Until last year's presidential election campaign, socialism had long been a nasty word in the American political lexicon. It had been associated with the worst forms of tyranny, especially those of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Thus many of us were surprised to see a certain United States Senator from Vermont gain a dedicated following among especially younger voters while proudly wearing the democratic socialist label. Their elders would have blanched at the prospect of a socialist president, while they themselves manifested no such fear of an ideological vision whose character and history is without doubt unfamiliar to them.
What exactly is socialism? Definitions vary widely, of course, and it is probably more accurate to speak of socialisms in the plural. Yet despite the differences, most manifestations of socialism have a number of characteristics in common.
First of all, socialism is a powerful vision of economic equality. From the earliest of times, poverty has been a persistent ill plaguing either a majority or a substantial minority of the human population. Yet, alongside this poverty, some people have enjoyed great wealth shielding them from the burdens of economic necessity. Kings, nobles, dictators, successful entrepreneurs and—let's face it, criminals—have lived lives of luxury amid the penury of commoners and ordinary people. Down through the ages, right-thinking people have found such maldistribution of wealth a scandal and have sought to rectify this economic imbalance. The Bible itself recognizes the dangers of wealth, not only to the poor, but to the stewards of this wealth who are likely to let it go to their heads and to forget their dependence on God. The Old Testament law, as codified in the first five books of the Bible, contains numerous provisions for ensuring that the poor would not become a permanent fixture in the life of ancient Israel, most notably in mandating the series of sabbath years culminating in the great year of Jubilee, when all land would return to its original owners (Leviticus 25).
Obviously, the literal practice of sabbath years and jubilees is impracticable in an advanced post-industrial economy in which productive property is no longer connected exclusively with agriculture. Consequently, our societies have had to come up with other means of addressing what is euphemistically called the Social Question. Over the past two centuries socialists have sought to resolve the issue by extending the logic of democracy into economic life. Democracy gives the vote to all citizens equally, irrespective of their social standing. The manual labourer has the same vote as the graduate of Oxford or Cambridge. The employer has no greater say than his employees. This means that every segment of the citizenry has input into political decision-making or, more likely, in putting in place the public officials charged with making these decisions.
Why not extend this democracy to economic life as well? Indeed, socialism is often called economic democracy, its followers seeking to break the power of unaccountable private concentrations of corporate economic influence and to bend them towards seeking the greater good. This was the argument of, among many others, the late John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), whose book, Economics and the Public Purpose had a profound impact on me as a young man. Rather than seeking profit for the few, economic policy should be ordered to the delivery of well-being to the many. At the turn of the last century, Teddy Roosevelt had sought to break up the monopolies of an “industrial baronage” then thought to dominate the American economy. But Roosevelt was a late liberal, not a socialist. Socialists sought instead to harness the larger corporations in one of a number of ways. The democratic socialists in the British Labour Party chose to nationalize the major industries, bringing them under the control of the people's elected representatives in Parliament. Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia, on the other hand, sought to implement worker self-management, in which factories would be operated by the workers themselves.
Socialist equality would, therefore, differ from other visions of equality. For the early liberals, equality meant the equal enjoyment of individual liberty. But because people are naturally unequal in their gifts and capacities, granting equal liberty inevitably means that some people will use their liberty to increase their wealth and influence, while others less able to do this will be left behind. For late liberals, equality means equal opportunity. Yet only in the game of Monopoly does everyone literally start out on the same footing. In the real world, someone growing up in one of the prosperous neighbourhoods of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will have more opportunities than someone born in less prosperous Mitchell County, along the Tennessee state line where my great-grandfather was born. For small-d democrats, equality means an equal say in public affairs, while for socialists equality means equality of results or economic equality, equality being measured by who has how much at the end of the day.
A second shared characteristic of virtually all socialisms is the emphasis on community over the individual. In contrast to liberalism, with its somewhat lopsided focus on the individual, socialism is collectivist, meaning that the community takes priority over the individual. Which community? Generally, the economic class of which one is a member. But in effect, this usually translates into the priority of the state over the individual. To be sure, there are anti-statist versions of socialism, some bordering on anarchism, but in practice, where socialist parties are vying for power in a democracy, their policies generally result in empowering the state, possibly at the expense of personal freedoms, a major reason why in North America socialism has come to be associated with tyranny.
