If ever there was a set of ideas that has been tried and found lacking, it is socialism. It has been tried on every continent. It has been tried in weak nations and strong. It has been tried in primitive countries and those which are highly developed.
The most striking thing about socialism is that it has never worked.
We in the United States have been tinkering with socialism ever since the Great Depression. Its most successful manifestation, Social Security, operates on a basis that would see any other investment manager in jail for running a Ponzi scheme. The Veterans Administration, organized to provide government assistance to those injured in the service of the United States, is a bloated bureaucracy whose many errors would land any competent private physician in bankruptcy court. Lyndon Johnson employed soaring rhetoric about a “War on Poverty,” but those programs have done little but insure that three generations of the impoverished families of 1964 are still poor. However, the free enterprise traditions of the United States have prevented socialism from becoming its predominant economic system—at least so far.
What of those nations that embraced socialism far more totally? In its least troubling manifestations, as in northern Europe, it saps nations of their economic and intellectual potential. Great Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, but its industrial capacity has been on a steady decline since its turn to socialism in 1945. Australia and the Scandinavian nations are often touted as places in which “cradle to grave” socialism has improved the lives of their people, but it’s no paradise there either.
Cast North America and Europe aside, and the record goes from unfortunate to abysmal. Brazil has massive natural resources and yet is a very poor nation. Most African nations adopted some form of socialism after gaining independence and remain impoverished. Venezuela’s turn to socialism has been an economic disaster of epic proportions. Cuba likes to blame its economic woes on the long-standing US economic boycott. Yet, the Castros could and did trade with most of the rest of the world—but in Havana a 1959 Buick still counts as a late-model car.
And, of course, no description of the woes of socialism would be complete without including its most famous practitioners—Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Adolf Hitler. (Yes, Hitler was a socialist despite the Left’s attempt to claim that Fascism is a right-wing phenomenon. Remember that Nazi was short for National Socialist.) The untold millions that met their deaths and the massive destruction that occurred under these socialist leaders beggars the imagination.
So, then, why is socialism enjoying a popular upsurge in the United States?
First, it just sounds so good. Karl Marx’s famous prescription, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” resonates in the souls of many. Listen to a student choir sing John Lennon’s socialist anthem Imagine. That “brotherhood of man” line has an undeniable appeal, even for those who know better. It would just be so nice, peaceful, and happy if it worked. (Insert heavy sigh.)
The second reason is the little examined fact that most Americans have spent the first two decades of their lives living the socialist dream. There is no more socialist segment of our society than public education. The system is taxpayer-supported. Buildings, books, furniture, food, and the teachers are provided regardless of the students’ individual merits or ability to pay. All of the above-mentioned items are provided through a bureaucracy, which determines the quality of each of those items, without regard to the individual preferences of the students or parents. Students are assigned to classes and teachers by a computer-generated invisible force that places them together randomly, and over which there is usually no appeal. Much work is done collectively, in which all members of the group share the grade regardless of their individual contributions.
We can also see in these schools one of the great flaws of socialism. Any system in which the basic decisions are made elsewhere breeds indifference. The school system is a great machine, with little regard to the individual. The student comes to know that he is unimportant to the school as a person. He moves through the required courses and the required number of electives until graduation. The school goes on the same way whether he is there or not. Teachers and administrators may leap to disagree, but the students know the truth. In such a world, every impulse is to meet the minimum standard. Even the student whose parents demand high grades wonders how little work he has to do in order to get his A. If the parents don’t demand it, nobody else does either. The kid who passes by the skin of his teeth gets the same diploma as the valedictorian. Maybe the honor society members get an extra cord to wear on their gown, but underachievers seem to be able to get along quite well without it. Actual learning means about as little to the top students as it does to those who squeak by with a D. Success means complying with the minimum standards of the system.
Another reason that socialism is becoming more popular is that it feels good without requiring any actual sacrifice. Taking care of others is the essence of benevolence, right? A socialist can indulge the sense that he is taking care of the downtrodden without having to give up anything that he values.
Consider the reaction to the story that Bernie Sanders—the self-professed “Democratic Socialist”—owns three homes and has a net worth of over a million dollars. Supporters either ignored the story or quibbled about the details. Setting aside the specifics of the number of houses or their value, it remains that Sanders is in an enviable position economically. If you wish, press one of the young socialists on the ethics of his being a wealthy man who attempts to force people far poorer than himself to pay for the needs of the impoverished without being willing to sacrifice his own standard of living. The response is likely to be an assertion that his heart is in the right place, that he fights for the poor, and, therefore, his individual style of life matters little.
