May Day 2002
SPONSORED BY: Notesonline and the New Economy Information Service
Welcome, and thank you for coming. Some of you came for a funeral, and some came for a revival. We're going to try our best to see that everybody goes home happy.
I help to publish a small electronic journal called Notesonline. It is a publication for a community of people with ties—some purely nostalgic, some grounded in continuing allegiance—to the social democratic movement in the United States. It borrows its name from a newsletter that was published for many years by the national office of the old Socialist Party, USA. But it's now electronic and very hip—just take a look.
The movement many of us come from went through the thick of what were very turbulent times in American public life. Trends and events always seemed to erupt just beneath us, tossing people this way and that. It was educational. If you look around at the foreign affairs community in the United States, at the labor movement, at people active in a host of NGOs, think tanks, and political parties, you'll find figures who went through our movement and on to play roles in our civic and political life. Some of them became quite significant, and their numbers went beyond what might naturally have been expected.
There is still a sense of community among many of us, even though we may have gone in different directions. I certainly found that while I worked in government —at USIA and in the State Department—I was always calling on people I knew from the movement for criticism, advice, and help. This was true regardless of where they went in the turmoil that lasted from the '60s through the '90s—the Cold War, the difficulties in the Democratic Party, the rise of neoconservatism and so forth.
It is to this enduring sense of community that we appeal in our newsletter. And it is because of this that we've invited all of you to join us for what I'm sure will be an interesting conversation. It should also be an enjoyable social occasion, undoubtedly the most exclusive social event in Washington's spring season.
We are grateful that a number of distinguished people have agreed to participate in our discussion. Most of you know them or know of them. I'll briefly introduce each of them before his or her presentation. I've asked them each to speak for no more than ten minutes. I will do my best to be a strict timekeeper. We'll then have comments and questions from the floor. Please, no nominating speeches.
And, before things get too hot and heavy, we'll adjourn for some drinks, some music, and a chance to catch up with old friends. You can talk over old times, or remember all the awful things somebody said about you. We may not be able to resolve all the issues that come up this afternoon, so we're going to break at 6 o'clock no matter what.
Now, to our distinguished panel. As you can see, there's an exquisite balance among them. And I am a perfectly neutral arbitrator. It makes sense to start with Josh Muravchik, who has written a truly enjoyable and valuable book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. I commend it to you as a work of scholarship and also as a great read. Josh, since you have thought about this a good deal — perhaps more than most of us really would want to — please lead us off.
Thank you for the kind words. Comrades and toiling masses, anyone who ever said that we were not a mass movement need only look at the size of this panel.
When I was discussing this event with Penn, he asked me in a challengingly way if I thought that socialism and communism were the same thing, and whether I thought we who were socialists had something to be ashamed of. Ashamed? No. A bit embarrassed —perhaps. At least I feel that way when I think back on the ratio of opinion to knowledge that informed my own outlook. Why not ashamed? As Irving Kristol put it recently, we had no blood on our hands. (Irving was once a Trotskyist, the follower of an idol who had rivers of blood on his hands, who was in fact as good a killer as Stalin but a much better writer—and therefore is remembered more fondly.)
Not only were we different from the communists, but we fought them tooth and nail, often when few others did. And we also made a significant contribution to ridding this country of Jim Crow, and a generation before that to building the labor unions. There's a lot in our record to be proud of.
Nonetheless, we were enthralled by a seductive but false idea that has done a lot of harm to the world. Trotsky once quipped that Norman Thomas called himself a socialist by virtue of a misunderstanding. This was a snide putdown, but perhaps true, to Thomas's credit. He, like many here, may have been more an idealist than an ideologue.
But we should not let ourselves off too lightly. We were idealists, but we were also ideologues. We believed in socialism even though we rejected every real existing socialism that came down the pike. Our position was akin to Saint Anselm's proof of the existence of God. Anselm said, stipulate that God is the greatest being imaginable. Then if you say that God does not exist, you are obviously not talking about God, because a god who does not exist is clearly inferior to a god who does exist and therefore is not God, not being the greatest being imaginable. Likewise, every extant socialism was not the paradise of our imagining, and therefore was not socialism, which by definition was the greatest society imaginable.
In being faithful to our untarnished ideal, we were following in the rhetorical footsteps of Marx and Engels in their treatment of the so-called utopians. I have a chapter in my book about Robert Owen. He was no obscure crank. When he arrived in the United States in 1824, he was received by a joint session of Congress that met over two separate days with outgoing President Monroe and incoming President John Quincy Adams, among the many luminaries who came to hear him out.
Owen then bought an already developed settlement on the banks of the Wabash River from a religious sect. The members of this group had developed it, and it included not only homes but vast fertile farmlands and more than twenty highly productive workshops that produced goods sold all across the country. Yet within a year after taking it over, Owen and his thousand followers had turned this little Switzerland into an Albania. All the other collective settlements, except for some that were first and foremost religious communities, had similar histories of failure.
But along came Marx and Engels, who wiped this record of failure away with one of the great intellectual conjuring tricks of all time. Owen and his ilk, said Marx and Engels, were utopians. What we needed instead was scientific socialism, which they then outfitted with great pseudo-scholarly paraphernalia: means and modes of production, historical forces, class struggle, and all the rest. What I mean by conjuring trick is this: Owen and the other so-called utopians had an idea. What did they do? Owen and the other communitarians actually created experiments to test their ideas. Experimentation is the very essence of science. They were the real scientific socialists. Marx and Engels dismissed all experimental evidence, replaced it with an idea that was sheer prophecy, and claimed thereby to have progressed from utopia to science. The prophecy told of a leap, as they put it, from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, from the age of prehistory to the age of true history. It was utterly messianic. It set the stage for the twentieth century's great exercises in mass murder by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler, all of whom called themselves socialists, and all of whom derived ideas from Marx.
