The Social Animal and Socialism
Detrimental Ideological Prejudices
A few weeks ago, I read Sebastian Haffner’s “The Meaning of Hitler,” a relatively old analysis, as it was written more than forty years ago. I thought it a rather well-written and thoughtful book, that is, until I was about 50 pages in when the author starts discussing the “socialism” of Hitler’s national-socialism. The remarks made over two pages perfectly illustrate some of the detrimental ideological prejudices that plague the modern discourse up to this very day. I will paraphrase what I consider the author’s offenses below while at the same time acknowledging here that most of the rest of the work is a rather good description of a terrible subject.
So, what does the author say in the context of Hitler’s national-socialism? He states that the socialism part was an important, integral part of Hitler’s approach because the dictator organized society so that the populace had to take part in all kinds of organizations instituted by the state from early on in life. He draws correct parallels with the same kind of organization in communist East Germany (the so-called DDR). He then implies that both these systems are instances of “socialism” (implicitly linking it to dictatorship). To be able to do this, he makes some highly disputable claims. Let’s review them.
First, he has to undermine the common notion of socialism as a system under which everything revolves around wrestling control of the “means of production” from a privileged class (as defined by Marx; we will get to him later). But that fair distribution of power and wealth is the essence of socialism. The crux of this sleight of hand is seen when Haffner, later on, says that the opposition “capitalism versus socialism” is either incorrect or at least less important than “individualism versus socialism.” Wow, that is some kind of “umwertung aller werte”.
One redefines socialism by taking away the liberating force of giving individuals fair chances and opportunities in society, just tacks on the complete control of ever-present societal organizations, and “ho, presto,” the original, fundamentally true “individualism versus totalitarianism” has been magically supplanted by “individualism versus socialism.” And the nice thing about prejudices? I don’t think that the fundamentally decent Haffner was aware of what he did in this passage. These kinds of filters keep pestering his analysis. Later on, while playing the parlor game of “right” and “left” in politics, he states that he does not find Hitler to be a representative of the extreme right and distinguishes between the fascist ideas of Mussolini and the national-socialist ideas of Hitler, stating that Hitler did not strive for a class-state, with layers of “natural” rulers. But might one not say that the extreme hierarchy of one absolute ruler and completely right-less subjects is the culmination of a layered society? And what to think of Hitler’s most idiotic and disgusting trait: racism? Is that not the most extreme pseudo-scientific embodiment of hierarchy?
Of note, nationalism is, in essence, also completely irrational, hierarchical thinking (which does not mean that patriotism can never be a force for good). When comparing Germany in the eighties of the last century with the Weimar Republic, Haffner states that a major shift has been the “democratization of the antidemocratic right” in the form of the CDU. In passing, he states that this was just as important as the shift of the socialist SPD thirty years before. Thirty years before! Might this not have triggered some reflection that maybe socialism, with its stress on equal distribution of wealth and (political) power, is easily compatible with, and possibly a strong force for a democratic, just society? For those interested in reading Haffner’s book: it also is a window on the western worldview in the eighties, but because of its subject matter, still very hard to take. Alas, even if we are able to make a much more just and less violent future, it will never be able to eradicate what went on before. Remember the multitude of victims, for instance, by listening to Weinberg’s gripping Symphony No. 21, subtitled “Kaddish.”
The rest of this essay will deal with the constant vilification of the term socialism (which should be released of its scare-quotes), why this occurs (the reader can guess), and what aspects of its history make it such an easy target (the spurious link with national-socialism discussed above being the first example). To be able to do so, I have to spell out what I consider to be the basic characteristic of socialism (which I already hinted at above): to strive for a fair society with basic possibilities for every human being to fulfill their potential (which means the right to health, housing, and education for everybody). This implies some restrictions on individual wealth (which, as it often implies, claims regarding ownership of parts of our common environment are untenable to begin with anyway). Also, well-understood socialism should operate on the insight that while individuals differ, group differences, whether defined by “race” (whatever that may mean), nationality, or class, are only superficial (which is, scientifically speaking, beyond doubt). With “superficial,” I do not mean that there are no outspoken differences: e.g., the poor are less educated and much unhealthier than the rich, but such differences are purely the result of societal effects and not of intrinsic differences between those groups at the outset.
An important aside: “the fulfilling of potential,” mentioned above, implies freedom of expression and political liberties. In as far as there would be a tension between democracy and socialism, my personal inclinations would be for the primacy of the first. However, I should stress that (as anybody could have predicted) “free-market capitalism” is turning out to be, and always was, the real threat to democracy.
