Democratic Socialism – Oxymoron?
“Democracy” contemplates decentralization. “Socialism” contemplates top-down, centralized control.
Eric Blair, a committed Socialist, joined the Brigadas Internacionales in Spain to fight Franco’s Fascists. This was late 1936. By that time he had already been publishing under the name George Orwell.
He and other liberal democrats had observed the march of Fascism in Italy and Germany from the 1920’s and into the 1930’s. “If not now, when?” he seemed to ask of himself. When and where would liberal democrats finally organize resistance and fight back? In choosing a hill that they would be willing to die on, they chose Spain. They chose to risk it all in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). “When the fighting broke out on 18 July , it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last,” he continued:
… was democracy standing up to Fascism. For years past the so-called democratic countries had been surrendering to Fascism at every step. The Japanese had been allowed to do as they liked in Manchuria. Hitler had walked into power and proceeded to massacre political opponents of all shades. Mussolini had bombed the Abyssinians while fifty-three nations … made pious noises ‘off.’ But when Franco tried to overthrow a mildly Left-wing Government, the Spanish people, against all expectation, had risen against him. It seemed – possibly it was – the turning of the tide.
Orwell soon joined the Socialists’ militia on the Aragon front in Spain. One of his comrades explained to him that the Socialists occupy the trenches in this part of the line; the Communists occupy that part over there, and the Anarchists occupy those trenches further down the line. “[T]he kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions with their tiresome names – P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T.” exasperated Orwell. “Aren’t we all Socialists,” in which case, shouldn’t the collective, anti-Fascist effort have been more coordinated and centralized rather than disaggregated by party affiliation?
Orwell goes on to observe that the Anarchists were a little disorganized – of course. Being disorganized, steeped in a kind of studied, militant leaderlessness was their schtick. The Communists, in contrast, explicitly backed by the Soviets, were very serious about organization. They imposed rigid, top-down hierarchy on themselves. A difficulty from Orwell’s perspective was that they worked to impose that same hierarchy on everyone else participating in the anti-Fascist effort. That would, Orwell would learn, involve the Communists coolly executing the “necessary assassinations” of selected liberal democrats and anarchists.
Orwell was appalled, so much so that he became motivated to compose Homage to Catalonia (1938), his account of his experience of fighting during the war. He urgently wanted to disabuse observers comfortably ensconced in Blighty of the view that the war was about good liberal democrats fighting bad Fascists. These were people who, like himself, “had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of colonel blimps in the pay of Hitler.” These were the people for whom “it was considered eccentric in literary circles to not be more or less ‘left,’” and it was for them that the Communist International had suddenly shifted its slogans “from red to pink.” “‘World Revolution’ and ‘Social-fascism’ gave way to ‘Defence of Democracy’ and ‘Stop Hitler.’”
The Fascists, meanwhile, may have maintained an almost-totalitarian, corporatist concept of how the country should run and of who should run it: corporate power and the state should effectively merge and run the country. The Soviet-backed Communists maintained an actually totalitarian vision of the how the country should run: the state should absorb all corporate power and run the country as one big enterprise. That vision did not accommodate Anarchists or those among the Socialists who were fighting to restore and preserve liberal democratic institutions.
Orwell was one of those liberal democrats, and he literally stuck his neck out to fight for what he believed in. He ended up taking a sniper’s bullet through the neck. A fraction of an inch further right or left, and the bullet might have ruptured an artery; Orwell would have become a forgettable and forgotten statistic. He picked a hill on which to die, boots on and all, and he very nearly succeeded.
One thing Orwell did succeed at was getting out of Spain – barely – just as the Communists were rounding up Socialists and making them disappear. But it was just before he first showed up in Spain that Orwell had managed to get a few hours in Paris to talk with Henry Miller. Orwell was fascinated with Miller. Here was a writer, very recently occupied with crafting Tropic of Cancer, who had been whoring and drinking his way through the Paris of the early-1930’s. That was not merely passé. It was anachronistic. The Paris of the 1920’s, having survived two nearly successful efforts of the Germans to overrun it in 1914 and then 1918, became a place cheap enough to enable obscure artists and writers to share drinks and dinners with their friends, lovers and companions of convenience. Hard to imagine a Paris accessible to penniless artists in this day and age.
