Search This Blog

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Eternal Flame

I'm not talking about the eternal flame at the grave site of JFK, this being the 50th anniversary of his death.  Well let me get right to it...

In light of the horrors brought about in the twentieth century by the revolutionary myth of socialism, it is easy to sympathize with those who believe mankind could not possibly be tempted to try the socialist experiment again. If the liberal rationalist Renan was surprised that "Socialists were beyond discouragement" at the beginning of the twentieth century, how much more surprised must his contemporary counterparts be to discover that socialism is also beyond discouragement at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Yet this is a lesson that Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, under the guidance of their mentor, Fidel Castro, seem determined to impress upon us.

It may well be that socialism isn't dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in "the profounder regions of our mental life," in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs?

Here we have the problem facing those who, like Hernando de Soto, believe that capitalism is the only rational alternative left after the disastrous collapse of so many socialist experiments. Yes, capitalism is the only rational method of proceeding; but is the mere appeal to reason sufficient to make the mass of men and women, especially among the poor and the rejected, shut their ears to those who promise them the socialist apocalypse, especially when the men who are making these promises possess charisma and glamour, and are willing to stand up, in revolutionary defiance, to their oppressors?

The shrewd and realistic Florentine statesman and thinker, Guicciardini, once advised: "Never fight against religion...this concept has too much empire over the minds of men." And to the extent that socialism is a religion, then those who wish to fight it with mere reason and argument may well be in for a losing battle. Furthermore, as populism spreads, it is inevitable that the myth of socialism will gain in strength among the people who have the least cause to be happy with their place in the capitalist world-order, and who will naturally be overjoyed to put their faith in those who promise them a quick fix to their poverty and an end to their suffering.

Earlier in the article the author states:

  Instead, he argues that it is only by refusing to accept the failure of socialism that one can become a "true revolutionary." Indeed, for Sorel, the whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak.

Sorel, for whom religion was important, drew a comparison between the Christian and the socialist revolutionary. The Christian's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that Christ will one day return and usher in the end of time; the revolutionary socialist's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that one day socialism will triumph, and justice for all will prevail. What mattered for Sorel, in both cases, is not the scientific truth or falsity of the myth believed in, but what believing in the myth does to the lives of those who have accepted it, and who refuse to be daunted by the repeated failure of their apocalyptic expectations. How many times have Christians in the last two thousand years been convinced that the Second Coming was at hand, only to be bitterly disappointed -- yet none of these disappointments was ever enough to keep them from holding on to their great myth. So, too, Sorel argued, the myth of socialism will continue to have power, despite the various failures of socialist experiments, so long as there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to relinquish their great myth. That is why he rejected scientific socialism -- if it was merely science, it lacked the power of a religion to change individual's lives. Thus for Sorel there was "an...analogy between religion and the revolutionary Socialism which aims at the apprenticeship, preparation, and even the reconstruction of the individual -- a gigantic task."

So the eternal flame of the socialist myth will continue to burn in the hearts and minds of some.  It is why socialists can not tolerate competing belief systems and why they do not respect the rights of the individual or a preference for voluntary cooperation instead of coercion. 


Peter said...

I don't know to what extent the blogosphere reflects mainstream political developments (probably not much), but I have noticed a resurgence among the left of hard socialist, even Marxist, preaching. For years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of the left was tongue-tied in the face of the disasters that were revealed and shifted to things like the environment and identity politics. But after 2008, and perhaps because of receding historical memories, it all seems to be coming back, and without much analysis of what went wrong before.

I've always thought it was a mistake for conservatives to start loudly embracing capitalism. As I recall in the 70's and 80's, the word was pretty much the province of the left and carried a slightly sneering connotaion that suggested heartless greed. We used to talk about individual freedom and self-reliance. Capitalism is really nothing more than the right of individuals to use their property as they wish in the name of freedom. By embracing the word loudly and talking almost mystically about the magic of the market, I fear we are leaving a lot of people with the impression that we are talking about an alternative, complementary top-down theory imposed by our masters. The political power of banks and the financial industry, especially in Europe, isn't helping. The Founding Fathers and great 19th century classical liberal theorists didn't talk about capitalism, so how did we come to love the word?

