When I was asked to write a book about socialism eight years ago, I was a little skeptical. “Aren’t we kind of . . . done with that?”
Standing athwart History, yelling, “You @#$%&! idiots cannot possibly be serious!”
But they are serious.
When National Review — now in the midst of its Spring webathon, and encouraging your generous support — was launched in 1955, central planning was the wave of the future, supposedly. The prestige of science had never been higher, and neither had popular faith in the wisdom of experts. In the United States, the federal government’s reputation was at an all-time high, too: The combination of a misunderstood Great Depression, the popularity of the New Deal, the remarkable war mobilization, and the prosperous postwar years had shaped the thinking and assumptions of a generation whose members by that point were, in no small part, ready to hand over much of life to bureaucracies directed by benevolent, dispassionate managers who, being liberated from ideology, would simply follow science and pragmatism wherever they led. And where they were leading, all the best people assured us, was progress.
In this understanding, the problem with socialism as practiced behind the Iron Curtain was that the central planners were the wrong people — tyrants and caudillos, and partisans of dictatorship. But then socialism ruined the United Kingdom, which foundered in one-unthinkable dysfunction. The “democratic” socialists of Europe turned out to have a great deal in common with the more explicitly nasty ones in Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. It took them a long time to figure it out — and not all of them figured it out — but the truth eventually became too obvious to deny: When it comes to central planning, there are no right people. The problem isn’t really the people — it’s the central planning. As the apostate Communist Willi Schlamm famously put it, the problem with socialism is socialism.
(The other half of that proverb, quoted frequently in these pages, that the problem with capitalism is capitalists, will be familiar to conservatives familiar with the ethics of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.)
I saw grown men cry watching on television as the Berlin Wall come down in 1989 — in sorrow for all the suffering and murder it stood for, in gratitude for its having come to an end. It wasn’t the end of history, but it was the end of a particularly awful chapter.
Or so we thought.
For many of us who grew up during the Cold War, the thought of the hammer and sickle returning to be greeted with anything other than horror and revulsion — the same kind of horror and revulsion that might greet the return of that other red flag, the one with the swastika — was hard to imagine. And then I went down to Occupy Wall Street with Charlie Cooke and saw for myself: The activists parading around in East German army uniforms, the Lenin tracts being hawked, the little red flags.
One of the phrases that I have had to expunge from my conversation is, “Nobody could be that stupid.” Now, when I hear that something is foolproof, I want to meet the fool and judge for myself.
It is our unhappy duty at the moment to report on the doings of many of these fools, including self-proclaimed socialists such as Senator Bernie Sanders, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Two of those fools are running for president, the third is excluded, for now, by her youth. Like generations of socialists before them, they are laboring under the delusion that they can plan the world, that they can substitute their utopian blueprint for the organic order of human life, and that the terrible means necessary to build this new paradise somehow will be rendered less inhumane and less oppressive than they have without exception throughout history if only they amend the word “democratic” to their revolutionary manifesto.
“There are no lost causes,” T. S. Eliot assures us, “because there are no gained causes.” National Review has been making the case for liberty and against arrogant utopianism since 1955, and the fight is not over and is not going to be over because it cannot be over. Wisdom is another one of those commodities that is not evenly distributed, and human nature is what it is.
What do we do? What can we do? We can arm ourselves with the best thinking of our contemporaries and the wisdom of our ancestors, we can make the case, we can remind those who have forgotten about the gulags and the hunger-terror, we can keep alive the memory of the 100 million martyrs to utopia who died at the hands of various socialist regimes in the 20th century, we can report on the facts of socialist life today in Venezuela and North Korea. We can, and we must. And, if possible, we can do it without being too grim about our prospects or ungrateful for the blessings bestowed so abundantly upon us here in this thriving — but not uncontested — haven for liberty.
Ideas matter. In the end, they are the raw material we have out of which to shape a free society. National Review has been an irreplaceable and constant force for good in the contest of ideas, and, with your support, will continue to be. My colleagues are seeking to raise $175,000 — we all of us here know much more is needed, but that is a goal they believe can be attained. Now more than half way to it, they are appreciatively confident — or at least prayerfully hopeful — that the objective can be reached, if only because our readers also know the cause is just. I encourage you to donate, here.