Today we remember socialism, the ideology that, from the purest of intentions, impoverished the greatest number of nations and swallowed up the most human lives. Socialism began almost immediately after the industrial revolution, as a revolt against the presumptuous new classes. Karl Marx mated an agrarian idealism with German moral philosophy, and out this unnatural union came “scientific socialism.”
Marxists preached violence and revolution; other socialists preferred more peaceful methods. All were certain history moved in a single direction: theirs.
The mid-twentieth century was the heyday of socialism. Marxist despots ruled a third of the human race. Socialist regimes in Africa and Asia, variously tyrannical, destroyed the economies of newly independent nations. Europe itself hosted huge communist parties, and was ruled largely on socialist principles. The conventional wisdom was that the U. S. would slowly evolve in the same direction.
Socialists of all stripes did one thing really well: they critiqued the flaws and foibles of capitalism with tremendous eloquence. That was true of St. Simon, Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro, no less than of the social democrats who sought a less violent end to what they considered to be the rule of money.
In fact, the socialist critique has stood the test of time so well that it is still utilized by those who hate the world as it now stands, from anti-globalists to fanatical Islamists. Nothing much, then or now, was ever proposed to replace capitalism. Marx was utterly vague about what transpired after the revolution. Lenin, once in power, changed his mind about economic policy. Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Pol Pot essentially converted the revolution into an oriental despotism. No matter. The critique stands.
History, that meandering sprite, moved in a surprising direction. Socialism died with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Those who pretend to espouse it today are really nihilists, like the anti-globalization crowd, or recipients of state largesse, like the students in Paris who rioted for the status quo rather than revolution. The countries of Asia and Africa have come alive as they break the crippling hold of socialist ideology. In China and India, more millions have been raised out of poverty since 1991 than in all of previous history.
All this is proper and right. But what Fidel Castro called the capitalist “triumphalism” of the Nineties has died as well. Socialism is a corpse, but other redemptive ideologies have risen up to take its place.
The critique of liberal democracy and free enterprise is entirely based on morality: we are said to be slaves to greed and the selfish desire to consume, and to lead lives of soulless hypocrisy. The defense of our way of life must also be based on moral principle. The great human adventure of freedom and self-rule has generated enormous prosperity but, like all human arrangements, can be justified only because it delivers a good and decent life.