Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Socialism & 2020

It's going to be a central issue in the presidential race -- and it should be

Well, if there’s any doubt now that “socialism” is going to be a big, buzzy concept in the 2020 campaign season, let the cover of the new issue of The Economist disabuse you of that notion:

In her WSJ column today (paywalled, alas), Peggy Noonan doesn’t use the S-word, but she warns Republicans to get their stuff together to save capitalism. She writes:

The progressives are young and will give their lives to politics: It’s all they’ve ever known. It is a mistake to dismiss their leaders as goofballs who’ll soon fall off the stage. They may or may not, but those who support and surround them are serious ideologues who mean to own the future.

None of this feels like a passing phase. It feels like the outline of a great political struggle that will be fought over the next 10 years or more.


Americans have long sort of accepted a kind of deal regarding leadership by various elites and establishments. The agreement was that if the elites more or less play by the rules, protect the integrity of the system, and care about the people, they can have their mansions. But when you begin to perceive that the great and mighty are not necessarily on your side, when they show no particular sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens, all bets are off. The compact is broken: They no longer get to have their mansions. They no longer get to be “the rich.”

For most of the 20th century the poor in America didn’t hate the rich for their mansions; they wanted a mansion and thought they could get one if things turned their way. When you think the system’s rigged, your attitude changes.

Noonan says further:

We need a cleaned-up capitalism, not a weary, sighing, acceptance-of-man’s-fallen-nature capitalism. Republicans and conservatives need a more capacious sense of what is needed in America now, including what their own voters need. The party needs a tax-and-spending reality that takes into account an understandable and prevalent mood of great need. They need to be moderate, peaceable and tactful on social issues, but firm, too. This is where the left really is insane: As the earnest, dimwitted governor of Virginia thoughtfully pointed out, they do allow the full-term baby to be born, then make it comfortable as they debate whether it should be allowed to take its first breath or quietly expire on the table. A party that can’t stand up against that doesn’t deserve to exist.

Read the whole thing, if you have a subscription.

I’m continuing to read your e-mails and comments about my next book. Most people reject the idea of “socialism” having anything to do with it, but honestly, socialism is what is front and center right now. Millennials may not want to hear anything bad about socialism, but they need to hear the warnings of men and women who lived with Soviet-style socialism — if only to compel them to reform their own understanding of socialism to reject identity politics, and its pomps and works. Because that’s not happening now.

I recognize that I haven’t shared with you all the chapter outline of my book. I’ve not done it because with the proposal still out on the publishing market, it’s wise not to disclose too much. I can say, though, that one of the chapters will be about the need to question the myth of “Progress”; another chapter is about rejecting scapegoating of groups. Another one is about the critical importance of taking intellectuals seriously (this, to counter people who dismiss socialism and identity-politics socialism as something only college kids care about). Still another chapter dwells on Solzhenitsyn’s and Havel’s injunctions to refuse to cooperate with the lies that sustain the system. I’m thinking in part of those who conform to the various institutionalized SJW lies for the sake of avoiding trouble.

That’s how the book will be. It’s not really about political economy, per se, as it is about how socialism as a way of seeing the world leads to these profoundly illiberal habits of mind, and become weaponized by political leaders. If you are a socialist, or are tempted by socialism, then you will need to explain why these historical aspects of socialism don’t apply to what you propose, and what you will do to prevent them from taking hold.

One of my chapters will be about how sentimentality can lead to some horrific outcomes. One of my friends, a reader of this blog, said that in his Eastern bloc youth, the government won people’s sympathies by appealing to peace, fraternity, and various pleasant things that socialism would achieve for humanity … and this led to the gulag. Now, it’s plainly not the case that any political party or leader extolling peace, brotherhood, and so forth is secretly selling the gulag. But these people who lived through socialism’s lies have some important lessons to tell us about how to discern deception in the rhetoric of the left.

Here’s something from an e-mail I received this morning from Ethan Rundell:

I’ve just read your post, “Is Cultural Socialism a Thing?”, and thought you might find it interesting to read portions of French-Canadian sociologist Mathieu Bock-Cote’s Multiculturalism as a Political Religion (2016). Among other things, the book examines in some detail the New Left’s post-Marxist transition to a form of utopian anti-majoritarianism (“diversitarian democracy”) with deep roots in the socialist tradition. From my (authorized) translation of the Introduction:

When seeking to define its historical horizon, our era appeals to the ethos of identity-based diversity. We are told we must embrace it for the sake of “openness to the Other”, that our institutions and collective representations must be converted to its cause. It would seem that we have reached a sublime stage in the human adventure – or at least that Western civilization has.

