The future of a dead ideal

Out of the great threshing floor of history, we have received two ways of organizing our species.  In one, the government claims to represent the community, and considers private persons to be at best supplicants, more likely dangers to social peace.  In the other, the individual demands the choice of many paths to salvation, even if it means less social cohesiveness and a weaker government.

Neither principle has ever been pushed to an absolute, even in the most extreme historical examples.  Pol Pot’s Cambodia knew private interest and enterprise; Gladstone’s Britain imposed mandatory education and regulated pub hours.

But in every society the moral arrows all point in one direction or the other.  Either the government stands for the whole, and can be forgiven many sins — or the private person embodies human dignity, and must be allowed the freedom to annoy and to fail.

The sanctification of government power is the default setting of history, but its most successful promoter over the last 200 years has been socialism.  The rise of the private person, a new thing under the sun, engendered liberal democracy, with its rights and protections, its faith in private property and free markets.  Again, there has never been a pure example of either — but in each nation the political and economic arrows, guided by moral justifications, point in one direction or the other.

The moral imperatives matter greatly.  These are not intellectual propositions to be proven or disproven like tomorrow’s weather forecast.  They are expressions of right and wrong behavior — orientations to good and evil — passionately defended by their adherents.

Events have not been kind to socialism.  Its most complete embodiment, the Soviet Union, became an ideal but also a problem for the democratic-minded.  Too plainly, the Soviet Union resembled tsarist Russia with better organized brutality.  The question was whether Soviet socialism could be reformed — whether, in brief, the great power of a revolutionary bureaucracy could somehow be humanized.

The answer came exactly 40 years ago, in August 1968, when Soviet tanks obliterated the Czech communist party’s experiment in democratic reform.  The Czechs had overthrown their Stalinist leadership under the motto, “socialism with a human face.”  But revolutionary socialism requires inhumanity:  the imposition of equality by unfettered government power must end in tyranny and bloodshed.  That is not a deviation, but the inescapable logic of the ideal.  (Any who doubt this, go read Hayek.)

Martin Kettle, in the Guardian, recalls the collapse of faith in that ideal after the Soviets suppressed, with blood and iron, the dream of reform that was the “Prague Spring.”

That question was big and it was simple. Could the Soviet communist model of socialism be reformed or not? Today we know the answer. But the world of 1968 could not be so sure. The question was at the heart of the Prague Spring. Dubcek’s reforms raised the possibility that there could be some kind of democratic socialist third way in which collective goals and socialist projects coexisted with democracy, free institutions and individual freedoms. Tony Judt is right to argue in his great book, Postwar, that the slogan of socialism with a human face was not just rhetorical and right to insist that the Prague 68ers didn’t “really” want to import liberal capitalism. They actually believed that reformed socialism could work.

The reform question was not being asked only in Czechoslovakia itself. It was also being posed to some degree in all the Soviet client states of eastern Europe, though manifestly under less open circumstances, as well as in limited ways under the repressive conditions of the USSR itself – and beyond. For it was being asked too, though in different ways by all those on the left, including on the left in this country, who believed that Stalinism represented the betrayal not just of 1917 but also of an otherwise still valid revolutionary socialist tradition.

The invasion of August 1968 put an end to all that.

“August 21, 1968 was not the day communism died,” Kettle writes.  “But it was the day communism’s death sentence was confirmed.”

The final agony of Soviet communism in 1991 incidentally killed off its kinder, gentler sibling, democratic socialism:  both shared too many discredited assumptions and hopes for the latter to survive the catastrophe.  No particular date can be put forward for the moment of death — say some time in the 1990s.  At that point, the problem shifted from the reform of communism to something far more fundamental:  what do socialists now believe?  What justifies the faith in great government power?  Why should equality matter?

The collapse of socialism as an ideal of government should not be confused with the triumph of liberal democracy.  This never happened.  True, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed an ideological “end of history,” because the great totalitarian systems that had challenged liberalism lay in ruins.  But, as Roger Kimball notes, Fukuyama dwells in a Hegelian palace of theories and ideas, which rejects the significance, and thus the moral weight, of events.

In the world of flesh and blood, the failure of socialism denied the opponents of liberalism a coherent alternative.  Nothing else changed.  The moral loathing felt by those who identify the community with government power, if anything, intensified after the fall of the Soviet Union:  a natural reaction to defeat.

Untethered from a real-world model of political organization, such loathing could express itself without fear of comparisons, and judge liberal democracy against a standard of utopian perfection.  Condemnations, never gentle in the past, acquired a nihilist edge.  The point was no longer to replace liberalism, but rather to strike at it, to wound it, to destroy it if possible.

Latter-day believers in government power have lost their unifying faith, and can be found clustered along fault-lines that reflect personal taste more than systematic thinking.

The Euro-hedonists believe nothing’s left worth fighting for.  One might as well eat, drink, copulate with abandon, and pretend tomorrow will never come.  Those who decry this way of life must be Christian fundamentalists or Victorian prigs, over whom one feels morally superior.  A large and intrusive government is required to act as permanent employer and dispenser of a generous dole.  Those who criticize this political arrangement must be selfish and uncaring.  Those willing to take risks and work hard are obviously unhinged, and must be protected from themselves by government regulations.

Euro-hedonists can be found anywhere, but as the name implies they are rather thick on the ground in the Old Continent.  The golden youth of the Sorbonne, rioting for guaranteed job security when 23 percent of their generation remains unemployed, are fine examples of Euro-hedonism.  The British woman who had nine children with five different men, spent her dole money on a months-long trip to Goa, and felt wounded when criticized after her abandoned daughter was murdered, is a less fine example.

The culture vandals believe Western civilization is the root of all evil:  imperialism, racism, capitalism, sexism, consumerism — and that’s only the tip of the ismic iceberg.  To save the world, everything about the West must be smashed, soiled, defaced.

America must be shown to be the motherland of selfishness.  The history of Europe must be revealed to be a series of genocides and usurpations.  Columbus was a slavemaster.  George Washington was a greedy land speculator.  Jefferson slept with slaves.  The art and science and the political innovations of the West were cheap tricks perpetrated by white males and paid for with the blood and sweat of workers, women, and minorities.

Postmodernists are the supreme culture vandals.  They thrive in academia, the mass media, Hollywood, the law, and every profession in which playing a part supersedes personal action.  And they expect a revaluation of all values, a cultural revolution which only a powerful government can impose.

For Eco-Luddites, industry and technology must literally bring about the end of the world.  Democracy means pandering to illicit pleasures, the market economy means fouling the planet irretrievably.  Flood, pestilence, and death will be our punishment.  There are too many people on earth — the family must be destroyed.  We murder to dissect — apes deserve human rights.  We are sick with profit-seeking — we must submit to the chosen few who speak for the good of all.  A strong, wise ruler must be embraced, who will force us to close our factories, trade our cars for bicycles, turn out the lights forever, wear sackcloth, and repent.

Just possibly, he might look like Al Gore.

A word might be said about the paleosocialists, who still use the old class struggle to justify nationalizing the economy and monopolizing power on behalf of the proletariat.  In most places, these paleos are old, lonely, baffled men, clinging to a corpse that was once an object of desire.  Only in Latin America, with the likes of Hugo Chavez, does this retro brand of socialism still hold some appeal.

In truth, all latter-day socialists fear the future, and long for a past in which the future was theirs.  If liberal democracy is a delicate balancing act between tradition and creative destruction, this tribe of nihilists and nostalgics might, despite their essential triviality, pose a problem.

But more on this in a later post.


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