Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Socialism and the Idiocies of Human Life...

You have to love an article like this (http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/06/20/what-are-the-ndp-talking-about-when-they-talk-about-socialism/). Why? Because the first sentence in this article is historically and culturally inaccurate.

According to the National Post, one of Canada's self-proclaimed national newspapers along with the Globe and Mail, socialism was once a social movement defined by its belief that the state ownership of industry and the equitable distribution of wealth were moral, political, and economic goods. Can you say fairy tale? In reality socialism has always been a social movement made up of different visions and versions of socialism. Socialisms rather than socialism, in other words. Getting empirical and historical I give you communal socialism (Owen, Fourier), Christian socialism (Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr), Scientific socialism (Marxism), and Democratic socialism (Michael Harrington, Bernie Saunders). In historical fact, socialism has always been about as sectarian as Christianity with its multitude of churches, denominations, and sects, including its 40 plus versions of Anabaptism. I have always appreciated this last fact because there have always been so few Anabaptists in the world, 1.6 million at last count, but they have created 40 different Anabaptist groups all of who think they are the one true version of Anabaptism and Christianity..

While there are problems with this National Post article on the NDP, the Canadian social democratic party that arose out of the merger between the largely rural Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress, and socialism it is far superior in its historical understanding of socialism than many of the Facebook posts underneath a link to this article on Facebook. For ideologues and demagogues Leigh Patrick Sullivan and C.G. MacKay socialism "means" and "equals" failure". Not to be outdone poster Andrew Horton raises the linguistic stakes by claiming that socialism equals "epic failure". Unfortunately, but understandably Messers Sullivan, MacKay, and Horton have to ignore real history in order to make such statements. Quite clearly to anyone with historical eyes, ears, a sense of smell, and a sense of touch, Scandinavia, where socialism has dominated since the 1930s, has given us the social democratic success stories of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, all of which, simply to focus on economics, have some of the highest standards of living in the Western World.

One of the most unfortunate forms of historical amnesia on posting boards, all generated by ideology and demagoguery rather than empirical historical analysis, by the way, is this historically bizarre equation of socialism and bureaucratisation. Historically, of course, Paternalistic bureaucracies have existed at least since the 300s of the current era if not before. I give you the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and the Chinese imperial apparatus, paternalistic bureaucracies all.

Modernity, as Max Weber pointed out over almost one hundred years ago, transformed bureaucracies as efficiency, effectiveness, professionalism, merit, modern military structure and strategy, and notions of progress came to dominate the modern world. Today bureaucracies, be these political (governmental apparatus like the federal and provincial governments of Canada), economic (GE, Apple, Microsoft, Caterpillar), educational (UofT, SUNY, the University of Notre Dame), intellectual (the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation), religious (the Baptist Church, the United Church, Coral Ridge, the Union of Reform Judaism), journalistic (the National Post, the NY Times), etc. are all bureaucracies rent through with the ideologies of modernity (in their "meritocratic" form) and are all products of the modern world. As anyone with eyes can see "modern" "meritocratic" bureaucracies have "triumphed" and rule the modern from Vancouver to New York to Copenhagen, to Moscow, to Melbourne, to Auckland. Meritocratic bureaucracies, in other words, are as modern as capitalism, socialism, and liberalism and more than compatible with all of them.

Finally a word on the equation of Hitler and socialism that one finds in a blog by John J. Ray linked to by another Facebook poster under the aforementioned National Post article named Graham Martin (http://matiane.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/hitler-was-a-socialist/). This linkage of Nazism and socialism, of course, is not new. Conservative ideologue and demagogue Thomas Sowell made it in a editorial I happened upon several years ago, for example. It is so used and abused, in fact, that it has become a cliche. It is a curious equation even if we admit, as we historically must, that socialism is and has always been multiple.

