remained was to end the oppression based on wealth, and this could only be done by gradual and democratic means.
Those who follow John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement” are, at best, unreliable defenders of such prime targets of cultural Marxism as the family, tradition, and religion. Indeed, hostility to tradition was the animating spirit behind the destructive work of Gramscian Marxists in both America and Europe. And many of those who claim to draw on the classical-liberal tradition, such as the editors of Reason, are unremittingly hostile to traditional morality. Fleming’s critique of classical liberalism extends even to the cornerstone of Austrian economics, the subjective theory of value, which Fleming sees as mistaken because “most individual preferences are determined not by individuals but by families, friends, communities, social fashions, and local and national traditions.”
If classical liberals are unreliable opponents of cultural Marxism, they are full-fledged allies in the Marxist war against the nation-state. Marx and Engels saw free trade as the first step toward the elimination of the nation-state, an insight shared by liberal thinker Frédéric Bastiat, who wrote that free trade would lead to the “peaceful, ecumenical, and indissoluble union of the peoples of the world.” Fleming offers this revealing quote from Hayek to illustrate the classical liberal aversion to national borders:
It is neither necessary nor desirable that national boundaries should mark sharp differences in standards of living, that membership of a national group should entitle [it] to a share of the cake altogether different from that in which members of other groups share.
In practical terms, America is being subjected to free trade and mass immigration, despite the skepticism of the general populace, because the heirs of both Marx and Hayek are in agreement that national borders are artificial and undesirable.
Fleming foresees socialism continuing to expand in new directions. He notes that socialist parties
embraced feminism, sexual freedom, anti-colonialism, and minority rights, and by the end of the last century a typical socialist agenda might include protection of endangered species, same-sex marriage, Third World development, and global government.
Indeed, environmentalism, with its almost unlimited scope for new governmental regulation and control, is likely to be particularly enticing:
Green parties are generally made up of socialists and leftists who added environmentalism to their agenda without giving up their commitment to Marxism. . . . It is very possible that the next generation of socialists will be far more green than red.
Unsurprisingly, Fleming’s overall assessment of socialism is negative. Even the socialists who have avoided mass violence have produced societies “run by meddlesome do-gooders whose interventions in the free market and in private life have produced dullness, sterility, and dependency.” However, he concedes its achievements, including “often soften[ing] the hard lot of those who have failed to succeed in competitive societies.” He credits Marx with seeing “what classical liberals refused to see, that industrial capitalism had undermined all the security enjoyed by poor people in traditional societies.” He also notes that, “If liberal opponents of socialism usually win the arguments about efficiency, they are defeated rather easily on arguments about justice and morality.” Fleming argues that seeking to reduce society to Ludwig von Mises’ dictum “the means by which each individual member seeks to attain its own ends” will have little appeal outside the libertarian echo chamber.
Fleming also suggests that the “dullness, sterility, and dependency” wrought by socialism will be found in any mass society organized along bureaucratic lines, including our own. Fleming’s own sympathies lie with those resisting such a mass society, and he deals with the often overlooked thinkers who sought a Third Way between socialism and unfettered capitalism, who desired
a society made up of small farmers and shopkeepers, where local and regional cultural traditions were preserved and culture was more than a product sent out to radio stations and movie theaters.
Many will contend that any effort to recreate such a society is quixotic, but since the men who secured our independence from Great Britain and wrote our Constitution lived in such a society, it at least seems worth a try.
[Socialism • by Thomas Fleming • Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark; 144 pp., $39.93]
Tom Piatak writes from Cleveland, Ohio.
This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.