As someone long interested in the history of (and essential interplay between) secularist thought and social democracy broadly defined, I naturally bristled a bit at an article a colleague of mine recently forwarded to me entitled, “Socialism is Not Democratic.” Penned earlier this year by conservative commentator and editor of the National Review Online, Charles C.W. Cooke, the article states that “there is no sense in which socialism can be made compatible with democracy as it is understood in the West. At worst, socialism eats democracy and is swiftly transmuted into tyranny and deprivation. At best — and I use that word loosely — socialism stamps out individual agency, places civil society into a straitjacket of uniform size, and turns representative government into a chimera.” Leaving aside for the moment the sort of (in this case, merited) whataboutism that could conceivably result by simply substituting the word “capitalism” for “socialism” in the above, I want first to consider the content of Cooke’s remarks in an altogether different context.
In 2007, New Atheist author and conscientious contrarian Christopher Hitchens published a polemic entitled god Is Not Great. In it, the author attempts to refute the most frequent religious ripostes and pseudo-scientific slanders against the progressively permissive secularist worldview that many fear is fast becoming a bedrock of Western social and political life. This perceived secularization of the heretofore culturally-Christian West has been hailed by many in the religious community as harbinger of the same sort of regressive calamities that Mr. Cooke would so readily ascribe to socialism (tyranny and deprivation of individual agency presumably foremost among them). Although his entire invective is both informative and enjoyable (chock-full of Hitchens’ customarily caustic wit), the seventeenth chapter, “An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch Case Against Secularism,” is of particular import for several reasons, not least of which because I co-opted its title for my own present purposes.
At the onset of the chapter, Hitchens observes that “the examples most in common use — those of the Hitler and Stalin regimes — show us with terrible clarity what can happen when men usurp the role of gods. When I consult with my secular and atheist friends, I find that this has become the most common and frequent objection that they encounter from religious audiences. The point deserves a detailed reply.” To begin, he notes sardonically what such an objection implicitly entails: “that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists. One might hope that religion had retained more sense of its dignity than that.” He then proceeds to demonstrate how the so-called secularist regimes of the twentieth century are simply theocracies of a different sort, repurposing more than rewriting the old religious playbook.
Quoting from George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” Hitchens writes that “‘from the totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible.’” This applies not only to the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, but also to “Calvin’s Geneva” (who silenced any and all opposition to his rule) and to current government of North Korea (whose various leaders have likewise done the same). After echoing fellow New Atheist author Richard Dawkins’ comments in The God Delusion (2006) that “those who invoke ‘secular’ tyranny in contrast to religion are hoping that we will forget two things: the connection between the Christian churches and fascism, and the capitulation of the churches to National Socialism,” Hitchens notes that “the North Korean state was born at about the same time that Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, and one could almost believe that the holy father of the state, Kim Il Sung, was given a copy of the novel and asked if he could make it work in practice.” He ultimately concludes that “the alternative to these grotesque phenomena is not the chimera of secular dictatorship, but the defense of secular pluralism and of the right not to believe or be compelled to believe. This defense has now become an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival.”
I believe Hitchens’ point is hard-pressing in the context of our current considerations as well, as Cooke’s own subsequent comments appear to suggest. Later in “Socialism is Not Democratic,” he writes “In the 20th century, Communism killed at least 100 million people — by democide, by famine, by central planning, by war — and yet it is still acceptable to say in public that it was a ‘nice idea.’ In the post-war period, ‘democratic’ socialism ravaged the economies of the West like a virus and required a counterrevolution to remove, and yet it remains sufficiently seductive to a slice of the public as to present a threat to the American order.”
Of course, I’m not suggesting that socialism is in any way synonymous with secularism (though I will presently contend that it is indeed the economic equivalent to political democracy). However, I do ask the reader to consider the unnerving similarities of circumstance that seem to exist between their ideological inverses, capitalism and religion (particularly in regions where they reign unchecked and unchallenged). Just as Hitchens’ argued that National Socialism and Stalinism were essentially religiosity repurposed, I believe an argument could be made that the economies that sprouted from them should likewise be considered as little more than camouflaged, concentrated capitalism… a pulling of the wool over the eyes (and thus a further fleecing) of the masses to the benefit of a preciously privileged few. Perhaps an example might prove illustrative of this point.
