Liberalism: A Basic Primer—Or, Why Leftism is Failure Incarnate
Having covered the origins of leftism in the initial article in this two-part series, let’s recap. Liberalism was originally named for its chief aim—as a philosophy based upon liberty, which is now known as Classical Liberalism. The roots of this worldview stretch back to classical paganism. In An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Pierre Manent generally describes Liberalism as “the basso continuo of modern politics, of the politics of Europe and the West for about the past three centuries.” In other words, it is our foundational societal theory. Yet, now the term liberalism has been co-opted by socialism.
Ralph Raico describes the original idea:
“Classical liberalism” is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade…including freedom of contract and exchange and the free disposition of one’s own labor, is given a high priority. Historically, liberalism has manifested a hostility to state action, which, it insists, should be reduced to a minimum.
Having recapped, let’s examine the development of modern liberalism, or socialism. How is it that what was once the philosophy of liberty devolved into doctrinaire, pedestrian socialism—with its inane fixation on controlling the habits of men and extinguishing their freedoms? This occurred because Socialists needed to update their brand marketing, as most Americans considered Marxist inspired ideas unacceptable on their face.
I. Emergence of Modern Leftism—“Old” vs. “New” Liberalism
A. Change of Definitions
How did the term liberalism—originally understood as the philosophy of liberty—become defined as its opposite? Ralph Raico describes this transition:
It is not disputed that the popular meaning of liberal has changed drastically over time. It is a well-known story how, around 1900, in English-speaking countries and elsewhere, the term was captured by socialist writers. For a century now controversy has raged over the true meaning of liberalism. How did this momentous transformation of the term liberal—what Paul Gottfried calls “a semantic theft”—come about?
According to Raico, the Left tells itself an essentially false, self-aggrandizing fable of how the word liberal was co-opted by socialism, while attempting to retain a sense of natural evolution and growth of their movement. Specifically, the Left informs itself that Old Liberals were content with laissez-faire until they realized this method would not work to make the world a better place. They then decided to adopt more government controls for economics and communitarian vision of property ownership.
It is clear, though, that image problems with the term socialist itself was a huge motivation to dump the word. Some persons dropped socialist and called themselves individualists. These began to develop ideas similar to Italy’s Fascist economic policy. John Dewey began to use “individualist” in this manner. Others preferred the term “nationalist,” while a third group adopted “liberal.” Interestingly, such persons—while stealing the identity of real liberals, still saw themselves as the benefactor, not enslavers, of mankind. Note this statement from revisionist socialism founder Eduard Bernstein:
The development and protection of the free personality is the goal of all socialist measures, even of those which superficially appear to be coercive. A closer examination will always show that it is a question of a coercion that increases the sum of freedom in society, that gives more freedom, and to a wider group, than it takes away.
The difference between these two movements could not be more stark. The Old Liberals defined themselves as fierce advocates of freedom, however recipients decided to use this opportunity. The New Liberals are fixated upon outcomes—specifically the great aims of Utilitarianism, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or practically speaking—happiness and pleasure—however one might measure these. Ironically, liberalism itself grew as a reaction against the welfare state and the bureaucratic “rage to govern”, as condemned by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau.
B. John Stuart’s Mill: Sausage Maker of Modern Liberalism?
John Stuart Mill is one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century—nowhere more so than on the subject of liberalism. The famed author of On Liberty is accused of hideously deforming liberalism and casting it into a dark hole. He taught that government’s goal is to maximize human happiness, not simply defend individual rights. Further, he wanted to scupper traditional religion and replace it with a religion of humanism. Writes Raico:
The freedom of opinion espoused in On Liberty was largely part of Mill’s grand strategy—to demolish religious faith, especially Christianity on the way to erecting a social order based on “the religion of humanity.” True individuality would be incarnated in…a being in whom selfishness and greed would be replaced by altruism and the constant cultivation of the loftier faculties.
