THE MEANING OF LEFT AND RIGHT

 

 

(The following excerpt is taken from The Politics of Bad Faith: The Radical Assault on America’s Future, by David Horowitz (1998).

 

 

 

   The Western world was the seat of freedom until another, more Western, was discovered; and that other will be probably its asylum when it is hunted down in every other part.

 

                                                                                    Edmund Burke

 

            In a speech to a meeting of “Democratic Russia,” delivered in Moscow on June 1, 1991, a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin described the catastrophe that had befallen his nation: “Our country has not been lucky. It was decided to carry out this Marxist experiment on us. It has simply pushed us off the path the world’s civilized countries have taken....In the end, we proved that there is no place for this idea.”

            For the Left outside the former Soviet Union, this verdict is still inconceivable. To embrace it, would be to make peace with the enemy -- the democracies of the West. It would mean the dissolution of its own identity as a Left. Indeed, what is troubling to the community of the Left is not the catastrophe of Soviet socialism, so much as the idea that this history should culminate in disenchantment with the utopian project. What the Left cannot face is the prospect that an understanding of this century of revolutionary grief should lead, finally, to conservative conclusions: to reconciliation to the finite parameters of the human condition; the unavoidable conflicts and inevitable insufficiencies that make up ordinary social unhappiness. In other words: Acceptance of who and what we are.

            What troubles the radical heart, finally, is the sense of limits that such understanding provokes. For to be a revolutionary is to live with a sense of social horizons that are literally without end.

            To be sure, large contingents of the Left are now prepared to concede a great deal that previously would have been unthinkable to them: the failure of Marxism, the evils of Communism, even the taint that socialism has incurred by its genetic involvement with both. But even leftists who concede as much still do not want to give up the noble ambitions behind the tarnished hope. They will give up the socialist past, but not the socialist future; they will distance themselves from the totalitarian temptation, while continuing to embrace the radical cause.

            In fact, it is not giving up the socialist idea that haunts today’s progressives so much as it is conceding the argument to their lifelong opponents. It is the thought of becoming one of them that is repellent, not just a chastened missionary of the radical cause but a counter-revolutionary of the Right. This is the term of surrender that sticks in their throats, the nightmare vision that troubles their sleep and keeps their broken faith intact. To abandon a lifetime’s loyalties, to become a conservative; where is the romance in that? What would remain of their progressive hopes, their desire for justice, their sense of themselves as a chosen vanguard, if they were to take this unthinkable step?

            What remains then of the division between Left and Right that has so defined our political lives? The terms are more than just a vestigial homage to 1789. They identify historical attitudes and traditions -- the parties who have contended over the fate of modernity ever since. They recall the scars of battles won and lost, of aspirations realized and deferred. It is through them that we locate our historical forebears in the struggles for justice and human freedom, and it is through their causes that we assess our humanity and measure who we are.

            Or have, until now. For with the fall of Communism we have reached a turning point in our collective lives. The history of revolutionary modernity -- this narrative through which we have traditionally located our social selves -- has finally come to a close. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the modern epoch as surely as the fall of the Bastille marked its beginning two centuries ago. Like all endings, this changes our understanding of what went before.

            It is now impossible to console ourselves any longer with the illusion that socialism might have worked if only this path or that panacea had been tried. In our lifetime, the revolutions of the Left have created despotisms and oppressions that dwarf all others on human record. Yet, to the diehards of the radical culture, “Left” still evokes the idealism of a “progressive” cause, while “Right” remains synonymous with social reaction. It is time for a change in our understanding of the terms themselves.

            In what sense can a bankrupt idea be called “progressive”? For two centuries the socialist idea -- the future promise that justifies the present sacrifice -- has functioned as a blank check for the violence and injustice associated with efforts to achieve it. The “experiments” may have failed – so go the apologies for the Left -- but the intentions that launched them were idealistic and noble. But it is no longer really possible to hold up the socialist fantasy to justify the destructive assaults on existing societies which, whatever their faults, were less oppressive than the revolutionary “solutions” that followed their demise. The failed “experiments” of the Left and its divisive crusades must be seen now for what they are: bloody exercises in civil nihilism; violent pursuits of empty hopes; revolutionary actes gratuites that were doomed to fail from the start.

