The Corner

My Utter Incoherence

From one of my more reliable liberal emailers:

Jonah,

You write:  “Even within the confines of socialist ideology, there’s not much intellectual pluralism allowed. This is not to say that there aren’t other important differences between, say, the German Social Democrats (the Socialists) and the Nazis or between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.”  What could this possibly mean?  Is there intellectual pluralism allowed in socialism, or isn’t there?  If there is, then maybe you can argue that there were strands of socialism within Nazi ideology.  If there isn’t intellectual pluralism, then how can you possible say that Nazis, Bolsheviks, and social democrats are all so many stripes of socialist when they have hugely different political ideologies behind them?  If you want to limit socialism to a narrow range of principles of political economy, and thus argue that there is a socialist core to widely varying political structures, then you’ve already denied the intellectual pluralism that so plainly exists in socialist political thought.  This, indeed, is a cheap debater’s trick.

On its face, the claim that there’s no intellectual pluralism within socialism is downright laughable.  Marx and Lukacs are not Horkheimer or Adorno.  Jurgen Habermas is not Rosa Luxembourg.  Socialist political theory has had many important and fierce debates, which you couldn’t have helped but notice in researching your book, that lead to very different conceptions of political norms.  The Frankfurt School, for example, generally comes to reject the idea of the socialist state, the emancipatory role of the proletariat, and the communist utopia at the end of history.  And you can’t deny such pluralism if you want to run around claiming that social democrats and stalinist Russia can both be described as socialist.  Your effort to call socialist close minded an then ascribe “socialism” across the political spectrum is utterly incoherent.

Two responses:

1) The reader is wildly — and oddly defensively — over-reading my sarcasm.

2) Pluralism, as I understand it, doesn’t just mean many different points of view, but tolerance for different points of view. I agree entirely there are a lot of different socialisms, many wrongheaded but decent, others murderous and evil. The various factions’ tolerance for one another is an empirical question open to debate and dependent on the specific historical period in question. When these debates are academic, all the socialists play nice. But in the realm of actual power, there’s a tendency for the winners to purge the losers. It’s true that quite often the relatively benign or democratic socialists had a pluralistic attitude toward the murderous socialists, until the murderous ones came into power. At which point the murderers murdered the tolerant.

Update: The reader responds:

Guess I’m not getting the sarcasm.  But to push you on this: I think it’s fair to say that a mild form of socialism, comparable to what Habermas advocates, exists in Germany today.  Where all the the purges?  Where is the horrid intolerance?  They aren’t there.  Could this be because socialism has grown up, and so dissenters aren’t purged, in the same way that today’s American capitalists don’t murder their workers for organizing unions the way they did during the 19th Century?

Me: While I suppose I could pick an argument or two here, my basic response is, Sure, that sounds about right. Social democracy is a form of socialism, but it’s the most open and least worst kind. When I argue, as I do in Commentary, that Obama is pushing us toward social democracy, I mean exactly that. I don’t think the liquidation of dissenters or show trials are to follow. If it makes it easier, I’m glad to make the following  change to my original post:”Even within the confines of socialist ideology, there’s not there wasn’t much intellectual pluralism allowed. This is not to say that there aren’t other important differences between, say, the German Social Democrats (the Socialists) and the Nazis or between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.”

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