In fact, it is Mill’s work in creating a humanist religion based upon socialist elements helped create the modern world. Writes Linda Raeder in John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity:
One of the more remarkable developments in Anglo-American society over the past century has been the transformation of liberal politics from a commitment to limited government toward the progressive expansion of governmental direction of the social process. John Stuart Mill was a pivotal figure in that transformation. His self-avowed “eclecticism” allowed him to retain something of a commitment to classical liberalism, and he never completely abandoned the belief in a limited political sphere that characterizes that outlook. But Mill muddied the waters of classical-liberal philosophy and practice by his conviction that the end of government is the all-encompassing “improvement of mankind” and not the preservation of individual liberty-under-law, as well as by his self-conscious embrace and advocacy of the “social” moral ideal. Moreover, Mill’s ambition to replace the theologically oriented society of the Western tradition with one grounded in and oriented exclusively toward Humanity necessarily entailed a departure from classical liberalism.
II. Debacles of New Liberalism
Are Socialism and its big brother, Marxism, an effective means of organizing society and creating prosperity and happiness? No, but this has been well-known for decades. There are no known successes in socialist countries—only failures. Further, somewhere between 100-200 million humans were needlessly slaughtered in communist countries. Here is an expose’ of four of the most notable communist regimes of the last 50 years.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR lasted from 1922 before dissolution in 1991. Socialism, or Russian Marxism was never a success. In fact, at no time did the country support itself because of failed leadership, poor central planning and the inherent defects of Marxism. Lenin and Stalin’s decision to wage war against the Kulaks, the independent peasant farmers, made famine a certain outcome. Consider Stalin’s “Five-Year Plan” as symbolic of the USSR’s history of unmitigated failure:
Stalin decided the economy must be given a quick upgrade, and so he launched his Five-Year Plan, announced in 1929. Richard Pipes, in Communism: A History, describes how this put the entire economy under state control. The government promised if the people worked hard to meet the goal of tripling production, the outcome would be an increased standard of living for all. Neither took place. Instead, Alec Nove, a specialist in the early socialist Russian economy declared, “1933 was the culmination of the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standard known in recorded history.”
If any country challenges the USSR’s record for economic failure and outright disaster, it would certainly be communist China. For example, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward represents probably the largest human disaster in recorded history, as up to 40 million Chinese starved to death or died as a result of this foolish and evil policy:
In 1958, Mao announced the Great Leap Forward to transform China into a modern state within a few years. In Mao’s mind, his plan to dominate and revolutionize China would then transfer to the rest of the globe. The Great Leap would occur when collectivized farms saw food production spike from new methodology. A compliant press celebrated massive increases in harvests, such as 100-fold gains in productivity. Yet after 6 months, the program was exposed as a massive failure, and instead of swelling production, widespread food shortages resulted. When reported to Mao, he replied all people would eat less since it was healthier anyway, according to Jon Halliday in Mao: The Unknown Story.
Vietnam is still officially a communist country. Experts believe the war and continued failed socialist policies have dreadfully damaged the economic vitality of this beautiful land. This is even admitted by communist officials. A recent official rebuke was levied at leaders of the failed economic system, according to the Harvard Ash Center:
Vietnam’s ruling Communist party has promised economic reforms and a restructuring of state firms and the banking system after a top-level meeting criticised senior members—thought to include the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung—but left them in post. The country’s banks are swimming in bad debt, much of it owed by the huge state enterprises at the heart of the economy. Moody’s downgraded Vietnam last month and said bank reforms should be implemented quickly. The central committee, the powerful body of more than 170 senior members of the Communist party of Vietnam, “came to the decision not to discipline the collective of the political bureau and a comrade member of the political bureau”, the party said in a statement on its website.
