TCS Daily


Why Isn't Socialism Dead?

By Lee Harris - May 5, 2006 12:00 AM

The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, celebrated May Day by ordering soldiers to occupy his country's natural gas fields. The purpose of this exercise was not military, but economic: Morales has demanded that all foreign companies currently operating these fields must sign a contract with Bolivia that would allow them to retain only 18% of the production, while the remainder would go to Bolivia's state-owned oil company. The 18% concession to the foreign companies was not an act of generosity on the part of Morales, but simply of expediency: Bolivia needs these companies to tap its natural gas resources, because it is unable, at least at present, to operate the natural gas fields on its own.

Morales, a fiery populist who was elected in a landslide, is clearly seen as following in the footsteps of Venezuela's own firebrand populist President Hugo Chavez. Furthermore, only last week, Morales and Chavez met with Fidel Castro, enacting a kind of socialist love-fest that issued in a partnership agreement aimed at creating a web of economic alliances in South America that would resist the insidious lure of American-style free trade -- its ultimate aim would be economic autarky for the region, free from foreign control.

In addition to sending in the troops, Morales is also sending forth a good bit of inflammatory rhetoric. He refers to the foreign companies operating Bolivia's natural resources as having "looted" them, and his decision to send in troops on the traditional socialist holiday, May the First, was clearly not a coincidence. In a similar vein, Morales' mentor, Hugo Chavez, has also been preaching that to be rich is to be wicked, while to be poor is to be virtuous -- and though he may be quoting scripture to support his arguments, there can be no serious question that Chavez-style populism is simply socialism with a South American accent.

And this leads to the question I want to address, namely, Why isn't socialism dead?

The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has argued in his book, The Mystery of Capital, that the failure of the various socialist experiments of the twentieth century has left mankind with only one rational choice about which economic system to go with, namely, capitalism. Socialism, he maintained, has been so discredited that any further attempt to revive it would be sheer irrationality. But if this is the case, which I personally think it is, then why are we witnessing what certainly appears to be a revival of socialist rhetoric and even socialist pseudo-solutions, such as the nationalization of foreign companies?

It should be stressed that de Soto is not arguing that, after the many socialist failures of the twentieth century, capitalism has became historically inevitable and that its expansion would occur according to some imaginary iron clad laws without any need for active intervention. On the contrary, de Soto is fully aware of the enormous obstacles to the expansion of capitalism, especially in regions like South America, and his book is full of dismal statistics that demonstrate the uphill battle against bureaucratic red-tape that is involved in getting a business license or even buying a house in many third world countries. But, here again, the question arises, If capitalism is mankind's only rational alternative, why do so many of the governments of third world nations make it so extraordinarily difficult for ordinary people to take the first small steps on the path of free enterprise?

For de Soto, the solution lies in democratizing capital. Minimize state interference. Cut the red-tape. Make it simple to start up a business. Devise ways for the poor to capitalize on their modest assets. If a person in the USA can get a loan based on the value of his $200,000 home, why shouldn't a much poorer fellow get a loan based on the value of his $2,000 shack?

These are all sensible ideas; they are all based on de Soto's belief that the only way to help the poor in the third world is to get the bloated bureaucratic state off their backs, and permit them to use their own creative initiative to do what so many poor immigrants to the USA were able to do in our past -- to start out as micro-entrepreneurs, and to work their way up to wealth and often fabulous riches. But again, we come back to the same question, only in a different form, Why are the people in Bolivia and Venezuela responding so enthusiastically to the socialist siren-song of Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, instead of heeding the eminently rational counsel of Hernando de Soto? Why are they clamoring to give even more power and control to the state, instead of seeking to free themselves from the very obstacle that stands in the way of any genuine economic progress?

When Hernando de Soto asserts that capitalism is the only rational alternative left to mankind, he is maintaining that capitalism is the alternative that human beings ought to take because it is the rational thing to do. But what human beings ought to do and what they actually do are often two quite different things. For human beings frequently act quite irrationally, and without the least consideration of what economist called their "enlightened self-interest." And it is in this light that we must approach the problem, Why isn't socialism dead?

The Role of Myth

To try to answer this question, I want to return again to Georges Sorel.

National Review's Jonah Goldberg, in his response to my earlier piece on Sorel, made the excellent point that I had left out of my discussion what is unquestionably the heart of Sorel's thinking, namely, his concept of myth, and, in particular, his notion of the revolutionary myth. Furthermore, Jonah pointed out that Sorel's myth was a repudiation of what Marx has called "scientific socialism."