            Historical perspective imposes on us a new standard of judgment. Because they were doomed from their origin and destructive by design, these revolutionary gestures now stand condemned by morality and justice in their conception and not merely in their result. If there was a “party of humanity” in the civil wars that the Left’s ambitions provoked in the past, it was on the other side of the political barricades. In these battles, the enlightened parties were those who defended democratic process and civil order against the greater barbarism that, as we now know for certain, the radical future entailed.

            The term “counter-revolutionary,” that leftists find so difficult to digest, is really a litmus of their failure to understand the history they have lived. In our time, a hundred million people have been slaughtered in the revolutions of the Left with no positive result, while millions more have been buried alive. Beyond the iron curtains of the socialist empires, whole cultures were desecrated, civilizations destroyed and generations deprived of the barest essentials of a tolerable life. Yet the epithet “counter-revolutionary” still strikes progressives, who supported these empires, as a term of political opprobrium and moral disgrace. What this history shows, however, is that “counter-revolution” is a name for moral sanity and human decency, a term for resistance to the epic depredations of dreamers like them.

            The very word “counter-revolutionary” was invented by the virtuous terrorists of the French Revolution to stigmatize their opponents on the way to the guillotine. The first “counter-revolutionaries” were in fact the very people in whose name the revolution had triumphed, the Catholic peasants of the Vendee. A quarter of a million such enemies of the radical future were slaughtered in the Jacobin Terror of the revolutionary Year II. The peasants of the Vendee were not opposed to the changes of 1789 -- the constitutional reforms of the Monarchy, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the enfranchisement of the Third Estate -- but to the revolutionary dictatorship that followed. It was the new liberated order, the Republic of Virtue and the Cult of Reason (and the Reign of Terror required to make its citizens reasonable and virtuous) that inspired their resistance and made them counter-revolutionary.

            Abroad, the chief apostle of the counter-revolution -- the English liberal Edmund Burke -- was also not an opponent of political reform or the establishment of a republic, but of the radical attempt to transform society after these reforms, to recreate it de novo. It is this totalitarian ambition -- to reject the past and remake humanity -- that has triggered the opposition of counter-revolutionaries ever since.

            The Leninist creators of the Soviet Union were self-conscious heirs of the Jacobin vanguard who saw in their revolutionary conquest an effort to complete the transformation that Robespierre had only begun. In exterminating the “enemies of the people,” the Leninists found the term counter-revolutionary an indispensable weapon. They used it first to discredit the liberals who opposed their October coup against the democracy that had replaced the Czarist regime. They applied it then to their Menshevik rivals -- to anarchists, Kronstadters, Oppositionists, Trotskyists, Bukharinites, even anti-Stalin Stalinists -- and, ultimately, to every recalcitrant soul who stood in the path of their revolutionary dreams. Like their Jacobin heroes, the Leninists also created an empire that was Napoleonic in scope. But seventy years after the creation, its subjects rose en masse -- in the largest counter-revolution in human history -- to put an end to the Marxist epoch.

            Nearly two hundred years earlier, the reactionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre quarreled with the term the Jacobins had applied to their political opponents. “The re-establishment of the monarchy, which is called Counter-revolution,” he wrote in 1797, “will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of the Revolution.”[1] Reactionaries like Maistre, were not supporters of 1789, but royalist defenders of the ancien regime. They were not proponents of a different kind of revolution (a “counter revolution”). They were contary to the revolution against the absolute monarch, supporters of the status quo ante -- the old order as it was before the flood.

            Bearing this in mind, look again at the pivotal events of 1989 and 1990. The mass upheavals in the Soviet satellites and the dramatic finale in Moscow itself were not the contrary of the revolution of 1917, but a true counter-revolution. They aspired not to the restoration of the old Czarist regime, but to a new democratic order. The future they invoked was an antithesis of the one the Leninists had imposed, and this antithesis was precisely that revolutionary future -- bourgeois and democratic, capitalist and individualist -- whose paradigm Burke himself had defended when it was established in America in 1776.

            Looking back on the two hundred year history now past, we can see that it is not simply a unitary conflict between revolution and ancien regime (the paradigm in which counter-revolution would be synonymous with reaction, revolution with social progress). It is the conflict of two distinct revolutionary traditions. The struggle that has shaped our age has not been between the old order and the new revolution, but between two revolutionary paths to the modern world -- two different paradigms of the European Enlightenment that took root, respectively, in America and France.