The tragedy of Marx and Marxism
In this part, I am going to skirt details and paint only the broadest outlines. However, I think a description of Marx as an uneasy amalgam of journalist/activist on the one hand and philosopher on the other might be illuminating. The journalist noticed incredible discrepancies in wealth, power, and liberty between individuals, and as a journalist, often analyzed society as he found it realistically and accurately (such that quite a lot of his descriptions are still apt today). Society, Marx felt (as most normal human beings), was fundamentally unjust, giving birth to the activist. But, because of the ever-increasing examples of real scientific insight and the lure of all-encompassing metaphysical philosophies (which were very much part of the permeating intellectual landscape of the time, and, alas, still are), he tried to devise a complex theory to describe how that societal imbalance came about and why this had to change. Note that the “had to” change from a moral imperative to an outcome based on some natural law. This build-in dichotomy is the original sin of Marxism. Of course, there are no “natural laws of society and history” as anybody who understands something about the complexity and the role of chance must be able to apprehend quickly. However, German philosophy had entered the post-Kantian phase of completely irrational, unfounded metaphysics characterized by Hegel and his followers, which gave us the “dialectics” of seemingly important, 32 overarching, and recurring categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (a kind of culmination obtained by integrating the other two). With Marx, this shapeshifted into the idea that the development of capitalism, via a necessary “dictatorship of the proletariat,” had to lead to a classless state. Which is, not to put too fine a word on it, utter nonsense. Here we can find one of the sources of so many of the tragedies associated with Marxist experiments: the misplaced, cult-like certainty leading to atrocities. Marxism thus became a cult/ideology/religion (and for me, in essence, the terms can be used interchangeably). One of the tragedies resulting
from this is that the spurious theoretical framework dragged down (and most of the time actively hurt) the basically decent and rational impulses and analyses. This makes what I now will just refer to as “social-democracy” much harder to implement. Why was the framework (apart from being unfounded) such a disaster?
I’ll briefly discuss that next.
Demonization and Examples of Vilification
It is abundantly clear that when trying to rectify large imbalances in power and wealth, the powerful stand to lose. Thus, the incarnation of justified demands as Marxism has been one of the greatest gifts to those who happily exploit others. Firstly, they can easily point out the logical weaknesses of the ideology, and via their connection to the framework, discredit the basic impulses as well. Secondly, there are a string of horrible examples of so-called “socialist” experiments (to name but a few: The Soviet Union with Lenin and, even worse, Stalin; China with Mao; Cambodia with Pol Pot), which can be easily used to vilify the term. Let’s look at the US, for example. Whatever justified and utter rational demand people make (higher, progressive, and/or estate taxes; the right to unionize; the right to healthcare and education delivered by society as a whole), giving an inch is weaponized as incremental steps towards enslavement of a so-called free society: beware, this all reeks of socialism! But in fact, only the wealthy, powerful elite remains free, while the large majority is severely restricted in the choices they have. Even the many examples of efficient, superior, “socialist-light” solutions in Scandinavia and western Europe are constantly painted in the bleakest way possible. How deeply dishonest this position is can be illustrated by the fact the most plutocratic of both US parties (do I really have to point out that I am talking about the GOP here?), while stating that the socialist threat would lead to the loss of democracy, has been steadfast in suppressing the votes of the poor and specific racial groups at home for decades. At this specific moment, the fact that the wealthy and power elite (and I want to stress
here that their elite status is clearly limited and does not include claims to superior intellect, morals, or artistic merit; far from it) owns and weaponizes most of the media, is endangering our very existence. Denying or downplaying climate change and ecological collapse for short-term gain also follows from ignoring the notion of interconnectedness and solidarity, which are central to the idea of socialism.
Lions and Unicorns
After finishing writing the previous section, I was reminded of the fact that George Orwell wrote rather brilliantly about non-dogmatic socialism. I decided to read “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” which he wrote while England (Great Britain) was under German air attack in February 1941, and Germany had not attacked the Soviet Union yet (which Hitler would do in June of that year). This is a highly enlightening extended essay, not only because it is the work of a gifted writer but also because we can look at his analysis with the hindsight of almost 80 years of further historical development. It goes without saying
that he was wrong about quite a few things, but, surprisingly, he was spot on about the most essential points of his analysis. Because I am interested in the “necessity of socialism” here, I’ll only quote the relevant passages for my own line of reasoning. At the same time, I’ll exclude many interesting aspects of his analysis. For those who want to broaden their horizons: go directly to the source.
Orwell states: “What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism – that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines, and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work. It cannot deliver the goods.” Free market capitalism is clearly found wanting when it has to achieve important goals outside of its immediate objective of personal wealth creation. Ever-increasing inequalities and the destruction of natural resources (taking the role of Nazi Germany as the menace from outside in the here and now) cannot be solved within that system. Who could doubt it? Wars (Weinberg’s Symphony No. 18: “War. There is no word more cruel”) probably have very few positive side effects, but they sure focus the mind.
