||« Back to Whatever Happened to Socialism? main page
Whatever Happened to Socialism?
Ben Wattenberg: The Twentieth Century has been called the Age of Ideology. One idea stands out as perhaps the most influential of all: Socialism. Some believe it is the most humane political idea ever invented, the key to peace and prosperity. Others accuse it of creating poverty and giving rise to the bloodiest regimes of the Twentieth Century. Did Socialism fulfill its promise? Perhaps most important, does Socialism still exist? Think Tank listens to several views. We are joined by Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. And Norman Birnbaum, emeritus professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century. The topic before the house: Whatever happened to Socialism?
Socialism has its intellectual roots in the motto of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” With the emphasis on Equality. But it wasn’t until 1848, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published a small pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto, that the idea began to take some shape.
Marx and Engels interpreted history as a series of class struggles between the worker and the owners of capital. Marx argued that, by abolishing private property, Socialism would insure equal distribution of society’s wealth, which in turn would lead to a utopian, classless society.
In 1917, out of the wreckage and poverty of the Russian Empire, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin began assembling the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Lenin’s dictatorship, under the banner of Communism, set in motion sixty years of collectivization, turmoil and violence. Some Socialists bought into the Soviet experiment, but many regarded it as a betrayal of true Socialist principles.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signalled the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and its satellite Communist regimes. Some said it marked the end of Socialism. Others maintained that it cleared the way for true Socialism to emerge.
Gentlemen, Josh Muarvchik and Norman Birnbaum, thank you so much for joining us on Think Tank. You heard already on the set up piece that I conflate Socialism with communism and social democracy and democratic Socialism. Let’s see if we can clear away the underbrush to begin with, briefly starting with you Norman Birnburm, how do you define this thing we call Socialism?
Norman Birnbaum: Well of course it’s difficult to define such an amorphous historical movement over a couple of centuries in different countries. But I would say if you look at Western Democratic Socialism, which is the one that interests me, it’s an effort to enlarge the sphere of individual freedom by releasing people from economic, from undo and unnecessary economic constraint and exploitation. And I think it’s also an effort to democratize spheres of life that haven’t previously been reached by formal parliamentary means.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay, I don’t think you agree with that.
Josh Muravchik: No I would put it much more simply, which is that the idea of Socialism is the collective ownership of property and its egalitarian distribution.
Ben Wattenberg: Now he says, Norman says that gives you greater freedom, you think it gives you greater freedom that you, if you…well let me ask you, Norman, you say this gives greater freedom, he says it’s collectivization.
Norman Birnbaum: Well it gives great…
Ben Wattenberg: Do you believe that collectivization yields greater freedom?
Norman Birnbaum: Under certain conditions of democratic control by the larger society, the workforce, and due safeguards against the monopolization of economic power or oligarchization.
Ben Wattenberg: Now he indicates and you indicated in your book, Socialism is regarded by its adherents often as a religion or a substitute for religion.
Norman Birnbaum: Well I think at the beginning, it certainly was very much a secular religion, following the French Revolutionary, religion of reason.
Ben Wattenberg: I mean, that’s a contradiction of terms.
Ben Wattenberg: A secular religion and…
Norman Birnbaum: No I don’t think it is and it’s a religion, a religious belief in the future of mankind….
Ben Wattenberg: But without a divine component.
Norman Birnbaum: With out a divine component, because they felt wrongly as it turned out that the churches were always on the side of the rich or the exploiting classes. In fact, one of the interesting things about Socialism is how it’s parallel to what you could call social Christianity, whether in its Protestant or Catholic versions, but you’ve contributed to things like the rise of the welfare state in tandem and collaboration with the Socialists just like the New Deal…
Ben Wattenberg: Okay.
Norman Birnbaum: Is impossible to think of without social Catholicism.
Ben Wattenberg: Now, the United States of America. What about it?
Josh Muravchik: The United States, there were, there was a socialist party, there were a variety of socialist parties, but it never really gained a foot hold here, uh, ….
Ben Wattenberg: That got more votes than Pat Buchanan.
Josh Muravchik: They did get more at it’s height, Eugene Victor Debbs running as a socialist party candidate for President before World War One, got six percent of the vote…
Ben Wattenberg: That’s not bad for…
Josh Muravchik: Not bad but it turned out to be I mean, the Socialists thought it was their stepping stone upward but it turned out to be the apex. But I would argue that contrary to the Marx scheme of Socialism coming out of the working class, that everywhere in the world, the socialist movement started out as small parties, made up overwhelmingly of educated middle class even upper class people. Now remember Lenin had a title of nobility and one could on and on and these…
Norman Birnbaum: They were cheap in Russia in those days.
Ben Wattenberg: Titles were cheap.