            The Cold War is often presented as a power struggle with no particular historical dimension. But it is more accurately seen as the climactic phase of the conflict between these contending traditions. The radical ethos of the French Revolution became the wellspring of a socialist revolt against bourgeois order that culminated in the establishment of the Soviet empire. On the other hand, the libertarian ethos of the American Revolution inspired the conservative opponents of the Soviet tyranny, a counter revolution based on individual rights, free markets and democratic constitutions. The revolutionary societies that followed this path formed an alliance of free nations confronting the Soviet empire, whose triumph in the Cold War has now brought the totalitarian era to a close.

            Those on the Left who do not want to face the implications of their historic defeat prefer to be puzzled by what are otherwise straightforward events. The triumph of the Right in this riptide of freedom is so unthinkable to them, that they speak of the counter-revolutions in the Eastern bloc as though they were an enigma impenetrable to understanding. Because the democrats in the Soviet Union are called “radicals” and the Communists are called “conservatives,” because the advocates of capitalism in Eastern Europe are called “Left” and the die-hard socialists “Right,” they conclude that we have arrived at a new “end of ideology.” In their persepctive, the very concepts of Left and Right have lost their meaning, and a new political vocabulary is required to name the alternatives we face.

            But is it? Only if one insists on viewing this history through the political prism of the radical tradition. Only if one wants to avoid a reckoning with the socialist defeat, to preserve the ideological framework of the political Left. Only if one wants to preserve the traditional sense of a radical past in the hope of one day reviving the sense of a radical future.

            If we reject this reasoning, however, and recognize the existence of two traditions in conflict the difficulty vanishes. When these two traditions confront each other across the Iron Curtain created by their historic conflict, Left and Right become inverse images. Within the Soviet bloc, “Left” signifies counter revolution -- capitalism, liberalism, democracy; “Right” means the contrary of the revolution -- defense of the conservative status quo (the Marxist dictatorship, communism, socialism). In the West, it is just the opposite: The status quo of the revolution, defended by “conservatives” of the Right, is liberal, democratic and free.

            In short, once we leave the swamps of the leftist world view, the confusion of terminologies becomes clarity itself. To be conservative within a revolutionary tradition simply means to conserve the paradigm peculiar to that revolution. To be conservative in the context of the democratic West means to preserve the liberal, individualist and free-market framework that is its historic achievement and to act on the non-utopian premises that are its philosophical foundation.

 

                                                            *    *    *

 

            What does it mean in this post-Communist era to be Left within the liberal framework of the West? That is the real question posed by this historic upheaval and its political crossroads. For two hundred years the leftist counter-revolution against liberal democracy has meant permanent war against bourgeois society -- against the culture of individual rights and political pluralism, against the private property foundations of the liberal state. To have been on the left is to have been at war with the only democratic and free societies the world has ever known. It has been a war conducted in the name of ideals that cannot be implemented and a future that cannot work, and has brought misery and oppression of incalculable dimensions to uncountable millions.

            Leftists will object. They do not want to be put in the same political bed with Leninists and Marxists and other totalitarians -- especially now that the world has repudiated them. Now these leftists will stress that they are democratic socialists (making the assumption that there is a real world meaning to this self-validating phrase).[2] Or they will call themselves “populists” and “egalitarians” (as though there were some other way than socialist diktat to legislate equality).

            It is true, of course, that since the collapse of the Soviet economies, many “democratic socialists” are eager to concede that markets cannot be so easily discarded, without incurring consequences that are unacceptable. On occasion, they even allow themselves to express the thought (previously unthinkable) that perhaps, in the end, “socialism” can only be a term for a more humane form of the capitalist enterprise. Sometimes of late, they have seemed willing to claim any reform -- the establishment of unions, of a minimum wage -- as victories for socialist ideas. The very minimalism of the position is revealing. There remains something so visceral in their identification with the socialist cause, so passionate in their belief in a re-made world, that they are unable to take the honorable course -- to admit they were wrong, to give up the radical ghost, and to redefine themselves as advocates of capitalist reform. Instead they insist (and with the same old smugness) that socialism remains the name of their desire.

