After the Industrial Revolution, people began to wonder if there wasn’t something that could be done about all the poor working people around. Some people thought it was cruel that humans should suffer so; other people thought it ruined the look of things for all the non-poor people. But the point is that people decided that perhaps something ought to be done about all this poverty–usually something in the way of redistributing wealth somehow. Most of these people ended up being called “Socialists”. These Socialists then organized to try to take political power.

Take the case of Germany. In the late 1800s, Otto von Bismarck was facing a political threat from the socialists. So, what did he do? According to Wikipedia—which is, of course, not a valid source, but I shall use it anyway—he “introduced old age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance.”

He did this to thwart the Socialists, and it seems he succeeded. Nevertheless, if the point of socialism really is to improve life for the poor workers, it would appear that this was actually a victory for socialism. Maybe it wasn’t everything they had hoped for, but it was better than what they had had before. 

Does this make Bismarck a socialist? Before answering, notice the similarity to the case of Theodore Roosevelt recently under discussion on this blog. In broad strokes, it seems to me that both the circumstances and the policies of Roosevelt and Bismarck are practically identical. 

The Socialists were against Bismarck the whole time, and this is certainly a major piece of evidence against his Socialism. Indeed, the fact that the Socialists and T.R. disliked one another was how the John Nichols Nation article exonerated him of Socialism.

Bismarck and Roosevelt both professed to be totally against the Socialists. But of course, they could have been lying. Politicians often say things like “I am not a crook!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” when these things are not true.

And unlike those lies, where some actual objective evidence can prove them to be lying, in this case the question is purely a matter of what is in their minds. No one but Bismarck and Roosevelt can tell for sure what they really thought of socialism.

Of course, even if they both secretly thought that socialism was the best thing that could happen to the world, they probably didn’t secretly belong to a Socialist party. Thus, there can be no smoking gun to prove that they were Socialists.

All that they can be judged on are their actions. In both cases, their actions served to weaken the political faction called “Socialists”. However, they might also be said to have advanced the political philosophy called “socialism”. The only way to prevent the Socialists from getting power was to give them some of what they wanted. Bismarck himself is supposed to have said “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Actually, that isn’t the only way to prevent socialists getting power. There is also the General Pinochet way, which is to kill them. Pinochet may have been the most anti-socialist politician in the history of the world, because he took his economic policy from the Libertarians and his police policy from the Fascists. 

Pinochet is useful because he is the very model of an anti-Socialist. Bismarck and Roosevelt clearly both fall short of the Pinochet standard. True, they frowned upon–even regarded as illegal–the actions of August Bebel and Eugene Debs, respectively, but unlike Pinochet did with his Socialists, they did not actively work to eradicate their policies. They did not implement them either, but rather they compromised with them.

If you deal in absolutes, like American Icons Darth Vader and Ayn Rand did, then Bismarck and Roosevelt are both socialists, because they compromised with socialism and thus must be forever designated “Socialists”. Any compromise is evil, in this view.

On the other hand, if you don’t do that, you’d have to conclude that they were at most moderate socialists, and maybe that they weren’t socialists at all, but were just put in a difficult position. And you’d probably say they handled it fairly well, all things considered.

The conclusion I reach is that they both were moderately friendly towards the socialist philosophy, but not the Socialist party. What does this ultimately mean? Well, to begin with, it suggests the possibility, horrifying to some, that there may have been something in that socialism stuff.

Socialists would say that this is so, and that things would have turned out even better for Bismarck and Roosevelt if they had only had the guts to go “Full Socialist”, instead of these puny half-measures. Others would say instead that this proves the triumph of “centrism” and compromise.

In the end it’s difficult to really people under terms like “socialist” or “capitalist”. As the character Kreia says in the game Knights of the Old Republic II, when asked if she is a Jedi or a Sith: “such titles allow you to break the galaxy into light and dark. Categorize it. Perhaps I am neither, and I hold both as what they are: pieces of a whole.”


Much of the information in this post concerning Pinochet and Bismarck is based on my reading of Niall Ferguson’s book The Ascent of Money.