Josh Muravchik: The American workers had a much greater sense of equality, of self confidence, they didn’t have the sense that the upper class were naturally their betters and when the same type of middle class, upper class socialist thinkers came along and said, “Here’s what you guys should adopt,” they received it much more skeptically. And so that you had a process in America in which socialist ideas kept being brought here by European immigrants who had become socialists over there and when they got here, they dropped the Socialism.
Ben Wattenberg: And who were the two key players?
Josh Muravchik: Well the first one was Samuel Gompers, who was the man who really created the AF of L, the American Labor Movement, who was in his teens a socialist, who even studied German so he could read Marx in the original and then decided that it was all a snare and delusion, that workers should join unions, fight for higher pay, better working conditions but not for a whole new society.
Ben Wattenberg: And who is the second one in that, because I know we’re going to get…
Josh Muravchik: And then a generation later, Gompers’s heir is George Meaney, who not only follows him in this realm, but becomes one of the main fighters in destroying communism in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Ben Wattenberg: I want to ask a question, the argument is made that America never formed a true socialist movement or a true socialist party because it did not have a history of feudalism and serfdom. There was not this class distinction and, indeed, Americans, throughout their history on this continent, prided themselves on having a classless society. Now obviously it wasn’t classless, but the class differentiation was much, much less and Americans prided themselves on being able to stand up and put their two cents in, where, in Europe, you had this sort of aristocratic lineage.
Norman Birnbaum: Well I mean, you know we’ve had, there was the great problem of the Blacks who were second class citizens, if citizens at all, and there were also the problems of the slower integration of immigrants, Irish need not apply and so on which were, and they were ethnic class…
Ben Wattenberg: But they were overcome.
Norman Birnbaum: They were overcome, however in the context, they were overcome politically in the context of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, who opened up a little bit for Blacks but certainly a lot for Catholics and Jews and don’t forget the New Deal encouraged an enormous wave of industrial organization. The modern American prosperity is owing to the New Deal, not alone to social security and it’s traditions but I think to the fact that you got a highly organized and prosperous labor force so that by nineteen forty five…
Ben Wattenberg: Well then what…just hold on a minute, what created the prosperity not only of the 1920s if you say it was FDR and the New Deal that did it, I mean America almost from it’s inception had the highest standard of living of any country in the world so how can you come along and say it wasn’t until the 1930s that we got our prosperity?
Norman Birnbaum: Is it prosperity alone or is that it would undermine the possibility of Socialism in this country, or is it somehow the extreme degree of mobility, ethnic difference, ethnical indeed, racial differentiation, is it to some extent the fact that minima of the welfare state where on, where at hand with social security and later with things like Medicare which were great welfare state institutions.
Josh Muravchik: But you aren’t arguing that the welfare state in America was larger or thicker than in Europe …
Norman Birnbaum: No but I think…
Josh Muravchik: On the contrary that Europe you did have the emergence of these much larger socialist movements, socialist parties so you can’t…
Ben Wattenberg: Now hold on one sec, I want to ask you a question. Norman, you claim credit for what you call the welfare state. In America “welfare state” has always been a bad word, we use the word “safety net” or something but…
Norman Birnbaum: Call it what you like.
Ben Wattenberg: But there is another root of that whole tradition, and it comes from the conservative side which is Bismarck, who created, I think, the first social security system.
Norman Birnbaum: Yes in response to the German social democrats.
Ben Wattenberg: Well you know, which was in response to this and in response to that, but I mean this has not been a unitary property of socialists or their allies, the idea of a safety net.
Norman Birnbaum: I would agree and I think that, I think in this country in particular, social Christianity, social doctrines in the Catholic Church, which pushed a lot of people who are Catholic into the union movement. And the liberal social doctrines of Protestantism with doctrines of collect, of individual but collective responsibilities for one’s neighbors, had an enormous role as well and this was a form of religious social democracy.
Ben Wattenberg: OK, Europe is headed ever more towards a market economy, can we agree on that?
Norman Birnbaum: Um, no.
Ben Wattenberg: No, but you would agree with that?
Josh Muravchik: I would say yes, and I think that the point here is that starting back a couple of generations ago, social democrats believe that every accretion of the social safety net, the welfare state, was a further step forward toward an economy that would ultimately be completely dominated by the state or planned by the state or socially owned or something.
Norman Birnbaum: Regulated and steered might be the word.
Josh Muravchik: There were different versions of it. And what’s happened is that there is across the board recognition in Europe, in the social democratic parties themselves that that was wrong. That in fact the wealth of society is created in the private section, by capitalism, by private businesses, that you can have high taxes up to a certain point, you can take some of that wealth and redistribute it, you can take it and build public projects or social insurance or what have you, but if you take too much you’re going to throw such a wet blanket on the economy that there’s going to be nothing left. And they all have come to accept that and so now there is an agreement, there is tinkering here and Europe about the exact size of the welfare state, the safety net. But the old image of a transition, step-by-step, toward a whole new system, is just gone.
