This morning an American reader asked me an intelligent question about Bernie Sanders, whom many in America call a communist. But is he? asked the reader, adding that communists force everyone to work, whereas Bernie doesn’t mind it if no one works: the state will provide.
My reply, though not in my view incorrect, barely scratched the surface of the issue:
“The common denominator there is socialism. If it were to be defined by a single feature, that’s expanding state control over the individual.
“There exist different types of socialism, depending on the chosen method of control, and therein lies the difference between communists (totalitarian socialists) and the likes of Bernie (‘democratic’ socialists).
“The former force people to work, thereby making them dependent on the state for their sustenance; the latter encourage people not to work, thereby making them dependent on the state for their sustenance. In both cases the underlying aim of socialism is achieved. There’s a difference, but it’s one of method, not principle.”
The abbreviated format left no room for asking, and attempting to answer, the next question: “Why has socialism, whatever its variant (national, international, democratic etc.) become the dominant politics of modernity? What’s the attraction?”
It can’t possibly be economic performance. One could show, figures in hand, that a country’s prosperity is always inversely proportionate to the amount of socialism there.
It can’t possibly be economic and social equality either. Quite the opposite – contrary to its declared aim, socialism widens the gap between the rich and the poor.
To cite one example, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when capitalism was at its peak and socialism was seen as a madcap European idea, the average ratio of income earned by US corporate directors and their employees was 28:1. Yet in 2005, when the country’s economy was largely socialist/corporatist, this ratio stood at 158:1.
So why do people submit to various types of socialism? Don’t they see that socialism varies only in the strength of the servitude bonds it imposes? Do most people in the West wish to cut off their political noses to spite their faces? Don’t they want to be more prosperous, free and secure?
Yes, they do. But political views are seldom, and never merely, rational. As often as not they reflect a deep-seated cultural and psychological predisposition, of which the people may or may not even be aware.
And, if that’s the case, political terminology is bound to be grossly inadequate to designate what at base has little to do with politics. A Shakespeare sonnet could perhaps be described in terms of the chemical composition of his ink or the shape of his writing desk, but that wouldn’t give us a clue to his inspiration.
Witness the fact that the Nazis, whose pre-war economic programme was indistinguishable from Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and FDR’s New Deal, are popularly known as right-wing, a term never used to describe either Stalin or Roosevelt. Margaret Thatcher was branded conservative by her fans and fascist by her detractors, whereas in fact she was neither. Putin is known as a conservative because he wishes to conserve elements of the worst socialist tyranny in history. And liberals in Australia pursue ends antithetical to those pursued by liberals in the US.
However, when terms like Right and Left were first introduced courtesy of the French Enlightenment, there was no confusion. Everybody on either side of the watershed knew where the dividing line ran, as they realised that politics was but a small part of the division.
Politics in fact was rightly seen as a derivative of culture, philosophy and religion. What the watershed separated was those who hated the traditional Western civilisation, otherwise known as Christendom, and those who loved it.
Those in the second group were seldom unaware of Christendom’s failings, and they were never averse to reform. As Burke put it epigrammatically, “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The same could have been said about the civilisation.
But those people never equated reform with destruction, nor criticism with hatred. A child doesn’t begin to hate his mother just because he realises she isn’t perfect.
Those in the other group were different, driven as they were not by love but by hate, hidden or manifest. They didn’t want to see Christendom reformed. They wanted to see it dead. Politics to them was but a means, not the end.
That division, mutatis mutandis, survives to this day. Socialists of any type, whether their faces are distorted by murderous scowls or adorned by beatific smiles, are descendants of the first group. Conservatives, the intelligent ones who know what it is they wish to conserve, trace their lineage back to the second.
So one may call Bernie Sanders a leftie, a socialist or a communist without getting to the core of his view of the world: hating and craving to destroy what’s left of our civilisation. The rest is window dressing, whether he realises this or not.