Another quote: “War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual.” The great irony here is that war, which is often seen as the culmination of a struggle for life, shows up the inherently nonsensical nature of “social Darwinism” (see below) as it is a struggle between groups and not between individuals. At the deepest level, we are social animals, and a just socialist state would reflect that. Another important passage, which I cannot resist quoting in full, defines socialism: “However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and the abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education.
These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class-system.” I do not have to point out how diametrically opposed this (fundamentally correct) description is to the one given by Haffner roughly 40 years later. Alas, this was one of the things Orwell was wrong about: winning the war did not bring the long-term overall change to society he was hoping for (and even sure of, in case the war would be won). Yes, there were quite a few very positive developments (e.g., Labour Governments brought in the NHS and tried to democratize education; Social-democratic parties helped change society in Western Europe and Scandinavia; the US had New Deal policies and the civil rights movement, and direct Western colonialism came to an end), but the eighties ended most of that. I should point out some important aspects of Orwell’s ideas.
First, one has to love his clear focus on making high-level education freely available to everyone (which makes the current level of entry fees and student debts in the democracies all the more painful). Secondly, it is clear that Orwell had no illusions about totalitarian systems, whether they called themselves socialist or not, as so sharply depicted in “1984” and “Animal Farm.” I emphasize this because he still clearly saw socialism as the only honest way of organizing society, putting a lie to the link between socialism and authoritarianism. He is fully aware of the confounding terminology so beloved by modern plutocrats: “The liberty of the individual is still believed in, … But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit.” He is also scathing about Marxism: “Marxism … a German theory interpreted by Russians and unsuccessfully transplanted to England” and “Marxists … looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles.” Lastly, Orwell wrongly predicted the long-term development because he, of course, could not have foreseen some of the great ironies of modern history, that when the Soviet Union collapsed due to internal forces, stemming from corruption, a petrified ideology, and totalitarian control, making it completely non-adaptive, this was seen as the victory of the unadulterated free-market capitalism personified by Reagan and Thatcher, who happened to be in power at that moment in time.
Also, the overwhelming allure of western capitalism that many in the former Soviet Union felt is actually due to the softened form it still retained from the socialist contributions I discussed earlier, which are being dismantled by the political right at this very moment. Thus, we ended up with thieving oligarchs that have deep links to the ultra-rich ruling class in the west, everywhere, with London as one of the money laundering centers of the world. The difference between the present-day ostentatious rich and the world’s poor is so incomprehensibly large that even Orwell, who had precious little illusions about certain aspects of human nature and was justifiably upset about the fact that “…common soldiers risk their lives for two and sixpence a day, and fat women ride about in Rolls-Royce cars, nursing Pekingeses” would probably not have believed these latest developments.
One might say that the organized output at all costs of the allies could not be put back in the box and morphed into the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against as a danger to democracy in 1961. Alas, after him came politicians with less fore-sight, bequeathing us unhindered free-market capitalism conglomerates that indeed are eating away at democratic structures and leading to the rampant inequalities in wealth and power of today.
Something about “Social Darwinism”
I want to end by pointing out a dangerous example of how deeply our whole worldview has been infiltrated by these kinds of anti-social, anti-socialism prejudices. Nobody in their right mind would deny that human beings are animals that operate at the extreme end of the social interaction scale. But in our discourse, that aspect is downplayed and forgotten underneath layers of “competition,” “the struggle of existence,” and “survival of the fittest.” I use the last term to introduce “social Darwinism” and Herbert Spencer, who came up with the expression. Currently, we keep using the term “Darwinism” in only this most basic competitive sense. But using “Darwinian” as a description (and thus implicitly as a justification) of cutthroat capitalism is completely unjustified as this dismisses cooperation, care, or altruism, which are stressed as natural
outcomes of selection by Darwin himself (!) in “The Descent of Man.”
Evolution is about trade-offs, not absolutes. The pernicious, shallow use of “Darwinism” even occurs all the time with people who do not in any way share the unimaginative and fundamentally unjust “dog eat dog” libertarian worldview. Thus, this unthinking interpretation limits our concepts and imagination (if this is the natural order of things, how can one go against it?). It also superbly illustrates how far we have been bamboozled by a tiny group of individuals who contribute little but take without reservation from our common wealth. However, humanity and one could even say nature is in it together. This is what a proper understanding of socialism tells us. But if we need to change the term to get this across, by all means, rename it “justicism” or whatever else might be effective. As long as the basic impulse of mutual dependence and fairness the term invokes will be allowed to help shape our common future. Without it, we don’t have one.
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