April 15, 2002


The death of socialism (Roger Kimball, April 2, 2002, The New Criterion)
What is socialism? In part, it is optimism translated into a political program. Until he took up gardening, Candide was a sort of proto-socialist; his mentor Pangloss could have been one of socialism's founding philosophers. Socialism is also unselfishness embraced as an axiom: the gratifying emotion of unselfishness, experienced alternately as resentment against others and titillating satisfaction with oneself. The philosophy of Rousseau, which elevated what he called the 'indescribably sweet' feeling of virtue into a political imperative, is socialism in ovo. 'Man is born free,' Rousseau famously exclaimed, 'but is everywhere in chains.' That heart-stopping conundrum--too thrilling to be corrected by mere experience--is the fundamental motor of socialism. It is a motor fueled by this corollary: that the multitude unaccountably colludes in perpetuating its own bondage and must therefore be, in Rousseau's ominous phrase, 'forced to be free.'

We owe the term 'socialism' to some followers of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century British industrialist who founded New Harmony, a short-lived utopian community on the banks of the Wabash in Indiana. Owen's initial reception in America was impressive. In an 1825 address to Congress, Joshua Muravchik reports in Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, Owen's audience included not only congressmen but also Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, President Monroe, and President-elect John Quincy Adams. Owen described to this August assemblage how his efforts to replace the 'individual selfish system' with a 'united social' system would bring forth a 'new man' who was free from the grasping imperatives that had marred human nature from time immemorial. (And not only human nature: the utopian socialist Charles Fourier expected selfishness and cruelty to be obliterated from the animal kingdom as well: one day, he thought, even lions and whales would be domesticated.) The starry-eyed aspect of socialist thinking did not preclude a large element of steel. As Muravchik points out, the French Revolution was 'the manger' of socialism. It was then that the philosophy of Rousseau emerged from the pages of tracts and manifestos to strut across the bloody field of history. The architects of the revolution invoked Rousseau early and often as they set about the task of 'changing human nature,' of 'altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.'

It is often wondered at that the America should have proven the most enduring of Man's experiments in freedom. The American Republic is after all an extraordinarily conservative regime, grounded in a dour and pessimistic view of human nature, its core system of checks and balances a quite explicit attempt to play off the overweening ambitions and will to power of each man against the other. It assumes the worst of all of us, yet has produced the best. Why should it be that conservatism, this darkest of the political philosophies, should be the only one to bring lasting light to benighted Man?

The beginnings of the answer can be found in Mr. Kimball's essay and apparently in Mr. Muravchik's book. Socialism (and liberalism generally, and libertarianism for that matter) is based not on human nature as it exists, as we see it around us, but on either a belief that human nature was different at some earlier date in our history, or that it can be fundamentally transformed now. It can even be said that the optimism of socialism (and the rest) is a function of the denial of reality. Socialism assumes that humans were unselfish in a state of Nature and that those-who-had happily shared with those-who-didn't, living in contented voluntary equality, and perhaps more importantly that the species can be made that way again. (Libertarianism assumes the same kind of primordial unselfishness but that everyone was content with whatever they had and did not even desire what their fellows had, living in contented voluntary inequality.) There's something undeniably appealing about the vision of human nature as plastic and perfectible. Compare it to the conservative view of human nature as fundamentally flawed and intractable, and it's no wonder that conservatism has largely disappeared in the era of popular government. Who wants to hear that they are base and debauched and that government can do little more than keep us from each others throats? It's much more comforting to be told that a nip here and a tuck there will produce a paradise here on Earth and the speaker generally sounds nicer saying it. Conservatism is your stern father disciplining you, socialism your mother offering unconditional love.

Unfortunately, the more bitter irony arises when the philosophies of Man's essential goodness come to power and try to actually perfect us. It can hardly be surprising that the effort to take Man as we find him and either restore him to some imagined earlier form or to transform him into some idealized new form must be a bloody and oppressive business. The entire 20th Century stands as murderous testimony to the futility of the task. And so do we arrive at the paradoxical realization that these philosophies, though couched in optimistic language, are ultimately based on a genuine hatred of humanity and an insistence that we change, while the pessimism of the conservatives results in an acceptance, however grudging, of Man as he is. Little wonder though that conservatism, the philosophy of the realist, should produce the best government.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2002 10:41 AM
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