One day, perhaps, a great history of socialism will be written. A daunting task, but not impossible, since socialism, the “ism,” is not very old—a relatively new phenomenon, during the last 200 years or even less. A history of social justice; a history of the working classes; a history of the poor—that would overwhelm any historian. “The poor you will always have with you,” Christ said. He taught social justice—indeed, more than that. Humbleness and mercy were virtues that the pagan world, despite its wisdom, did not know. To say that Christ was a socialist is stretching that word unduly—an imprecise exaggeration, though not without an uncertain little crumb of truth. A capitalist He certainly was not.
Two hundred years after the American and the French and other democratic revolutions, we ought to recognize that democracy, just about inevitably, tends toward some kind of socialism. Call it the welfare state, or the provider state, or the egalitarian society—it does not matter. What mattered was that, sooner or later, every government became dependent on the support (or at least of the consent) of its working classes. What mattered was that, sooner or later, equality before the law had to include social justice. Where this evolution was obstructed, or hampered, or unduly slow, socialism and socialist parties arose, in Western Europe, Scandinavia, Britain. Less than a century after their first appearance, they were capable, because of universal suffrage, to become majority parties in this or that state and form governments. But, by the time that happened, this, too, mattered relatively little, since the practices, the institutions, the legislation of providing welfare were accepted, willy-nilly, by all governments of the Western world, including the nonsocialist ones.
By now, in the beginning of the 21st century, it may even be argued that the definitions of categories of socialism and socialist are either too narrow or too broad: They are losing their meaning, though not quite yet. Consider how the term working class has become largely meaningless, too. Everybody—coal miners and pornographic actors—is a worker; waiters work, as do their customers. (Consider the current American phrase in a restaurant: “Are you still working on your appetizer?”) That fewer and fewer people work with their hands, and that fewer and fewer people produce anything material is, of course, another development, beyond the province of this short little essay.
However—socialism is not yet a wasm. Like “liberalism” it is beginning to disintegrate—for many reasons, of which a most important one is that it has won. The aims of its earlier proponents and adherents have been fulfilled, in places and at times beyond their dreams. There hardly exists any state on the globe now that does not provide some kind of social security and unemployment compensation and medical insurance. But almost everywhere this happened not because of the popularity of socialist doctrines or of socialist parties; it happened because of the unavoidable relationship of democratization with social justice.
There was one, great and deep, shortcoming of socialism contributing to its occasional and eventual unpopularity. That shortcoming it shared with its avowed enemy, capitalism (which, like socialism, is disintegrating—another subject beyond the purview of this essay). Both socialism and capitalism had a false concept of human nature: that of Economic Man. Both—and, perhaps especially, socialists—failed to see that the aspirations of the so-called working classes (and perhaps especially of their women) were not very different from those of the so-called middle classes: Their aspirations were those of respectability. Both—and perhaps especially socialists—failed to see that the conflicts of classes became less decisive than the conflicts of nations. Socialist internationalism was an intellectual (and abstract) doctrine: It did not really appeal to the working classes. A great change, beginning more than 130 years ago, was the mutation of much of old-fashioned patriotism into a newer and populist nationalism. Sooner, rather than later, the very internationalism of socialist spokesmen not only ceased to attract; it became a handicap. “Christian Socialist” and “National Socialist” parties and movements arose. They rejected internationalism and preached the cult of the nation. Their most striking proponent was Adolf Hitler. He united nationalism with socialism. The very origin of the word Nazi is telling. When his, at first minuscule, political party appeared, people called them “Nazi-Sozi,” an abbreviation of Nationalist Socialists, to distinguish them from the internationalist socialists and their adherents. Very soon, the “Sozi” disappeared, and the universal term became “Nazi”—another proof that the nationalist adjective meant infinitely more than its partner, the socialist one.
Does this relate to the history of the United States? Very much indeed. A socialist party in this country never got very far, because it was (and looked) not nationalist enough. Even at the worst times of capitalist dominance, the American working classes saw socialism as something abstract and unnational, a foreign importation. Around 1910, American socialists had a few successful political candidates, but that was a flurry. But before that, and ever since, the—then still recognizable—American working classes have been more nationalist than almost any other class within the American social sphere. And, when it comes to the mixture (or compound) of nationalism and socialism, this universal phenomenon is applicable to the American political system, too. Of the still-extant monstrous political parties, the Republicans have been, by and large, more nationalistic than socialistic—the Democrats, the obverse. Hence the relative ascendancy of the Republicans after World War II.
They may be getting into trouble now—because of their advocacy of “globalism,” which is but another name for international capitalism. That is speculation. What is not speculation is that the quest for, and the institutionalization of, social justice have both preceded and survived the appeal of political socialism. Whether these institutions will survive some kind of an unprecedented catastrophe that would involve the dissolutions of states and governments as we still know them, however, I cannot tell.