But again, what about us? Do we share in this shame? True, as Irving Kristol said, we have no blood on our hands. But we do need to face up to two issues.
First, our ideal was false. Yes, we believed in peaceful, democratic progress toward the socialist goal. This led us to champion the eight-hour day, where the May Day holiday comes from, and other worthwhile reforms. But we always had the idea that these reforms were not so important in and of themselves. Rather, they were accretions for building toward the socialized economy we dreamed of. This long term ideal was actually a mirage. Wealth, we slowly came to understand, is created in the private sector. Some private wealth may be taxed away for public projects, and some of those may indeed be beneficial. But beyond a certain point the encroachment of taxation becomes self-defeating, stifling the prosperity on which the public sector depends. If this, put simply, is the fallacy of socialism as a theory, what about socialism or social democracy as a movement? Here, we are not as totally innocent as we might wish. Although we did not share in the crimes of the communists and fascists by buying into the prophesies of Marx and Engels about a luminous new age, and by denigrating all existing society for not living up to that majestic image, we helped pave totalitarianism's way to power.
Peter Gay has said of Weimar, the republic would have been more worthy of support if more worthy people had supported it. Richard Pipes has shown how the Mensheviks, fixated on the threat of a czarist restoration, facilitated the Bolshevik seizure and consolidation of power.
Remember how on occasions like this — and perhaps again this evening, if it gets sufficiently lubricated — we would sing the Internationale. “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better world's in birth. No more traditions changed shall bind us, arise ye slaves no more enthralled, the earth shall rise on new foundations, we have been naught, we shall be all.” You can hear in these messianic lyrics why socialism so brutally betrayed itself. It was not merely faulty in its economics, it was a false religion. It promised heaven not in the next world but in this one. It promised heaven without reference to the individual believers' own behavior, thus nullifying all moral categories. Whereas traditional religion is about how you, “personally,” should behave with respect to sin, repentance, obedience, charity, justice, and love of neighbor, socialism said “forget all that. What really matters lies in the arena of politics.” This displacement of the personal to the political turned a world of good intentions into tragedy.
However, comrades, I will conclude by offering the opportunity for us to redeem ourselves tonight. Because, if my book sells enough copies, it will no longer be possible for the scoffers to say that socialism never did any good for anyone.
Our next panelist is Rick Hertzberg. Many of you remember him from his Washington days as editor of The New Republic. Some of us also remember him as the son of Sidney Hertzberg, the brilliant and energetic Norman Thomas-For-President campaign manager. He's now a Senior Editor at The New Yorker magazine.
Thanks, Penn. When I sat down to think about what I might say about socialism, I naturally thought of my father, who died eighteen years ago, and my mother, who died four years after that. I owe them a lot and therefore I owe socialism a lot.
How socialist were they? When my father, Sidney Hertzberg, left home at the age of sixteen to go to college in far-off Wisconsin, he was given a testimonial dinner by the Bronx branch of the Socialist Party. That was in 1927. As a young journalist, he went to Sweden, which by the way, Josh, was the home of actually existing socialism. That was in 1931. My mother, Hazel Whitman, was national chairman of the Young People's Socialist League. That was in 1939. Norman Thomas was an honored guest at their wedding. That was in 1941. The week after I was born, I got a letter from Norman Thomas, welcoming me into the world. That was 1943.
So when I was a teenager, I too joined the Young People's Socialist League. Later I joined the Socialist Party. I never was active, but I did pay my dues for quite a long time, first to the Socialist Party and then to whatever successor organization happened to be headed by Michael Harrington. This wasn't really a matter of politics as such, or not fully. It was more like my way of following the commandment to honor thy father and mother.
You might say it was a matter of religion, because looking back I realize that socialism was our family's religion. I'm glad it was. Not in the sense of a doctrine, like the workers' control of the means of production or historical inevitability or any of that, but as a set of values, a system of ethics, a way of making sense of the world, an approach to morality that seemed to rest on firmer ground than fear of divine authority or any other kind of “might makes right.”
When I was nine or ten years old, I was beginning to think about death. One day I asked my mother, is there anyone you wish would die? I remember this moment very vividly. She and I were alone in our car, a 1949 Ford. She paused, because this was a solemn moment, and she said, yes, Joseph Stalin and Joseph McCarthy. Ooh, you may say, moral equivalence. Bad. Didn't she know that Stalin was much worse than McCarthy? Of course she did. But her point, or what I now take to be her point, was different. What she was saying, among other things, was that anti-communism wasn't enough. Anti-communism had to be part of something larger, it had to be part of democracy and liberty and kindness and honesty.
I still believe that the anti-communism of the socialist was a superior kind of anti-communism. A lot of people here are all too familiar with the old, long noble struggle for the good name of socialism: the endless explanations that no, socialism isn't the same as communism, and no, socialism isn't some milder form of communism, and yes, socialism is in fact the very opposite of communism. That struggle over definitions may have used up a lot of energy that might have been better spent in other ways, but it did impose a kind of discipline. It forced you to think clearly about why you were against communism, just what it was you were against and just what it was you were for. You weren't against communism because communism had aspirations of equality. You weren't against communism because communism wanted free medical care for everybody. You were against it because it crushed democracy and terrorized people and ruled by violence and fear, and systematically destroyed the most elementary and indispensable liberties, like freedom of speech.
Democracy was the most important thing. If you were an anti-communist, a real anti-communist, then you had to be a democrat. You also had to be anti-fascist, anti-Franco, anti-colonialist, anti-racist and anti- every form of tyranny over the mind of man. Democracy was the important thing. The important question wasn't, what does the state own? The important question was, who owns the state? Socialists were people who thought that democracy was such a good idea that it ought to be taken a step or two further.