Miller explained that Orwell’s mission of trying to save the world from Fascism was folly at best. More likely was it just an exercise in ego. Better to devote oneself to one’s writing than to risk taking a bullet through the neck at the hands of Fascists or a bullet in the back of the head at the hands of Stalinists.
One of Orwell’s great strengths was the capacity to listen. He had the great capacity to put that ego aside and to examine ideas sharply contrary to his own ideas about how the world could and should be made to work. Orwell was fascinated that Miller could absorb himself in his on-and-off whoring and drinking and writing while, according to Miller himself, “Our civilization was destined to be swept away and replaced by something so different that we should scarcely regard it as human – a prospect that did not bother him...” Indeed, “Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney,” according to Miller.
His fascination and puzzlement with Miller notwithstanding, Orwell did not give up on his mission to do something! He pressed on to Spain where, he later observed, “One had breathed the air of equality.”
The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality. Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stage of Socialism might be like.
Orwell ventured to Spain as a committed man of the Left. He was committed enough to risk taking bullets and to risk oblivion in the defense of “Democratic Socialism.” He absconded from Spain as a committed man of the Left, and he remained committed to the preservation and, where necessary, the restoration of democratic process.
Orwell remained committed until succumbing to tuberculosis in 1950. He remained committed even when he crafted novels that took on the Stalinist Totalitarianism being instituted in the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Even so, Orwell was never very clear about what he meant by “Democratic Socialism”. Specifically, how does one merge democratic process with an economic system that imposes economic egalitarianism? Is the idea that we all agree on the right economic system – the Socialism bit – but we use democratic process to elect the right, competent people to run the system? Having agreed on imposing the right system, does “our democracy” amount to a comfortable governance-by-consensus? What happens, however, if we disagree about how the system should be designed? What if consensus is hard to achieve? Do we then need to impose Socialist orthodoxy by force? If so, is “Democratic Socialism” an oxymoron?
In the run up to the 2020 elections in the United States, a friend of mine, an effective and committed Bernie organizer, called me up to get my view of what constituted “Democratic Socialism”. She perceived that the “Socialist” label was hurting Bernie in the polls. But, surely there was something to it. Democracy! Socialism! What’s not to like? Perhaps it just had to be marketed more effectively.
It is hard not think that what is going on here is that “Democratic Socialism” merges a warm, fuzzy concept of government-by-consensus (“democracy”) with Orwell’s warm, fuzzy “mystique of Socialism”. Indeed, it is a great tragedy that no one (to my knowledge) managed to pin down Orwell in an interview on his thinking about Democratic Socialism. It’s hard not to think that his view of Stalinist Russia might have evolved in early 1930’s from hopefulness and anticipation that the Soviets’ First Five Year Plan (1928-1932) would usher in the Socialist Paradise to a perception that “They were doing Socialism wrong”. That hopefulness and anticipation was de rigueur among the correct-thinking people of the Left, a point upon which Eugene Lyons, an observer on the ground in Soviet Russia, beautifully and patiently elaborated in Assignment in Utopia (1937). But, the emerging understanding that implementing the Five Year Plan had involved impressing millions of inconvenient people into slave labor, including millions of Ukrainians, proved for observers like Orwell and Lyons to be too inconvenient to ignore. In the spirit of “They were doing Socialism wrong” Orwell could suggest that “many people who are not repelled by Socialism are repelled by Socialists. [My emphasis] Socialism, as now presented, is unattractive largely because it appears … to be the plaything of cranks, doctrinaires, parlour Bolsheviks and so forth.” But, “We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.” Easier said than done, however. Stripping out the nonsense involves underappreciated and under-explored questions about how society could actually implement Orwell’s warm, fuzzy vision. Perhaps it is not implementable.
