Monday, October 4, 2010

Revel on Why Socialism is an Ideology and Liberalism is Not

Jean-Francois Revel is a major French thinker, who is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, but has written a number of books skewering Communism, Socialism and the mindless anti-Americanism which is rampant in France. He is unable to believe that socialism has not gone out of business after the fall of the Soviet Union and probes into why this is not the case.

His last book, La Grande Parade: Essai sur la survie de ll'utopie socialiste, has now been translated into English under the title: Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era. Writing in a country where the Soviet-controlled Communist Party actually won seats and posed a serious threat, although it never was able to seize total power, Revel writes with a realism born of experience with actual socialism that eludes many idealistic Americans.

Here is Revel on ideology:

(Note: he is using the word "libleralism" in its classic 19th century sense of free enterprise, individual liberty, limited government etc., not in its late 20th century meaning of socialism lite. The only classical liberals in America today are known as conservatives because the center has shifted leftward.)
"A perennial misapprehension distorts virtually all discussions about the competing merits of socialism and liberalism: Socialists like to imagine that liberalism is an ideology. Reared on ideology themselves, they cannot imagine that any other form of intellectual activity exists, so they constantly detect in others the same propensity toward abstract and moralistic systematizing by which they themselves are possessed. Socialists are convinced that opposing doctrines are an inverted imitation of their own, and that these opposing doctrines are an inverted imitation of their own, and that these opposing doctrines must be promising absolute perfection, albeit by a different route. And liberals, reflexively complaint as always, have too frequently accepted this grossly mistaken view of their own position.

If a liberal asserts, 'In practice, the market seems to be a less inefficient means of allocating resources than top-down, planned distribution,' a socialist will immediately shoot back, 'The market is not a solution to every problem.' Of course not. Who ever maintained such an absurdity? But since socialism was conceived in the delusion of being able to resolve every problem, its partisans project the same ambition onto their opponents. Fortunately, not everyone shares their megalomania. Liberals have never aimed to build a perfect society. They are content to compare the various types of societies that exist or have existed, and to draw appropriate conclusions from studying those that have functioned the least badly. . .

Liberalism has never been an ideology, by which I mean a theory based on a priori concepts; nor is it an unchanging dogma divorced from the course of events and outcomes. It is merely a set of observations on facts. The general ideas derived from these observations do ot constitute a global doctrine aspiring to comprehensiveness, but rather a series of interpretive hypotheses concerning real world events. Adam Smith, when he undertook to write The Wealth of Nations, noticed that some countries were richer than others. He attempted to locate in their economic arrangements the features and practices that could account for such disparities, with the practical goal of being able to recommend prudent policies. . . .

As an a priori construction, formulated without regard to facts or ethics, ideology is distinct from science and philosophy on the one hand, and from religion and ethics on the other. Ideology is not science - which it pretends to be. Science accepts the results of the experiments it devises, whereas ideology systematically rejects empirical evidence. It is not moral philosophy - which it claims to have a monopoly on, while striving furiously to destroy the source and necessary condition of morality: the free will of the individual. the basis of morality is respect for the person, whereas ideology invariably tramples on the person wherever it reigns. Ideology is not religion - to which it is often, and mistakenly, compared; for religion draws its meaning from faith in a transcendent reality, while ideology aims to perfect the world here below.

Ideology - that malignant invention of the human spirit's dark side, an invention which has cost us dearly - has the singular property of causing zealots to project the structural features of their own mentality onto others. Ideologues cannot imagine that an objection to their abstract systems could come from any source other than a competing system.

All ideologies are aberrations. A sound and rational ideology cannot exist. . . . The confrontation between socialism and liberalism is not a confrontation of ideologies. Liberalism is not upside-down socialism; it it not a totalizing ideology governed by intellectual rules equivalent to those it criticizes."
If Revel is right in his argument here, several points follow.

First, it is no wonder that socialists cannot understand capitalism. They make capitalism into their devil because they misinterpret it as if it were an ideology.

Second, capitalism and liberalism are scientific and socialism is irrational.

Third, Christianity has nothing whatsoever to learn from socialism - not its earthly Utopianism, not its critique of capitalism, not its worship of economic equality, not its materialism - nothing.

Fourth, if socialism is an ideology and an ideology is a totalizing dogma, then socialism is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which shatters all such totalizing dogmas.

Fifth, if socialism destroys the free will of the individual, as Revel claims, then socialism is an attack on the dignity of man created in the image of God and therefore fundamentally anti-humanistic.

I think Revel's description of socialism as an ideology and his definition of ideology ring true to the historical implementation of socialism in the 20th century. Therefore, I believe the above implications are valid. I will have more quotations from Revel in coming days. It is taking me some time to read and digest his book, which I highly recommend.

1 comment:

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