The Economist marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the headline “So much gained, so much to lose.” As we celebrate the collapse of Communism, who would have imagined that in less than one generation we would witness a resurgence of socialism throughout Latin America and even hear the word socialist being used to describe policies in the United States.
We relegated socialism to the “dustbin of history,” but socialism never actually died. In many ways it has actually gained influence. That may sound reactionary, even McCarthyist — but only until we understand socialism the way socialists understand it.
Yes, socialist economic ideas went out of fashion, but socialism has always been more than just economics. We tend to equate socialism with Communism, Marxist revolutionaries and state ownership of industry. But socialism is a much broader vision of the person, society, equality and what it means to be free.
Karl Marx’s co-author, Friedrich Engels, saw three major obstacles to the socialist vision: “private property, religion and this present form of marriage.” Also central to socialist thought is a secular and materialist vision of the world that espouses relativism, sees everything politically, and locates genuine community in the state and not in families, churches or voluntary organizations.
The fall of Communism and two decades of globalization did not extinguish socialist hopes. The tactics changed, but the goals remained. Proponents of socialism traded in revolution for the gradualism of the Fabian socialists who encouraged use of democratic institutions to achieve socialist goals. They replaced political radicals like Lenin and Castro with the cultural Marxism of Theodore Adorno or Antonio Gramsci, who called for a “long march through the institutions” of Western culture.
This is the pedigree of Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers and the various ’60s revolutionaries who now inhabit positions of cultural influence throughout the West. We are seeing the fruit of their efforts: Socialist visions of family, religion, art, community, commerce, and politics pervade the culture.
I’m not suggesting that Americans or Europeans live in socialist states. That would trivialize the suffering of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Rather, I am suggesting that socialist ideas have transformed the way many of us think about a host of important things. Ideas considered radical only 75 years ago are now considered quite normal and even respectable.
Look, for instance, at co-habitation rates and the number of people who “do not believe in marriage” or view it as a “bourgeois” institution. Directly or indirectly, they got those ideas from people like Engels and Adorno, who argued that “the institution of marriage is raised… [on] barbaric sexual oppression, which tendentially compels the man to take lifelong responsibility for someone with whom he once took pleasure in sleeping with.” The same-sex “marriage” movement and hostility to the traditional family follow Engels’ goal to destroy “this present form of marriage.”
In other realms we see increasing secularization, religion being equated with intolerance, and decreasing religious practice. Look at the common acceptance of ethical and cultural relativism and the fear of making truth claims lest one be labeled an extremist. Look at the unquestioned supremacy of the materialist and Darwinist thought that dominates the scientific community — or the political correctness that pervades language. Look at our public school system, increasingly focused on indoctrination rather than education. We joke that the universities are the last bastion of Marxism. But who do we think writes the textbooks that teach primary and high school students? The “long march through the institutions” has been more successful than its early advocates could have dreamed.
Of course it would be simplistic to blame socialism for all that ails the West. But socialism has been the principle vehicle of many of these ideas, carrying them into the mainstream.
So how is it that, after such dramatic failures, socialism continues to allure? Perhaps because — as future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote — the Marxist dream of radical liberation still captures the modern imagination.
It’s a dream that will always betray because sustained liberty requires a certain moral culture: one that respects truth and conforms to it; one that recognizes the inherent dignity and spiritual nature of the person; one that respects the role of the family and encourages a rich and varied civil society; one that acknowledges that culture and religion are more important than politics; one that respects rule of law over the arbitrary rule of men and rejects utopian delusions; one that recognizes that the difference between right and wrong is not determined by majority, consensus or fashion; and, finally, one that recognizes that the ultimate source of liberty is God and not the state.
The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was one of the great victories for human freedom. But while the East suffered untold misery, perhaps it was too easy a victory for us in the West. We were lulled into thinking that socialism had been discredited, had lost its allure — that free market economies and abundant goods were sufficient to satisfy human desires. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to those like John Paul II or Alexander Solzhenitsyn who warned us about an empty materialism, an insidious relativism and a vitiated culture.
The challenges of socialist thought are real. But there is hope. There is hope in the resurgent resistance to the unprecedented growth of government. There is hope in the millions of families who work hard and in the thousands who make sacrifices for freedom every day. As we mark the victory of freedom and the collapse of applied socialism, let us not come to a point where we look back with regret that we forfeited such a precious gift. Let us build anew a culture of ordered liberty. Let us learn from those who suffered. Let us recover the wisdom that comes from our faith and our Founders and hold fast to the fragile light of liberty.
Michael Miller is the Director of Programs at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.