For Marx, scientific socialism had nothing to do with what Marx called utopian socialism; indeed, it was Marx's boast that he was the first socialist thinker to escape from the lure of fantasy thinking that had previously passed for socialist thought. Utopian socialists love to dream up ideal schemes for organizing human life; they engage in wishful politics, and design all sorts of utterly impractical but theoretically perfect social systems, none of which has the slightest chance of ever being actualized in concrete reality. For Marx, on the other hand, socialism had to be taken down from the clouds, and set firmly on the ground. Thus Marx, instead of spending his time writing about imaginary utopias, dedicated his life in trying to prove -- scientifically no less -- that socialism was not merely desirable, but historically inevitable. Capitalism, he argued, had been a good thing; a necessary step that mankind had to take to advance forward; but, according to Marx, capitalism would eventually suffer from an internal breakdown. It would simply stop producing the goods. Like feudalism before it, capitalism was inevitably bound to pass away as a viable system of social organization, and then, and only then, would socialism triumph.

But in this case, what was the role of the revolutionary? For Marx, it made no sense for revolutionaries to overthrow capitalism before it had fulfilled its historical destiny; on the contrary, to overthrow capitalism before it collapsed internally would be counter-productive: the precondition of viable socialism was, after all, a fully matured capitalist system that had already revolutionized the world through its amazing ability to organize labor, to make the best use of natural resources, to internationalize commerce and industry, and to create enormous wealth. Therefore, for Marx, there was no point in revolution for the sake of revolution. Instead, the would-be revolutionary had to learn to be patient; he had to wait until the capitalist system had failed on its own account, and only then would he be able to play out his historical role.

Yet even here the role of the revolutionary would be severely limited; there would only be a need for revolutionary violence if the dwindling class of capitalists were themselves prepared to use violence to defend their own political supremacy. This explains why Marx, toward the end of his life, argued that in the United States, which he regarded as the most progressive nation in the world, the transition from capitalism to socialism could in fact take place without any need for violent revolution at all -- the whole process, he said, could be brought about democratically and without bloodshed.

The school of Marxism represented by Eduard Bernstein adapted this approach in regard to all the advanced capitalist nations of Europe, especially Germany. Known as "revisionism," this form of Marxism came to dominate the socialist parties of Europe before the First World War, and, in particular, the German Social Democrats who demonstrated their repudiation of revolutionary violence by taking part in the German Parliament, of which they made up an enormous bloc. For them, there was a peaceful and democratic path to socialism. Not only would socialism itself be rational; it would also emerge rationally, and without any need for anyone to man the barricades or to seize by violence the state apparatus.

It was this approach that Sorel entirely rejected. As Jonah Goldberg writes: "Sorel had contempt for socialists who wanted to make their case with facts and reason. Sorel called the prominent Italian socialist Enrico Ferri, one of those 'retarded people who believe in the sovereign power of science' and who believed that socialism could be demonstrated 'as one demonstrates the laws of the equilibrium of fluids.' True revolutionaries needed to abandon 'rationalistic prejudices' in favor of the power of Myth."

But why did Sorel, trained as an engineer and knowledgeable about science, reject scientific socialism? The answer, I think, is that Sorel suspected that socialism, in practice, simply might not ever really work. Jonah Goldberg points out Sorel "remained at best agnostic" about whether the General Strike would usher in socialism; but I would go further: Sorel himself was skeptical not only about the efficacy of the General Strike, but about the possibility of socialism as a viable economic system.

For example, in the introduction to Reflections on Violence, Sorel says that the French thinker Renan "was very surprised to discover that Socialists are beyond discouragement." He then quotes Renan's comment about the indefatigable perseverance of socialists: "After each abortive experiment they recommence their work: the solution is not yet found, but it will be. The idea that no solution exists never occurs to them, and in this lies their strength." (Italics mine.)

Sorel's response to Renan's comment is not to say, "Renan is wrong; there is a socialist solution, and one day we will find it." Instead, he focuses on the fact that socialists gain their strength precisely from their refusal to recognize that no socialist solution exists. "No failure proves anything against Socialism since the latter has become a work of preparation (for revolution); if they are checked, it merely proves that their apprenticeship has been insufficient; they must set to work again with more courage, persistence, and confidence than before...." But what is the point for Sorel of this refusal to accept the repeated historical failure of socialism? Here again, Sorel refuses to embrace the orthodox position of socialist optimism; he does not say, "Try, try, try again, for one day socialism will succeed." Instead, he argues that it is only by refusing to accept the failure of socialism that one can become a "true revolutionary." Indeed, for Sorel, the whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak.