That last passage about fighting for justice and liberty comes from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Orwell had been commissioned by some of those doctrinaire cranks to report on the living and working conditions of coal miners in the North of England. He inquired of one fellow what impressions he had of the “housing crisis.” This fellow indicated that he hadn’t given it a thought until Orwell had introduced the topic… So, maybe this perception of crisis, Orwell thought, was more a function of elite, and thus Left, opinion. And that elite opinion, he observed, seemed to be maintained by upper class people who demonstrated that they really were not interested in getting beyond class and its attendant boot-licking. “I get the impression that, to them, the whole Socialist movement is no more than a kind of exciting heresy-hunt” to root out those less than entirely caught up in the “adulation of Russia” or the fetishization of “the horrible jargon that nearly all Socialists think is necessary to employ.”
Orwell did not experience a blinding flash on The Road to Wigan Pier, but that road led him far along his way toward leaving the Left. He did not leave his Leftism, but he did leave his tribe of (upper class, elitist) Leftists. Orwell notes toward the end of the book that he was getting ready to head off to Spain. That experience in Spain marked his final break with the Left just as Eugene Lyons’s experience in Russia reporting for United Press International broke the spell of the kind of Upper East Side adulation of Stalin’s Russia to which he had become abundantly familiar.
Why aren’t liberals who have been mugged by certain epiphanies about the illiberalism of the Progressive left leaving the Left and joining the Right? That would be one over-simplified way of posing the question that motivated commentator Douglass Murray to compose his essay “Why Is the Right So Unattractive?” Murray finds himself puzzling over why certain self-avowed conservatives such as Ben Shapiro find themselves puzzling over why certain self-avowed liberals appear (1) to have red-pilled themselves out of their liberalism but (2) have yet to explicitly align themselves with those same conservatives. “Bill Maher, Bari Weiss and a slew of other liberals who have fallen out with their own tribe have chosen not to identify as conservative," Murray observes. "Rather than ignoring this trend, conservatives need to ask themselves: what is it about the Right that is so unappealing that people who agree almost entirely with its views resile from joining its ranks?”
A compelling explanation, Murray suggests, would be that the Left left these people of the Left. These people are still occupied with their left, liberal preferences. They're still people of the Left. The experience of the last few years may have induced contributors like Bari Weiss to explicitly revisit "individual rights" in some of her commentaries – the kind of thing that some card-carrying conservatives might identify as a more conservative preoccupation – but these people have not become conservatives.
It is hard not to agree with Murray’s assessment. In this essay I suggest that the experiences of these people of the Left are not entirely novel. Many others before them have become alienated from the Left but may have maintained strong preferences for left-leaning policies. Two examples: George Orwell and Eugene Lyons. I feature vignettes of a few other fellow travelers below. But, I would also suggest, however, that the experiences of all these people also share some common structure. Most notably, there is tension between left-leaning policy preferences and individual rights, the stuff of actual liberalism. The implementation of the former can do violence to the latter. The business of containing that violence amounts to talking about governance.
The committed Communist Ignazio Silone contributed a beautiful essay to The God That Failed (1949), a collection of essays about people of the Left who either found themselves the target of Orwellian heresy-hunts or found themselves voluntarily leaving the doctrinaire Left. The two salient features of Silone’s testimonial are (1) his actually warm and fuzzy experiences with democratic process and (2) his shock and disappointment to find that the Bolsheviks really had no interest in discussing issues. With respect to the latter he could observe:
What struck me most about the Russian Communists, even in such exceptional personalities as Lenin and Trotsky, was their utter incapacity to be fair in discussing opinions that conflicted with their own. The adversary, simply for daring to contradict, at once became a traitor, an opportunist, a hireling. An adversary in good faith is inconceivable to the Russian Communists… To find a comparable infatuation one has to go back to the Inquisition. (Emphasis in the original.)
The Inquisition, or the same thing, the Counter Reformation, was not strictly a Spanish affair. That’s why we distinguish the “Spanish Inquisition” as a distinct process. But this business of declaring politically inconvenient people as heretics and then using that as excuse to cancel them by burning them at the stake was a feature of Inquisition-consistent activities across Christendom. In Britain it could be worse: to be drawn-and-quartered amounted to being hung, just enough so that it would hurt. Then one would be burned, then castrated, then otherwise dismembered, then beheaded, and then, finally, exhibited, in bits, to the public. The public would get the message. Indeed, people like those politically inconvenient Separatists (“The Pilgrims”) got the message and did not risk starvation and death by exposure in the New World for nothing. But, that is the subject of another forthcoming essay that concentrates on “individual rights” and actually liberal governance.