By the same token, communists were not socialists, or “liberals in a hurry.” Of course, there were liberals and progressives who thought exactly that. There were a lot of conservatives who thought it, or pretended to. Maybe there still are. But there were no socialists who were that deluded or dishonest. Such, at any rate, was the way it was handed down to me. So we're saluting, at least in part today, Josh and his new book. But I want to salute his father, Manny Muravchik, and my father and my mother and those elders in this room who were their comrades. I fervently hope that I'll find a way to teach my little son, their grandson, something of what they taught me.
Thank you, Penn. When I see this distinguished panel and all the distinguished people in the crowd, I'm thinking that we haven't had so many clear-thinking people in one room since Max Schachtman dined alone. We are all Schachtmanites now, in one way or another.
It's funny — I have a completely different memory of the YPSL and the social democrats than Josh does. He was my national chairman, I was a young YPSL at NYU in 1971. The reason I joined the social democratic movement and the YPSL was to support George Meany and the Israeli Labor Party and Israel on my campus. All these notions expressed in the Internationale and so forth were thought to be a little bit nonsensical. We really didn't take it seriously.
I think that's important, because when we talked about socialism, I don't think we were suffering from too many utopian illusions. Essentially, we wanted to fight those on the left who were disparaging America and Israel and seeking their destruction. It seems that some things haven't changed over the years, after all.
I clearly have taken a rather odd path in my political life, starting with the YPSL, and eventually moving to the Christian Coalition. (I often had to answer the question, “What's a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like that?”) It's interesting that we're having this discussion today, because I still believe there's an element in the social democratic movement that brings a healthy sense of the need to deal with the excesses of capitalism. When I think back thirty years ago, no one in the YPSL and SD had the notion that they were going to overthrow capitalism. We were truly a reformist element, on the whole a positive one.
But when we talk of socialism as most people understand it we have to acknowledge its deep, dark side. This is the Bolshevik variation. We're still dealing with this side to this day, even after the fall of communism. The working class largely rejected communism and Bolshevism and the dark side of socialism. But then the Marxist and socialist movements turned to an alternative. Some have described this alternative as the “lumpen proletariat.” At the time of the Russian Revolution this was the peasantry, the mob.
The big problem with Marxism and socialism came to be its love of the lumpen and the peasantry. This explains why his version of Socialism didn't take root in Western democracies but rather in authoritarian parts of the world. Eventually the Left began a long love affair with the non-socialist, non-working class recruits to socialism. This produced the so-called “People's War,” in which the countryside was supposed to surround and defeat the city.
We saw variations on this around the world, from Cuba and Latin America to the Middle East and Palestinian terrorism. We fought this thirty years ago on campuses with the Youth Committee for Peace and Democracy in the Middle East. (Carl Gershman was the leader of that organization.) We were fighting those on the Left that had the love of the lumpen.
Even though communism has failed, as I look at the newspapers today I can see an international Left that continues its love affair with the lumpen. Today this is represented by the suicide bomber, who declares war not just against capitalism, but against civilization. That nihilistic spark that we saw within Marxism still exists and infects our political life. It has now taken hold in Europe, which is once again siding with barbarism against what I believe is civilization.
I want to close by citing what I think is a brilliant piece in the Weekly Standard by Chris Caldwell about the dynamic in France today. May 5 is the runoff election and most attention has been devoted to Le Pen. But Chris points out quite brilliantly in shoe-leather reporting from within France that the problem is not the Right. The problem is the Left, and the Left's love of the lumpen. Chris summarizes what the Left —at least that part of the international Left that we usually call “Marxist” —has now embraced. “Israel-Palestine is where the capitalist world of the West, and by implication the Jews who run it, meets the underprivileged, victim-peoples of the South. Jews thus get to pay the price for the West's depredations since the Middle Ages, most of which they were on the receiving end of.”
"Liberte, Egalite, Judeophobie, Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard, April 27, 20, part 1
The great irony for me—a Jew from the Christian Coalition's perspective, is that the ranks of socialism and Marxism have been disproportionately filled with Jews. To this day, the legacy of Marxism and socialism is that it is the great enemy of the Jewish people and indeed civilization itself.
I thought you wanted me to say something nice about the Christian Coalition. Josh's book is called Heaven on Earth, and opening it up, I see the line from Moses Hess, 1846, from which I suspect he draws his title. “The Christian imagines the better future of the human species in the image of heavenly joy. We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth.” (What Hess means by “we” is the socialists.)
When Moses Hess proposed this, he was saying that mankind does not have to submit to the forces of destiny, does not have to disappear into a dream, that it is possible in fact to seize control of our own lives to make a better world. It is possible to achieve that which has been dreamed of as only existing in heaven, to achieve something like that in real life.
How did Hess propose to do this? He had two ideas that are noteworthy, and I think both of them are worthy of respect. One of them, of course, was Zionism. The whole idea of Zionism was to say that the Jews do not have to submit passively to every terrible fate, that the destiny of the Jews is not something beyond human control, that people can actually do something different in a practical way. That was his thought. He was an originator of this thought, its main originator.
His other thought was socialism. What does socialism mean? It meant three principles. It meant addressing the social problem, which means poverty; it meant achieving a society characterized by social egalitarianism, unlike the feudalism of previous societies; and it meant ennobling work. It was an ethical idea, that was also meant to be a practical idea.