Apologies for the fonts being messed up on this post. I’m not sure what happened there.

John Nichols at The Nation writes of how Fox News dealt with Obama echoing Theodore Roosevelt in a speech. In brief, some Fox pundits asserted that Roosevelt was a socialist. Nichols writes in rebuttal:

“Roosevelt, in his ‘New Nationalism’ speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, did outline an agenda that supported the establishment of programs like Social Security and Medicare, protections against discrimination, union rights and expanded democracy. In effect, he was arguing for what, under his fifth cousin, Franklin, would come to be known as “the New Deal.”

Some of those proposals were promoted by the Socialist Party in the early years of the twentieth century, which certainly made arguments in its platforms for safety-net programs. But so, too, did moderate Republicans and Democrats. After the ‘Gilded Age’ of robber barons and corporate monopolies, there was mainstream support for tempering the excesses of laissez faire capitalism.”

The people who have been called “socialists” have many different ideas, and the major commonality I can see is a belief that something ought to be done to alleviate poverty. If this is the definition, then Roosevelt was a socialist. If, on the other hand, socialism means wanting the workers to seize the factors of production then Roosevelt was not a socialist. And if socialism is believing that the government should reallocate resources–as many Conservatives seem to think it is these days–then Roosevelt, along with virtually every other person in history who ever ran a country, was definitely a socialist.

Still, it is significant that Roosevelt’s policies were similar to those of socialists at the time. Maybe he was merely a pragmatist, and found that the easiest way to thwart radical socialism was to allow for moderate socialism. Does that make him a socialist? I don’t know; I think it makes him a practical politician.

To my mind, T.R. was something of a market socialist, though I think before anything else he just wanted a powerful United States, and was just willing to do what it took to make that happen. I don’t think he was really invested in socialism. But I will admit that, on the face of it, the “New Nationalism” agenda seems like it have made the country closer to being Socialist than it had been previously.

You may decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. 

A week ago, I posted about Oscar Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and the vision proposed therein of a society in which people were freed from poverty (and property) to express themselves to the best of their artistic and intellectual potential.

While I do not see how abolishing private property would help matters even slightly, I think that Wilde’s overall goal here was laudable. It is for these same reasons that I support government poverty-relief efforts, which I think nowadays qualifies me as a socialist, at least in the minds of some.

However, there is an alternative viewpoint–the idea that facing challenges and hardship is what inspires people to excellence. As Scott Adams wrote in a post I’ve linked to before:

“I’ve noticed that creativity so often springs from hardship or pain that I wonder if it’s a precondition. That would make sense from an evolution perspective. Humans don’t need to come up with new ideas when everything is running smoothly.”

Thus, attempts to stimulate the creative people by providing them with support will backfire, leading to mental as well as physical laziness. (Similar ideas are considered in the famous Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World.)

It’s quite possible, but I do not believe this is really how the artistically or intellectually-inclined mind works. (Kindly suspend disbelief long enough to suppose that I have some inkling what such minds are like.) It is true that hardship can have a stimulative effect, but I think that, when all immediate material needs are met, people automatically start concerning themselves with more abstract problems.

I know people who fear and condemn “socialism” in government and claim to be all for individual liberty and laissez-faire, yet who, in their role as sport enthusiasts, have no problem being infuriated at a “selfish” athlete who refuses to subordinate his own success to that of the team. Is that not socialism as well?

Most people who follow American football, for example, will tell you that a team full of “humble guys” who work well together can beat a team full of showboating superstars. Or at the very least, they will pull for that team to do so, even if their chance of success is low.

Is this a contradiction, or merely a legitimate difference between two completely different social activities? I have no clue.

“The other night, from cares exempt,
I slept — and what d’you think I dreamt?
I dreamt that somehow I had come
To dwell in Topsy-Turveydom!”