Norman Birnbaum: First of all, if you have a society, and I think the Europeans are beginning to realize, the European social democrats are beginning to think more about this, after the initial propaganda impulse given to the so-called Third Way, if you have a society…
Ben Wattenberg: Propaganda is what the other guy says, is that right?
Norman Birnbaum: Yeah, well, always.
Ben Wattenberg: And principle is what you say.
Norman Birnbaum: Yeah of course, we understand each other perfectly. I think that if you have a society in which people are going to move from job to job in which there is a high degree of technological change, a faster pace of social change generally, the case or the need for a social safety network, for some kind of general solution when people are between jobs or need retraining, is greater then when they get lifetime employment, let’s say in a state or private steel mill and work there from eighteen to sixty, so that you’re now finding in Europe all kinds of transitional schemes. European trade unions are trying to develop this and work this in terms of the common market. Some of the new technocrats in France, I just read it in today’s Financial Times, in which…
Ben Wattenberg: But isn’t the operative word “trying”? I mean, President Sweeney came in as President of the AFL CIO, and he said he was going to try to increase recruitment and reverse this slide of labor union membership and he tried but he…it is, it seems to me, a steady progression all over the industrial world for some of the reasons that you cited.
Norman Birnbaum: Well some of the reasons but I think that there’s no reason for a white collar labor force not to be in unions, I imagine the ENRON people wish now that they had had a union with some power to scrutinize the company’s books. But that apart, I think in the Western world, people are realizing that this is…one of the heirs, by the way, to the western socialist movement is the globalization movement, or the movement that seeks a more civilized control, democratic, egalitarian form of control, the processes that we call globalization.
Ben Wattenberg: If in a country where a person is making a dollar a day. And an international business comes in and says we’re going to pay two dollars a day, you can still, you can define it as cheap labor and I can define it as a doubling of income. Now the fact is that cheap labor, inexpensive labor whatever it is, just the way the world has come about, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, is, in Adam Smith’s terms, the great comparative advantage of the …
Norman Birnbaum: Yeah remember…
Ben Wattenberg: And you are robbing them of that.
Norman Birnbaum: Well, I’m robbing…
Ben Wattenberg: Shame on you.
Norman Birnbaum: I’m robbing nobody of anything, I’m pointing out that that two dollars a day increase may be bought at a high price, it may be bought at the destruction of systems of familial and local support in villages as people crowd into cities with miserable slum conditions.
Josh Muravchik: We have very powerful empirical examples here. Which is, we have a whole bunch of very poor third world countries that tried some socialist road to development, insisting that they just couldn’t let unbridled enterprise, unbridled investment go ahead, and those countries stagnated, they simply stagnated for a generation or two of more or less zero economic growth and then we got a handful of some dissidents, so to speak, the …
Norman Birnbaum: Name them.
Josh Muravchik: Well there was South Korea and Taiwan.
Norman Birnbaum: Confucian cultures with long literate traditions as opposed to…
Josh Muravchik: And Chile, and you know, Confucian cultures…but the same Confucian cultures…
Ben Wattenberg: And…China.
Josh Muravchik: And China. Under a socialist economy, they went backwards or nowhere. And the same Confucian culture when you, when they decided to enter the global economy, and to key their own development to international trade, and to wooing foreign investment, they had spectacular economic growth.
Norman Birnbaum: Yeah, but you know spectacular…
Ben Wattenberg: Hold on…
Norman Birnbaum: It’s a figure. What are its human consequence, how is it distributed?
Ben Wattenberg: Okay that’s what I want to ask, let’s talk about human beings.
Norman Birnbaum: Course we had spectacular growth too in the nineteenth century.
Ben Wattenberg: Right, and it was good generally speaking.
Norman Birnbaum: And generally it was good.
Ben Wattenberg: For the broad base of humanity. Let’s talk about people. People in the year 2002, are they better off under a centralized, I use the old phrase, command economy, or are they better off where entrepreneurism flourishes?
Norman Birnbaum: I don’t think…
Ben Wattenberg: Let’s talk about people now.
Norman Birnbaum: Oh, that’s a great antithesis only it doesn’t work that way. The fact is, one has to have a minimum consideration as to issues of equality, capacity for economic, personal development of these same human beings, their health and their education. And that the market alone doesn’t guarantee.
Ben Wattenberg: Josh, are people better off under a market economy, or?
Josh Muravchik: Yes they’re better off under a market economy, I don’t disagree with Norm that there is a role for …
Norman Birnbaum: You’ve made my day.