Everybody knows the story about how from this idea of socialism certain people found ways to derive every horror on earth. These original socialist ideas of the mid-19th century were transformed into the terrible totalitarianisms of the 20th century. But there's also another way to tell our story, one that has some merit. We might remind ourselves that the organization now known as the Socialist International was founded in Paris in 1889, at a conference which was soon complemented by another conference, that of the German Social Democratic Party in 1891 in Erfurt. Those two conventions drew up the following platform: they were in favor of democracy and equal rights for all, including women; separation of church and state; free education, including higher education; free medical service; graduated taxes; the eight-hour day and better working conditions; unemployment insurance; the right to organize unions; fair division of wealth; the end of the business cycles of panic and depression; and an ambitious plan for international cooperation to overcome the nationalist rancor and rivalries that lead to war.
In drawing up their platform, the socialists of 1889 and 1891 allowed themselves a kind of magical Hegelian element: there was both a poetic aspect and a programmatic aspect. At Erfurt, the poetic aspect was represented by Kautsky, the programmatic aspect by Bernstein.
We can argue until doomsday about what is the true definition of socialism. Is it the magical, Hegelian aspect — the aspect that leads to every thing terrible? Or is it actually the programmatic aspect as set out by these organizations?
I myself have spent too many years defending the honor of the word, “socialism.” To me the word has a meaning. I'm not going to devote the rest of my life to rescuing my understanding of the word from someone else's understanding of the word. But I will say that if mankind is to pull itself out of the mud of fatalism, if people are to construct a society in which one doesn't have to live like an animal, if one is to build what Moses Hess called heaven on earth, we know how to do it: fulfill the program that was drawn up in 1889 and 1891 by the founders of the Socialist International.
We might say, looking back at that program, that if there was ever a political movement in all of history which has turned out to be wise and deeply prophetic and filled with understandings that have lasted more than a hundred years, that even now they can be recognized as fundamental truths, it was this movement, which in the late 19th century was already able to stipulate virtually every one of what nearly everyone in the Western world now agrees are the main components required for a decent society, the society that Moses Hess saw as heaven on earth.
The problem with sneering at socialism, or attributing to it all the terrible things that could be teased out of certain aspects of its 19th century conception, is that we lose sight of the deep prophetic truths of this basic program.
We also lose something of our understanding of American life. I can be unhappy with Western Europe as anyone else, but we Americans ought to recognize that while American life is characterized by many superb features, in some respects we are lacking. All you have to do is go to Western Europe, walk around for two or three days, and you realize at once that they've built a society that is in certain respects superior to ours. A hundred and fifty years ago, at the origin of the socialist movement, no one had any doubt that social egalitarianism was, at least among white people, much greater in the United States of America than in Europe. But now the opposite is true.
This ought to bother us. It ought to also spur us forward. What can be called, as I understand it, the socialist program is something that we ought to be more serious about bringing to our own country.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Levy Professor of Government at Georgetown University, and a longtime friend and mentor to many of us. In an article in Commentary just after Ronald Reagan's election she noted a distinction between “totalitarianism and authoritarianism.” Some people found this shocking, and raged that Jeane had become a defender of authoritarianism. But in our movement this was a distinction that had been discussed for many years. It arose in the debates over whether the United States and socialists should support Britain, which was regarded as an imperialist and therefore in some respects an authoritarian power, in its conflict with Germany, a totalitarian power, in World War II. Jeane's heritage in these great debates has been an important asset to our country's understanding of world affairs.
My first awareness about socialism was acquired from my grandfather. Everyone else seems to be talking about their mothers and their fathers. In my case, it's a grandfather, who was a founder of both the populist and socialist parties in Oklahoma in the early history of the state. He was also in the Sooner run for land, by the way. My grandfather explained socialism to me as a very small child as a system that was more fair than other systems, and more fair than the system we had in Oklahoma at that time. I hadn't the slightest notion what system we had in Oklahoma, I might say. But my grandfather did, and I was prepared to take his word for it. The distribution of everything, he said, was more fair. It sounded good to me.
It was years later before I thought about socialism again. By then, I was in high school and there was a depression. I heard a lot about poverty and about people losing their jobs and their farms. My father did not lose his job, but he was forced to move our family north to Illinois. On the way to Illinois, we passed New Harmony, Indiana. That's my first memory of a socialist utopia. I particularly enjoyed Josh's chapter on New Harmony, Indiana. If you haven't been to New Harmony, you ought to go. It's an authentic non-utopia. But, as everybody knows, it was once considered to be the first utopia in the United States. Robert Owen, its founder, was a strange man whom I studied much later in political philosophy and political theory. He said many strange things. But Josh quotes one of the things that he said that struck me: “Our privations are such as to test the strength of our principles.” That's kind of an interesting formulation, when you think about it. He had no doubt that his privations were reinforcing his principles.
Owen believed that the principal hope of New Harmony, Indiana, was that it would be utterly devoid of religion. Religion, he believed, was a great enemy of utopia and of the community that he wanted to establish. But he wanted no religion in his community. He said, I quote Josh again, “There is no sacrifice I would not have made willingly and joyously to terminate the existence of religion on earth.”
Owen organized a community that had many of the characteristics of later utopias: He was a good example of a utopian socialist. In his community, one couple would live in one small room with one child. It reminds me a little bit of China—one couple, one child. This only child living with its parents had to be below three years old. When it got older, it had to move out with other children who were a little older. These children also lived in small rooms, where they lived according to schedules developed for them by the supervisors of the utopia. The supervisors of the utopia had very strict rules about virtually everyone: what they should do, and, especially, what they should not do.
Robert Owen also provided that no later than at age fifteen, every youth would devote himself to finding a mate. His model was not monogamy. He enjoyed women himself a lot, though a good many women left New Harmony because they didn't enjoy him. He seems to have been somewhat overbearing in the pursuit of his interests.
