Commenting on Tuesday's mass executions in Saudi Arabia, US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Washington urgently needs to redefine its relationship with the kingdom. Photo: AFP

A strange thing is happening in the US: politicians are openly promoting socialism, even going so far as to identify as socialists. While progressivism expresses a tacit socialism, historically it has stopped before identifying itself as socialist. This is no longer the case. More unsettling is the fact that many young people, perhaps a majority, have a favorable opinion of socialism.

Were this the revolutionary year of 1848 in Europe, and the fruit of socialism not been witnessed on many occasions and in many different cultures, perhaps one could blame ignorance, but that is impossible. There is a host of books and videos on socialism at work in the Soviet Union, Germany in the 1930s, and Maoist China, these being perhaps the most salient and brutal instances – although in the last regard we should not forget Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Even in its less infamous forms, such as in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and in Africa, it produced stagnant economies under totalitarian regimes. When opposed, socialists used military force to crush opposition: East Germany in 1953, Poland in 1956, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980. Yet many people desire the return of socialism, no matter the empirical evidence.

But even without data, why would one be in favor of socialism? Based on its most fundamental principle, it sounds abhorrent. According to Merriam-Webster, the primary definition is (1) “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” The secondary definition, which provides some explanation regarding the primary definition, is (2a): “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property,” and (b) “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” By definition, the basic needs for life are controlled by the state – clearly, economic tyranny.

A socialist regime must maintain a large bureaucracy. All decisions flow from the center. As has long been understood in computer and biological systems, hierarchical control is inefficient and requires large operating overhead. Socialists appear to be ignorant of the most elementary notions of decision-making. It is virtually impossible for lawmakers to connect with citizens through the bureaucracy or even know what the bureaucracy is doing in the pathways leading to the populace. Simplistic theories are expounded at the center, the administrative apparatus is told to implement the theories, and it does, sometimes leading to the deaths of millions. A prime example is China’s Great Leap Forward, where peasants made pig iron in backyard furnaces rather than grow food.

In On Violence, Hannah Arendt states,

“In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

Thus even if the central leadership is not overtly despotic, the system produces despotism. A tyrannical system has been adopted, and it operates tyrannically. Today, socialist politicians brazenly call for tyrannical policies: nationalization of industry, socialization of medicine, bureaucratization of schools, and the suppression of free speech. And many millions cheer!

The desire for power and the submission of persons into the collective on the part of socialists is revealed in their attitude toward religion: The society must be secularized. Religion must be removed from the domain of action and, if not entirely eliminated, reduced to a private realm of belief that cannot be used to justify action.

In The Undiscovered Self, Carl Jung states,

“For in order to turn the individual into a function of the state, his dependence on anything beside the state must be taken from him…. But it is possible to have an attitude to the external conditions of life only when there is a point of reference outside them. The religions give, or claim to give, such a standpoint, thereby enabling the individual to exercise his judgment and his power of decision.”

Socialism cannot allow an individual to exercise his judgment because there is no more basic judgment than how to make a living through work, and socialism curtails that judgment. And, because it is inherently totalitarian, socialism must eliminate all judgment that has the potential to interfere with its aims. If religion is reduced to a private belief, it cannot be part of one’s ongoing existence and therefore will become emaciated, even unreal, to the point where it has no meaningful effect on “the external conditions of life.” Socialism can have it no other way, or it will disintegrate, as it did in Poland with Solidarity and the striking reality of a Polish pope.

It has become popular for socialists to put a better face on socialism by calling for “democratic socialism.” Making socialism democratic does not change its tyrannical nature. Does it matter to a person dragged into the gulag or cut off from the ability to survive whether socialism is implemented by a dictator or an elected body? Indeed, a totalitarian regime supported by a majority might be more oppressive than one governed by a small oligarchy.

One can imagine a seemingly benign democratic collective in which physical abuse, or even denial of work, is rare; however, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observes that democratic tyranny can be more insidious:

“Under the absolute government of a single man, despotism, in order to reach the soul, crudely strikes at the body, and the soul, escaping these blows, rises gloriously above it, but in the democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes straight to the soul.”

And to the dissident, Tocqueville adds, “When you approach your fellow men, they will avoid you like an impure being; and those who believe in your innocence, those very same ones will abandon you, because they would be avoided in their turn.” In the US, such ostracism is rampant.

One hears comments to the effect that socialism sounds good. But what sounds good about it? Its definition and the consequences immanent in that definition are despotic. In practice, its results range from a drab Eastern European police state to the greatest atrocities in human history. In 1848, hunger was in the land, bread was the issue, governments were overtly oppressive, and liberty was an abstraction. So another abstraction, socialism, might sound attractive. But in the contemporary West, bread is not an issue; rather, it’s what model of smartphone do you want. Liberty, although receding, thanks mostly to the progressive (socialist) left, is still alive. Why would the most privileged generation in human history reject the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in favor of tyranny?

Although such a question has no simple answer, we might turn to George Orwell for a conjecture. Near the end of Animal Farm, he writes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The pigs have come to rule the farm in this socialist paradise, and as in every socialist regime, the rulers rule over the workers. While the inevitable inefficiency of centralized decision making will retard the economy, there are sufficient benefits for the rulers to have a good life. As Comrade Lenin envisaged it, a vanguard of political types will establish a worker’s paradise and command the workers, reaping whatever goodies there are and leaving the crumbs.

In a scene in the 1992 movie Stalin, leading party members are eating and drinking at a sumptuous table covered with fine liquor and delicacies. Josef Stalin rises and walks over to Nikita Khrushchev to toast him jokingly as a fast-rising member of the party:

“Dirt under the fingernails. Can you imagine he comes to Stalin’s table with dirt on his fingernails? Listen to these gentlemen. Their hands are clean; their nails are manicured. Look! These hands don’t do work any more. These hands are the hands of a gentleman. Put all your hands out. All these gentlemen’s hands have forgotten their proletarian origins.”

Khrushchev had retained his connection to the workers. He must choose: Is he a worker or is he in the vanguard of the workers?

The privileged, pampered students bemoaning their victimhood and crying for socialism do not intend to have dirt under their fingernails. That is for the working class whom they intend to rule. Perhaps their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had dirt under their nails from backbreaking work in the fields or factories, but it is the pampered students who are oppressed. Oppression is the myth that gives them the right to join the vanguard and rule over the likes of their grandparents. They will have hands of a gentleman and walk the halls of socialist power.

Socialism sounds very good.

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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