To borrow an old turn of phrase, diversity is the unsurpassable horizon of our time. The 1960s and 70s are periodically celebrated as marking the birth of a new civilization differing from that which preceded it. These years are associated with the ideal of a progressive, transnational and multicultural society and the anti-establishment sensibility of the countercultural movement. With them, it is claimed, the democratic ideal was reborn. The distinction upon which this view depends is roughly as follows: the past was a time of sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, racism and intolerance; the present, one of emancipation (of women, homosexuals, immigrants and marginalized identity groups), tolerance and the recognition of difference. We are said to have passed, in short, from one civilization to another.

This is the grand narrative of modernity: human emancipation is to be achieved by extending an egalitarian logic to all social relations and recognizing once-marginalized identities. [Emphasis mine — RD] The latter are only now said to be emerging from the margins, freed from a political and symbolic order that repressed them. They must be embraced for each enriches humanity. As we are often reminded, “diversity is our strength”. Faced with this plurality of belongings, each of which resists being subsumed under a single category, the outdated myth of a unified political community can only fade away. The nation must embrace the right to difference or perish. The old hierarchies are collapsing. By dismantling traditional institutions and normative systems, modernity has embarked on a mission to emancipate formerly marginalized identities, which have thereby acceded to social and political recognition. Such is the new face of democracy, it is claimed, and those who refuse to acknowledge it run the risk of being considered out of step with the times and publicly branded as undesirables. This discourse is often championed by the multiculturalist left, the incense-bearers of what is called the religion of humanity. It is also embraced by a fringe of the modernist right, which sings of the redemption of the human race via its conversion to the global market, the ideal playing field for a rootless individual freed from the constraints entailed by membership of a political community.

… And then came 1968. A search began for what in the 1970s would be called a new revolutionary subject. Some turned to exotic socialism, as we have seen. In a more general way, however, progressivism was in need of a new social base, a new vantage point from which it could observe society. As Alain Touraine was to put it, new historical contradictions had to be found that could be used to radicalize social and political conflicts, giving rise to new emancipatory struggles. It increasingly became clear, however, that these conflicts were less economic than social and cultural in nature. It was by embracing the counterculture and radicalizing the conflicts it released that progressivism would reinvent itself. The revolution would also need to be reimagined by freeing it from the Leninist myth of the seizure of power and the Sorelian conception of a general strike marking the temporal shift to the new world. […] From this point on, progressivism would turn its attention to new forms of social exclusion. For the worker, one substituted the excluded, a category that accommodated all those who occupied a position of exteriority vis-à-vis the dominant normative systems of the West. Sectoral forms of oppression – what Marxist theory had until then described as “secondary fronts” – were embraced. In a word, the critique of capitalism gave way to a critique of Western civilization and the major institutions seen as its guardians, whether they be state, nation, family or school. In this way, one sought to radicalize the critique of alienation by extending it to all spheres of human existence. [Emphasis mine — RD] Traditionally seen as wild and anarchic urges, desires for authenticity historically relegated to the margins of social life were to be liberated. Majoritarian normative systems had to be deconstructed to make room for marginalized groups. A new conception of the world began to emerge: on one side would be the majority, on the other the minorities.

Is this not what the illiberal Left in the US demands? “In a word, the critique of capitalism gave way to a critique of Western civilization and the major institutions seen as its guardians, whether they be state, nation, family or school.” Where are the contemporary American socialists who advocate for economic reforms, but who also defend the nation (against open-borders immigration), the traditional family, traditional (non-woke, non-politicized) education? Where are the contemporary American socialists who defend the church and religious liberty? Where are the contemporary American socialists who defend the unborn child? Who uphold moral conservatism?

Here’s why “socialism” is the right target for this book: because as Bock-Côté recognizes, the post-1968 Left reinvented itself as a movement that extends the egalitarianism of socialism’s political economy to all of life. The Quebecois sociologist points out elsewhere in his introduction that this movement understands quite well that he who controls the discourse — that is, what is permitted to be discussed in the public square — controls the society. He writes:

By entering the public sphere, one does not merely put forward one’s ideas for public life; one also defines the parameters within which one tolerates one’s adversaries. Who is allowed into public life, who is not? Who are the legitimate opponents of the dominant ideology? What is to be done with political currents and segments of the population that are reluctant to sing the new regime’s praises or even dare regret its emergence? Henceforth, politico-ideological polarization will turn on the legacy of the radical sixties and the discomfort it generates in broad swaths of the population, especially among the lower classes, whose conservative tendencies have often been noted.

