Socialists Don’t Know HistoryRoundup
tags: socialism, Bernie Sanders, Joseph Epstein
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”
‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I can’t help but mumble this famous sentence from Karl Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” whenever I hear about the socialist wing of the new—and distinctly not your father’s—Democratic Party. Socialism caused the deaths of more than 100 million people under Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but young progressives want to give it another go.
Not all the socialist Democrats are young. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, proudly calls himself a democratic socialist, but one wonders if “democratic socialist,” like “military justice” or “good kosher meal,” is an oxymoron. Under socialism the state always takes priority over the people. “Unfortunately,” as Win McCormack writes in the New Republic, “no self-identified socialist regime in the world—all of which have been installed by professional revolutionists in the Marxist-Leninist tradition—has ever been the least bit democratic.”
In his earnest self-righteousness and inflexibly held positions, Mr. Sanders reminds one of the Stalinists of old. Whenever I hear him hammering home his points in his staccato speech, using his hands for italics, I recall that old phrase of Jewish mothers of an earlier generation being nagged by their children: “Hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik!” Loosely translated: “Stop rattling that tea kettle in my face.” Mr. Sanders isn’t a Stalinist, but, judging by his temperament and rigidity, in Stalin’s day he might have been.
After its run early in the 20th century with Eugene Debs, Lincoln Steffens and others, socialism was last invoked in a serious way in the U.S. during the Great Depression. It was thought a panacea for a busted economy, a reshuffling of the cards that would result in everyone being dealt a winning hand. Intellectuals were especially taken by it. Socialism gave them lots to theorize about, allowing them to play at being mini-Lenins and tiny Trotskys. Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book, “The Other America,” set the War on Poverty in motion, was an avowed socialist. Other intellectuals felt that electoral politics was beneath them and found only the clearing of the decks of capitalism through socialism worthy of their interest. The radical writer Dwight Macdonald described the two major American parties as “Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.”
Some among these intellectuals felt it a betrayal to abandon the idealistic politics of their youth and never departed from their advocacy of socialism. The magazine Dissent, under the editorship of Irving Howe, was dedicated to keeping the idea of socialism alive into the 1980s. “A wonderful man, Irving Howe,” the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer said. “He’s done so much for Yiddish literature and for me. But he’s not a youngster anymore, and still, still with this socialist meshugas.”
Meshugas, or nuttiness, though it may be, socialism lives on. A magazine called Jacobin (one hears the thud of the guillotine, the plop of the head into the basket, in its very title) offers, in its own description, “socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Noam Chomsky, a man who never found a left-wing cause he didn’t admire, has called the magazine “a bright light in dark times.” The magazine’s circulation was said to be 32,000 in 2017, with 16,000 of them coming on board after the election of Donald Trump. As the excesses of progressivism may be said to have brought on Mr. Trump’s election, so has his abrasive personality apparently stimulated the interest in socialism. Thus does the pendulum continue to swing, as so often in our country, from extreme to extreme, never resting for long at stability and good sense.
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