Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

Socialism for the Young at Heart

Students voting and waiting to vote at a polling station at the University of California, Irvine, November 6, 2018 (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
It becomes part of a cherished identity, hopefully not for long

The harsh old joke is that anyone who is not a socialist at age 16 has no heart but that anyone who is still a socialist at 26 has no brain. Myself, I just made it. Tens of thousands of people since the hinge year of 1848 or 1917 or 1968 have loved socialism when adolescents but as grownups have come to detest it, or at best to view it as a puppy love in truth pretty silly.

You can draw for yourself the in-ference from such biographies. The tens of thousands have all gone the same way, from wanting to “try socialism” to realizing that it has been tried and tried and tried, and failed. The parts of a “mixed” economy that work are the free parts, the Chinese shops and factories as against the state enterprises and the glorious vanity projects of the same state. In the U.S., the private clinics for cosmetic procedures work pretty well. The VA hospitals, one of many socialized parts of U.S. medicine, do not.

Rates of realization vary. Saul Bellow said of his early Trotskyism, “Like everyone else who invests in doctrines at a young age, I couldn’t give them up.” People come in adolescence to hate the bourgeoisie or to detest free markets or to believe passionately in the welfare and regulatory state. It becomes part of a cherished identity, a faith hard to change.

Yet no one ever starts as a conservative, least of all a classical liberal, by age 16 and becomes a socialist by age 26. Or 36 or 76. Consider what Leszek Kolakowski wrote as a young and disillusioned Pole in 1956, when Communism had shown its hand, in his long list of “what [true, honest] socialism is not.” Socialism is not “a state that is convinced that no one could invent anything better” or “a state that always knows better than its citizens where the happiness of every one of its citizens lies.” Or consider Robert Nozick, the American philosopher who started as a socialist in his 20s but at age 36, in 1974, penned the libertarian classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Or consider an earlier crop of converts, such as Arthur Koestler finding darkness at noon, or consider what George Orwell would have concluded had he survived tuberculosis and seen still more of the animal farm of the USSR. Actually existing socialism, as against the actual non-socialism of a place like Sweden, has been of course terrible, right down to Venezuela. It turns out that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power over the economy corrupts absolutely.

And even the romantic ideals of socialism, so appealing to youth, are crazy-inconsistent, as Kolakowski showed in his history of European socialism. They promise a freedom from work that nonetheless makes us rich, a central plan without tyranny, and individual liberties strictly subordinated to a general will. Craaaazy, kids.

Yet, ah, me, how warm the first love for killing people, or at least bossing them around, in aid of Justice and the Revolution. On a British television show in 1994, the brilliant historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012), a lifelong Communist, was asked skeptically by the liberal writer and politician Michael Ignatieff whether “the murder of 15, 20 million people” in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin, a low estimate, “might have been justified” in light of its contribution to founding a Communist society. Hobsbawm without hesitation replied, “Yes.” Hard-minded. Or party-line-ish. Or thuggish. Oh, Eric.

The saddest people, and the most dangerous if in power, never get over it. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and I are the same age. At 18 we all three had the same idea: “The people’s flag is deepest red. / It sheltered oft our martyred dead. / It witnessed many a deed and vow. / We must not change its color now.” In 2019, age 77, Bernie and Jeremy retain exactly the same idea they had in 1960. No evidence or inconsistency or unintended consequence matters.

It shows a stubborn pride. “We’ll keep the red flag flying here.” Hobsbawm describes in his engaging autobiography of 2002 how he wanted to become a Communist at age 14 and became one at 16 — though, come to think of it, who would not in Germany in 1931, as Eric was, want to become something like a Communist? After all, it looked like liberal innovism was on the rocks. Not anyone with a heart. (By 2002, true, one might inquire about the brain.) Hobsbawm pauses in his book from time to time to explain why, in the face of Stalin’s crimes and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the rest, he ceased being a dues-paying if unorthodox member of the Communist Party of Great Britain only a few months before it dissolved itself, in 1991. His explanation, a strange one in such an intelligent man, was that he didn’t want to give satisfaction to McCarthyites. Faithful to the end, common sense be damned.

It’s rather like the atheism at age 16 that bright boys and some bright girls espouse, never to be reconsidered, which then spills out of the mouths of 76-year-olds who have meanwhile not cracked a serious book on theology. Likewise, most of the Marxists and many of the Marxians and Marxoids have not cracked a serious book on economics published after 1867. True, the young “socialists” nowadays have not cracked any books at all, even Marx’s. They rely on blog posts by nonreaders.

But why then is socialism so very often that first love, at any rate if you happen to devour in the Carnegie-financed public library of Wakefield, Mass., at age 16, Prince Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid or John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World instead of Atlas Shrugged or Capitalism and Freedom?

Two reasons, both testable. For one thing, we all grow up in families, which of course are little socialist communities, from each according to her ability, to each according to his need. Friends are that way, too. Erasmus of Rotterdam started every edition of his compilation of thousands of proverbs with “Among friends, all goods are common.” That’s right. If you buy a pizza for the party but then declare, “I paid for it, so I get to eat it all,” you won’t get invited again.

Therefore, when an adolescent in a free society discovers that there are poor people, her generous impulse is to bring everyone into a family of 330 million members. She would not have this impulse if raised in an unfree society, whether aristocratic or totalitarian, in which hierarchy has been naturalized. Aristotle, the tutor of aristocrats, said that some people are slaves by nature. And Napoleon the commissar/pig said, All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov reports that Margarete Buber-Neumann (Martin Buber’s daughter-in-law), “a sharp-eyed observer of Soviet realities in the 1930s, was astonished to discover that the holiday resorts for ministry employees were divided into no less than five different levels of ‘luxury’ for the different ranks of the [Communist] bureaucratic hierarchy. A few years later she found such social stratification reproduced in her prison camp.”

For another, as the economist Laurence Iannaccone argues, the more complex an economy becomes, and the further people are, down astonishingly long supply chains, from working with direct fruits, the less obvious are the rewards of their labor. To a person embedded in a large company, and still more to someone in a government office, nothing seems really to matter. Consult the comic strip Dilbert. By contrast, a person, even an 18-year-old person, who works on a subsistence farm has no trouble seeing the connection between effort and reward. Saint Paul of Tarsus had no trouble seeing it in the little economy of Thessalonian Christians: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Such rules are the only way in anything but a highly disciplined or greatly loving small group to get a large pizza made.

Both reasons for youthful socialism seem to have culminated about now in Bernie and Alexandria. We have more and more adolescents without work experience, not living on farms, not living in a slave economy or actually existing socialist economy, and coming still from little societies of family or friends.

The middle-aged socialists, as “The Red Flag” concludes, “keep the red flag flying here.” In the U.S., too. Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, wrote recently and warmly about the new socialist fashion among the young: “Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear ‘the market’ and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. . . . Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss.”

Uh-huh. And under socialism we’re forced to submit to the state and have the identical anxiety, now backed by a gun rather than a checkbook. One is reminded of the other old anti-socialist joke. Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it’s the other way around.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey serves as professor of economics and history and professor of English and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

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