Conservatism is generally presented as a pathology, the vestige of a past that diversitarian modernity struggles to eliminate once and for all. It is portrayed as an expression of psychological weakness on the part of populations that, haunted by the “fear of the Other”, are tempted to withdraw into isolation. Or it is instead described as the ideologico-political reflex of social groups whose status is threatened by some aspect of modernization. As a pathology, it is claimed that conservatism reflects the persistence of premodern forms of identity among large swaths of the population. It can be recognized in the many phobias with which it is associated, including xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and Europhobia. One must fight to eradicate it from public life.

This is why the American immigrants and others who grew up under socialism can be so helpful to us. They know where this is going, because they have seen it before! Don’t get me wrong: Christianity is not the same thing as capitalism. But in critiquing capitalism, and reforming it seriously, we can’t be blind about what voting for the actual, existing American Left means.

Donald Trump is going to talk about “socialism” in the 2020 campaign. And he should, because it’s an important topic, and we’re all going to end up talking about it. That being the case, let’s talk about all of socialism, not just the stuff that makes Millennials feel good, and that the news media prefers to cover. There really is a close connection between left-wing political economy and identity politics. Under this woke socialism, things will not go well for the Enemies Of The People — political conservatives, white males, gun owners, traditional Christians, and other Deplorables.

UPDATE: Mark VA comments:

Having lived under Communism, I’ve met with the following types of reaction during my conversations (spanning over four decades) about this experience:

From the Conservatives, usually a civil hearing, but with the feeling that I might as well be describing life on an alien planet. “That’s interesting, but what does that have to do with us, members of Western Civilization?” type of polite, vaguely condescending, dismissal;

From the Leftists I experienced push back. Usually: “Socialism and Communism are good ideas that were tried by the wrong people. No wonder they failed, to be successful these ideas need the sophisticated cultures of the West, not the primitive societies of Eastern Europe” type of thinking. Also, a strong aversion to hearing actual stories of life under Communism, and preference to stay on theoretical grounds;

From both, clinging to the notion that Socialism and Communism are primarily economic in nature, and difficulty in seeing their spiritual foundation: the fundamental misreading of man’s nature as a material entity only, without a transcendent soul;

Generally, of the two, the former was a mixture of incomprehension, disinterest, and polite dismissal, while the latter was a more aggressive put down (reader zlofm’s comment above is in this category). Curiously, I prefer the Leftists. Lukewarmness, on the other hand, really is nauseating;

Also, the sticking point for both groups is “Eastern Europe”. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that it remains a potent symbol in the West, against which the latter’s identity as “Western Civilization” is partly derived (see Larry Wolff’s “Inventing Eastern Europe”);

Add “immigrant”, and the combination “Eastern European immigrant” does its work;

Nevertheless, perspectives change, so who knows? And the lessons do apply.

In her book Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum talks a bit about this — how “Eastern Europe” became the Other in Western eyes. Even thought Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, et alia, were all central stages in the development of European culture, to Westerners, with their (our) ahistorical view, these countries and peoples seemed to be peripheral.

Reader Brendan:

The problem with the incessant criticism, mostly from the Leftist commenters here, about “cultural socialism”, and about how this should be recast as something else that doesn’t involve the “socialism” moniker is this:

Rod’s point is that, in the CURRENT US CONTEXT, if you vote for one (economic socialism), you’re going to get cultural radicalism along with the sandwich as a mandatory side dish that will eventually displace the main offering. Not tying it to socialism completely misses how it is, in fact, tied to economic socialism in terms of contemporary American retail politics.

A related point is that the arguments that are being made on the Left in favor of social leveling are, in fact, quite Marxist/socialist (sorry, I don’t really see socialism as being fundamentally about Wyclif) in flavor, again, just based on the rhetoric being used, which features the familiar discourse of oppressor and oppressed, merely recast in social rather than economic terms.

Deleting “socialism” from this analysis deletes all of these points, which in fact are some of the core points Rod wants to make here. Yes, that would mollify the Left that participates here, but you’re not the audience for the book in any case, as he has already stated numerous times.

The book, if it proceeds to publication (God willing it will!), needs to address socialism and its connection to American Leftist social radicalism, with the former being used to corral people into voting in politicians who are, and always have been, primarily passionate about the latter. That simply needs to be told, and it is no surprise that the Leftist comments here don’t want it to be told, at least not really.

The Soviet Union is not Sweden, that’s true. But the point is that the road leads in the same direction, just at a different speed. The social regime in Sweden is utterly unacceptable to American social conservatives in itself, quite apart from the Soviet experience, in any case.



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