– by Nicolai Haussamer
Scarcely thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ideology underlying socialism continues to enjoy significant support. Rather than being a relic of history, socialism remains a serious proposition throughout most of the world.
Socialism in South Africa
Despite its recent history, including Western Europe’s ostensible opposition to socialism during the last century, Europe is a continent whose politics and governmental structures are largely dominated by socialism, whether explicitly or in its ‘social democratic’ form.
In South Africa, the majority of our legislators come from parties that consist mostly of socialists, or that are avowedly socialistic in their constitution.
Gaining traction with millennials
Moreover, it is striking that a large portion of the millennial generation – those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s – favours socialism.
A survey conducted by YouGov in 2017 showed that approximately half of millennials in the United States “would rather live in a socialist or communist country than a capitalist democracy.”
Closer to home, those who have followed the various students’ movements on university campuses over the last few years – those operating under the “MustFall” umbrella – would have noticed their unequivocally socialistic rhetoric.
Why does socialism remain so popular?
Considering where we find ourselves in history, the debate about the feasibility of socialism is practically exhausted. A more interesting question is therefore that about why socialism remains so popular.
The simplest explanation, particularly as it relates to the views of millennials, is ignorance. Some may simply be unaware of the history of the 20th century, during which many millions of people were victims of their own socialistic governments. For others, the support for socialism is a function of not correctly understanding the political philosophy or its consequences. Indeed, the results of the aforementioned survey showed that well over two-thirds of the millennial respondents could not “identify the proper definition of communism.”
Society is choosing to be ignorant
If ignorance is the sole cause of socialism’s large following, then the solution should be, quite simply, to spread information. This is not the case. Some of the most vociferous proponents of socialism are well aware of its track record. That history does not dissuade them from holding such views, however. It is from this peculiar phenomenon that an increasingly-familiar trope has emerged: those who declare that all of the current and historical examples of socialistic governments have not implemented ‘real’ socialism. In other words, there are those who view the undoubtedly destructive record of socialism not as being linked to socialism itself, but, rather, as mere historical anomaly.
Failed socialist nations abound
These supporters of socialism will often provide extensive lists detailing why the current and historical examples of socialism are, according to them, actually implementations of ‘other’ forms of government. In addition, and perhaps more commonly, they may claim that Stalin, Mao, and their ilk were failures as leaders. The evidence provided for this is, in essence, the fact that the utopian state of communism promised by the socialistic worldview has not materialised in any of the countries where this has been attempted.
An arrogant opinion
Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, provides a concise but insightful argument as to the motivation behind this unwavering belief in socialism, in spite of the evidence against it. He argues that those who favour socialism in this way are, through their claims, making a deeply arrogant statement. What this amounts to is a claim that, given the reins of power over socialistic countries and governments, they would have succeeded where the past and present socialist leaders have failed; they would bring about the peace and prosperity that the socialistic vision ultimately promises, where others have not been able to do so.
This view fails to account for its holders’ own corrupt human nature, and the effect that such a corrupt nature would have on their decisions if they were a very powerful leader, Peterson argues. Even if such proponents of socialism would not become violent and brutal rulers themselves, he continues, they are being remarkably naïve. After all, the history of authoritarian and dictatorial movements and governments is replete with instances of leaders being betrayed and overthrown by close allies.
A conflict of visions
Peterson’s argument briefly touches on what is arguably the most significant explanatory factor underlying the widespread favour of socialism: human nature. More specifically, it is our basic view of human nature that most strongly influences where we fall in the socialism debate. This is one of the central arguments of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.
The visions that Sowell defines in his book are strongly related to what we may call a worldview. One of the major challenges we all face, Sowell contends, is the inability to process all of the information we come across, not just in our immediate surroundings, but also that which relates to the broader world around us. With the advent of more advanced technology and communication, this problem is exacerbated. Sowell argues that visions form the mechanism whereby we handle large volumes of all kinds of information. They are a sense of how the world works, and how various events and ideas fit together. In brief, visions give us an instinctive sense of causality. According to Sowell, we all operate with a particular vision, even if we never consciously articulate the vision or base assumptions to ourselves.