            In the end, the concessions these leftists are ready to make now seem less a gesture of self-understanding than a strategy for avoiding further defeat. Consider the new name they have adopted to signal their willingness to modify the old ideal of a general plan: market socialism. Whole libraries have been written by social democrats to prove that market economy is the root of our afflictions -- a reifying, alienating, dehumanizing incubus on the social life of mankind. Yet, on the basis virtually of a single chapter in a solitary book on the economics of “feasible socialism,”[3] they have rushed to enlist the market as a remedy for the ills of socialism, now that its bankruptcy is apparent to all. How readily they now appropriate an institution they condemned when the life chances of millions hung in the balance.

            These democratic socialists are willing to make concessions if only they do not have to give up anything that really matters. They are ready, now, to acknowledge the necessity of the market as the minimal price they must pay to remain part of any rational discourse. But their contrition does not appear to go further than that. Otherwise, why continue to call themselves “socialists”? Why cling to an identity and attitude so thoroughly disgraced? Why remain in the political company of unrepentant radicals who are still “marxists” and still recklessly committed to agendas about which they, themselves, claim to have had second thoughts? The answer can only lie in the beliefs they have not given up, which they still share in common with their erstwhile comrades, and which are at the heart of the tradition they still call their own. These are the passions that even now thrill their blood, the faith in which they will always feel at home.

                                                *                      *                      *

            What does it mean to hold on to this faith, to be radically Left within the political tradition of the liberal West? This Left, whose project has culminated in human calamity beyond comprehension, began with the famous passage in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality in which he first articulated the radical myth of social creation:

 

   The first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.

To which Rousseau exclaims, in words that reverberate through the tragedies of our time:  How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”

            For the next two centuries, this idea served as inspiration for the radical onslaught against liberal democracy in the West. Indeed, the charge that private property corrupted humanity became the basic proposition of all political Lefts, that is of all attempts to construct a radical future in which “socially created” evils, like inequality and injustice, would be relegated to the museum of human antiquities.

            Two centuries later, the relentless unraveling of these socialist schemes has shifted the onus of Rousseau’s question. Now we must ask: How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would the human species have been spared, had the world not listened to this radical impostor, when he assaulted private property -- the very foundation of liberty -- while invoking the unlimited powers of the state to make men virtuous and equal?

            It is this question and this recognition that mark the dividing line between Left and Right. For Rousseau, as for the radicals who followed him -- “democratic” and otherwise -- “Society” is the root of human oppression: “Man was born free, yet is everywhere in chains.” The radical’s goal everywhere is a transformation of society that will liberate the “authentic” human self and bring about the recovery of natural innocence. That will restore the harmonious human community allegedly lost -- that was first corrupted and then suppressed by private property and its state. But the history of socialism has now shown (as for two hundred years conservatives warned it would) that humanity liberated from the claims of property and from the disciplines of the market, from religious constraint and from the rule of law -- humanity governed by its general will -- is a monster of barbarism and atavistic evil.

            For the counter revolution of the Right, the truth revealed about humanity in society is exactly the opposite of the Rousseauian claim: Man is not born free, but helpless and dependent, and then a slave to his unruly passions. Society is not nature’s corrupter, but a civilizing, humanizing force. “What is government,” an American founder wrote, “but a reflection on human nature?” And: “If men were angels, there would be no need for government.” It is only the civilizing limits of the social contract that can liberate the anti-social creatures of nature into the constitutive orders of productive and communal life.

            This is the pragmatic realism that informs the American paradigm and creates the conservative attitude. Its argument is summarized in Madison’s celebrated discussion of political factions in Federalist #10. The social problems that egalitarians of the Left propose to eradicate are finally the problems of Madisonian “faction,” the Eighteenth Century rubric for race, class and other social divisions. In devising a counter-solution to these problems, therefore, Federalist #10 also defines a conservative paradigm:

 

-- There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one by  removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

 

-- There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. (emphasis added)

In this passage, the history of the last two centuries -- the struggle between Left and Right over the future of the liberal state -- is distilled in two propositions.