In our own Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously avowed that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” One could quite reasonably argue that the nearly quarter millennia that has transpired between Jefferson’s time and our own could be collectively considered as essentially a centuries-long struggle to put that most foundational of values into palpable, principled practice. Even today, though the struggle is far from over, it is this notion more than any other that continues to illuminate our way forward, toward a more inclusive, expressive, and truly enlightened society.
Underlying this grandiose sentiment is an exceedingly simple concept: one that, sadly, has been only infrequently and imperfectly implemented throughout our nation’s history, always at the behest of the marginalized masses and to the chagrin of the politically powerful. That principle is “one person, one vote,” and it is surely both the root and fruit of democracy. Though countless individuals and institutions have, at regular intervals throughout our history, attempted to stifle and/or subvert it, that redress of grievances to which Jefferson alluded when he spoke of “the consent of the governed” has continued to reverberate throughout our body politic, preventing the ossification of oppression to ever fully or finally take hold. Although indirect, our democracy has (slowly, but scrupulously) put in place the mechanisms by which elected officials are held accountable to those whom they are intended to represent. Should their own self-interest no longer align with that of their constituency (or the constitutional ties that bind), then the power of recourse, reprimand, and/or removal rests not with the ruler(s), but with those they mean to rule.
Socialism is, in effect, little more than the economic application of this most basic of democratic political ideals. Accountability for those few in positions of privilege and power, individual agency for the remainder through the power of collective action, and basic consideration for the inherent human dignity of all those involved likewise comprise the core principles upon which it is philosophically founded. Just as Jefferson understood that secularism writ large is not the enemy of religious freedom, but rather its sole guarantor, I would contend that socialism is not the enemy of democracy, but rather the most (if not only) logical extension of its humanistic principles to the entire lives and livelihoods of its citizens. And though like democracy itself, socialism has yet to be fully realized anywhere in the world, such should hardly serve as evidence of the impossibility or undesirability of the eventual implementation of either.
As Hitchens so ably demonstrated, neither Nazi Germany nor Stalinist Russia were the secularist realms they so routinely professed (and were so widely presumed) to be; neither were they socialist. What they were, in fact, was oligarchic plutocracies, much like the systems they ostensibly replaced, wherein the political and economic rights of the individual were also subverted to the whims and wishes of an established elite. All that separated them from their predecessors was the hollow democratic guise of their rhetoric; the underlying autocratic ambition remained undetected and undiminished. I would argue that unregulated capitalism’s recent and reckless reassertion into our own democratic process, as embodied in the now infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case of 2010 (in which corporatist money was egregiously equated to political free speech), is yet another example of this undemocratic wolf in sheep’s clothing and should therefore be distressing to each and every American. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissenting opinion eloquently encapsulates the cause of our present consternation: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
In light of this, I would now ask the reader to ponder anew that simple substitution I suggested earlier to Mr. Cooke’s original thesis: “there is no sense in which capitalism can be made compatible with democracy as it is understood in the West. At worst, capitalism eats democracy and is swiftly transmuted into tyranny and deprivation. At best — and I use that word loosely — capitalism stamps out individual agency, places civil society into a straitjacket of uniform size, and turns representative government into a chimera.” When contrasted with the innumerable gains — minimum wages; maximum hours; public schools, libraries, parks; infrastructure; municipal police, postal, and fire departments; Social Security; Medicare; Medicaid; etc. — that have all come to our society through the direct, democratic (and yes, socialistic) action of its citizenry, it seems, at the very least, an idea well worth considering.
Dave Buckner, PhD, is an adjunct professor of history, humanities, & philosophy at Northeast State Community College.