He proposed no private property. Private property was, in its very essence, selfish. He proposed that instead of property that there should be an enlightened social system in which value would be calculated by labor. Owen believed that individuals were slaves to property and to wives and to all the same things that Socrates believed men and women were slaves to. I want to come back to that in just a minute.
I'd like to tell you bit more about my own career as a socialist. It was relatively short. I joined the YPSL as a freshman in Columbia, Missouri. I thought this was a really interesting thing to do. It wasn't easy to find the YPSL in Columbia, Missouri. But I had read about it and I wanted to be one. We had a very limited number of activities in Columbia, Missouri. We had an anti-Franco rally, which was a worthy cause. You could raise a question about how relevant it was likely to be in Columbia, Missouri, but it was in any case a worthy cause. We also planned a socialist picnic, which we spent quite a lot of time organizing. Eventually, I regret to say, the YPSL chapter, after much discussion, many debates and some downright quarrels, broke up over the socialist picnic. I thought that was rather discouraging.
After that, I moved on to New York, where I studied socialism in a different fashion. My principal advisor and professor at Columbia was Franz Neumann, who was a brilliant professor and writer, and who had been himself a member not only of the German Social Democratic Party but a member of the ISPD, Independent Social Democratic Party, which was the left social democratic party. He had been active in the politics of Weimar as long as he thought he could still escape Germany and survive. He had thought very deeply about it. He taught and wrote about both the Second Empire, about the Weimar Republic, and about the German socialist movement.
We studied all manner of socialists, including those mentioned here. We studied not only Marx and Engles but also Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg and a whole array. Edward Bernstein I found particularly interesting. I was already a revisionist at that early stage. I was especially fascinated by their doctrines of war and of peace. I was also fascinated by what I learned about Karl Marx from Franz Neumann as well as others, including the fact that Marx fairly regularly neglected his wife and children — something I took a dim view of then, and do now.
As I read the utopian socialists, the scientific socialists, the German Social Democrats and revolutionary socialists— whatever I could in either English or French— I came to the conclusion that almost all of them, including my grandfather, were engaged in an effort to change human nature. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this was not likely to be a successful effort. So I turned my attention more and more to political philosophy and less and less to socialist activism of any kind.
But I was an active Democrat. At the same time I was studying German social democracy, I formed the view that the New Deal and its various forms, the Fair Deal and Hubert Humphrey's style of democratic politics, was of the same sort of species as German social democracy. I still believe that, somewhat.
It's useful to distinguish between radical socialism and social democracy. The differences between them have been absolutely critical. It's important to distinguish between the Weimar Republic, which was not a perfect republic but had many good qualities, and the Soviet Union, which was clearly not a good republic.
But I always remained very interested in the people who could not be satisfied by developing something clearly do-able, and who sought instead to transform human nature. The most impressive example of that was Socrates. This brings me to the debate between Plato and Aristotle about what can be done and cannot be done to transform human nature into a pattern more consistent with socialist concepts, radical socialist concepts.
Socrates' blueprint for an ideal state struck me as resembling that of many other utopias. There is no more radical model of a utopia than that of Socrates and Plato in The Republic, where they propose the abolition of private property, of families, of wives and children, of anything resembling a private family. They propose instead a community of wives and children. Aristotle critiqued this argument of Socrates: the controversy between Socrates and Aristotle is essentially the same as most arguments about utopia today. Socrates, for example, asserts that the greatest of all possible goods in a society is derived from the sharing of wives and children by their protectors. Why? Because people are bound together by what they have in common and they are separated by what they own separately. So the family Socrates proposes, unlike a private family or even a communal family, is a family that has no distinguishable structure. It is indistinguishable because people are bred together—there are certain seasons in which men and women are permitted to breed—and children are born in timely seasons after that. Then the children are raised together, calling all men of an appropriate generation “father,” and all women of an appropriate generation “mother.” Socrates contends that these habits are perfectly practical, and eliminate divisions in a community, leading to perfect unity. If you have perfect unity, it's not so unlike Robert Owen.
Socrates, you may recall, was a man who felt profoundly oppressed by his nagging wife. One thing he was certain of: a proper utopia would rid husbands of their nagging wives. At one point in The Republic, he declares such wives so difficult for a man to cope with that they're embarrassing even to mention. He detests all the embarrassments and vexations of rearing a family and earning just enough to maintain a household — now borrowing and now refusing to pay bills, and by any and every means scraping together enough money to hand over to a wife and servants. Obviously, in a proper utopia, no man would have to pay bills and/or deal with the nagging of his wife.
I'll wind up with a reference to Aristotle. Aristotle has all of the relevant criticisms of this utopia. I strongly recommend that you read these two thinkers side by side. Aristotle has an enormously realistic critique of Socrates' utopia. Aristotle does not even allude to the possibility that by changing the institutions of a society you might change the character of the people. He is quite certain that this cannot happen, that human nature will remain as it is and has been.
He believes moreover that men take pleasure in that which belongs to them. Property is connected by natural feelings to ownership. To the extent that anything is connected by natural feelings, it won't be possible to change. It will not be possible, for example, to leave people as happy without property as they are with property, if their enjoyment of property is based on natural feelings. To the extent that anything is based on natural feelings, then basic restructuring of human character will prove impossible. Concerning the question of family, Aristotle argues that, under Socrates' communal scheme, each man will go about the streets looking into the eyes of the boys of the younger generation, searching for someone who looks like him.