            Of the two methods for curing the mischiefs of faction, the conservative takes the path of realism and chooses to control its effects. By contrast, the radical chooses the removal of  causes, the very method eschewed by the American founders because it leads, inexorably, to the destruction of liberty. Throughout the modern era, the radical has himself defined by his determination to remove the root causes of human faction, and by doing so to eliminate suffering and oppression. By contrast, the conservative recognizes the impossibility of such a quest, and is content, instead, to manage the conflicts, to contain the effects of evils that are integral to our humanity. Such accommodation to reality is anathema to the radical.

            In the radical impulse to redeem humanity, the conservative recognizes a primal threat to human liberty. The determination to eradicate the causes of social conflict, to make society one and indivisible is nothing less than the totalitarian ambition. It is the ambition to change human nature by political means, the promise (in Rousseau’s revealing formulation) “to force men to be free.”

            Writing before the French Revolution and the advent of the modern Left, Madison was skeptical that any social faction would actually attempt to control the consciousness of others in order to create a unity of interest and equality of condition among all. To Madison such a program was self-evidently impractical. The diversity of human opinion was a fact of nature. As long as humanity was free, its opinions would never be unified. Human faculties and talents, themselves, were diverse and different from birth. From these differences flowed inequalities that were inevitable, including the inequality of property in which human energies and talents were ultimately invested. In protecting the efforts of the individuals in whom they are vested, property rights are the foundation of human rights, the indispensable shield of human diversity.

            It is the rights of property -- and (behind them) the rights of diverse and unequal individuals -- that form the insuperable obstacle to the socialist desires: equality, unity, the harmony of human interests. As Madison expressed these ideas:

 

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

            But unity of interest and equality of condition,, the objectives that were for Madison impossible to achieve (and, for that reason, threats to liberty) -- these are the all-consuming goal sof the modern Left. To suppress human nature and human difference is, in essence, the Left’s utopian ambition. And it is an ambition that requires a totalitarian state.

            Ever since the French Revolution, radical “equality” and conservative “liberty” have opposed each other as the defining agendas of Left and Right. For radicals, freedom is the power to redefine human destiny and has invariably meant, the surrender of individual autonomy to the radical project, to collective truth and the “progressive” idea. For conservatives, in contrast, liberty is relief for the individual from collective power. It is secured by “negative rights,” by limits to government. Liberty is made possible by the civilizing bonds of social order, and restraints on the coercive power of civil authority.

            The conservative goal is democratic, but it is also circumspect and modest (and so, deeply unsatisfying to the radical soul). Better to live with some injustices than, by seeking perfect justice, create a world with none. This is the political caution that has been etched in blood on the historical ledger of the last 200 years. It is the lesson the Left refuses to learn. It is this refusal that makes radicals the dangerous reactionaries of the post-modern world.

            This very denial of history, however, also creates the political mask that allows leftists to appear as social reformers. Refusing to acknowledge any connection to the destructive consequences of their radical faith, the Left has been able to hijack the vocabulary of political discourse, to appropriate the terms “democratic” and “progressive,” and now even “liberal” and “market,” and to frame its agendas in the misleading imagery of “social justice.”[4] The Left flies under permanently false colors. It is neither liberal nor progressive, and the justice it promises is achievable only through political coercion and totalitarian terror.

            Despite the Left’s surface adjustment to historical realities in the post-Communist era, the character of its project remains stubbornly the same. This project, as before, is antithetic to the American paradigm and the stoic realism in which its liberties are grounded. The opposition is so fundamental that even those left-wing revisionists who have accepted a part of the democratic achievement, and call themselves “democratic socialists,” reveal a profound and dedicated hostility to the American founding and its political truths.

            This deep-seated enmity to the American framework is nowhere better illustrated than in the last work of Michael Harrington, America’s most articulate spokesman for a “democratic” Left. Harrington wrestled all his life with the perplexing legacies of his political commitment, and his works record a dogged if doomed effort to rescue radical theory from its anti-democratic course. The last chapter in this effort, completed in 1989, while the author was ill with cancer, appeared posthumously under the title Socialism: Past and Future. Written in the shadow of Communist collapse, it was an attempt to re-assert the socialist claim to be “the hope for human freedom and justice.”