A third characteristic of socialism is its hostility to private property. As much as possible, property is to be held in common so that it will remain open for the use of everyone. This will presumably eliminate poverty and economic hardship. Many small-scale communities have been established on the basis of common ownership of property, some successful and some not. Monasteries are set up on this principle, as were various utopian communities in the nineteenth century. Not far from where I live in southern Ontario, there are two communities of the Brethren of Early Christianity, whose members share their property and their lives, eating together in a common dining room and working industriously for the good of the community. This is the sort of arrangement that socialists favour for everyone everywhere. Yet those communities that have been successful are small enough for genuine affection and care to develop among members. Whole nations organized on this basis are too large and impersonal, and they tend to become bureaucratic and oppressive, as in the Soviet Union and its clients before the end of the 1980s.
|Co-operative Commonwealth Federation|
Two more characteristics of socialism cut more closely to the core of the socialist vision, laying bare its anthropological assumptions. Thus the fifth characteristic is the tacit belief that there is no stable human nature and that, consequently, human beings can be shaped to conform to the aims and aspirations of social planners. If human beings tend to be self-centred, well then, we simply need to re-educate them and mould them into loyal citizens of the socialist commonwealth, whose primary motivation will be to seek the good of the whole. If people remain stubbornly loyal to particular attachments, such as family, church and neighbourhood, then, it is reasoned, we must undertake to alter their convictions at the deepest affective level possible, through whatever means we have at our disposal. If people doggedly defend their own private interests, they must be made to see the error of their ways. Or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously put it, they will be forced to be free.
Sixth and finally, socialism posits an alternative redemptive story to that which we find in the Scriptures. The Bible is a grand narrative that tells the whole world's story, beginning with creation and moving on through the fall into sin, to redemption in Jesus Christ and culminating in the final consummation of the kingdom of God at his return. By contrast, socialism's redemptive narrative bypasses Jesus Christ and offers its own way to salvation. We ourselves will bring about all the blessings of God's promised kingdom, but on our own terms. This story is most evident in Karl Marx's writings. There is no creation, of course, because it assumes the existence of a Creator, which Marx's atheism could not permit him to accept. But there is an original state corresponding to the Garden of Eden. This Marx has labelled primitive communism, an hypothetical condition in which everyone works together, but without a division of labour. Perhaps this represents something close to the hunter-gatherer societies of prehistoric times, with everyone foraging for the means of subsistence.
For Marx the counterpart to the fall into sin occurs when the first division of labour is introduced into the productive process. Men and women do different things. Some work with their brains, others with their brawn. This results in society's division into economic classes, which are defined by their relationship to the means of production. This division inevitably produces conflict between the classes, and after that point history takes off, with class conflict being the principal motive force in the historical process. But eventually this will all come to an end, as the final class, the proletariat, or the industrial working class, assumes a messianic role, achieving a victory over the bourgeoisie, or the capitalists, thereby ushering in the classless society, Marx's counterpart to the eschatological vision of God's kingdom.
Admittedly, not all professed socialists buy into the Marxian story. For most democratic socialists, or social democrats as many prefer, socialism is simply about helping the disadvantaged through public policy. It may entail, not the nationalization of utilities and heavy industries, but the establishment and maintenance of a welfare state including such programmes as social assistance for the poor, old-age pensions and universal health care. It may further consist of such items as the progressive income tax, protections for workers in the work place, the minimum wage and the forty-hour work week. Falling far short of implementing communal ownership of all productive property, such measures have kept social democratic parties in parliaments around the world for more than a century and have given them governing power, either alone or in coalition with other parties.
All these, taken individually, are good things, I would argue. Socialism has properly made us aware of the economic forces that keep people poor through successive generations. Socialist and social democratic parties have properly championed in their respective countries the rights of workers who are often at a distinct disadvantage with respect to their corporate employers in a market economy. Since the end of the Second World War, virtually every western democracy has woven a social safety net to prevent people falling through the metaphorical cracks and thus being unable to live out their respective callings securely and healthily. One can justifiably observe that the influence of the gospel is behind such efforts, as Christians have always had a heart for the poor. In fact, Eric Nelson has plausibly argued that the recovery in the early modern era of ancient Hebrew rabbinic sources produced a fundamental reorientation in western political thought favourable to republican as opposed to monarchical polities, public policies redistributing wealth (remember the year of Jubilee), and even religious toleration. Only a culture formed even in part by the biblical redemptive narrative is likely to contemplate policies to aid the economically disadvantaged rather than to regard poverty as a deserved curse of the gods.