For now, I observe that The Collected Works of Lenin run 45 volumes, and one does not have to look too hard to discern Lenin’s attitude about how to deal with the proponents of inconvenient opinions. His strategy was not to endeavor to bring such people to his view or to agree-to-disagree but rather to “destroy” these people, to get them canceled. And you do that by getting the mass of other people to adopt your view. Whether they believe in your view or not is another matter. Bullying them in to going along with it, and thereby isolating those willing to advance contrary views, achieves the result. Does this not sound familiar?
Bolshevik governance, Silone discovered in the early 1920’s, looked a lot like the Stalinist governance that Orwell encountered in Spain. Lenin’s Bolsheviks and then the Stalin’s Stalinists were not interested in accommodating diversity of opinion. They were interested in imposing top-down hierarchical control and the uniformity of their thought. Nothing democratic about it. Full stop.
Silone, meanwhile, did have good experience with the positive change that democratic process could enable. He recounted his experience as a seven-year-old boy with the first-ever elections in his alpine, Southern Italian town. “The Prince,” as they knew him, the scion of a family with noble roots going back, likely, to the Angevin Kingdom of Sicily, put himself up for election as a deputy to parliament. He made a point of being chauffeured from village to village in his “horseless carriage,” waving to the peasants along the road like the Queen waves to her subjects. “Two days later a strange little old man arrived from Rome; he wore glasses … Nobody knew him. He said he was an oculist and had put himself up as candidate against the Prince… ‘Remind your parents that the vote is secret. Nothing else.’”
The careful, deliberate talk on the square and in the alleys favored The Prince, but election day came, the people cast their votes, and the little old man from Rome crushed The Prince. “It was a great scandal; the authorities called it sheer treachery. But the treachery was of such proportions that the agents of the [Prince’s] estate could not take any reprisals against anyone.” Silone was delighted.
Silone went on to observe that occasional elections are all well and good, but he puzzled over how such expressions of “the will of the people” might be more effectively institutionalized and operationalized. That is a big topic that pertains to larger questions about governance. But, the immediate point was that the elections did demonstrate a big break with the more feudalistic mode of governance that had been in place since at least the 12th century. A warm, fuzzy victory for democracy! Perhaps a leopard could be made to change its spots.
I open the book The Economics of Adaptation and Long-term Relationships (2019) with a passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go (1951) on the governance of Go tournaments:
When a law is made, the cunning that finds loopholes goes to work. One cannot deny that there is a certain slyness among younger players, a slyness which, when rules are written to prevent slyness, makes use of the rules themselves.
Paraphrasing a passage from The Economics of Adaptation: The Master of Go was a literary exploration of institutional alternatives. Kawabata used changes implemented after World War II in the governance of Go tournaments as a way of exploring tradeoffs between modes of governing social relations more generally. Specifically, he explored rules-versus-discretion tradeoffs between traditional, feudalistic modes of governance (that depended more on deference to age and rank) and rules-based, democratic modes (that depended on “modern rationalism” and “regulation”). Lost in the transition from traditional modes to rules-based modes was “the fragrance of Go as an art” in that “One conducted the battle only to win”. Sacrificed was “the finesse and subtlety of the warrior’s way [the chivalric code of Bushido, 武士道], the mysterious elegance of an art”. Alas, “[t]he Master was accustomed not to this new equality but to old-fashioned prerogatives …; and so it would seem that, … his juniors had imposed the strictest rules to restrain his dictatorial tendencies.” More generally, “the Master could not [be permitted to] stand outside the rules of equality.”