Sorel, for whom religion was important, drew a comparison between the Christian and the socialist revolutionary. The Christian's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that Christ will one day return and usher in the end of time; the revolutionary socialist's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that one day socialism will triumph, and justice for all will prevail. What mattered for Sorel, in both cases, is not the scientific truth or falsity of the myth believed in, but what believing in the myth does to the lives of those who have accepted it, and who refuse to be daunted by the repeated failure of their apocalyptic expectations. How many times have Christians in the last two thousand years been convinced that the Second Coming was at hand, only to be bitterly disappointed -- yet none of these disappointments was ever enough to keep them from holding on to their great myth. So, too, Sorel argued, the myth of socialism will continue to have power, despite the various failures of socialist experiments, so long as there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to relinquish their great myth. That is why he rejected scientific socialism -- if it was merely science, it lacked the power of a religion to change individual's lives. Thus for Sorel there was "an...analogy between religion and the revolutionary Socialism which aims at the apprenticeship, preparation, and even the reconstruction of the individual -- a gigantic task."

It should be emphasized here that when Renan spoke about the repeated failure of socialist experiments, he was referring to the rather modest and small-scaled experiments undertaken by various utopian socialists of the nineteenth century. In 1906, neither he nor Sorel knew that in the dawning century there would be socialist experiments far beyond the scope and scale of Brook Farm or the Owenite communes. They could hardly envision entire nations falling into the hands of men who thought of themselves as dedicated revolutionaries -- avowed communists like Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Min, but also avowed fascists, like Mussolini and Hitler. The Nazis regarded themselves as genuine revolutionaries, and they call themselves revolutionaries, just as they always referred to their take-over of the German state as their revolution: for the Nazi, their revolution, and not the Bolshevik revolution, represented true socialism -- national socialism.

Can Socialism Die?

In light of the horrors brought about in the twentieth century by the revolutionary myth of socialism, it is easy to sympathize with those who believe mankind could not possibly be tempted to try the socialist experiment again. If the liberal rationalist Renan was surprised that "Socialists were beyond discouragement" at the beginning of the twentieth century, how much more surprised must his contemporary counterparts be to discover that socialism is also beyond discouragement at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Yet this is a lesson that Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, under the guidance of their mentor, Fidel Castro, seem determined to impress upon us.

It may well be that socialism isn't dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in "the profounder regions of our mental life," in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs?

Here we have the problem facing those who, like Hernando de Soto, believe that capitalism is the only rational alternative left after the disastrous collapse of so many socialist experiments. Yes, capitalism is the only rational method of proceeding; but is the mere appeal to reason sufficient to make the mass of men and women, especially among the poor and the rejected, shut their ears to those who promise them the socialist apocalypse, especially when the men who are making these promises possess charisma and glamour, and are willing to stand up, in revolutionary defiance, to their oppressors?

The shrewd and realistic Florentine statesman and thinker, Guicciardini, once advised: "Never fight against religion...this concept has too much empire over the minds of men." And to the extent that socialism is a religion, then those who wish to fight it with mere reason and argument may well be in for a losing battle. Furthermore, as populism spreads, it is inevitable that the myth of socialism will gain in strength among the people who have the least cause to be happy with their place in the capitalist world-order, and who will naturally be overjoyed to put their faith in those who promise them a quick fix to their poverty and an end to their suffering.

Thus, in the coming century, those who are advocates of capitalism may well find themselves confronted with "a myth gap." Those who, like Chavez, Morales, and Castro, are preaching the old time religion of socialism may well be able to tap into something deeper and more primordial than mere reason and argument, while those who advocate the more rational path of capitalism may find that they have few listeners among those they most need to reach -- namely, the People. Worse, in a populist democracy, the People have historically demonstrated a knack of picking as their leaders those know the best and most efficient way to by-pass their reason -- demagogues who can reach deep down to their primordial and, alas, often utterly irrational instincts. This, after all, has been the genius of every great populist leader of the past, as it is proving to be the genius of those populist leaders who are now springing up around the world, from Bolivia to Iran.

This is why socialism isn't dead, and why in our own century it may well spring back into life with a force and vigor shocking to those who have, with good reason, declared socialism to be no longer viable. It is also why Georges Sorel is perhaps even more relevant today than he was a hundred years ago. He knew that it was hopeless to guide men by reason and argument alone. Men need myths -- and until capitalism can come up with a transformative myth of its own, it may well be that many men will prefer to find their myths in the same place they found them in the first part of the twentieth century -- the myth of revolutionary socialism.

This is the challenge that capitalism faces in the world today -- whether it will rise to the challenge is perhaps the most urgent question of our time, and those who refuse to confront this challenge are doing no service to reason or to human dignity and freedom. Bad myths can only be driven out by better myths, and unless capitalism can provide a better myth than socialism, the latter will again prevail.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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