Democratic Socialism Revisited

The recent primary victory of a “democratic socialist” candidate for Congress in New York City has added a new chapter to the flirtation of the Democrat Party with “socialism,” coming on the heels of the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for President in 2016. This may seem a step forward to “progressives,” but to me it demonstrates how many people in America fail to appreciate the history of socialist societies.

One hundred fifty years ago, socialism sounded appealing because it promised the solution to multiple social problems. Further, according to Karl Marx’ “scientific” analysis, it’s arrival was inevitable. Well, it turned out Marx’s theory was not so scientific since socialism did not arrive. What eventually came instead were forms government called socialism and communism as justification for pseudo-socialist policies at best and dictatorships at worst.

Not True Socialism?

Some present-day socialists claim these were not true examples of socialism, and thus argue the real thing hasn’t been tried. In science, when all attempts to prove a theory fail, the theory is rightly rejected. So, let’s examine why socialism has failed in the past and why it will continue to fail every time it is tried.

Marx theorized that capitalism created the seeds of its own destruction––that the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots would become so extreme that the haves would be pulled down and the have-nots would inevitably take over. That theory justified the Russian, Chinese, Cuban and other revolutions––except what replaced the previous system was a form of government where a small group––ultimately one man––made all the key decisions and controlled everything. That’s what still prevails in China and Cuba today.

Contrast that outcome with what the theorists of representative democracy envisioned. John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, et al, understood the evil of one-man rule and postulated an alternative: democratically elected representative government. Concerned about the rights of the individual, the founders of our country divided power into three branches—legislative, executive and judicial.

Can Socialism Arrive Democratically?

Of course, parties advocating socialist policies have achieved power via elections, but then what happens each time? In order to implement their policies, however, socialists have to fulfill their promises to their supporters and that they cannot do . . . for many reasons.

Socialism promises equal outcomes. Taken to its logical conclusion that means students cannot be rewarded based on achievement and jobs cannot be allocated by merit. No society will accept such policies except by force. In Europe, that has meant hybrid solutions—where merit is not totally outlawed and the existence of large corporations is seen as necessary in the short run.

Socialism also promises an equal distribution of goods. The problem with that is scarcity is inherent in the human condition. The only way to achieve equal distribution of food, clothing, transportation, healthcare, housing, etc. is to lower the standard of living for everyone. To accomplish that requires the use of force because people naturally rebel against policies that punish effort while rewarding sloth (i.e., a disinclination to exert effort).

Why Do Some Favor Socialism?

By ignoring the history of attempts to overthrow capitalism and institute socialism in Russia, China, Israel (see my article on what happened in Israel), Argentina, Cuba and Europe, people focus on what socialism promises and ignore the problem of how to get there. It also sounds good (to some, but not all ears) because it allows its advocates to blame others for keeping them from having whatever goods they believe they deserve.

Here in the U.S.A., socialist candidates and policies may win short-term gains, but must fail in the long run. The American people have shown themselves too savvy to be swayed by pie-in-the-sky promises because we know first hand the benefits of free enterprise and we are culturally resistant to compulsion.

That said, it is actually not bad for avowed socialists to run for office whether as Democrats or under some other party because it provides the public an opportunity to learn about socialism’s failures. While the horrors of the Soviet Union are in the past, lessons are easily seen by studying present-day China, Cuba and Argentina. Information is readily available on all three for anyone who cares to examine it.

Socialism became popular150 years ago because it promised an end to an industrial system that exploited laborers, despoiled the environment, and corrupted the political system. That’s not the world we live in today. Instead, the free enterprise system has prolonged life and raised the standard of living of millions across the globe. One must conclude no matter how many theories arise that promise a socialist nirvana, it’s existence will remain a pipe dream.

The New Left’s Destructive History Told by Two Former Ramparts Editors

Destructive Generations by Peter Collier & David Horowitz, Encounter Books, 2006 edition of the1989 original

For the baby-boomer generation, the Sixties remain a watershed––a time of deep personal, social and political change that lingers for many as the best years of their lives. The decade began symbolically with the election of John F. Kennedy whose inspirational inauguration speech many baby-boomers still recall, but the 60s ended in flame with violence, not hope, dominating the headlines.

