We’re All Socialists Now

November 2011By Edwin Dyga

Edwin Dyga is the Australian Editor of the British Quarterly Review.

Socialism.  By Thomas Fleming. Benchmark Books. 143 pages. $32.95.

From the author of The Morality of Everyday Life and the editor of the chief paleoconservative journal in the U.S., Chronicles, this small primer on socialism is surprisingly brief and unencumbered by the esoteric jargon that often dominates exegeses in its field. This volume is a welcome contribution to the debate on the role, evolution, and critique of the most destructive ideology to threaten Western civilization in the twentieth century.

Fleming accepts that changing social and economic circumstances have caused the terms communist, socialist, and liberal to evolve over time, and he charts this process by observing socialist theory in its various stages of development. Each chapter focuses on a particular set of trends grouped together as a historical epoch: pre- and post-French Revolution, the objectives and policy of post-World War II socialist economies, and the contemporary pursuit of “equality.” The book concludes with a brief analysis of the move­ment’s “achievements and criticism” and a discussion about “expanding the mission.”

What makes Fleming’s book unique, however, is the perspective from which it is written. Today pa­le­­­­­o­­conservatives are a mar­ginalized current in contemporary U.S. political culture. This is due in large part to their rejection of attitudes once ascribed to “progressives” but now firmly entrenched in the political mainstream: a mass democratic culture that displaces tradition with the rule of momentary majori­tarian whim, a repudiation of national particularism, an interpretation of the egalitarian ideal as an imperative to the legislative enforcement of formal equality, the export of liberalism, and a purely materialist view of progress.

Fleming’s article “Old Rights and the New Right,” from the 1982 book The New Right Papers, provided an early articulation of the paleocon­servative worldview. It was there that Fleming expressly rejected the left/right dichotomy in favor of a “trilateral war” between three competing archetypes of political philosophy: “first, those who call themselves liberals, but whose doctrines and policies are nearly pure socialism; second, free enterprise conservatives, whose doctrines are unadulterated liberalism; and the traditionalists, social conservatives, whose leadership and support is typically — but by no means exclusively — Southern.”

Paul Gottfried, who in Making Sense of the American Right has provided the most in-depth historical analysis of the rift between traditionalists and neoconservatives, explains that the split can be partly traced to the attitude each has displayed in relation to “culture war” issues. Understandably, neoconservative Irving Kristol’s 1992 declaration that the war had been lost filled many traditionalists with dismay, pushing them to the periphery of acceptable discourse within the so-called conservative mainstream. As a consequence, modern paleoconservative literature is often characterized by a cantankerous disdain for the status quo. Thankfully, Fleming’s book is dispassionate and does not convey anything but studied and careful analysis.

Bearing these issues in mind is necessary in order to understand his critique of mainstream conservatism as a subset of a broader liberal universe, and it is this element that makes the book interesting. While Fleming identifies socialism as a “quasi-religious” idea inasmuch as “it is supposed to explain and fulfill the purpose of human life,” he makes the same claim of all movements that treat liberty as a self-evident absolute. Universal faith in humanist abstractions places the traditional left and mainstream right in the same camp, he argues, reducing them to competition over the process of governance, not the substance of policy. The rhetoric of “rights,” embraced as passionately by individualists as by progressives, has led to an increase in the state’s interventionist powers in areas once considered the purview of individual preference — e.g., via equal-opportunity laws and affirmative-action policies. “George W. Bush advocated ‘compassionate conservatism,’ which was simply the socialist welfare state run by the Republican Party,” writes Fleming. In turn, concessions are necessarily made to what the public has come to expect as a matter of right: “Conservative governments, to win votes, either initiate socialist legislation or consolidate innovations introduced by socialists.” As a result, contemporary Marxist splinter movements that centered on identity politics and liberationist theory — e.g., the feminist, gay-rights, and environmentalist lobbies — cannot be adequately opposed on principle by the parties of the center-right. This results in a crisis of political legitimacy whereby the best outcomes for establishment conservatives is to compromise with or delay leftist initiatives. In light of this, Fleming holds that “after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the general discrediting of communism, socialist principles have remained an essential part of all major parties in the West.” The history of the twentieth century, he writes, “can be viewed as a struggle among conflicting theories of socialism.”