How can Sen. Sander’s supporters overlook so seemingly obvious a flaw? Simple, it is where their heads are as well. Today’s college socialists do not want to deny themselves the pleasures of life in their search for Utopia. Most of them are in college because a college degree promises financial prosperity. Regardless of the fact that this promise is often unmet, the typical social justice warrior prizes his own comforts just as much as the chairman of the College Republicans. Yet the socialist signals a sense of virtue while being able to dismiss those on the right as greedy.
The third reason that socialists continue to carry their banner proudly may be the most important—pure undiluted arrogance. The problem with socialism, they cry, is that it hasn’t been done properly. “Listen to us—the young, the pure, and the good. We can fix the mistakes of the past. We can cure the injustices. We can raise up the poor. We can guard each man’s dignity and spare each man’s pride”—as the campfire classic They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love puts it.
Try to expand the knowledge base of the blissfully arrogant by mentioning the abuses of Mao, Stalin, Castro, or Che Guevara and most will look confused at first. Eventually they will come up with a reply. It is most likely to resemble the following. “We are not like that. Those are dead men; their actions are in the past. We don’t need to make the mistakes they made. We have not been corrupted by the world.”
Of course, the college educated will disguise their arrogance under other words that assert their intelligence. One will hear about power structures, imperialist residue, and systems of oppression. Working-class conservatives are dismissed as dupes who work against their own interests. Western culture, which created the universities in which the socialists work and learn, is the creation of dead white men as a tool to subjugate females and those of other races. Defend the idea that western culture created the concepts of freedom that they supposedly espouse and you commit microaggressions. The enlightened can no longer tolerate your “hate speech.” Make an argument based on logic, and you will be met with the language of deconstruction or the concept of relative truth.
How can the young socialists avoid the mistakes of the past? They can’t, because they can’t get around the fact that socialism is inherently unjust. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII correctly assessed the evils of socialism in his encyclical, Quod Apostolici Muneris (On Socialism).1
“For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist: ‘for what participation hath justice with injustice or what fellowship hath light with darkness?’” (Paragraph 5)
Leo XIII would further explain at length in 1891 in Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes).2
“[I]nasmuch as the Socialists seek to transfer the goods of private persons to the community at large, they make the lot of all wage earners worse, because in abolishing the freedom to dispose of wages, they take away from them by this very act the hope and the opportunity of increasing their property and of securing advantages for themselves.” (Paragraph 9)
“Inasmuch as the Socialists, therefore, disregard care by parents and in its place introduce care by the State, they act against natural justice and dissolve the structure of the home.” (Paragraph 21, emphasis in the original)
“[T]he equality conjured up by the Socialist imagination would, in reality, be nothing but uniform wretchedness and meanness for one and all, without distinction.” (Paragraph 22)
“[I]t is perceived that the fundamental principle of Socialism which would make all possessions public property is to be utterly rejected because it injures the very ones whom it seeks to help, contravenes the natural rights of individual persons, and throws the functions of the State and public peace into confusion.” (Paragraph 23)
It cannot be said that Pope Leo was speaking as some sort of hidebound reactionary, longing for a time in which the peasants did as they were told. Rerum Novarum also speaks movingly about the obligations of employers and the rights of workers. Clearly, this was no passing fancy on the part of Leo XIII, but a well-considered opinion developed over a considerable period of time.
Any intelligent adult can look at the plight of socialism’s many victims and easily conclude whose vision of life under socialism was more accurate—that of Karl Marx or that of Leo XIII. It is long since time that we, as a society, exposed the truth about socialism to our children, especially those who are listening to its siren call.
This will not be easy. Socialism has eaten deeply into the intellectual fiber of modern life. Many are they who, knowingly or not, buy into Marx’s assertion that the victory of socialism is inevitable. They can be found in the universities and labor unions, in schools and the halls of Congress. Unfortunately, large numbers of them can also be found amongst the leaders of Holy Mother Church.
The apologists for socialism have many tools at their command. The “mainstream media” will be happy to show the travails of the poor and unemployed in the United States. They will be happy to use their rhetorical skills in socialism’s behalf—as we saw in the debate over Obamacare when the lack of healthcare insurance was presented as the lack of healthcare itself. The socialist’s supposed compassion will be trotted out to make the working guy who wants to bring home a few more of the dollars that he earned look like a short-sighted hick, clinging to, as President Obama famously put it, “God and guns.”
Of course, the anti-socialist has a less obvious, but far more important weapon. It is a weapon whose effect can be delayed but never denied. That weapon is called Truth, and socialism cannot ultimately defeat it. For those of us who know socialism for what it is, faithfulness to God and His Church demand that we proclaim the evils of this inherently evil ideology.