Dương Quỳnh Hoa (1930-2006), was named a “heroine of the revolution,” becoming an important member of the communist cadre, a cabinet member of its provisionary government. In a 1990 interview with Stanley Karnow from Vietnam: A History, she especially criticized forced collectivization of farming, and stated:
I have been a communist all my life, but now I’ve seen the realities of Communism, and it is a failure—mismanagement, corruption, privilege, repression. My ideals are gone. Communism has been catastrophic. Party officials have never understood the need for rational development. They’ve been hypnotized by Marxist slogans that have lost validity—if they were ever valid. They are outrageous.
Cuba is also still communist and its economic, political and human rights record is an astounding failure. Cuba was artificially kept afloat by the Soviets during much of their history, for its strategic importance, until the USSR fell apart. Says one writer,
When the Soviet bloc dissolved at the beginning of the 1990s, Cuba suddenly lost the $5 billion to $8 billion in annual Kremlin aid and trade that had kept the island afloat for three decades. Unable to produce enough food, Cuba’s people began to go hungry. Without the generous Soviet oil subsidy, transportation and industry were paralyzed. Without hard currency to pay for them, no food, fertilizer or oil could be imported. Left to stand on its own for the first time in 30 years, Cuba folded. Beginning in 1993, with people eating banana peels just to feel something substantial in their stomachs and with the populace suffering an epidemic of blindess and paralysis linked to vitamin deficiencies, Castro borrowed a page from Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s and turned to capitalism to save socialism. He legalized the U.S. dollar and opened the door to small-scale private enterprise.
III. Conflicting Visions: Sowell’s Critique of Modern Liberalism
Why do modern liberals war with conservatives at every level? Thomas Sowell, in his brilliant study of ideology, A Conflict of Visions: Idealogical Origins of Political Struggles, explains why people embrace particular beliefs, whether socialist or conservative:
Visions are the foundations on which theories are built…Here a vision is a sense of causation. It is more like a hunch or a “gut feeling” than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification.
Sowell goes on to differentiate between the constrained and unconstrained vision. Here, in the constrained vision, one accepts human limitations, tragedies, and compromise. For example, Alexander Hamilton sums this up in The Federalist Papers:
It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies—ill as well as good propensities. This results from the imperfection of the Institutor, Man.
This is the Conservative view. The other, being uconstrained, never accepts any level of failure, built in flaws, or compromise. This is the modern liberal or socialist view which has caused much misery in the modern world. Sowell cites the quintessential unconstrained position, that of radical William Godwin:
Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being “of the essence of virtue,” and virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness. Unintentional social benefits were treated by Godwin as scarcely worthy of notice. His was the unconstrained vision of human nature, in which man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved.
In essence the unconstrained constrained vision demands the good be perpetually traded in for the perfect, destroying mankind’s chance for success and happiness at every turn.
IV. Why Marx Fails: Reasons Socialism Always Collapses
Max Eastman wrote a highly influential expose’ upon the failure of Marxism titled, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. He lists several issues as being especially egregious in socialism’s failure, including the planned economy, the immorality of communist ethics, socialism and its failure to address human nature, and the dangers of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, etc.
Other authors have compiled a list of the manifest failures of socialism. Here is a summary of the crucial differences between socialism and capitalism:
The strength of capitalism can be attributed to an incentive structure based upon the three Ps: (1) prices determined by market forces, (2) a profit-and-loss system of accounting and (3) private property rights. The failure of socialism can be traced to its neglect of these three incentive-enhancing components.
The main reason socialism fails as an economic theory is it does not account for price of commodities, and therefore cannot adequately ration any finite good. Further, socialism fails on a psychological level because it treats human motivation as a perverse fiction, irrelevant for producers, and therefore ignored. Finally, it fails as a political theory because it cannot value humans as being any different than machines.
Kelly O’Connell hosts American Anthem on CFP Radio Sundays at 4 pm (EST).
Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico. Kelly is now host of a daily, Monday to Friday talk show at AM KOBE called AM Las Cruces w/Kelly O’Connell
Kelly can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org