On a deeper level, Fleming’s critique of classical liberals and free-market conservatives is that they are inadequately equipped to face questions involving justice and morality. When the refrain of individual choice is proclaimed to be the highest value by those who espouse personal autonomy, the paleoconservative may well ask, Choice to do what? According to Fleming, classical liberals would hold that “asking such a question is evidence of a socialist or a fascist mindset, because it is wrong to make judgments about what other people want.” Human conduct is thus reduced to a “battlefield of competing egos,” which is an impractical philosophy of life by reason of its failure to recognize the communi­tarian nature of man. In Fleming’s view, any system of governance that rests on “value subjectivity” will logically lead to “value neutrality and amorality.” This suggests that individual choice cannot be held as the highest measure of personal freedom because the ultimate consequence will be social atomization and an environment hostile to the maintenance of liberty itself.

The universal dominance of materialism as a political value indicates that the so-called scientific rationalism of the Marxist has today been inherited by the neo-liberal in the form of hyper-rationality. It is also evident where intangible factors such as emotional attachment to locality and cultural pride — some of the factors that define one’s identity as an individual — are sidelined as anachronistic. For instance, Fleming identifies international development as one area of mainstream convergence: “Free-market liberals look on national boundaries, which impede the flow of goods and labor, with a skepticism almost equal to that of Marxists.” Moreover, he writes, “parties that ‘aspire to govern’ all speak the language of free trade and global integration.” While some might argue that this creates economic opportunity, paleo­conservatives claim that it causes irreparable damage to the fabric of society by radically disrupting culture and destabilizing social cohesion — a price too dear for cheaper goods at the market.

Fleming’s book does suffer some notable omissions. Although it is only one of six entries in the Political Systems of the World series, the author is surprisingly silent on some of the most pivotal moments in the demise of state socialism. Not once is the Gdansk shipyard strike mentioned, or the role of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, both necessary precursors to the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a work that purports to chronicle, albeit briefly, the failures of socialist praxis, one would think that an elaboration on these groups and events would be essential. To be fair, Fleming does say that he has left some issues to be covered by the book concerning communism. However, where he dedicates a generous amount of space to the ideas and history of Milovan Djilas, he fails to mention Leszek Kolakowski, an active member of the regime he was later destined to flee, and who, while in exile, contributed significantly to the critique of its underpinning ideology. Why Fleming chose to focus instead on the relatively obscure Djilas as an example of a political-idealist-cum-persecuted-critic is difficult to say. Kolakowski’s dissertation on the Frankfurt School in the third volume of his Main Currents of Marxism would have been an invaluable reference in Fleming’s otherwise succinct analysis of this precursor to modern political correctness.

It is tempting to suggest that Fleming’s identification with the agrarian and distributionist movements of the American South would more accurately place him closer to the socialist camp; but this misses the point. Fleming represents a movement that subordinates economic considerations to unquanti­fiable features of civilization and man: the strength of an individual’s connection to his particular people, a feeling of historic continuity, and the idea that there is an essence to non-voluntary human traits such as gender and ethnicity that, far from being “oppressive,” can be culturally enriching and provide purpose — the very things socialism seeks to replace with a secular religion of the state, and which the cosmopolitan individualist has repudiated as stifling restrictions on personal autonomy. Likewise, there seems to be conflict between the criticism of abstract liberal ideas as inherently religious in nature, while insisting that classical liberals are ill-equipped to deal with questions pertaining to morality. This too confuses blind submission to dogmatic ideological pronouncements with respect for a code of behavior refined over generations of fruitful living — i.e., tradition.

Some on the broader political right will find aspects of Fleming’s analysis objectionable; others will find them illuminating. Whatever hue of conservatism the reader subscribes to, this book will induce him to re-examine the assumptions that underpin the mainstream right’s agenda and political programs. Accordingly, it is a valuable addition to the library of any student of political theory and modern history.

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