How dreadfully happy the left is right now! They have their dream president in office — just as Nicholas II was Lenin’s ideal head of state. Nicholas and Bush have in common certain traits that make them vulnerable to being overthrown: holding their positions by connections, ruling on behalf of hated elites, entering upon an unnecessary war that is ballooning the budget, and slaughtering the young. Then and now, the powers-that-be seem to be confirming all leftist paranoia, and thereby bolstering the credibility of leftist ideology.
What more could a revolutionary ask? Perhaps that the ruling ideology be loathsome enough so that people will focus on the existing evil rather than on the dangers and unworkability of what seeks to replace it. The Bolsheviks never had much to offer Russia, but what they offered people wanted: an end to the war, an end to dynastically corrupt rule, an end to the melding of power and privilege. This, and not the positive agenda of socialism, has always been the political ticket for the left.
And the Bush administration has given the left exactly what it always wanted. The Bush administration seems to represent and rule for the capitalist class, particularly old-line industrialists, handing out tax cuts even as it explodes the federal deficit as if tomorrow didn’t matter. It has combined this with national chauvinism, a shocking penchant for aggressive war, and an open advocacy of imperialism. It uses power as a means for enriching its corporate friends at the expense of the American public and foreign peoples. In all of this, the Bush regime has governed like a caricature of everything the left loves to hate, and everything that gives rise to leftist putsches.
That John Kerry has not been able to make much political hay out of this is a sign of his campaign’s own incompetence, but in every other way, the socialist left has been seriously buoyed and thrilled by the Bush administration. They had their first nationally distributed documentary, their books are selling like crazy, their websites are booming, they are attracting young thinkers, their activists are fired up and working hard — all because they have a mission of defeating the supposedly rightist president who wages war, cuts taxes, and shovels other people’s money at corporate fatcats.
If you are looking to understand the world today, look right and you find government propaganda of the most servile sort. Every official lie is justified, every skeptic shot down, every dissident dissed, and every person in power regarded as a heroic public servant. Who can stand to read this stuff? It’s like Pravda in the bad old days. But look left, and you find fascinating war revisionism, courageous defenses of the innocently detained, principled stands for constitutional rights, well argued exposes of the high and mighty. Which would you rather read (assuming you couldn’t read the libertarian press that rises above both)?
Truly, the Bush administration has revivified the left, but not because the left has anything positive to offer. After all, their actual agenda for governance is no different from what it always has been: robbing people and expanding the state in the name of helping supposed victims of society. What’s different now is that they have a target, an enemy, the very embodiment of evil who is behaving like a storybook villain from Marxian pulp fiction. In the name of freedom and prosperity and spreading Americanism, we get war, uncontrolled expansion of the military-industrial complex, unceasing, unmodulated propaganda, and violations of civil liberties. Is it any wonder that leftism is suddenly in vogue?
In all of this new activity, the left can’t but be more pleased, or surprised. Think back to 1990 and imagine what it was like to be a leftist activist or intellectual. The Soviet Union, birthplace of really existing socialism in the modern world, dissolved like the artifice it always was. Satellites in Europe let down their walls and commercial culture and dread capital came pouring in. The revolutionary Marxist vanguard in Latin America lost energy, and the Maoists in China seemed to have decided that private property, investment, profits, and trade were all wonderful institutions.
Sure, the left tried to spin this as a blow not to socialism but to Stalinism, but the truth was there for all to see: wherever they and their types took full control of a country, the place was wrecked. At best socialism led to stagnation and poverty; at worst it led to dictatorship and death. Socialism had begun as a humanitarian creed but it ended as the justification for holocaust. When they considered their future, socialists of 1990 had good reason to despair. It seemed that they either needed to come to terms with market society or abandon politics altogether.
Many of us wondered, as they did themselves, what would become of the socialists after socialism abroad had collapsed, after their entire intellectual structure had been reduced to rubble first in intellectual terms early in the 20th century and then by events at the end of the century. All the fashionable thinkers of the last hundred years had been wrong about the hugely important matter of social and economic organization, and the renegades such as Mises and Hayek and Rothbard had been right all along. Surely there was nowhere else for the world to turn but to markets and liberty.
Speaking from the point of view of libertarianism, we were all very excited about the possibilities. Surely no one would defend central planning. Surely with the rise of the new entrepreneurial class and the self-evident failures of all forms of intervention, especially in its most extreme form, the libertarian tradition of radical theory would gain new attention. We weren’t wrong that our paradigm would grow. Libertarian theory has made advances like never before.
But what we had not imagined — though we should have — is that a threat to liberty would emerge that is just as great if not greater than the socialist left, namely the nationalist, warmongering, chauvinist right, that works in cooperation with deluded evangelicals and imperialistic Wilsonians of the neoconservative school. What makes this enemy particularly dangerous is that it is associated in the public mind with libertarianism because of the right’s superficial embrace of property rights and capitalism.
In short, the anti-socialist revolution of 1990 was betrayed by the people who won it. Rather than leading the world toward liberty, the American right seized on the moment of the left’s vulnerability to grab power and bring about more wreckage. Rather than freedom and peace, we have regimentation and war. Rather than cutting government, we have expansion of leviathan as never before.
Thus has George W. Bush become the best thing that has happened to the socialist left in some 15 years. He has helped to discredit anti-leftist thought and associate such good policies as tax cuts and such good rhetoric as praise of free trade, with war mongering, violations of rights, and a vast expansion of government power.
Let us recall that the Bolsheviks never needed to convince anyone that they could plan the economy in order to take power. They promised to end oppression, privilege, and war. That is what brought them to power. In fact, no communist in the 20th century held power but for the stupidity of the anti-communists who supposedly opposed them.
It has never been more essential for the true partisans of liberty to reject statism in all its forms and packages, whether offered by the current threat (the right) or by the emerging threat (the left). There is only one path to peace and prosperity, and it cuts straight through today’s left and right.