Aristotle acknowledges that legislation such as Socrates proposes may appear to wear a benevolent face. The listener hears it gladly, thinking that it will make everybody feel some marvelous sense of fraternity toward everybody else. The evils existing under ordinary forms of government—lawsuits about contracts, convictions for perjury, obsequious flatteries of the rich— are considered a result of the absence of a system of common property. But, in truth, none of these evils, says Aristotle, is due to the absence of communism. They all arise from the wickedness of human nature.M
I conclude that there is much profit to be gained from reading all of the socialist classics, and even more profit to be gained from reading Aristotle. Thank you very much.
I think it's appropriate for our final speaker to be representative of the labor movement, down where the rubber meets the road. Many of us learned about the labor movement from people who had worked in it as socialists, as organizers, and came to the view that the practical work of trade unions is the very best expression of social democratic values. Sandra Feldman is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that not only does a lot for its members but is engaged across a wide range of domestic and international issues.
Thank you, Penn. I also want to start by saying a few words about how I grew up. I grew up believing—and I still do—that America is the greatest country in the world, maybe in the history of mankind, but that there was something wrong. What exactly it was that was wrong, I really wasn't sure. I was the daughter of a milkman who walked up and down tenement steps every single night, all night, delivering milk. He belonged to the Teamsters, he voted Republican, and he adored Dwight Eisenhower. But something was wrong. My parents didn't have much that they needed. The streets of Coney Island, where we lived, were slummy. It provoked my sense of injustice.
I noticed very early that there were huge differences between the way my family lived and the way that families of some of the other kids in school lived. The school I went to was a mixed public school, and some of those kids lived in houses and had their own rooms. They lived in a totally different way, and seemed to be much richer. This created a certain sense of confusion, which I brought to Brooklyn College.
I came to Brooklyn College somewhat confused, strongly patriotic, with hatred of poverty and a sense also of the world not being particularly safe for the Jews. That somehow led me to the Eugene Victor Debs Club. It led me to Bayard Rustin, to Max Schachtman, to Michael Harrington, to the civil rights movement, to the YPSL, and to Social Democrats USA.
From them I learned some things that I still believe very strongly. I learned to fight totalitarianism and to support democracy uncompromisingly. I learned that totalitarianism requires the use of terror to keep itself in power, because it can't inspire loyalty or support. I learned that people who take and hold power by destroying innocent people have to be fought without breast-beating about the root causes of their acts. I learned that under totalitarianism there cannot be any kind of social or economic progress. It's not in the interest of totalitarians to have social or economic progress. They have to keep their heels on the necks of the people and they can't let them express themselves.
I ended up in a movement that was unremittingly anti-communist. I learned that keeping up an unremitting pressure on communism ultimately brought it down. I believe we have to do the same with the murderous terrorist totalitarians that we're facing in the world right now.
I learned in the social democratic movement how to espouse these kinds of sentiments without the slightest feeling of apology or discomfort. I learned that the fundamental struggle of our time is the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy. Social democracy does exist in some places in the world, and even in some ways here in the United States — with social security and unemployment insurance and free public education. And even with all that's wrong with it, social democracy is a more promising and inspiring worldview than unfettered capitalism. I am not anti-capitalism. I learned long ago from Sidney Hook how to be able to justify private property as something that human beings are entitled to. Capitalism has created amazing societies, but it needs to be regulated. It needs checks and balances. It doesn't by itself create justice and fairness, quite the opposite. So there's a real place for social democratic ideas within capitalism. A lot of capitalists actually agree with that today.
To fight totalitarians or terrorists you need armies to deter them, or wipe them out if necessary. You need a democratic worldview. To have that, you need a free and democratic labor movement. Which is where I ended up — without planning, socialist or any other kind.
The best contribution I may be able to make to this erudite discussion is to talk a bit about the existence of a free and democratic trade union movement. Josh, I thought your chapter on the American trade union movement was terrific. A free and democratic labor movement will by its nature be anti-totalitarian, since totalitarianists will not allow a free and democratic labor movement to exist. And it will be in some ways social democratic, because it needs to fight for good jobs at good pay, and for health care and education. It will fight to get those things done—not necessarily for a government program to get things done. It will also fight employers. It will move in a social democratic direction.
Trade unions can be taken over by totalitarians or destroyed by them. So just as it's in the interest of free trade unions to fight for democracy, it's in the interest of anti-totalitarian democrats to fight to keep trade unionism free so unions can provide a real expression of their members' needs.
I think I'm the centrist on this panel. I read an essay by Sidney Hook, who gave a nice moderate social-democratic definition of democratic society. He said that one of the hallmarks of any kind of democratic society must be that those who produce society's goods and services have a right to some extent to determine through free trade unions and other voluntary associations the conditions and rewards of work. These ought not to be dictated by bureaucratic decrees, backed by the coercive powers of the state. I think that having a social democratic movement in the form of a labor movement— because the labor movement in many ways is a social democratic movement—is something that is absolutely essential. We should be doing a lot more to make such a movement possible elsewhere. In this moment in history we should be supporting a Marshall Plan in Afghanistan which ought to encourage the kind of democratic union-building that the American labor movement did in Europe after the war. We found clearly in what Solidarnosc [Solidarity] showed the world that there's no other institution that can be a stronger force for democracy than free trade unions expressing the desires of the workers who own them.
We also need to build a constantly stronger labor movement here in the United States. It's the only vehicle for counter-balancing the power of wealth. It's not a vehicle for social engineering, but for simple justice and fairness and democracy for working people. I think we need to give government its proper role to enhance the general good and welfare. I think we need to educate our young people in the values that make America great—freedom of speech and rule of law and freedom to worship or not to worship. After all my years in the labor movement, despite having changed my thinking along the way, despite my criticisms of my own movement and of my country, I remain grounded in the values of social justice and economic fairness and the primacy of freedom and democracy that I learned in the socialist movement.