Digging more deeply: idols of our time
Yet in evaluating any ideological vision, we must dig deeper than the policies it advocates. After all, the welfare state has been supported by late liberals for distinctly liberal reason (e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt), by conservatives for conservative reasons (e.g., Red Tories in Canada, such as Conservative Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett in the 1930s), and by nationalists for nationalist reasons (e.g., Otto von Bismarck in imperial Germany). Moreover, while many socialists have supported the welfare state, others have not, believing that it is no more than a series of sops tossed to the proletariat to keep them from rising up and assuming their rightful place in history. These are the revolutionary socialists, often Marxist in orientation, for whom there can be no half measures. It's all or nothing: revolution or status quo.
Here is where we need to dig more deeply into the redemptive narrative that animates the socialist project. Historically plagued by terrible poverty, human beings have long sought liberation from both scarcity and the maldistribution of the world's goods. Yet we know from history that efforts at liberation, no matter which label they bear and which end they seek, so often result in a tyranny much worse than the petty oppressions of the ancien régime. The French Revolution of 1789 was not merely an effort to rebalance a constitution unhealthily dominated by the king, but a project to restart history from Year One and to build a more rational society from scratch. Similarly, the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, presided over a corrupt political system in which ordinary subjects had to endure the inequities of a semi-feudal society and occasional harassment by minor officials. Yet what came after the Bolsheviks “liberated” Russia in 1917 was much worse as Josef Stalin in particular countenanced or actively pursued, not just corruption, but mass starvation, forced labour and deadly purges of the Community Party, the bureaucracy and the military. Something similar can be said of Mao Zedong's China after 1949 and of Islamist Iran after 1979.
Indeed the single-minded pursuit of any goal, however worthy it might be when considered on its own, has a tendency to crush the real world under its feet. If flesh-and-blood human beings fail to measure up to the goals of the ideology, efforts to transform them will have to be redoubled, and if that doesn't work, perhaps we will have to eliminate them altogether. As Greta Garbo's Soviet functionary Ninotchka famously put it in the eponymous 1939 film, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Political ideologies consider human beings expendable in the larger cause of implementing their grand vision. Or, as the Dutch political economist Bob Goudzwaard expresses the matter, an ideology subordinates principles to goals. While we may be inclined to conclude that vicious means ought never to be used to accomplish otherwise virtuous goals, the convinced ideologue sees things differently. In this respect, the goal becomes a surrogate god, jealously demanding total loyalty and even human sacrifice, if necessary.
This turn towards idolatry is true, not only of socialism, but of the other secular ideologies seeking to remake the world in their own image. Liberalism champions individual freedom and, in its later forms, the right to choose, seeking to exempt such choices from even social disapproval much less legal sanctions. Nationalism seeks to liberate a particular nation from foreign oppression, yet it often produces a régime willing to terrorize ordinary people in the interest of its liberating efforts. Ethnic Greek nationalists in Cyprus in the 1950s threatened at least one member of my father's birth family for considering marriage to a Turkish Cypriot. Because uniting Cyprus with Greece was seen as an obvious good, the EOKA terrorists felt themselves justified in attacking people who might be less than fully enthusiastic about this goal.
But let's return to socialism. The title of this talk is “How Socialism Suppresses Society.” How indeed does it manage to do this? After all, socialists regularly sing Ralph Chaplin's 1915 labour union song, “Solidarity Forever,” with fervour and appear to value the horizontal ties that bind them together in their struggle for justice. In the former Soviet Union, people called each other товарищ, or comrade, eschewing all titles of honour that might set people apart from or above others. Yet the irony of Soviet Russia is that, far from strengthening horizontal ties of solidarity amongst ordinary Russians, the Party effectively eroded such ties, making people dependent on the Party alone in virtually every area of life. In fact, during the darkest days of Stalinist terror, ordinary people lived in fear of each other and were radically atomized such that their vaunted camaraderie became a farce. Even in the less dark days of late Soviet stagnation, individuals were locked in a co-dependent patron-client relationship with the party-dominated state apparatus, discouraged from organizing independently to achieve their own chosen goals. When the edifice of communism finally collapsed nearly thirty years ago, whole populations found themselves unable to cope with the fallout, having lost the ability to take action apart from the Party.