            Like generations of socialists before him, Harrington’s ideological point of departure was the French Revolution.[5] Like them, he regarded the Revolution as a compromised triumph because it had achieved equality only in the political sphere. To “complete” the Revolution by extending the principle of equality into the economic realm was the socialist task. Until this was accomplished humanity would not be free.

 

...The [bourgeois revolution] opened up possibilities of freedom and justice, not inevitabilities. After all, the rulers of the system were, more often than not, horrified by the unintended potential of their own magnificent accomplishment. They were terrified that civil rights for the people....would mean an end of property rights for the elite.[6]

            To protect their privilege, these ruling classes contrived to thwart the popular will, to prevent the people from acting on their common interests. According to Harrington, the very pinnacle of this cynicism was reached by the Founding Fathers when they devised the keystone of the American paradigm. “All this was theorized,” he wrote, “with stunning clarity in the Tenth Federalist Paper of James Madison, in one of the greatest defenses of human manipulation in the history of political theory.”

            In other words, the truly revolutionary formulation of Federalist #10, the division of powers implemented in the Constitution and, ever since, the great bulwark of American freedom, is the principle condemned by Harrington as a cynically contrived obstacle to freedom, to the direct expression of the people’s will. Madison’s central premise that economic inequality originates in human nature and cannot be eliminated without abolishing liberty itself  is, thus, cavalierly dismissed. For Harrington, American democracy is only “bourgeois democracy,” the half-way democracy allowed by the ruling class to protect its wealth. For Harrington, the task of the “democratic” socialist revolution is, still, to destroy this obstacle to radical leveling, and along with it, the property rights that are freedom’s most fundamental guarantee. The final word of America’s most flexible social democrat, in short, is only the latest radical declaration of war on the American idea, on its Madisonian framework and its liberal conception of human freedom. So consistent, through all these two hundred years of revolutionary tragedy, has the radical assault remained.

            In understanding the passionate depths of the radical assault, it is instructive to confront Harrington’s intellectual inertia with the second thoughts of ex-Communists in Eastern Europe. Unlike Harrington, their hands-on experience with socialist economy caused them to abandon the false Marxist consciousness that condemned markets as instruments of alienation and exploitation. Instead, they recognized private property and the market as the irreplaceable engines of material prosperity and technical progress for the whole of society, a development as important for human welfare as the invention of civilization itself.

            By contrast, Harrington’s views remain, to the end, mired in the vulgar simplicities of the Marxist model. Despite his grudging recognition of the market’s capacity “to coordinate an extraordinary range of human desires,” it was for him as “pernicious” as for Marx himself -- “a mechanism for maximizing profits rather than human needs.” As though “desire” and “need” were discrete, and human satisfactions were not promoted and served by efficient production for consumer markets. In insinuating that production for profit is antithetical to production for need, socialists like Harrington reinforce the very Marxist formulas that created the endless poverty and boundless tyranny of the Soviet world. It is this above all, and despite their disavowals, that makes them complicit in the tragedies of the socialist epoch that is now past, and dangerous guides to the social future.

 

            To be a Leftist, then, is to be at war with the two most profoundly liberating achievements of modern history: the liberal state and the liberal economy. These are the twin pillars of what Hayek called the Great Society, which he described as a spontaneous, “extended order of human cooperation.”[7] Such a society is not the product of vanguard schemes like the socialist design, but of a long process of adjustments to reality that eventually lead to more productive and humane institutions and rules. Capitalist democracy (a system as flawed as humanity is flawed) is, in this view, the highest stage of social evolution.

            In contrast, socialism belongs to the dark, pre-history of mankind. In the words of Hayek, it is “a re-assertion of that tribal ethics whose gradual weakening...made an approach to [civilized market societies] possible.”[8] Socialism belongs to a social stage based on the simple economy of small groups -- a stage that had to be overcome in order to realize the great wealth-making potentialities of the market system. Far from being a progressive conception, the socialist ethic is atavistic and represents the primitive morality of pre-industrial formations: the clan and the tribe. This is why its current incarnation takes the form of “identity politics,” the latest revolt against bourgeois individualism and freedom. Modern radicalism is the return of the repressed. Its values -- equality, cooperation, unity -- are the survival codes of small, vulnerable groups with knowable goals and shared interests. But the morality of tribal communities is self-defeating and disastrous when applied to complex economies, dependent on factors of production that are geographically dispersed and on trade exchanges that are trans-national in scope. In the context of a modern extended economic order, where goals are not shared, where market prices encapsulate knowledge beyond the capacity of a central authority and in situations so complex that no planner can rationally allocate economic tasks, the socialist agenda and its tribal ethos produce social atavisms -- the paternalistic politics, fratricidal nationalisms and economic despotisms, universally characteristic of socialist states.

