Not “The New York Times”, which regularly keeps running pieces like this:
Hart clearly hasn’t traveled much (he finds the fly-over country traumatic enough: “To be trapped in the boarding area of a smallish airport in the upper Midwest is, as often as not, to be subjected to that bestial din of fricatives, gutturals, plosives and shrieks of hysterical alarm that constitutes political discussion on Fox News, pouring incessantly from those obnoxious pendulous ceiling televisions.” Poor darling). Had he got around the world a bit – or for that matter talked to people from outside his academic bubble – he would have discovered that the word “socialism” is actually freighted with much menace in many places other than America – for example all those, like my country of birth Poland, where socialism has actually been tried before.
Except, according to Hart, it hasn’t. You see, all those bad examples from around the world are something else:
It may be amusing to hear Republicans assert that a military kleptocracy like Venezuela is a socialist country because its government uses that word when lying about itself (rather in the way that North Korea claims to be a people’s democratic republic). It may make one wince to see Senator Bernie Sanders obliged (as he was on Monday at a town hall hosted by CNN) to explain once more that the totalitarian statism of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the (far older) tradition of democratic socialist thought. But fair’s fair, it’s not much less bizarre to hear a “progressive” like Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, assert that “socialism” simply means state seizure of all the means of production. (Had Marx and Engels only known this, they might have spared themselves the effort of denouncing the socialists of their time for failing to call for a completely centralized economy.)
Well — only in America, as they say. Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.
It’s “military kleptocracy”. Or “totalitarian statism”. Or something else. Mercifully, Hart is not arguing that “real socialism has not been tried yet”. Quite the opposite, actually: real (according to Hart) socialism has been tried everywhere and it works:
In countries where, since World War II, the principles of democratic socialism have shaped public policy (basically, everywhere in the developed world except here), the lives of the vast majority of citizens, most especially in regard to affordable health care, have improved enormously. This is acknowledged by almost every political faction, whether “liberal” (like Social Democrats), “conservative” (like Christian Democrats) or “progressive” (like Greens). And the preposterous cost projections that American conservative propagandists routinely adduce to prove that “socialized medicine” or a decent public option would exhaust our Treasury are given the lie in each of those countries every day.
Democratic socialism is, briefly put, a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness that was historically — to a far greater degree than either its champions or detractors today often care to acknowledge — grounded in deep Christian convictions. I, for instance, am a proud son of the European Christian socialist tradition, especially in its rich British variant, as exemplified by F.D. Maurice, John Ruskin, William Morris, R.H. Tawney and many other luminaries (including, in his judiciously remote way, C.S. Lewis), but also in its continental expressions (see, for example, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, with its prescient warnings against the dangers of unfettered capitalism).
But all that is not socialism, unless Hart thinks that welfare state and socialism are one and the same thing. Which, coincidentally, is not how any major socialist thinker would see it. Marx himself would consider it a vulgar heresy. Western European countries have all had reasonably robust private sectors (however over-regulated at times) generating a lot of wealth, without which the generosity of “civic conscientiousness” would not be possible. Even then, most of the European countries have been financing their social spending through ever increasing levels of public borrowing, only to discover over the past three decades that this is simply not sustainable. Europe’s not what it used to be, and it never used to be what Hart thinks it was.
Hart, a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy and a member of Democratic Socialists of America (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s real party before she got elected as a Democrat) has recently re-translated the New Testament to portray wealth as Jesus’s number one concern and enemy. He is entitled to his opinion, but it is shabby history and shabby politics. Socialism might denote a broad philosophical tradition, but it does have a specific meaning, characteristics and objectives. It’s not some buffet where one can pick and choose the bit one wants – and that’s not just because so often there is no food – like Hart does with “free” medical care, for example. And one certainly can’t and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with waving the magical wand of “akshuly”; for almost two hundred years, millions of people have defined themselves as socialists working to implement socialist principles, but Hart says they are not socialists, so clearly they have been wrong all along. Nothing to see here, folks, move along and have listen to this wonderful new AOC podcast.
The problem with socialists (one of many, in any case) is that they think everyone else should be judged by their results, and only the bad ones to that, while they themselves should be judged by their lofty ideals and aspirations. It’s a perpetual “get out of gulag free” card; we’re the good guys because our intentions are pure and we believe in the brotherhood of men (in the older, more sexist times), solidarity, equality, the common people. The failures and failings in real life can be variously denied altogether, excused by good intentions or disavowed as something else. You don’t see people arguing that “real capitalism hasn’t been tried yet” or “that wasn’t noble imperialism, that was just base rape and pillage” or “but I’m a democratic National Socialist”. Everyone else can somehow inhabit reality and deal with the imperfections of the world and the crooked timber of humanity. Except socialists. Hundred million people dead and massive social and economic disaster in dozens of different places on virtually every continent (except Australia and Antarctica) created by people who called themselves socialists? That wasn’t socialism. Germany’s welfare state created by Bismarck (conservative), Hitler (Nazi) and Adenauer (Christian Democrat)? That is socialism. Centralised economy and public ownership and control of means of production didn’t work out? Don’t worry, that wasn’t socialism either; it’s the generous maternity leave, silly. In any case, we very caring and compassionate, so that’s that.
Marx was prescient about history repeating itself the first time as a tragedy and then as a farce. So does socialism. Which is why it is so difficult to take the current clown show of Bernie Sanders, AOC and David Bentley Hart seriously. But even farces can have dangerous consequences. So let’s not relax about “socialism”.