Of course, very few professed socialists today would lionize the old Soviet Union, whose failure brought into the open the considerable flaws of the Marxist-Leninist experiment. It would be uncharitable to judge socialism as a whole by its worst manifestation. Nevertheless, socialism, like the other ideologies that have shaped the political landscape for more than two centuries, rests on assumptions that are profoundly antisocial, despite its avowed exaltation of society. How so?
We need to remember that our society is not a single entity and certainly not a responsible agent. Rather, it is a complex pattern of relationships and communities which have evolved over the ages into their present form. We are not a tribe with a single chieftain calling the shots for everyone in every activity. We are marriages, families, schools, business enterprises, labour unions, church congregations, political communities, art co-operatives, amateur choral societies, Little League baseball teams, garden clubs, and so forth. Each of these communities has its own internal structure with its associated authoritative offices. Within the state, for example, each of us bears an office of some sort. It may be president, representative, senator, queen, prime minister, citizen. For the vast majority of us, our participation in the state is limited to our citizenship. Yet to be a citizen is to exercise a significant office with certain attendant political responsibilities, most notably to obey the laws, to stay informed on public affairs, and to vote.
In the classroom, the instructor has authority, but so do the students. The two authoritative offices of instructor and student are not the same, and the relationship between them is not symmetrical and certainly not egalitarian. The instructor sets the course requirements which the students are obligated to fulfil. All the same, everyone in the class in whatever capacity has an authoritative office worthy of respect. More to the point, almost no one is likely to confuse the classroom community with, say, a family, a church, a parliamentary body or a trade union local. Each of these is a distinctive social form with its own proper structure and purposes.
An example will suffice to illustrate this. I am lecturing a class of eighteen-year-olds in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, and someone walks into the room without prior knowledge of what she will find there. She may be aware that people are inside, but as yet she has no idea who these people are or what they will be doing or what sort of relationships might exist among them. However, once she enters the room, she does not have to employ sophisticated analytical faculties to intuit the presence of an instructor and students whose interactions are structured by the classroom context. She knows, almost without thinking, that she is not in the presence of a family. There are unmistakable biological cues that this is not a familial community. The fact that the young people are seated at desks while the older adult is on his feet talking up a blue streak suggests that this is not a gathered church community either. Nor is it a parliamentary body, virtually none of which would have eighteen-year-olds as deputies and certainly not in these numbers. Nor is it a business enterprise, a labour union or a garden club. The reality of the classroom community presents itself to the visitor almost immediately upon entry. It is not an abstract entity created in her mind out of the raw data of aggregated individuals. Nor is it simply a local manifestation of a larger economic class struggle or of a national community. The classroom is a classroom. The labour union is a labour union. State is state, and church is church. It is as simple as that.
Is there a term for all this complexity? Different traditions call it different things. For example, in Roman Catholic circles, inspired by the teachings of recent popes from Leo XIII to Francis, the term subsidiarity is used. Under the principle of subsidiarity, society is viewed as a hierarchy, each of whose levels bears authority. In so far as the lower agents in the hierarchy are capable of achieving the particular goods for which they are responsible, the higher agents refrain from interfering. However, if the lower agents mess up, shall we say, then the higher agents are justified in stepping in, setting matters right again, and then withdrawing once they have done so. Yet in no case should the higher agents, capped by the state at the summit, simply take over the other communities within its jurisdiction.
Of course, it is not solely Christians who grasp this societal pluriformity. Everyone experiences it on a day to day basis and is confronted by its reality without needing to engage in theoretical reflection. Nevertheless, Christians have an advantage that nonbelievers do not have. As believers, we recognize, in the words of the Apostle Paul, that in Christ “all things hold together” (Col. 1:15). The entire cosmos hinges on the Triune God, without whom it simply cannot exist. However, if we fail to recognize this, we are almost certain to try to find the source of reality in something created. In this respect, everyone is a person of faith. We are created to believe. We are created to worship. It's what distinguishes us from the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. If we fail to worship the one true God, we will inevitably worship something else. And that something can be just about anything that God has created. The ancient pagan peoples fashioned idols of stone and wood. Our own idols are more subtle. We worship success, material prosperity, sexual fulfilment, and a host of other false gods. In the political realm, we worship individual freedom, tradition, nation, the democratic people, the economic class. And in so far as we do so, we bring a certain distorted understanding of reality into political life.