Clovis e Adri said...


The political power of banks and the financial industry, especially in Europe, isn't helping.
I wonder why you added the "especially in Europe" part. Do you believe banks and financial industry have less power elsewhere?

Clovis e Adri said...


I do not see why you believe socialism's flame keep alive. Socialism, at least in its original form, is dead as doornail.

If all the evidence you have is Bolivia and Venezuela, then you are in for some disappointment.

Those two countries did not sacrifice individual freedom for collective purposes. They only exchanged one tyrant for another one, in hope the next tyrant is more benign than the former.

In other words, the "rights of the individual" were already non existent for the huge majority of that populations. Why would they care for something they never had? The did not forsake "preference for voluntary cooperation instead of coercion", for coercion was always the rule.

I think you grossly misunderstand those peoples motives when you portray them as "people who have the least cause to be happy with their place in the capitalist world-order", as if they were motivated by pure envy.

Envy may play some role on it all, but what really keeps that flame going is lack of basic justice and individual rights in a level you do not look to be aware of.

erp said...

The Founding Fathers and great 19th century classical liberal theorists didn't talk about capitalism, so how did we come to love the word?

We didn't come to love the word.

Like all New Speak, they media turned the word, liberal, on its head and left us real liberals without the one word that best describes us and demonized the benign word, capitalism, to mean silk top-hatted bosses whipping the working man to death ala Harry's fantasies.

I'm beginning to like the phrase non-lefty to either conservative or liberatarian. It's more self-explanatory.

Howard said...


Your points are well taken but you will better appreciate what I am focused on in a future post.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I've always thought it was a mistake for conservatives to start loudly embracing capitalism."

One problem with capitalism is that it can legitimately be coupled with modifiers such as "crony" and to me, crony-capitalism is a pretty poor way for things to be arranged.

That's why I prefer the term "free-market." Freedom and liberty are worth a lot to me.

Bret said...


A post by you! It's a miracle! :-)

Another excellent article by the often insightful Lee Harris. Thanks.

Peter said...


Socialism is a top-down system that basically holds government should act as a coercive, dirigiste force that stops people from doing what they would otherwise want to do in the name of a "common good". Although many of them will squirm and dissemble, this necessarily implies that socialists are of a higher moral order and brimming with humanity and the milk of human kindness, and this higher moral order can be counted on to keep them from abusing their power for oppressive ends. They can talk all they want about the virtues of "the people", but they basically see them as ignorant, selfish and needing control.
One of the problems with responding to this by championing capitalism as a competing "system" is one can easily be led into the same kind of approach and start touting capitalists as of a higher moral order in relation to the public good. Sure the investment banks manipulated the markets and were guilty of egregious frauds and breaches of trust, but hey, look at all the jobs they distributed far and wide like Santa on Chrsitmas morning. This is the real flaw in Ayn Rand style libertarianism--the moral celebration of the entrepreneur as opposed to mere respect for his achievments. It makes no more sense than saying a poet or composer is a more moral individual because of the quality of his artistic production. It's a mistake to defend capitalism or even freedom on the basis that it leads to better, more moral public behaviour, because it clearly doesn't. In fact, vice and crime tend to do very well under capitalism and a lot of capitalists are deservedly sweating in Hell. The case for freedom lies in the inevitable consequences of unfreedom, not in theories of virtue. It's great fun to try and argue the Koch brothers are every bit as moral as St. Francis of Assisi, but I'm not sure that perspective has much chance of sweeping the nation.

Howard said...

As John Adams said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." More internal governance allows for less external governance. It is no mystery why the radical left works to undermine traditional family and faith or the culture supportive thereof.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "The case for freedom lies in the inevitable consequences of unfreedom..."

From my point of view, the case for unfreedom needs to be made. If there isn't a strong case for unfreedom, then freedom is the default.

It has little to do with morality and has mostly to do with preference. Not preference for freedom vs. unfreedom, but rather preference to do things which are otherwise limited by unfreedom.