Like Peter Collier and David Horowitz, former editors at Ramparts magazine and co-authors of Destructive Generations, I was caught up in the optimistic belief that the American dream could no longer be withheld from those who had been denied equal rights solely due to the color of their skin. I joined the NAACP in college, and after graduating joined VISTA—the domestic peace corps. I spent a year serving in Atlanta where I marched with Dr. King to protest Julian Bond’s removal from the Georgia State Legislature for opposing the war in Vietnam.

Vietnam Divided the Civil Rights Movement and Undermined Non-Violence

Vietnam stirred up a generation of young men who were faced with being drafted to fight a war that seemed more about imposing America’s will on a Third-World country than being on the side of liberty. The war also splintered the Civil Rights Movement with militants Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) rejecting Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence, asking why should young black men fight for a country that did not grant them basic rights at home?

By the end of the decade, the movement for equal rights had morphed into a movement that sought to “bring the war home”––i.e., aid the North Vietnamese drive the U.S. out of “their” country. The movement’s goal was no longer fulfillment of the promise of the American Revolution. New Left radicals envisioned a different kind of revolution, one based on the belief that America was the source of poverty, racism, and environmental degradation at home and abroad. Those who took up the call for a new revolution were increasingly willing to engage in “direct action” including bombing service recruitment offices and police stations to accomplish their goals.

Following the Black Panthers, the Left Invited Its Own Demise

Unfortunately to disastrous results, these activists viewed militant blacks like the Black Panthers as role models for their revolution. They believed like Vladimir Lenin that they could activate the masses by performing random acts of violence against dominant social institutions.

And what had once been a unified movement splintered into competing organizations based on hair-splitting interpretations of Karl Marx and his successors, including descendants of the Soviet Union-affiliated American Communist Party, followers of Leon Trotsky, and admirers of Chairman Mao. At times, it seemed each of the above groups hated their Marxist competitors more than they hated capitalism.

Like many, I was attracted to the notion of “scientific socialism”, but it wasn’t long before I realized the neo-Marxists preached their own form of economic determinism––one that failed to hold water like Marx’ original predictions. Each year, the New School Marxists revised their predictions of when capitalism would collapse until the robust economy of the 1980s robbed them of their few remaining followers, long after I’d put an end to my flirtation with socialist theory.

The Collapse of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Having been a leader of a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the university where I obtained my graduate degrees, I knew many of the people involved in the break-up of that once democracy inspired organization, including Mark Rudd, leader of the Columbia University Sit-in, and SDS national leaders Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers.

But, as SDS’s leaders became more militant and the logic justifying their confrontational behavior became more convoluted, I stepped back, hoping a remnant of the earlier movement would emerge seeking an American style “democratic socialism” based on a commitment to core American values.

That hope, however, also floundered after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, as the Left corkscrewed through love affairs with the militant blacks like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, mixed in with the drug/rock culture, radical feminism and radical environmentalism.

Today, while many who lived through the ‘Sixties still long like John Lennon for a world without religion, country or possessions, others––myself included––remain true to the original ideals that resulted in our becoming activists.

The 60’s Early Ideals Remain My Ideals

I still believe that America can be a beacon on a hill in a world where the rights of the individual are sacrificed to the will of dominant political autocracies as is the case in China, Russia, Iran, the oil rich Arab states, and many third world nations. While the latest threat to the American ideal is Jihadist Islam rather than Marxist Communism, the later remains prevalent in American universities where the professoriate indoctrinate young people into hating America and advocating wholesale reform.

I reject the Liberal Left’s desire to replicate a system of government where a minority of enlightened leaders are in command and continue to advocate for policies that protect the rights of those who are out of power––including those awakened for the first time in decades by Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

While there are aspects of President Trump’s personality that rub many the wrong way, I believe his election has given this country a chance to return to policies that put the people before the government, protecting the rights of the individual as well as freedom of association, speech and religion.