            Socialist morality is a seductive illusion. Because it does not rest on real world assumptions, the socialist ethic -- if put into practice -- would threaten to undermine the life basis of vast communities of present-day humanity and to impoverish much of the rest.

Far from being progressive, the Left’s demands for “social justice,” if realized, would destroy the very basis of social wealth (as it has in the former regions of the Soviet bloc). In the modern world, competition is not the contrary of cooperation, but the form that cooperation must take in order to coordinate the activities of millions of people unknown to each other, pursuing goals which are not common and cannot be shared. The profit motive is the engine of wealth not only for the rich but for the poor as well. In the real world, the attempt to plan economic systems produces inefficiency and waste; the attempt to redistribute wealth diminishes well-being and individual liberty; the attempt to unify society, crushes its freedom; the ambition to make people equal, creates new tyrannies and submerges human individuality in totalitarian designs.

            For a long time, the tribal ethos of socialism was concealed in the universalist membrane of the Marxist movement and the liberationist impulse of its proletarian myth. But the collapse of Communism has disintegrated the Marxist idea and fragmented the culture of the international Left. The result is a proliferation of post-Marxian theories and identity politics that no longer base themselves on the universalist category of economic class but on the particularist identities of gender, ethnicity and race. The class struggle has been replaced by status conflict; the universalist idea by quasi-fascist doctrines of racial solidarity, group rights and anti-liberal political agendas.

            These agendas are still inspired by the essential radical theme. They share the Rousseauian desire to redefine and repossess the world in terms of a collective idea of self, to regenerate the lost paradise of human beginnings, and to unify alienated society under the redemptive aegis of a tribal will. “An atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage,” as Hayek has written, “is the main source of the collectivist tradition.”

            Thus, the post-Marxian Left has begun its career by launching an all-out assault on the third great achievement of modern history, the liberal community itself. This community, whose paradigm is America, is founded in a universal compact that transcends tribal identities and the multi-cultural particularisms of blood and soil. “No nation before ever made diversity itself a source of national identity and unity,” an historian has written, “a nation created by people of all classes and ethnicities, immigrating from all over the world.”[9] America is the unique crystallization of an idea of nationality residing in a shared commitment to universal principles and pluralistic values. This creed is the culmination of an evolution that extends backwards in time to Jerusalem, and Athens, and Rome. It encapsulates lessons that were accumulated through practice and acquired by faith, that are inscribed in the teachings of sacred tradition and the institutions of secular law. These traditions (as it happens, Judaeo-Christian traditions) and these institutions (in fact, bourgeois-democratic institutions) have led us to the truths that are self-evident, and on which our freedom finally depends.

 

 



[1] Cited in Isaiah Berlin,

[2]  Of course, there was a tradition of democratic socialism before the Soviet fall. While the anti-Communist politics of these socialists were honorable enough, they nonethless remained partisans of the Left, implacable critics of capitalist democracies and thus the most attractive promoters of a continuing socialist faith. By now it should be evident even to them that a “democratic socialism” is a contradiction in terms.

[3] Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism, London 1983. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, other texts appeared. For a summary and critique of market socialist theory, see David Ramsay Steele, “Immoral Capitalism vs. Unfeasible Socialism, Critical Review, Vol. 10 No. 3, Summer 1996. Yale Station, Connecticut.

[4]  Cf. Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice, Chicago 1976

[5] Of course, the socialist interpretation of the French Revolution, on which Harrington relied, has been thoroughly refuted on historical grounds in recent years in works by Francois Furet, Simon Schama and others.

[6] Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, p. 5

[7] F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Chicago 1988, p. 6

[8] Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice,  pp. 133-134; cf. The Fatal Conceit, op. cit., Chapter 1.

[9] Kahlenberg? in Schlesinger, Disunited America.