Josh Muravchik: …for a social safety net and for government involvement to protect the old, the young, the widow, the orphan, the infirm and so on and to provide various services, educational libraries and so on and to provide various services, education libraries and so on. I don’t think we’re arguing here about whether or not there should be a laissez fair state or state, night watchmen state where the government does nothing but provide police and military but the other part of his formula I do disagree very strongly with. Which is once you get the government owning business, producing automobiles, producing steel, making economic plans and so on, we have a wealth of experience with this in all different parts of the world and it’s always, at best, inefficient and, at worst, at uh..Uh a real disaster.
Norman Birnbaum: What are combined forms of ownership? For instance, Volkswagen is owned by the government of Lower Saxony.
Josh Muravchik: But it’s not run by the state government.
Ben Wattenberg: Norman, I want to ask you a question and we have to set a move toward wrapping it up, when you say…
Norman Birnbaum: Yes?
Ben Wattenberg: Market Socialism, that is something to consider and it is…doesn’t that historically indicate that Socialism has fallen back a notch, it is not standing for what it used to stand, it is sort of retrenching and saying, lets regroup and reform and that the battle field is now much closer toward a market economy then it was, that, I mean, because after we started out for the wither goest the world, and that’s…
Norman Birnbaum: All right, well I think that’s a fair question but I think there’s another answer to that and it’s yes Socialism and democratic Socialism is so suddenly gone back from the notion of total planification kind of Aldous Huxley’s brave new world and all those fantasies. That’s clear, on the other hand, the notion of diversified forms of public ownership close to local communities, close to the workers running them gives us the opening for the new kind of sensibility in which Socialism comes closer to it’s original democratic roots.
Josh Muravchik: I think it’s, maybe harsh for me to say, but almost perverse to try to keep alive, which is what you seem to be doing Norman, somehow to keep alive this socialist idea and find a new form and a new form and a new form for it. This is an idea which not only has proven to be very inefficient economically but if we grant to the socialist that they contributed something positive in their European social democracy and building welfare states. We have …
Ben Wattenberg: And the New Deal.
Josh Muravchik: The New Deal maybe, I mean Norman Thomas was asked, how do you like the way President Roosevelt is carrying out your platform? And Thomas the old socialist leader said, “ yeah he’s carrying it out on a stretcher”, the socialists did not take credit for the New Deal back then, but let’s say we give Socialism credit for having contributed to the New Deal, and so on. On the other side of this ledger we have this most horrendous murderous regimes in history, the five most murderous rulers in history, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, all called themselves socialists, took scores of millions of lives, it seems to me the balance sheet for the pursuit of this idea is waited very heavily on the negative side, why do we want to strain to somehow give it a new and a new life when it’s show itself otherwise to be so bankrupt and so often to be so damaging?
Norman Birnbaum: Well because I think that there are valuable elements in the tradition. You don’t propose to throw out, let’s say, Christianity, because of the Crusades, violent religious persecution, the German Christians who went along with gas chambers, and so on. Every tradition is polyvalent, has plenty of depths and contradictions in it. I think that the reason for keeping the notion of Socialism alive is that these fundamental ideas were very close to the notions of democratic citizenship which are really close to our tradition. And I don’t see that you can check your status as a citizen when you cross the threshold of the workplace.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay now let me just ask a final tantalizing question. Which is this, is there common ground between what you two are saying and if so can you enunciate it briefly?
Josh Muravchik: Well, I think there’s more difference than commonality but there are a couple of important points to commonality. I think the first most powerful one is that we both agree that the totalitarian forms of Socialism were horrible and whether they were distortion or fulfillment or whatever but they were a horrible experience that will long be remembered very ruefully. And the second thing is, I’ve sort of granted Norman’s point, although I would share it even if he hadn’t made it, that a social safety net or some degree of welfare state is a very valuable thing and I’d say not only that but it’s a necessary concomitant of a capitalist economy because the people get, some people get left behind and it’s important for the society to nurture those.
Ben Wattenberg: Now you would agree that Socialism as it turned violent and non-democratic was evil?
Norman Birnbaum: Yeah oh no that’s not…
Ben Wattenberg: So that’s common…that’s common ground.
Norman Birnbaum: That’s common ground.
Ben Wattenberg: Anything else you share?
Norman Birnbaum: Well I think we share the desire for more human autonomy, enlargement of culture, of possibility of choice, development of the human personality and if possible, a secure and humane framework but how to get there, particularly on a global scale is still quite a lot of difference.
Ben Wattenberg: Yes there is which is what makes politics so interesting. Thank you Norman Birnbaum, thank you Josh Murauchik and thank you, please remember to send us your comments by email, for Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036. Or e-mail us at email@example.com.
To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS on line at www.pbs.org, and please, let us know where you watch Think Tank.
At Pfizer we’re spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.
Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, and the Dodge Jones Foundation.
This is PBS.
Back to top
Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.
Think Tank. All rights reserved.
Web development by Bean Creative.