What is the enduring appeal — enduring since the late 19th century, anyway — of socialism? Is it the reeking stench of Communist countries? The cheap plastic junk they call “goods” and the indifferent if not downright hostile “services”? The appalling environmental pollution? The reduction of the populace to whores and lackeys? The enforced equality of scarcity? The dishonest seizure of the allegedly moral high ground? All of the above?
To hear National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson tell it in his eviscerating new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, it’s actually none of the above: It’s the pursuit of sheer, raw power over other human beings. Grounding itself in the fundamentally anti-social, sociopathic 18th-century “humanism” of that detestable intellectual mountebank, Jean-Jacques Rousseau — the man who fathered five illegitimate children by his serving-wench mistress and abandoned them all on the foundling-hospital steps, unnamed and unmourned — and “scientifically” developed by another moral monster, Karl Marx, the continuing existence of socialism is the triumph of evil over good, of emotion over reason, of cheap Hegelian dialectic over the genuine article, and of man’s infinite capacity for self-delusion. But what can you expect from a philosophy whose founding premise — “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” — is so easily disproven? The end result of dialectical materialism is nihilism.
And yet, despite its unsurpassed legacy of murderous failure, with the number of burnt offerings to its dark and savage god running into the hundreds of millions, socialism is still with us. No amount of empirical experience of its malevolence, it seems, is enough to dissuade a new generation from harkening to its siren song of “equality.” Here we are, a mere 20 years since the fall and dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and only 66 years since the demise of its equally evil twin, the Third Reich of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and Communists and socialists today walk among us — out and proud in the good old U.S.A.
At the root of socialist failure (which Williamson amply illustrates with the examples of not only the USSR, but also post-colonial India, China, North Korea, post-war Sweden, contemporary Venezuela, and Obama’s America) is its deeply flawed “labor theory of value” (articulated in Das Kapital): a morally relativistic construct that posits an intrinsic equality of all labor and production that is best expressed by the bromide “Equal work for equal pay.” Williamson analyzes this theory thus:
At the heart of the difference between capitalism and socialism is a question about the calculation of economic value. In a free-market economy, economic values are established economically; that is, a product is worth what you can sell it for on the marketplace. . . . Socialism breaks with capitalism on precisely this issue. It seeks to infuse the fundamental, deep processes of the economy — the setting of prices — with moral meaning. Indeed, normative, moralist methods for calculating economic values have obsessed socialists and other utopian thinkers for more than a century. It is one of history’s great ironies that capitalists built decent and humane societies on the basis of an amoral approach to the economics of pricing, whereas socialists built exploitative and inhumane societies on the basis of a morally inflamed approach to economics.
#page#In other words, the entire edifice of “scientific” Marxism-Leninism — the mother church for socialist movements of every stripe — is based on a fundamental, deliberate misreading of human nature. The Soviet Union, from its founding under Lenin to its collapse under Gorbachev, was one long and very painful willing suspension of disbelief.
I got my first exposure to Communism in February 1985, when, on assignment for Time magazine, I ventured across Checkpoint Charlie and into the German Democratic Republic — the socialist country that “worked.” From the moment you cleared the Vopo guards and passed through the maw of the Berlin Wall, you were in another country, indeed — a soul-corroding, stultifying fascist dictatorship in which every third East German spied on his neighbor and everything that was not expressly permitted was forbidden. Marx had assumed that the tree of Communism would take root best in his native Germany (he died, “howling gigantic curses” in Paul Johnson’s memorable phrase, a stateless person in London), and East Germany proved him right — until the fall of 1989, when the lust for bananas and Western porn brought die Mauer tumbling down.
So what is the appeal? One of the incessant leftist talking points is that true Communism/socialism “hasn’t really been tried yet,” that it’s a good, even noble, idea in theory, shame about the actual practice. That may be the biggest of Big Lies. As Williamson demonstrates at length, it’s been tried plenty of times — and always found wanting, usually at a high cost in human lives, its depressing trajectory drearily and lethally predictable. As Robespierre and Stalin would agree, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few heads.