Really, I don’t know what to make of this very strange excerpt from Rush Limbaugh’s show. He said:

“[L]ook at all the things that were built in five years during the Great Depression: The Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building came in ahead of schedule, built during the Depression, back in the days where we actually built things. And back then there wasn’t talk of extended unemployment benefits. There wasn’t talk of national health care. That mind-set just didn’t exist. And because those things didn’t exist people had to do what they could to fend for themselves, and if that meant picking up, moving to San Francisco, working for whatever you got paid in a dangerous job like building the Golden Gate Bridge or the bay bridges or the Hoover Dam or the Empire State Building, it’s what you did, you found work wherever you could.”

Um… wasn’t building all that stuff part of a government program; and under a Democratic President, no less? Isn’t that supposed to be, like, Socialism? Or else “Liberal Fascism“? I don’t think any of that exactly shows off the virtues of the free-market, at any rate. I may be wrong, but I would have thought Limbaugh would be railing against such awful, awful Government things.

If anyone reading this happens to have more knowledge on this subject, I’d appreciate some enlightenment.

(And yes, for those of you wondering, evidently I lied about not blogging till I could finish that big post I’m working on. I can’t help it.)

“The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction… The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”–George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Part 2.

Well, Darryl Campbell argues that people are getting what they already know out of reading Orwell’s books, and not in a good way. He writes:

“Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.” 

“Orwell’s works… cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context.”

He argues persuasively, and I do agree that people may be reading more of libertarian philosophy into Nineteen Eighty-Four than was really Orwell’s intention. He was a bitter, disillusioned Socialist, not a Capitalist. However, I do disagree with Campbell on Animal Farm.

Animal Farm is not really political. It’s based off of the Soviet Union, but that’s just superficial. Really, it is about much deeper things than that. It is an allegory about human nature. And therefore it is, in my view, always relevant to any undertaking. Campbell argues that Orwell’s modern-day political opposites use Animal Farm‘s lines to oppose things Orwell himself would have supported. But of course! The point of Animal Farm was that even noble endeavors can go badly wrong.

(Hat Tip to Andrew Sullivan)

At the end of the film The Wrath of Khan, when Spock is exposing himself to deadly radiation in order to save the crew of the Enterprise, he reminds Kirk that: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.Or the one.” When I saw this, my first thought–probably because of reading Ayn Rand–was “this is a rather neat description of Socialism.” It’s the sacrifice of the individual for the collective. And it is this notion from which all the other aspects of Socialism derive.

Supposedly, this idea is alien to the United States of America, where we value individualism. Part of the idea of “American exceptionalism” is that we are more friendly to the rights of the individual than other nations; hence, Socialism is a philosophy that Americans seemingly reject.

Or do we?

In an earlier post, I said that “War is a fundamentally Socialist undertaking.” And, indeed, it is in wartime that the Socialists and anti-individualist philosophies gain the greatest acceptance in the United States of America. Witness Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War, the efforts at managing the war economy in World War I, or even the very idea of conscription. All these sacrifice the rights of individuals for the purpose of winning a war.

One of the redeeming factors of Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism is that he seems to have grasped this point. It sort of undermines his own thesis, of course, but nonetheless he figures out that the United States is, historically, susceptible to this sort of socialistic mood. Of course, Goldberg calls it “fascism”, and he may be right about that as well.

I have said in the past that “Fascism is nothing more than a particularly militaristic brand of Socialism”, and while I’m no longer sure if that’s the only difference, I think it’s clear that fascism is more militaristic than socialism. So, perhaps I should rephrase my earlier statement: war is a fundamentally socialist undertaking–and it’s called fascism. Again, Goldberg makes something of a decent case that socialism and fascism have some similarities that people don’t know about. (Of course, he seems to think they’re almost interchangeable.)

I realize this post is somewhat disjointed and confusing–it’s a combination of a post I’d been working on for a while, plus the stuff about Goldberg’s book that I was reminded of by this–but what I’m ultimately trying to do here is figure out just what the hell fascism actually is, and how it relates to socialism. Anyone care to help? So far, the best explanation I’ve read is here.