One of the reasons I recommend people read Destructive Generations, even though the core content is almost thirty years old, is that the authors document so eloquently the corrosive impact of the Left ideology that undermined the democratic ethos of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. For example, Collier and Horowitz document the disastrous consequences of those consumed by white guilt in a chapter about Fay Stender, the white lawyer who sacrificed her life for black radicals, including Huey Newton and George Jackson, both of whom betrayed her as their true nature as drug dealers and murderers emerged.

The authors further explore the fraud perpetrated by Newton’s Black Panther Party on the New Left. Learning the truth about the Panthers is not just important to understand their role in the destructive post MLK, Jr. years, but also to combat today’s black nationalists who hope to revive the Panthers as a symbol of resistance to white authority.

Socialism in One City Shows Its True Colors

Destructive Generations should also be read by followers of Bernie Sanders who think socialism is an idea worth supporting. In particular, the chapter “Slouching towards Berkeley,” can help Sanders’ followers understand the harm done by those who try to implement an ideology that fails to take human nature into account.

To wit, Collier and Horowitz quote a Berkeley liberal who experienced the decades long attempt to install socialism in one city. “They’ve divided this city right down the middle . . . set whites against blacks, landlords against tenants, students against long-term residents . . . And in the process they’ve also done something I thought nobody could ever do––they made me into a conservative.”

From Revolution to Popular Front Communist Party Tactics

After their plans crumbled, the New Left radicals, who in their arrogance appointed themselves the vanguard of the revolution, returned to the approach invented by the American followers of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party justified lying about who they were and what they sought as the means to achieving their goal of upending society and establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Recognizing the “popular front” tactic of the Left in all of its formulations is an essential lesson documented among so many others in Destructive Generations.

Finally, it will prove instructive to read each author’s personal story about how they came to see the critical flaws of the New Left and how they emerged as conservatives which David Horowitz defines as “respect for the accumulated wisdom of human traditions; regard for the ordinary realities of human lives; distrust of optimism based on human reason; caution in the face of tragedies past.” (334)

The Panthers Showed their True Colors After Years of Leftist Support

The 1960s began with young Americans committing themselves to bring about a better world, but by linking that hope to dead ideologies and personal ascendance, they opened the gates of hell. The authors document one particular tragic example when they encouraged a friend to help the Black Panthers with some bookkeeping. Unfortunately, she discovered funds donated by the Panthers’ supporters to educate ghetto children were being used for drug deals and they killed her. The price of arrogance can be very high. The price of not understanding the past and remaining romantically linked to utopian ideals is often the death of innocent people. Look at Russia, China and Cuba for examples.

I hope some of my former New Left friends will find the courage to read Destructive Generations and break the links to that unfortunate time in our personal histories.

How Liberalism Divides America: A Review of Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Basic Books, 2015

Don’t be misled by this small book’s subtitle, or even the title for that matter. Neither reflects Shelby Steele’s thesis that post 1960s Liberalism is built on a house of lies that has relegated many blacks and other minorities to positions “of inferiors and dependents.” (179)

Shame reveals among other things why eight years after the election of the first African-American president, issues around race still divide our country. Steele also explains why Liberalism seems to be more about absolving whites and government from America’s past than helping minorities overcome that past and why conservative commentators are not taken at face value.

To understand Steele’s thesis one needs to start with slavery because slavery was not just an evil in and of itself, it was a black mark against the foundational principle of American exceptionalism––the core principle embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution that freedom of the individual is the ideal foundation of a just society. Although some did oppose slavery from the start, it took half a century before it was abolished. Unfortunately, slavery was replaced by another pernicious social institution––Jim Crow, which was based on theories of African-American inferiority. Segregation and its rational survived until the 1960s when the struggle for equality became the central issue of the day and the necessity of extending the promise of freedom to all brought about a massive social upheaval.

Shelby Steele’s contribution to what happened next reflects his experience growing up in an era where America sought to show the world it had broken with its past by instituting a variety of programs designed to remedy that past, including the War on Poverty, affirmative action, racial preferences in hiring, lowered welfare standards, et al. The short-term impact of these programs was to give blacks an opportunity to join the mainstream of American society, but there was an unintended longer-term consequence that both handcuffed blacks and gave rise to the distorted political culture we call Liberalism.