“In truth,” writes Williamson, “the theory behind socialism is deeply flawed: It is intellectually narrow, inhumane, and deeply irrational in that it fails to account for the way in which knowledge works in a society. Socialism in theory is every bit as bad as socialism in practice, once you understand the theory and stop mistaking it for the common and humane charitable impulse.”
The “charitable impulse” is, of course, the Dorian Gray mask behind which the ugly face of socialism hides. Who can be against charity? The easy answer: It’s not charity when it is forced. In chapter after chapter, Williamson outlines the fine hashes socialism and Communism have made in the countries in which they have been imposed.
A distinguishing hallmark of all socialist societies, as Williamson correctly notes (and has much merriment with), is the existence of The Plan, generally a five-year plan. That The Plan always fails goes without saying, since the internal contradictions, as Marx might say, of socialism inevitably doom its top-down approach. Socialism is necessarily fascistic in nature (Mussolini was a socialist before he became a fascist), which is why it attracts both dyspeptic authoritarians — Hitler, Stalin, Mao — and those who relish security over liberty.
By the time Williamson finishes with this briskly written and slyly nasty survey of the wreckage that Marxian societies leave in their wake, he has demolished pretty much every apologia that sophomoric American socialists offer for their failed system, in which they nevertheless continue to believe with a cultish fervor. Mistrusting the wisdom of the marketplace, socialists insist that fallible men can understand and tame economic forces in the interests of that elusive shibboleth, “fairness.” In rebellion against God, they — “self-begot, self-raised” — turn to the mirror and, with Milton’s Satan, chant: “Who can in reason, then, or right assume / Monarchie over such as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less, / In freedome equal? or can introduce / Law and Edict on us . . . ?”
#page#The results of such hubris are on display for all to see, in the coal-polluted sunrises and sunsets of East Germany, the chemically poisoned fields of the Czech Republic, the hideous residential architecture on display from Poland to Hungary. Communism has amassed an enviable track record of boastful belligerence, surly truculence, and outright incompetence; even in a country that boasted a Karl-Marx-Stadt (mercifully, Chemnitz again), they couldn’t get it right. Because there is no right to get.
Let us turn to Barack Obama.
Williamson correctly points out that socialism has been around in the U.S. since Horace Mann and John Dewey, in the form of that Bismarckian Prussian import, the public-school system — more properly called “government schools,” whose expressed purpose was the indoctrination of socially useful pupils. We all know how well that has worked out over the past half-century: Metal detectors have replaced Mozart, while the teachers’ unions, using their charges as human shields, lobby incessantly for more money, higher wages, and ever more generous benefits.
So far, so bad. But the election of President Obama has raised the stakes exponentially. When, just before the election of 2008, Obama proclaimed that “we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” those of us who came of age in the 1960s knew exactly what the Punahou Kid was talking about. The witless cheers that greeted this remarkable statement showed that most of his adoring acolytes did not.
The title of Williamson’s last chapter says it all: “Yes, Obamacare Is Socialism.” “It has been designed along explicitly socialist lines — which is to say, on the central-planning model — and it features such secondary features of socialistic enterprise as income redistribution, economic leveling, the co-opting and nationalization of private enterprises, and the elevation of an elite planning class that is not subject to the rules it will draw up for the rest of the country.” Unless the congressional Republicans can do something about it, we’re all in for a fine old dose of Britain’s National Health, which began as something akin to the embryonic Obamacare and has ended up as a Kubrickian horror show.
There are a few eccentricities in the book: Williamson has nothing good to say about, of all things, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, toting up the damage suburbanization did to the cities, but glossing over the enormous improvements it made in the quality of life overall. And I wish he had spent more time examining the role godlessness plays in failed socialist societies, especially given the contrast with the Protestant-fueled capitalistic world of Adam Smith and his invisible hand.
But these are small quibbles. Despite the often humorous tone of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, Williamson is deadly serious in his analysis of this evil and inhuman system. Quoting Ludwig von Mises, he observes: “The attempt to reform the world socialistically might destroy civilization. It would never set up a successful socialist community.”
Alas, that — no matter what the socialists say — is precisely the point.
– Mr. Walsh is the author of the novels Hostile Intent and Early Warning and, writing as frequent NRO contributor David Kahane, Rules for Radical Conservatives.