Friday, March 04, 2016

The Communist Era and Capitalism vs. Democracy

Sidney Hook’s 600-page autobiography Out of Step provides a wealth of information about New York intellectual life in the twentieth century, especially the communist era from the 1930s to 1960s.

It also indicates that the main debate today is not, or should not be, capitalism vs. socialism, but capitalism vs. democracy.

As Marxist scholar, communist fellow traveler, anti-Stalinist, pro-Cold Warrior, anti-New Leftist, and adamant defender of democracy, Hook knew or was acquainted with nearly all of the players of the communist era.

The difference between Hook and his Communist Party colleagues is that he actually read and thoroughly understood Karl Marx, so if he had been a professor in a USSR university in the 1920s and ‘30s, he, like others before him, certainly would have been purged.

The names of many of these players should be familiar to anyone who has read about or lived through any portion of the communist era, for example, playwright Bertolt Brecht, who was worshipped by my 1960s New Left professors, and journalist Whittaker Chambers. Hook has stories about all of them.

Brecht, one day in Hook’s apartment in 1935, made a casual remark about a Stalin-assigned assassination: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Hook showed Brecht the door and never saw him again.

Chambers was a Stalinist spy in the 1930s who, when he came in from the cold, was immediately hired by Time magazine. Chambers later testified against Alger Hiss, accusing the high-level State Department official of also being a former spy. Hiss was subsequently convicted of perjury and went to his death denying it all. Hook concluded the evidence was against him.*

Never a card-carrying Party member, Hook became anti-communist after the Moscow Show Trial revelations of 1936-38. He supported US entry into World War II against the Nazis while Party members, who took their orders from the Kremlin, opposed any support for the evil capitalist regime of the United States.

During the Cold War, when communist apologists were advocating unilateral disarmament on the part of the US and saying it was better to be red than dead, Hook supported a strong defense and pushed the slogan “better free than slave.”

His chapter on the New Left’s spring 1969 uprising at New York University, that is, its occupation and disruption of academic life, is detailed and alarming. His description of the corresponding spinelessness of the school’s administration is equally detailed and alarming.

Not a friend of the New Left in the 1960s, Hook declared its campaigners “anti-intellectual” and “barbarians of virtue.”

And to set the record straight on whether or not, in earlier years, Communist Party members had infiltrated US educational institutions—the New Left had rewritten history to say otherwise—Hook cites Communist Party instructions to its members to teach Marxist-Leninism in every class without being caught or exposed. This confirms what I once heard Ayn Rand say, this time in Hook’s words: the duty of card-carrying communists was “to deceive and to cheat.”

The main political debate throughout Hook’s life, especially as stated by him, was democracy vs. totalitarianism. Nazism, fascism, and Soviet communism represented the latter, but as a lifelong socialist—on moral, not economic, grounds—the former meant democratic socialism.
For Hook and his socialist colleagues, socialism is the ultimate end of Jeffersonian democracy and the Bill of Rights. This is sometimes called social democracy, though more often in the US its close cousin is social or progressive—as opposed to classical—liberalism. Social liberalism is an alleged improvement on the classical type.

At the end of his life (and book), Hook acknowledged that collective ownership of the means of production—the socialist state as giant post office, to use Lenin’s metaphor—does not work. Thus, he describes himself as “an unreconstructed believer in the welfare state and in a steeply progressive income tax.” Interventionism, in other words, with a strong leftward bias.

Although he spent many of his last years at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and was awarded the  Medal of Freedom in 1985 by President Reagan, Hook was no conservative. He was a secular humanist (and naturalist), which means he was a lifelong atheist and ardent supporter of science and scientific method.**

Democracy for Hook, however, was primary. He and nearly everyone else in the world today, including the Marxists and communists, seem to advocate democracy. So what does Hook mean by it?

In the absence of genus and differentia, he gives descriptions, such as “free discussion,” “freely given consent,” “voluntary [consent], not subject to coercion,” and, most importantly, the absence of economic obstructions to that consent and to the pursuit of education, jobs, and happiness.

Hook’s moral basis for being a socialist was, of course, his unexamined assumption that capitalism exploits workers. Socialists are more moral because they are “nicer” (meaning more altruistic, though Hook does not use the term) than the capitalists who are mean and selfish. Therefore, a crucial prerequisite of modern democracy is that economic power must be put under political control.

I say the main debate today is, or should be, capitalism vs. democracy, rather than vs. socialism, because of the near-universal endorsement of democracy and equally near-universal failure to define it. Hook’s somewhat muddled understanding is how most currently see it.

Socialism, to be sure, still needs to be refuted, though Ludwig von Mises did it thoroughly in 1922. And telling a naive voter that the government often abuses its legal monopoly on the use of physical force is likely to produce a “but we are the government and we can change it” response.

What percentage influence does a voter have in a typical US presidential election? Less than a millionth of a percent!

As I suggested in an earlier post, the vote is not unimportant in a free society, but it is neither primary nor fundamental. Hong Kong, after all, did quite well for decades with no general elections. What it did have was the English constitution and legal system.

This means that if democracy is a term to be endorsed at all, it must be defined as voting restrained by individual rights and those rights must be clearly distinguished from the collectivized versions of the social liberals. Individual rights are freedoms to take action, not entitlements to things, that is, to food, shelter, clothing, education, jobs, and happiness.

I’m tempted to say that democracy should be tossed entirely in defenses of the free society. If capitalism is understood as a social system, not just economic, it can be put where it belongs—in philosophy—and therefore cannot be dismissed as “just economic,” which most opponents and the ignorant alike do when the term comes up.

Discussions of social systems come from the fourth branch of philosophy called social (or political) philosophy. Social philosophy defines the nature and proper function of government, which brings rights and ethics into the discussion of capitalism, which means egoism should also be brought in, as well as a theory of human nature, and a theory of consciousness and universals, among other fundamental issues of epistemology and metaphysics.

Sidney Hook was a philosopher who knew about discussions of this sort, at the fundamental level, and used fundamentals to defend Marx and socialism. He was an advocate of Enlightenment values: reason, science, technology, freedom, and, of course, rights and democracy, as most socialists of his era were.

Defenders of the free society cannot just say they are advocates of the Enlightenment values of reason, science, technology, freedom, rights, and democracy . . . and expect to win arguments.

What is required today for a proper defense is the elevation—that is, the boosting, heightening, raising up—of discussion from our current concrete-bound, trivial, and disconnected mess to universal and fundamental principles.

Socialism was a moral ideal in the 1920s, ‘30s, and, according to Ayn Rand, until the end of World War II. As a practical ideal it died with the USSR collapse in 1991, yet its flotsam lingers in 2016 to obstruct passage to a genuinely free society.

It lingers by default because of the lack of principled opposition.

Sidney Hook was a significant member of the generation that sought to promote a moral ideal. His book provides lessons for anyone in 2016 who wishes to do the same, this time, one would hope, promoting the ideal of laissez-faire capitalism and all that it rests on.

* Chambers became a neoconservative and wrote the infamously sleazy review of Atlas Shrugged in William Buckley’s National Review. “From almost any page,” says Chambers, “a voice can be heard . . . commanding: ‘To a gas chamber–go!’” Chambers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1984 by President Reagan.

** F. A. Hayek, in “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” points out that conservatives are not averse to using coercion to achieve their goals and he even suggests that coercion is the common denominator uniting “repentant socialists” (like Whittaker Chambers) and conservatism. True (classical) liberalism, says Hayek, supports liberty over equality or democracy.

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