Published at 11:06 on 7 March 2019
First, If your blood pressure rose at the mere mention of the phrase “left-wing authoritarianism” in the title, then I suggest it’s time for you to calm down and give this article a read; it’s likely to be particularly important.
Second, this post references one I made about a month ago. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I suggest you read it first.
That earlier post concluded thus:
So there’s my answer. Like many answers, it begs a question: what can we do about it? I could now go on to answer that, but instead I think I’ll close and let the reader think about it for a while.
Such a conclusion carried an implicit promise of a follow-up at some time in the future. It is now time to get on with that follow-up.
The 20th century’s worst tyrants called themselves socialists. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all chose to label themselves in this way. And now that the 20th century has given way to the 21st, we have a tyranny (sorry, but if you look at the full picture of all the repression there, that’s the only thing it honestly can be called) in Venezuela that has also chosen to apply this label to itself.
Yes, in many cases, particularly that of Hitler, cogent arguments can be made that the self-proclaimed “socialist” tyrants lied when they made this claim: they failed to empower the working class, instead empowering states and parties that oppressed all unfortunate enough to be living under their misrule, workers included. Also, there are plenty of self-proclaimed “socialist” or “social-democratic” parties all over the world that have had collective centuries in power without instituting tyranny.
However, tyrants have still chosen the “socialist” label, and have done so over and over again. When something happens that repeatedly, it’s hard to shrug it all off as mere unlucky coincidence.
The answer, I think, is that “socialism” is a uniquely useful fig-leaf by which to attempt to disguise and legitimate tyranny. Socialism has generally been seen in a positive light by most people. Many Americans will doubt this, but most Americans have a highly-unrepresentative exposure to what socialism means; in most other nations, the history of the label has been nowhere near as consistently pejorative.
But it goes beyond that. Socialism not only has a generally positive connotation, it denotes an ideology which often claims:
- Economic inequality is the main problem in capitalist society, and
- The state can and should be used to dismantle capitalism.
Point No. 2 makes socialism an exceptionally useful mantle for dictators to claim, as they can then claim to be wanting increased state power not for the sake of themselves and their cronies, but to liberate society from capitalist oppression. Point No. 1 then comes in to distract the public from valuing liberty, since so much ideological attention is being paid to battling economic inequality.
And that, in a nutshell, is why left-wing authoritarianism has been such a recurring problem. The solution, then, is to reject the premises that have been proven to be such pitfalls, and to replace them with better premises.
Premise I: The Classic Liberals Have a Point on the State Being Dangerous
The State is dangerous. All of the worst genocides of the 20th century were performed by State actors. All of them. The oft-repeated quote incorrectly attributed to George Washington has proven itself true time and time again:
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
Classic liberals, particularly the followers and fellow travelers of organizations like today’s Libertarian Party, are of course being two-faced here: they are typically blind to the interplay of state and corporate power, and almost always blind to the oppressiveness of corporate power. That their present-day prescriptions for society would almost certainly prove oppressive is not, however, a refutation of the claim that State power is a dangerous thing. Both State and corporate power are dangerous. Which brings us to….
Premise II: The State vs. Capitalism Is a False Dichotomy
The State in fact helped to create capitalism, in the U.K. by passing Inclosure Acts that destroyed communal property, using State force to drive rural peoples off their land and into the new industrial slums the capitalist class was building. In the New World, States used imperialism and genocide (conducted by armies in their employ) to drive indigenous peoples from their lands and create “new” spaces for capitalist class society to expand into.
More importantly for opposing capitalism in the here-and-now, it is a false dichotomy to assert that government and capitalism are the only possible options. Capitalism has only been around for 350–400 years; the State for 5,000. Even 5,000 years is a distinct minority of the time of human existence, and living beings in general have been organizing themselves into ecosystems (on decentralized, hierarchy-free bases, with no leaders or ruling classes) for literally billions of years.
In fact, these leaderless structures have proven themselves to be vastly more long-lasting and stable than human-created hierarchical ones, which all tend to self-destruct due to ecological collapse within a few centuries or millennia.
There are better ways, ways that are neither capitalist nor state. Just pick health care: why should capitalists or government be the only answers? They don’t have to be!
Premise III: Lack of Liberty, Not Lack of Equality, Is the Real Problem
In fact, economic inequality is best understood as a special case of a deficiency in individual liberty. Those born into poverty (through no choice of their own!) have less choice and opportunity in their lives than those born into affluence. Poverty violates the individual liberty of those born into it.
Capitalism is oppressive, not because under capitalism some workers’ state doesn’t own the means of production, but because the average capitalist firm is approximately as open a society as the average fascist state. In fact, the capitalist firm served as Mussolini’s model for his fascist state, which he called the corporate state. Don’t ensure that the state owns the means of production. Instead, ensure that the workers who work in them do.
Will recognizing the dangers of the state and promoting greater liberty as a core goal be a magic bullet that prevents a self-proclaimed “socialist” government from going rotten? Probably not: there are no such magic bullets. But it offers a hell of a better chance than the more typical recipe of attempting to promote economic equality via greater state power.