This conversation bears out an instinct some of us had: the most interesting conversations you can have take place when you reach out to friends who in one way or another were touched by or engaged in the social democratic movement in the U.S. I want to encourage our audience now to raise questions or make very brief comments.
First of all, on behalf of everybody, I want to thank the panel. It had cosmic range and a lot of interesting points were made. I would like to ask Jeane Kirkpatrick something. She said that New Harmony was the first utopia in the United States. Actually, the first utopia in the United States was the Massachusetts Bay Colony which seems to raise an interesting question about religion, which a lot of people have struggled with on the panel and off it. Namely, is it really possible to have a great movement for social reform, even if it's an incremental transformation of a social democratic or New Deal type, without some kind of overarching spiritual or historical vision? Maybe it has to be a secular religion, maybe an actual religion and its social derivatives. Most movements that have been successful have had either sublimated or explicitly religious components.
I don't think that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was properly designated as a utopia. They didn't call it a utopia themselves. They were a profoundly religious people. They were rather grim and pessimistic in their outlook, as a good many of the very early settlers in the United States were, and all of them deeply religious. I don't know whether it's possible to have a utopia. I don't think utopias are possible. I don't think that it's likely that most of the people who lived in a society would be very happy about it if it completely eliminated religion, as indeed Robert Owen proposed.
E. J. DIONNE
I want to thank you for a great panel. It's a tribute to socialism that it produced such a good set of comments. There were so many fine tributes to parents and grandparents from Rick and Jeane and Josh that this should be reconstituted the Emergency Ad Hoc Citizens Committee for the Fourth Commandment.
I want to ask the panel two questions. If there is a split on the panel, it may be in the interpretation of socialism: not so much between utopian versus scientific as utopian versus programmatic, or utopian versus pragmatic. Those with a more generous analysis of the socialist or social democratic movement, like Paul Berman, emphasize a series of programmatic steps. Those with a more critical view of the socialist movement emphasized the failure of utopianism. So if you see it in terms of Bernstein or Victor Berger, you still think socialism is okay. But if you see it in terms of Lenin or New Harmony, you see big problems.
My second question is about Marx. Quite by accident, I was having a conversation this weekend with a friend who argued that almost all that is good in Marx can be found in Adam Smith. We were going back and forth, and he was arguing that one of the things that Marx usefully taught was about class analysis and how to understand classes. My friend, who is a person of the left, was arguing that in fact much of what Marx said about class was derivative from Adam Smith, and that Smith was revised intelligently by Max Weber. I think it may have been Rick who once had a cover of the New Republic with a picture of Marx and the caption was, “Workers of the world, I'm sorry.” I'm curious if anybody has a sense of how Marx looks now, not communism, not Leninism, but Marx himself, looks now compared to ten, twenty, twenty-five years ago.
When I was a member of the socialist movement, I always thought of socialism as being anti-capitalist and as having no meaning aside from that. To the extent that I hear that socialism isn't anti-capitalist, I start thinking, what is it then? I hear about social security and I start thinking that FDR was a closet socialist, which I don't believe was the case. So I think it really just does lose all meaning unless it's anti-capitalist. I believe it actually throughout its history has been anti-capitalist, and to that extent I believe it laid the groundwork for many harmful things throughout the world.
Does anybody want to respond?
First, there is no socialist party in the United States. One reason: the United States in the 19th century was, if we measure things according to historical stages of progress, at a higher stage than Europe. The evolution of the Democratic Party in the United States from the Jacksonian era on already began to create in the United States every aspect of what had to be created in Europe under the name of socialism. I do think that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal can be regarded as a closet socialism, in a manner of speaking. It's a question of the kind of poetry that is draped over a certain sort of social program.
In the United States, we didn't have a big socialist movement because we already had a mass workers movement. Our labor movement had already developed before the concepts of socialism took shape in Europe. Later, when they did arise in Europe, European socialists were able to give some ideological definition to the movement: a mix of good ideas and bad ideas. They added to developments that had already come into being over here.
I don't think that I alluded to my parents in my remarks, but in my book I do pay homage to them. In response, my dad has come here with his own rebuttal to my book, which is available on the back table. (Editor's note: for the text of Manny Muravchik's rebuttal, see: http://www.socialdemocrats.org/manny.html.)
In his remarks answering one question, it appears that Paul Berman rebutted his own earlier presentation. In the earlier presentation Paul said socialism has to be given credit for a whole list of reforms—the eight-hour day and on from there—that made capitalism more humane and cushioned the people, especially the most vulnerable, against the bumps of the market. But then, in response to another question, Paul pointed out how all these reforms were begun in the United States before there were any socialists here. So I think we can give the socialist movement credit for its contribution to these social reforms, but we're just kidding ourselves if we say that such credit belongs solely to the socialist heritage. We're here celebrating May Day, which is a holiday that was invented by that fierce anti-socialist Samuel Gompers as part of his campaign for the eight-hour day.
MICHAEL KAZIN (from the audience):
The Knights of Labor invented it.
No, it was Gompers.*
This brings me to the question of American exceptionalism. One of the under-appreciated keys to American exceptionalism is that because America was a less class-focused and class-driven society—not having the feudal heritage—workers in America felt much more capable of standing on their own and shaping their movement according to their own lights. They put aside pie-in-the-sky theories and focused on what came to be called, after Gompers, bread-and-butter unionism.
One last point on how much credit socialists can claim for the welfare state or for the New Deal. We can claim some credit. But we need to keep in mind what Norman Thomas said when he was asked by a reporter, “Hasn't President Roosevelt carried out your program?” Thomas replied, “Yes, on a stretcher.” That is, socialists did contribute something, but we'd be revising history to look back now and say such reforms were all we were after. We saw them as stepping-stones to heaven on earth. In that we were contributing to a big mistake.
