Why has the collapse of Communism had so little impact on political discourse in the West?
At Powerline, John Hinderaker points to an article by Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph and ponders the question she asks – “why has the collapse of Communism had so little impact on political discourse in the West?”
[I]n spite of the official agreement that there is no other way to organise the economic life of a free society than the present one (with a few tweaks), there are an awful lot of people implicitly behaving as if there were. Several political armies seem to be running on the assumption that there is still a viable contest between capitalism and Something Else.
If this were just the hard Left within a few trade unions and a fringe collection of Socialist Workers’ Party headbangers, it would not much matter. But the truth is that a good proportion of the population harbours a vague notion that there exists a whole other way of doing things that is inherently more benign and “fair” – in which nobody is hurt or disadvantaged – available for the choosing, if only politicians had the will or the generosity to embrace it.
Why do they believe this? Because the lesson that should have been absorbed at the tumultuous end of the last century never found its way into popular thinking – or even into the canon of educated political debate. …
he fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism which followed it are hugely important to any proper understanding of the present world and of the contemporary political economy. Why is it that they have failed to be addressed with anything like their appropriate awesome significance, let alone found their place in the sixth-form curriculum?
The failure of communism should have been, after all, not just a turning point in geo-political power – the ending of the Cold War and the break-up of the Warsaw Pact – but in modern thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy, about collectivism vs individualism, and about public vs private power. Where was the discussion, the trenchant analysis, or the fundamental debate about how and why the collectivist solutions failed, which should have been so pervasive that it would have percolated down from the educated classes to the bright 18-year-olds? Fascism is so thoroughly (and, of course, rightly) repudiated that even the use of the word as a casual slur is considered slanderous, while communism, which enslaved more people for longer (and also committed mass murder), is regarded with almost sentimental condescension. …
[I]n our everyday politics, we still seem to be unable to make up our minds about the moral superiority of the free market. We are still ambivalent about the value of competition, which remains a dirty word when applied, for example, to health care. We continue to long for some utopian formula that will rule out the possibility of inequalities of wealth, or even of social advantages such as intelligence and personal confidence.
The idea that no system – not even a totalitarian one – could ensure such a total eradication of “unfairness” without eliminating the distinguishing traits of individual human beings was one of the lessons learnt by the Soviet experiment. The attempt to abolish unfairness based on class was replaced by corruption and a new hierarchy based on party status.
If the European intellectual elite had not been so compromised by its own broad acceptance of collectivist beliefs, maybe we would have had a genuine, far-reaching re-appraisal of the entire ideological framework. [Emphasis mine].
We could spend a week discussing any of those highlighted passages, but the question remains – why? In fact, if you think about it, the collapse of communism was all but shrugged off by the left. It wasn’t, as it seemed, of any consequence to their ideology. In fact, for the most part, other than a few “good riddance” quotes, it was business as usual for the left, pushing many of the same ideological principles that underpinned communism as if they were not a reason for that horrific system’s collapse.
As Daley says, its failure should have been a turning point in geo-political power and thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy. But instead there was silence while left leaning governments both here and in Europe doubled down on state intrusion into the economies of their respective states.
The key is to be found in the last emphasized sentence. Unfortunately, there has been a sea-change in much of our thinking which has indeed seen a “broad acceptance” of “collectivist beliefs”. If ObamaCare leaped to your mind immediately, what actually makes the point is Medicare Part D. That’s the “broad acceptance” necessary – compromise of principle on the right – to carry this sort of an agenda forward.
Sure ObamaCare was passed without a single GOP vote, but it was set up by many past GOP compromises. The problem is the right has allowed the left to define both the playing field and the principles of play. It has also framed what little discussion that goes on. It has decided on envy as its vehicle and class warfare as its methodology. And the right has meekly accepted those parameters. Watch the current crop of GOP candidates spend much of their time apologizing for their success instead of celebrating it and tell me the propaganda war hasn’t gone to the left.
And on the left? Why has the result of communism’s collapse been essentially ignored? For two reasons. John Hideraker’s take on the left for one:
I think a very partial answer to the question Ms. Daley poses is that leftism has never been based on idealism. It has always been based, for the most part, on hate and envy. So when Communism was conclusively proved to be a failure, leftists (including not only leftists in politics, but more important, leftists in the media and in academia) didn’t change their minds or admit their mistake. For in their eyes, while there may have been disappointment, there was no mistake. Their resentments and hatreds remained. They merely sought other vehicles, other terminologies, other tactics to bring down the West and the free enterprise system and democratic institutions that define it. Yesterday’s socialists are today’s progressives. They barely missed a beat.
I think there is a lot of truth to that analysis, although I’d quibble somewhat on the dismissal of idealism. I’ve always said the left never viewed communism as a systemic failure but more of a failure based on the fact that the wrong people were executing the idea poorly. There’s never really been an acknowledgement on the left that communism itself was “wrong”, “bad” or even totalitarian. Just that some of those who got into power under that system were (if they’ll admit even that).
And it is hard to look at the left of today, view their ideology and conclude they’ve learned a thing by its collapse. While they’ve certainly learned that it is unwise to use certain words or phrases when pushing their agenda (you won’t see “proletariat” or “bourgeoisie” tossed around by today’s lefty, but “middle class” and “[pick your favorite class to denigrate] elite” work along with “Big this” and “Big that”.
The truth in Daley’s point is to be found in reviewing how we’ve gotten to where we are today since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We’re much less free economically and politically. The left continues to define the debate and the right continues to accept the framing. How can you have a real discussion about the failures of communism specifically and collectivism in general when you continue to allow the collectivists to frame the discussion? Naturally they’re going to pretend that nothing untoward happened with the demise of the USSR and Warsaw pact. Why would they?
I mean think of the irony – over 20 years after its collapse, the principles of socialism and its offspring communism continue to touted as “the answer” while the system that sharply defined the West until then and made it more successful by orders of magnitude – capitalism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) – is under constant and sustained assault.
Talk about a world upside down.