We all fall short of the glory of God
Sowell delineates two distinct visions as being ‘constrained’ and ‘unconstrained’. The core of the constrained vision is the view of human nature exemplified by Adam Smith: flawed, but fixed. The Irish statesman Edmund Burke similarly stated that, “We cannot change the Nature of things and of men – but we must act upon them as best we can.” For us as Christians, these sentiments bring to mind Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. What these statements capture is the notion that man’s deeply-flawed nature cannot change by conscious human effort alone.
The socialist worldview
In contrast, the unconstrained socialist vision views human nature as fundamentally good. William Godwin, a political philosopher who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries, argued that vice “arises from a condition of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature.”
In other words, where people cheat, lie, steal, murder, and so on, these actions are simply the fault of the environment in which their perpetrators find themselves – they are not personally responsible for these actions, and there is no sinful or otherwise flawed component of human nature that can explain what drives one to do these things. This view is held widely today, and is in direct contrast with what the Bible preaches.
Should government enforce worldviews?
Moreover, the notion of human nature being malleable, seen for instance in Rousseau’s idea of perfectibilité, is central to the unconstrained vision. The logical conclusion of the unconstrained vision, then, is that human nature can be influenced and transformed by altering or completely reconstituting the institutions on which society is built.
Sowell thus demonstrates that the differences in these basic assumptions logically and consistently lead to different views regarding how government and society should be organised.
Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely
Regarding power, the constrained vision seeks to limit how much of it accumulates to individuals. Again, this is a function of viewing humanity as flawed – given too much power, any individual may be susceptible to making corrupt or otherwise detrimental decisions. Dispersed and decentralised systems of power are favoured under the constrained vision. A good example of this is the separation of powers conceived by Montesquieu in the 18th century, according to which the governmental institutions of the executive, legislature, and judiciary exist quasi-independently, with different scopes of power and responsibility. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Founding Fathers of the United States, who were themselves prominent exemplars of the constrained vision, founded the country on this principle.
The more governmental authority, the more corruption
The unconstrained vision is one that ultimately supports a notion of political ‘messiahs’, and thus justifies instituting sweeping and largely unchecked power for them. Those with this vision believe that society, through the power of an authoritarian government, can be steered and organised best by one or a few intellects. Historically, this is seen in the attempts to co-ordinate and dictate economic activity through centralised authority, but the vision implies that those in power can – and should – determine how people should be educated, how the popular culture should take shape, and even how social structures, such as families, should be organised. From Sowell’s analysis, it is clear that socialism is very much a derivative of the unconstrained vision.
Leftists / socialists / radicals
David Horowitz, who was at the forefront of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, and who later turned away from his socialistic views, clearly articulated this idea in a talk he gave a few years ago:
“The central question that divides people and has divided them for hundreds of years is this: what is the source of the problems that we see? Why is it that some people have more money, and other people have less money? What is the source of the failures of certain communities – of some communities to achieve, and some to succeed? The answer to this question is what creates conservatives and what I will call leftists/socialists/radicals.
The whole agenda of the left is to return us to Eden
“People on the left believe that the source of our problems is society – social institutions . . . What conservatives understand is that the source of our problems is us. If you’re churchgoing, you’ll hear that every Sunday: it’s us – we’re the problem. . . A book like the Bible has been around as long as it has because there’s wisdom in it . . . Think of the story of Genesis. Adam and Eve were given paradise . . . but they were too ornery to obey [the one rule they were given], and so they were expelled from the garden. And God put an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to Eden. This is a very important story for understanding where we are. Only by a divine Hand could we return. The whole agenda of the left is to return us to Eden.”
In God alone
Ultimately, what draws people to socialism and binds them to that worldview, regardless of – and often in spite of – the historical evidence and the economic and social arguments against it, is a foundational belief in the essentially good and benevolent nature of people. This leads, as David Horowitz argues, to the gravely-mistaken view that humanity can “bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth” through our own actions, but this is only possible through obedience to God and His will. It is this self-empowered view that leads to the justification for having all-powerful socialistic governments.
NICOLAI HAUSSAMER is an actuarial science graduate from UCT and is currently reading for his Masters in Mathematical Finance. His previous writing has focused on two of his main areas of interest, namely economics and finance.
JOY! Magazine (May 2018)