So what is Nazism? Nazism is a fascinating bird. Historically Nazism has been seen as a type of fascism, other forms being Mussolini's fascism and Franco's fascism (love that alliteration). On one level, fascism and hence Nazism is conservative. It looks back to a golden age in the past be this Rome in Mussolini's case or German racial purity in the Nazi case. On another level, however, fascism is a product of the modern world along with liberalism (of the laissez faire and social insurance varieties), socialism (of its many flavours), and, perhaps most importantly, nationalism. Nazism is a form or ultra nationalism. It is a form of ultra nationalism (Germans as the superior race) that explains any national problems by pointing to the pollution of the fit Aryan body politic by racial and political outsiders and inferiors such as Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and socialists. And it is a form of ultra nationalism that sees this struggle between Aryans and diseased others, particularly Jews, in apocalyptic terms (the cosmic struggle between good aryans and evil others, particularly Jews and Jewish-Bolsheviks) as a struggle for control of this world. The apocalypticism here should remind us that Christianity with its apocalypticism and its anti-Semitism, was an important cultural factor in the rise of Nazism and the creation of its culture. Christian primitivism, with its hope of returning to an original order, an original golden age, to the utopian garden of Eden, and Christian apocalypticism, with its prophetic vision of a battle between good and evil for control of the world, merged in nineteenth and twentieth century Christianity (a final apocalypse followed by a return to a paradise where the lion will lie down with the lamb) and twentieth century Nazism to produce, in each case, two kinds of conservative modernism.

Nazism is not alone in its utopianism. For laissez-fair liberals it was and is the free market and the belief that free markets will spread the wealth. For socialists utopia was, remember there were and are different socialisms, the commune, the industrial anarchic paradise where one could philosophise, fish, and work all on a given day, and the cooperative, democratic, and just society. Like other modern supposedly secular movements socialisms had their own vision of a golden age in the past to which it to some extent wanted to return, for marxian socialism it was the cooperative society of the hunter-gatherers with industry.

The moral of this tale? Nazism is very different from socialism socially, culturally, and intellectually despite the fact that Nazism, socialism and liberalism (of the laissez-faire and social insurance varieties) are all, to a great extent, products of the Enlightenment. They are products, at least in part, of the Enlightenment because they are all rent through with ideas and ideals of liberty, fraternity, equality, happiness, property, justice, citizenship, etc. The problem is that these Enlightenment ideas and ideals were never consistent and were always contradictory (even for the "great" John Locke). Liberty and equality and justice simply, particularly under the impact of industrialisation and capitalism, aren't harmonisable though the various ideologies that arose out of the Enlightenment try to harmonise them or at least some of them.

Anyway, wouldn't it be nice if people used real history rather than kneejerk and often fear based ideological demagoguery to analyse things like socialism and to understand the world? Well yes but it is not part of the nurtured "nature" of most humans. That said over the years I have observed that those who describe themselves as leftists (a very different animal, historically, from liberals, by the way) have a much better grasp of history than those on the right. I think this is because those on the right (like most religious folk) tend to ground their "analysis" in myth, nationalist myths and economic myths, in particular, and use these myths to make and remake history in their own image, while most people on the left start from the historical facts and, even when they twist and manipulate this history, still remain grounded in a kernel of historical truth.


  1. One can point to any known political/economic system and find examples of success, be it socialism, capitalism, even Nazism in the short term. However, the history of socialist states, where far-left economic and social policy took root the deepest, have been failures.

    While the Scandinavian nations have, to a degree, enjoyed their form of socialism, it hasn't come without instances of major problems.

    As well, you would be well-advised not continue to do what most on the left do, which is assume those on the right are 'religious'. Using that as a basis for your theories becomes flawed when using someone such as myself - center-right on the spectrum - who is not religious at all.

  2. Thanks for posting Mr. Sullivan.

    I don't think any economic or political system is perfect. And one of the problems we in the West face is the fact that a utopianism underlies so much of our notions of what is "good" and "bad" about economics and politics. For some, for instance, capitalism and industrialisation are good. For others they are problematic.

    Such notions, of course, are ethical, moral, theological, and metaphysical rather than empirical. In the end, or at least in the end for me, all notions about what is economically "good" or "bad" and politically "good" or "bad" is grounded in ideology. And that is why so many of the "readings" of socialism are less empirical than ideological and demagogic. I prefer to get as far away from the ideological and demagogic as possible.

  3. addendum: one could quite easily make an argument that capitalism, empirically, has had devastating consequences for the environment and that environmental destruction or transformation can be readily measured.