That opening passage was intended to illuminate the point that the choice between democratic governance and traditional, feudalistic governance involved more than just tradeoffs. Suggesting that there could be tradeoffs at all could make for a provocative proposition in our self-consciously progressive day and age. The larger point, however, pertained to strategic behaviors: rules-based, democratic governance could yet be gamed and manipulated; “democracy” isn’t necessarily warm and fuzzy. It does not obviously entail governance-by-consensus. Rather, the opening passage illuminates the point that the reason we have governance in the first place is to manage conflict between parties who behave strategically – which is everyone. (Let there be no humbug about that.) Among other things, how do we decide what policy or decision to pursue when we can’t agree on what would constitute the best policy or best decision? It gets worse: How do we decide what to do when one or more parties are behaving strategically and are gaming the system? Can we come up with a system that is less susceptible to gamesmanship? (Dictatorship would do the trick; less motivation for gamesmanship there, because the dictator simply imposes his preferences.) But can the system additionally make some accommodation for the interests of parties in the minority? (So, dictatorship would not do the trick, because the dictator is not required to accommodate other preferences.) Alas, we need to take care to design genuinely democratic processes.
In the aftermath of that 9/11, The New Yorker magazine solicited commentaries from various New York luminaries. Many (most?) observers may labor under the illusion that “democracy” constitutes a kind of warm, fuzzy governance-by-consensus, but Susan Sontag was way more sophisticated. She maintained a more Madisonian view of “our democracy”. From The New Yorker, September 17, 2001:
Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.
Susan Sontag’s suggestion seems consistent with Milan Kundera’s perspective on the kitschiness of our (increasingly totalitarian, yet ostensibly democratic) politics. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984):
Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence...
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch...
And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing, they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it into the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements...
In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions...
From that time on, she [Sabina] began to insert mystifications into her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life [because she had escaped Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968].
I label Susan Sontag's view of democratic process as "Madisonian" and not, say, “Rousseauian,” because James Madison explicitly articulated an understanding of democratic process that was contrary to the more intuitive governance-by-consensus view that one can find in the writings of his contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (More on Rousseau and his successors in a separate essay.) Rousseau, if not Plato, would be a good candidate for patron saint of the “common good.” The whole point of democratic process would be to secure consensus about what constitutes the common good and then to come up with policies to implement it. Society would be justified in canceling anyone who expressed disagreement, because, after all, such people must be either corrupt, stupid or misinformed. (Does that not sound familiar?) The Madisonian concept was revolutionary in that it gave up on the idea that the common good really is a well-defined thing. Rather, we need to come up with processes for managing conflict between “factions,” as Madison called them, without resorting to traditional ways of doing such things – to wit: by imposing dictatorship or canceling people with inconvenient views and policy preferences. The Madisonian view was sophisticated and revolutionary in 1787. It was sophisticated a week after 9/11. It is counter-cultural, even radical, in our neo-progressive age.
Let’s return to Douglass Murray’s question: “Why Is the Right So Unattractive?” One reason I would submit in the affirmative is that “conservatism” – whatever that is – is burdened with its own kitsch. In The Conservative Mind (1953) Russell Kirk suggests that conservatism distinguishes itself along at least along six dimensions. The first would be “Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty, which links great and obscure, living and dead…” The second is “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life …” Third: “[t]he only true equality is moral equality…”
These things are all well and good and may, or may not, correspond to any one person’s heavily developed concept of conservatism, but none of these things speak to governance – “governance” being shorthand for the processes we commit to for sorting out disagreements and conflict.
And then there’s Liberal Kitsch. It is burdened with its own articles of faith and performative, self-conscious rituals and often proves to be more illiberal than the more conservative alternatives. But, if self-avowed liberals are discovering that the illiberalism of liberalism has alienated them – if they’re discovering that there really is something to restoring and implementing processes that enable us as a society to respect individual rights – then maybe those dead white men (and women) of the 17th and 18th centuries were on to something. Maybe our neo-progressive era has regressed to the pre-Enlightenment Inquisition and we need to revisit ideas that have been with us for 300 years. Perhaps we could stand for some remedial reading.
January 29 update: Here is a nine-minute video monologue of Bill Maher himself explaining that “It's not me who's changed; it is the left”: https://youtu.be/OdJOLMgY4p0?t=74
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 From Orwell’s essay “Inside the Whale” about Henry Miller’s almost unique place among writers in the 1930’s.
 Contrast this result with the infamous line from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1958), which goes something to the effect of “If we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change.”)