Steele illustrates how blacks have been hampered by these post-Civil Rights policies by citing the case of Clarence Thomas who found getting into Yale Law School undermined people’s willingness to give him credit for his accomplishments. People assumed Thomas only got into Yale because he was black and that his high grades at Yale were not deserved. This “catch 22” still hampers blacks today. One wonders if Barack Obama feared he was only elected president because of his race, and not his qualifications or platform? Does that explain the aloof manner by which he conducted himself as president?

The flip side of the post 1960s liberal equation is that many whites feel they must continually prove they are not racists by asserting that America is a racist society despite the fact blacks today are “far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” (17)

The 1960s gave rise to the notion that America was inherently evil as evidenced by its treatment of women, blacks and other minorities, by its disregard for the environment and by its willingness to interfere in third world liberation struggles––the war in Vietnam being the primary example. The remedy was affirmative action on all those issues and in the process discrediting of the notion that a commitment to the freedom of the individual was sufficient. In Steele’s terms, America embarked on a new mission “to establish ‘The Good’ . . . on par with freedom.” The Good requires equal results be guaranteed not just equal opportunity. The purpose of The Good, he writes, “became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities.” (128)

The Good was a relativistic solution––a commitment to results over process and it required people to dissociate themselves from America’s past. Liberal public policies and programs were promoted as evidence of rejection of America’s evil past and refusal to endorse such programs was seen as lingering affiliation with that past. Belief in America as a city on a hill, as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, as an exceptional nation was rejected. “American exceptionalism and white supremacy [became] virtually interchangeable.” (164)

Liberalism underscored its commitment to The Good attacking traditional American culture and invading the political arena. To post 1960 liberals the drive for political power was seen as “nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” (156)

In order to maintain their political and cultural dominance, liberals have become committed to what Steele calls the ‘poetic truth’ of American society, a false vision that is necessary to support their ideological position. The chickens of that falsity, embodied in academia, big government and groups such as black lives matter, came home to roost in November, 2016 when sixty plus million people rejected the liberal candidate.

Criticism of liberal programs by whites can be dismissed as evidence of a person’s association with pre-1960s America, but it’s harder to make that label stick when the critics are black. Labeling people like Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, and Shelby Steele ‘uncle toms’ only demonstrates how unglued liberals become when confronted with facts that fly in the face of their make believe world.

Sadly books like Shame rarely get the visibility they deserve. I found no reviews in the New York Times or the Washington Post, despite the fact that Steele is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Content of Our Character (1990).
Shame has only 49 reviews on Amazon and a 4.3 rating while Ta-Hehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has 3,157 reviews and a 4.6 rating. Coates has received numerous awards for his writing, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” but Coates’ thesis that racism survives because whites are attached to the benefits of being white is a perfect example of what Steele unclothes––a false narrative that is accepted because it re-inforces the story that America is as tainted today as it was in the time of slavery. Coates views “whiteness” as inevitable and permanent but fails to recognize that the price of conflating slavery and segregation, discrimination and unintended bias is that blacks will never be free! That’s where Steele parts company with Coates.

Steele gives us a window into his evolution from a sixties radical to a twenty-first century conservative. The turning point came in 1970 when he and his wife spent several weeks in Africa where he discovered that the revolution the Black Panthers and others were championing was a false and bankrupt dream. His experience reminds me of the degeneration of the civil rights movement in Albany, New York around the same time. I had been involved in the optimistic years before King’s assassination, which understandably caused many to become bitter and the rhetoric of revolution to gain currency. When the Black Panthers came to Albany, however, they sent a heroin dealer as their representative. Apparently at that point anyone willing to spout their revolutionary rhetoric was acceptable.

While post 1960s liberalism has been losing currency at the polls, it still dominates our culture, the entertainment industry, and the news media. Conservatives who reject the relativism of Liberalism, who stand behind the founders’ original insights, have an opportunity to turn the tide. Steele urges conservatives to be sensitive to the “psychological and cultural damage done to minorities by American hypocrisy,” by showing how the original dream of equality for all and a commitment to freedom, is still America’s essential truth. The time to win that war is now.