Let's apply this to socialism. If you are a Marxist, then you are likely to worship the god of history with the proletariat functioning as messiah. Or, to paraphrase the Muslim shahada, there is no god but History, and the proletariat is its prophet. If you are persuaded that history consists of a class struggle destined to be wrapped up by a redemptive working class, then nothing can be allowed to obstruct the historical process. If the aspirations of ordinary people do not line up with its trajectory—if they are on the “wrong side of history”—then we must prefer history to them. History takes priority. If history is moving towards the abolition of private property and people continue to cling to their property, it must be taken from them and they must be dealt with accordingly. We saw the results of such a worldview in the huge numbers of casualties in the Soviet Union and especially the People's Republic of China.
But even the moderate form of social democracy we find in the west harbours these antisocial sentiments. The socialist holds in suspicion at the very least the more proximate loyalties people owe to their families, their churches and local communities. It will be impossible to abolish capitalism and to bring about the classless society if people retain allegiance to communities based on other, nonsocialist principles. Even though Canada's Tommy Douglas was a Baptist minister and Norman Thomas a Presbyterian clergyman, in 1999 a New Democratic Party member of Parliament named Svend Robinson proposed a motion to delete reference to God from the Preamble to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While this effort failed, it indicates how far the NDP had strayed from its earlier roots. But perhaps it wasn't straying at all. Perhaps it was simply living out the logic of its larger commitments. If liberation of the working class becomes the all-embracing goal of political activity, then it may effectively have attained the status of god, supplanting the one true God.
What about property?
How does property fit into all this? Remember that socialists strive to abolish private property and to collectivize it in the hands of the larger community. Once communal ownership of property has been implemented, society will be characterized by a principle famously articulated by Marx: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. That is, everyone works for the common good, contributing to a common pot rather than hoarding it for him- or herself. Then, as the members of the community have needs, they take from the common pot to meet those needs. This, it is assumed, will ensure that there will be no gap between rich and poor and that wealth will be distributed evenly throughout society. However, this is the point at which socialism runs into difficulties. From a Kuyperian perspective, we need constantly to ask ourselves, in addressing various social issues, which sphere is properly responsible for which activities. If we are tempted to speak of the community, we need to remind ourselves that our society comprises many communities of various types.
Hence when socialists speak of communal ownership of property, we need to point out that this is something we already enjoy. Because society is made up of different kinds of communities, it is also made up of different forms of ownership. Yes, there is individual ownership, which is the focus of classical liberalism or libertarianism. I own my watch, my comb, my wardrobe, my books, my iPad, as an individual. I have clear title to them to the exclusion of everyone else. As it turns out, however, much of my property I share with others in a variety of communal settings. Our house, our furniture, our appliances, our automobile I share with my wife and daughter. It is precisely the family home, the family car, and so forth. The family is thus the owning subject of such property. As a member of Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, I am part of a larger congregational community that owns our century-old building. It belongs to no one member of the congregation; it belongs to the whole. It is church property. The same can be said of a variety of corporate entities, ranging from businesses to schools to charitable foundations. In so far as you are part of the SEBTS community, you can be said to share in the ownership of its property.
The political community, or the state, is also a legitimate owning subject of certain properties administered on behalf of the entire public. Government buildings such as the White House or the Capitol are public property. National, state and local parks are cared for by various governmental entities on behalf of their respective citizens. The list is endless: public libraries, monuments, cenotaphs, important historical sites, the United States Mint, the US Postal Service, and a huge array of agencies responsible for certain manifestations of what might be called the commons. In Canada, we speak of federal and provincial Crown lands, Crown corporations and the like to cover the same phenomenon. The point is that, in so far as government has a legitimate responsibility to care for the commons, it too is an owner or at least caretaker of property said to belong to all of us. Socialism errs in assuming that only one form of property ownership can supplant all others. It ignores the legitimate pluriformity of property ownership, or, when it does acknowledge it, finds it a threat to its long-range goals. In this and other ways then, socialism effectively suppresses society.