(*Editor's Note: This dispute raged into the evening, prompting us to call Library of Congress historian and authority on American labor and radicalism John Earl Haynes in to referee. John contends that Terence V. Powderly, national leader of the Knights, opposed the eight-hour-movement and the first May Day demonstration for it. While some local units of the Knights may have joined that Chicago gathering, it was organized by the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions, a precursor to the American Federation of Labor, and Samuel Gompers was among its prominent sponsors. for polemics. Why can't I be a social democrat, that is, somebody who inclines to the view that in the United States what we need today is a stronger and healthier commonwealth or public sector and at the same time recognize that there's an important place in society for a party that is more interested in the defense and protection of capitalism? Can't the two components actually fit together?)
Josh, you made an interesting comment earlier: wealth is created in the private sector, and that we can destroy the private sector if we tax it too heavily. You're right. But you also can destroy the productivity of society if you starve the public sector. The public sector makes it own contribution to the productivity and wealth of society.
To Max Green's point that you have to be anti-capitalist to be a socialist: Why isn't it possible have a healthy society in with both a pro-capitalist party or sector and a social democratic party or sector. If the two of them play their roles in appropriate ways, we might get the kind of balance in society that Sandy Feldman was talking about. We so often talk about these two sectors as if they are mutually antagonistic. In fact, in both the U.S. and Europe this is not really the case. We should beware of creating an intellectual construction to describe our political life that bears little relationship to the reality, and serves primarily to provide excitement.
A couple of comments. It shouldn't go unremarked that this gathering is being held in a venue named for that great socialist, Andrew Carnegie.
That's why we had it on May Day.
Andrew Carnegie was a good fellow. But I want to go back to Paul Berman's statement. He acknowledged that aspects of the social welfare state came into existence here in America even earlier than in Europe. I think that in our patchwork way we did a lot to provide basic welfare floors and security. But the Europeans got what they have at the cost of diminishing opportunity. As I see the modern neo-capitalist world developing, that's why they're lagging behind, because it's a stultified and stifled sort of an economy. I wonder what you think about that.
Another question is, why is the labor movement in America declining? I guess in America it's down to about 13 percent of the workforce now and only about 9 percent of the private sector. But that's obviously down from the third of the workforce that used to be in unions. Any comments?
Finally, why it is that capitalism— a very exciting system particularly when you have safety net—never became imbued with that spiritual sort of fervor that you found in socialism? Michael Novak has written about that, but it has always puzzled me.
Two points: one a small, tribal pedantic point, and the other less small but not tribal and pedantic. I came in late and Mr. Wittman was making a remark that I thought was inadequate, and it had to do, needless to say, with the Jews. He was saying, and again, I came in late, that the Jews were overwhelmingly represented in Marxism. That's true, but in a gross and undiscerning way.
If, for example, you make a study of the Jewish role in the Russian Revolution, you discover that the Jews were overwhelmingly represented among the Mensheviks, not among the Bolsheviks. Which is to say that the Jews—and I'll get to the significance of this trivial little tribal point in a minute— overwhelmingly preferred political rights to economic rights. They rejected the argument that economic equality should precede political equality. The Jews in Russia were evidently like the Jews in Western Europe in the 19th century in that they were liberals. The debate about the validity of socialism and its various debased, degenerate forms—the Soviet Union was in my judgment, overwhelmingly the single most powerful force ever arrayed against the interests of the Jews—seems really to be about what is classically called liberalism. And that debate is really about the validity of the Enlightenment.
In American political debate in recent years, there has been an increasing assumption the Enlightenment is either exhausted, or coercively universalist, or Upper West Side Democratic, or that somehow it's all over. At an editorial meeting of my distinguished little magazine [The New Republic] someone once said that “The Bell Curve” represented the end of the Enlightenment project. Of course, it didn't.
There are many kinds of Enlightenment. There was a very shallow, anticlerical, power-hungry version of the Enlightenment which various Bolsheviks and assorted villains battened onto and exploited. But it's also true that there is no theory or practice of democracy that is not based upon some version of the Enlightenment. There is no democracy that is not based upon some sort of universal recognition of and respect for the individual. However real our tribal, ethnic, religious, gender, or racial distinctions are, this is what unites us democrats and is more decisive politically and philosophically than what divides us.
Even though it's been ten or twelve years since the Berlin Wall fell, and even though the anti-globalization people are doing their best to bring Marxism back, it seems clear to me that what the debate is really about is the validity of the Enlightenment. In American conservative circles in recent years we have heard the tired, smug view that Edmund Burke said everything there was to say about the Enlightenment, and it's all over. I don't think it's possible to believe in American democracy unless you accept certain basic premises of the Enlightenment.
We have time for one more question.
I've got a personal statement to make. I think it's just right that it be at the end of the session. Sandra and Rick give me the courage to say this. I joined the Socialist Party the day I was born. My parents were Labor Bundists. I was a loyal YPSL and Socialist Party member until two minor things happened. I began as a conscientious objector, but I stopped being one in the middle of the war, and did my service. I became very upset that the Socialist Party, with all its ethical principles, remained opposed to the war for as long as it did. That's one problem I had with the Socialist Party. The other that was by the time I was forty I abandoned the idea that the commanding heights of our economy should be socialized. Another minor difference. But, despite those two differences. I've always been proud of my association with the socialists. I was a formally a socialist for the first few decades of my life, and much of the good I've done or seen done by others has come out of commitments to social justice that came from the socialist movement. You don't have to be a socialist to have those moral principles, but it sure helped.
You're getting us into that reunion mood. Let's have some music. We've got some special songs and cheap wine.