Politics & Policy

The World’s Worst Idea

Flags flutter in front of a monument to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin during a rally held by Russian Communist Party supporters to mark the Red October revolution’s centenary in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 7, 2017. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)
Why socialism will not die

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a little book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. When Regnery asked me to write the book, I was happy to do it but wondered whether a book on socialism, a brief conspectus of its grotesque failures, would be necessary or useful. I wondered why anybody would be interested. In the upcoming issue of National Review, I will have an essay on reading Karl Marx, and I do not have to worry about why people are interested. The world’s worst idea will not die.

I do not expect to write another book on socialism, but I have been reading some. There are some horrifyingly relevant books out now and on the way. One is Iain Murray’s excellent, just-published The Socialist TemptationI will be discussing it with him on Thursday, if you’d like to watch — in which Murray addresses some of the eternal lies (“Real socialism has never been tried!”) and abominable clichés of socialism. He emphasizes that historically, socialism has consistently delivered the opposite of its promises: more economic and political inequality, not less; more poverty, not less; more ruthless social domination of the poor and the marginalized, not less; more environmental degradation, not less.

Murray makes in part a consequentialist case for economic freedom: “Study after study has found that countries with high levels of economic freedom are wealthier, healthier, take better care of the environment, and are just generally better places to live than countries with low levels of economic freedom. At the bottom of all these indices are two sorts of countries — failed states like Afghanistan, and nations like Venezuela, which have sauntered down the road to serfdom by enacting Marxist socialist policies with abandon.” But I wonder if our young self-proclaimed socialists are equipped to hear that argument or likely to respond to it. In the past ten years, the partisans of free enterprise have had a hard-enough time defending economic liberty against the Right, never mind the socialists. Murray understands this, too, crediting the socialists with arguing from values while the partisans of liberty argue from history and economics.

Where I disagree with Murray — or rather where I would offer a slightly different emphasis — is that I am not entirely convinced of his claim (made here in National Review) that countering socialism is a “communications challenge.” The defects of socialism have been very thoroughly communicated — the photographs of the Holodomor are available online, the records of mass murder and spoliation are quite easily accessed, the stories of Cuban refugees are at our fingertips, The Gulag Archipelago is only a click away.

It is not a communication problem but a spiritual problem.

Reading Julia Lovell’s fascinating new Maoism: A Global History is, among other things, a dive into a complex political story that has at its heart not an ideology but a cult. The Maoism Lovell describes is in many ways an identifiably religious phenomenon, complete with devotion to a sacred book, adoration of icons, rites of confession and penance, and a benevolent god–man/prophet. It speaks to the same anxieties and needs as religion. It offers a moral principle — however insane and murderous — around which a life might be organized.

And like Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, its personalities and human facts remain terribly familiar:

Mao was himself, of course, a peasant by origin, and he always spoke, dressed and ate like one . . . underscoring time and again his refusal to be planed into a smooth, establishment statesman. Long articles reminded him of “the foot-bindings of a slattern, long and stinky.” . . . While once speaking with a Brazilian delegation, he revealed that he had no idea where Brazil was. He met world leaders in patched pyjamas and socks (and sometimes in a bathrobe) and favored one dish above all others — Hunan-style fatty pork, with a bowl of whole chillies on the side, all washed down with a tin mug of tea (as a postprandial digestif, Mao would chew squeakily on the sodden tea leaves in the bottom of the cup). Maoism, from its beginnings in the 1930s through today, has styled itself as a rural religion that represents and fights for the toiling farmers.

That agrarian crusade is, of course, a lie. To take one example, the insurgency of the Maoist Shining Path in Peru, as Lovell notes, “was never an egalitarian peasant war” but instead was “the scheme of educated urban intellectuals, who produced in their own structures of command and position the racial, class-based hierarchies that they pledged to overthrow: pale-skinned, hispanophone, educated elites on top; darker-skinned, impoverished Quechua-speakers at the bottom.” A less martial version of the same phenomenon can be observed among American progressives, who have made racial diversity into a racket for well-off white women. Or consider the positions of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, etc. Every faith is alike in its capacity to be exploited.

Lovell’s Maoism is not only a Chinese story — it is a Malaysian story, a Peruvian story, a Cambodian story, an Indian story, a Zimbabwean story. And it is, in part, an American story, too. It is not something forgotten in a dusty book — it is part of the conversation on social media right now, today, with Bo Xilai’s “Red Twitter” and its spinoffs.

T. S. Eliot once wrote:

As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike — it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.

If socialism is a kind of cult, then there is a market for it — a wide-open market, in fact. And if the ancient competitors have effectively ceded the field, that is not the doing of the young radicals, wrongheaded as they are. The moral vacuum is a creation of the bishops and the university administrators and the chairmen of the boards, who in the main long ago stopped believing in their own dogma, and who believed that they could muddle through without another dogma’s taking its place.

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