The Ideology that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Mary Nicholas relates the history of socialists trying to obscure the nature of their own doctrine—passing communism off as socialism, socialism as progressivism, progressivism as simple humanitarianism. She illustrates the point with the Fabian Society, whose emblem is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It’s discouraging how successful this campaign has been. Try to pin down the ideology of almost anyone on the Left—President Obama is a fine example—and you get nothing but obfuscation. Calling anyone in the United States a socialist or a communist gets you branded a right-wing kook.

What I find even more disturbing is that the terms themselves have lost most of their meaning. It’s as if they mean nothing more than ‘boogeyman.’ Consulting historians, political scientists, and philosophers for precise definitions doesn’t turn up much. So, let me try to give a few definitions. These are provisional, for once the meanings of terms becomes confused, it is hard to find any consensus about what they mean.

Communism: This would seem to be the easiest case, for Marx and Lenin appear to give a definition: a system of social and economic organization that abolishes private property. But they never define private property. Presumably they do not mean that no one can own anything at all; their chief concern is the means of production. That too remains undefined. We might try to make it precise by defining communism as a system of social and economic organization that places manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land under government ownership and control. Whether this allows any business or organization to remain in private hands is unclear. But that unclarity seems faithful to the changing degrees of control found in communist societies throughout the past century.

Fascism: Fascism is often characterized as a movement of the right. But that is absurd. Fascists were to the right of the Bolsheviks, but to the left of about everyone else. They differ from communists on two important points, only one of which I take to be essential. Communists have been dedicated to international structures, seeking to transcend the nation-state, while fascists have seen the nation as the focal point of social unity. There is an important theoretical point underlying this: Communists seek to eliminate class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat by eliminating the bourgeoisie—sometimes literally, and sometimes by eliminating the institution of private property that defines them as the owners of the means of production. Fascists seek to unify bourgeoisie and proletariat in the greater whole that includes them, the nation. Why not something larger? Fascists deny that enough shared interests cross national boundaries for international unification to be possible. Fascists do not seek the elimination of private property, but they do seek government control of the means of production, for only the government can promote the required unity. So, we might define fascism as a system of social and economic organization that places manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land under government control through indirect means—regulation, selection of directors, etc.—rather than direct ownership.

Socialism: Hayek defines socialism as the conscious direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends. It need not concern itself with all of what the communists consider the means of production, though it tends to, by declining to recognize any sphere of liberty that is in principle outside governmental purview. It need not insist on government ownership or even control. But it does insist on government direction. We might define socialism, then, as a system of social and economic organization that subjects manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land to government direction toward government-selected ends. All communists and fascists are socialists, by this definition, though of course not all socialists are communists or fascists.

Here’s an analogy.

Socialists think the balls won’t be able to make it through the maze of life without the socialists’ direction. They tilt the maze this way and that to try to get the outcome they want. (Who cares what the balls themselves want?) Fascists place their hands on the balls and move them through the maze as they please. Communists just take the balls.

It is easy to see why it is difficult to tell whether someone is a socialist, let alone a fascist or a communist. It depends on attitudes about end points and limits. In the game of politics, those matter, but they generally don’t enter into early stages of the game. Past a certain point, communists, fascists, and other socialists play the game rather differently, seeking different goals and recognizing or refusing to recognize certain limits. But their opening moves are largely the same. That makes disguising oneself easy. We won’t know what Obama is until a second term frees him to some extent from the need for a disguise, and probably not even then, since the cause requires the disguise regardless of any individual politician’s fortunes.

Many socialists have trouble conceiving of any alternative to socialism. ‘Conscious direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends’? Why not? Isn’t that what we strive to do in our personal lives? It’s worth, therefore, pointing out what the alternative is.

Free enterprise: A system of social and economic organization that permits people to seek their own ends by means they find most effective in achieving them. The government plays an important role, in protecting people from harm at the hands of others and also creating a framework within which people can exercise their liberty in pursuit of their ends. It is not up to the government to choose people’s goals, nor is it up to the government to choose the means by which they seek to attain them, except insofar as it prevents them from harming others. Conscious direction of social forces yields to individuals’ direction of their own affairs; consciously government-chosen ends yield to ends selected by people, individually or in groups of their own formation. Because people find they can act more effectively in groups in many situations, free enterprise encourages the formation of groups of people with similar goals. Those groups help to define the community, creating social capital and knitting the society together. Effective social and economic structures thus emerge in the absence of conscious social direction—not despite that absence but actually because of it.

People aren’t balls in a maze. They are capable of directing themselves and, in families and other groups, one another. Treat them as capable of directing themselves, and they will be. Treat them as incapable of self-direction, and they will gradually lose that capacity.

3 thoughts on “The Ideology that Dare Not Speak Its Name

  1. There are two things I didn’t mention in this post that are worth noting. First, I said nothing about political organization. I take it that a communist, fascist, or socialist party committed to working through the democratic process is not a conceptual impossibility, though the history of these movements suggests that the odds are against it. Second, I said nothing about communications, which Marx and Engels list among the things to be nationalized. Again, I don’t think that a communist, fascist, or socialist agenda is inherently incompatible with a commitment to freedom of speech and diversity of media. The unwillingness of communists and fascists to respect any boundaries to state power, however, suggest that in practice they will tend to seek control of communications and of the political process more generally. Possibility in theory does not entail possibility in fact. Socialists will have an easier time respecting freedom of speech and political participation, though they will tend to try to tilt the playing field in forms familiar to us all—campaign finance reform, regulation of political speech, etc. The extent to which socialism is truly compatible with respect for liberty in these areas is thus open to debate.

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