Jonah Goldberg has an interesting column about Financial reform. He writes:

“If by “capitalist” you mean someone who cares more about his own profit than yours; if you mean someone who cares more about providing for his family than providing for yours; if you mean someone who trusts that he is a better caretaker of his own interests and desires than a bureaucrat he’s never met… then we are all capitalists. Because, by that standard, capitalism isn’t some far-off theory about the allocation of capital; it is a commonsense description of what motivates pretty much all human beings everywhere.”

Perhaps so. And yet, not all human beings, surely. After all, if it were so for all human beings, would capitalism have such staunch opponents? If we are all supposed to be capitalists, than what is it that makes a man join the Army, where, by all accounts, bureaucrats he’s never met will make decisions on which his life depends. Or what about someone who joins the Church? How many pious Christians can claim to care more about their profit than anyone else’s?

I have to disagree with Goldberg on this point. Not all humans are capitalists, at least not by this definition. He goes on to say:

“At the end of the day, it is entirely natural for humans to work the system — any system — for their own betterment, whatever kind of system that may be.”

He’s correct here; but he would have been wrong if he had said  “it is entirely natural for all humans to work the system.” I have no idea if he intended to write that or not, but if he really did mean only some humans engage in this behavior, then he is contradicting his own previous assertion.

For there are, whether he cares to acknowledge it or no, many people who are in fact willing to abide by the rules of a system in order to preserve it. And even those who work a Socialist system are by no means the same as the enterprising Capitalists who seek to make a profit. After all, a Socialist–even a system-working one–is still dependent on the system to achieve his ends. He is not “standing on his own two feet”, as True Capitalism compels him to do.

Not that Goldberg’s column is without merit. He is quite correct in asserting that the problem with Socialist regulations is that those who are selfish–in the Randian sense–will attempt to play the system to their own personal advantage, disregarding the well-being of others. Where he goes awry is in foolishly assuming that everyone will do so.

Well, I don’t know. But he sure didn’t want to say if President Obama was or not. Here is an excerpt from his interview yesterday on CBS news’ Face the Nation (My comments in red):

BOB SCHIEFFER: A large group of people in the Tea Party think the President is pushing the country towards socialism. Do you believe that?

SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: I know that the President should start to focus on jobs and job
creation and– and– and– and– and that hasn’t been done. [As Benjamin Bell pointed out, Brown voted for a “jobs bill”] Since I’ve been here we’ve done health care, which they obviously rammed through by using a parliamentary procedure that has never been used for something this big ever. And then the bill as we’re finding out is– is flawed, seriously flawed. It’s going to cost medical device companies in my state, you know, thousands of jobs. But then, we’re taking– we’re talking now about regulation reform. [At this point, it’s pretty clear he’s dodging the question.] We’re politicizing that. Maybe– I’ve heard illegal immigration is going to come forth. When we’re in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only thing they talked about from the Presidents all the way down to the poorest farmer were jobs. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard zero talk about jobs. [It’s occurring to you that you ought not to have voted for that bill, isn’t it?] So, I’ll let–leave that up to the political pundits, but I know from what I’ve seen that we need to focus on jobs and the President should start to do so.

SCHIEFFER: “But, do you decline to answer my question: is he pushing the country
towards socialism?” [Oh, dear, he’s making you answer the question.]

BROWN: “I don’t think he’s making proper choices when it comes to dealing with the– the free market and free enterprise and allowing businesses to– to really run themselves and create jobs. [So, would that be a “yes”?] And as a result, larger government is happening and we’re creating jobs but they’re all government jobs. And the private sector is definitely– definitely suffering.”

Hmmm. “Dealing with the free market”, eh?

Technically, if you subscribe to a free-market philosophy, you don’t deal with it if you’re in government. That’s the point. You get out of the way of the free market. If you watch the interview, you can see Brown catch himself here.

Scott Brown didn’t look too good to me in that interview, but then again,you’ve got to watch your words when you’re a Republican politician in Massachusetts. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. All politicians dodge questions; it’s just the politicians who don’t do it artfully (like Palin and now, it seems, Brown) who we call out for it.