After the Berlin Wall — the Enduring Power of Socialism

The Economist marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by observing that there was “so much gained, so much to lose.” As the world celebrates the collapse of communism, who would have imagined that in less than one generation we would witness a resurgence of socialism throughout Latin America and even hear the word socialist being used to describe policies the United States?

We relegated socialism to the “dustbin of history,” but socialism never actually died and in many ways it has actually gained influence. This may sound reactionary, even McCarthyist—but only until we understand socialism the way socialists understand it.

Yes, socialist economic ideas went out of fashion, but socialism has always been more than just economics. We tend to equate socialism with communism, Marxist revolutionaries, and state ownership of industry. But socialism is a much broader vision of the person, society, equality, and what it means to be free.

Karl Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, saw three major obstacles to the socialist vision: private property, religion, and “this present form of marriage.” Also central to socialist thought is a secular and materialist vision of the world that espouses relativism, sees everything politically, and locates genuine community in the state and not in families, churches or voluntary organizations.

The fall of communism and two decades of globalization did not extinguish socialist hopes. The tactics changed, but the goals remained. Proponents of socialism traded in revolution for the gradualism of the Fabian socialists who encouraged use of democratic institutions to achieve socialist goals. They replaced political radicals like Lenin and Castro with the cultural Marxism of Theodor Adorno or Antonio Gramsci, who called for a “long march through the institutions” of Western culture.

This is the pedigree of Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers, and the various sixties revolutionaries who now inhabit positions of cultural influence throughout the West. We are seeing the fruit of their efforts: socialist visions of family, religion, art, community, commerce, and politics pervade the culture.

I am not suggesting that Americans or Europeans live in socialist states. That would trivialize the suffering of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Rather, I am suggesting that socialist ideas have transformed the way many of us think about a host of important things. Ideas considered radical only 75 years ago are now considered quite normal and even respectable.

Look, for instance, at co-habitation rates and the number of people who do not believe in marriage or view it as a “bourgeois” institution. Directly or indirectly, they got these ideas from people like Engels and Adorno, who argued that “the institution of marriage is raised… [on] barbaric sexual oppression, which tendentially compels the man to take lifelong responsibility for someone with whom he once took pleasure in sleeping with….” The same-sex marriage movement and hostility to the traditional family follow Engels goal to destroy “this present form of marriage.”

In other realms, we see increasing secularization, religion being equated with intolerance and decreasing religious practice. Look at the common acceptance of ethical and cultural relativism and the fear of making truth claims lest one be labeled an extremist. Look at the unquestioned supremacy of materialist and Darwinist thought that dominates the scientific community, or the political correctness that pervades language. Look at our public school system, increasingly focused on indoctrination rather than education. We joke that the universities are the last bastion of Marxism. But who do we think writes the textbooks that teach primary and high school students? The “long march through the institutions” has been more successful than its early advocates could have dreamed.

Of course it would be simplistic to blame socialism for all that ails the West. But socialism has been the principle vehicle of many of these ideas, carrying them into the mainstream.

So how is it that, after such dramatic failures, socialism continues to allure? Perhaps because, as future pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote, the Marxist dream of radical liberation still captures the modern imagination.

It’s a dream that will always betray, because sustained liberty requires a certain moral culture: one that respects truth and conforms to it; one that recognizes the inherent dignity and spiritual nature of the person; one that respects the role of the family and encourages a rich and varied civil society; one that acknowledges that culture and religion are more important than politics; one that respects rule of law over the arbitrary rule of men and rejects utopian delusions; one that recognizes that the difference between right and wrong is not determined by majority, consensus or fashion; and, finally, one that recognizes that the ultimate source of liberty is God and not the state.

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was one of the great victories for human freedom. But while the East suffered untold misery, perhaps it was too easy a victory for us in the West. We were lulled into thinking that socialism had been discredited, had lost its allure—that capitalist economies and abundant goods were sufficient to satisfy human desires. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to those like John Paul II or Alexander Solzhenitsyn who warned us about an empty materialism, an insidious relativism, and a vitiated culture.

The challenges of socialist thought are real. But there is hope. There is hope in the resurgent resistance to the unprecedented growth of government. There is hope in the millions of families who work hard and in the thousands who make sacrifices for freedom every day. This week we celebrate the victory of freedom and the collapse of applied socialism. Let us not come to a point where we look back with regret that we forfeited such a precious gift. Let us build anew a culture of ordered liberty. Let us learn from those who suffered. Let us recover the wisdom that comes from our faith and our Founders and do our own part to shine the fragile light of liberty.

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  • noelfitz

    Is there not a bit of a contradiction here.
    I read
    “Look at the common acceptance of ethical and cultural relativism and the fear of making truth claims lest one be labeled an extremist.”

    Yet the article gives a list of the truth claims advocated by socialists.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad


    The truth claims advocated by socialists — nearly all of them — are not truth. They are claims offered as truth. Claims propped up against truth in order to hide it. But they are not truth. Expansion of the state is an objective moral evil that always comes at the expense of the Church. This is not merely the case today; it is the lived history of Christianity throughout the ages.

    When Henry broke with the Pope, one of the primary goals of his successors was to crush the Catholic Church — the supposed enemy of the English State. One of the primary mechanisms was to steal the property of Catholic entities — like religious orders — and turn that property over to the lords who ruled the English state. Eastern Christianity suffered no end of difficulty because of the incessant meddling of the emperor of Constantinople in the spiritual affairs of the Church. Heretic emperors would often choose heretic bishops, and the Church as a whole suffered as a result. In the West, students of Latin American history will discover the common timing between the expansion of the state and persecution of the Church. When Mexico came out of its own Revolution, the state seized lands, the oil energy, and most of the institutional power in the society. Shortly thereafter, the dictatorship of Plutarch Elias Calles’s Maximato emerged. This last event coincided almost precisely with the persecution of the Mexican Church, the banning of the right of religious authorities to legally marry people (a ban which persists today), and the outright murder by the state of a great many people.

    And yet there have always been religious persons from the left or right who offer bankrupt apologies for the particular evils advocated by a particular manifestation of the expansionist state. Before ever there was a Hugo Chavez to blight Venezuela, there was a democratically elected right-wing president named Carlos Andres Perez who used the power of his office to enrich himself. To call Mr. Perez corrupt is to insult those who merely have a flawed understanding of reality. He was a thief. But the real champion of right-wing advocates of raw state power was Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. He turned Nicaraguan society into his own personal fiefdom. By the time he was overthrown, the coalition arrayed against him included just about everybody in the country except his own family, with political views ranging from left to right. The military power of this opposition was largely held by a group called Sandinistas — and this has led to a left-wing manifestation of raw state power that replaced the former right wing version.

    In our own beloved United States, we now have a government that has legalized intergenerational theft. There is no other way to put it. Any government that implements policies for which twelve and thirteen figure annual deficits are indefinitely foreseeable — any such government — is stealing from our children in order to pay for whatever nonsense they choose to foist upon us. Such a vast expansion of the American state bodes ill for the U.S. and the world at large.

    Expansion of the American state has crushed the poorest and most vulnerable persons. It has precisely coincided with the annual murder of more than a million pre-born human persons. Indeed, it was the unconstrained state, in the form of its judiciary, that hurled this particular evil at American society. It has brought with it the impoverishment of women and children, victims of the easy doctrine of state-sponsored divorce that usually leaves single mothers and their children in a poverty they never knew in marriage.

    Someday, the advocates of the expansionist state will have to answer some simple questions. A couple of those might be: “Why did you think that government-controlled access to a doctor was more important than the marriages of my little ones? Why did you believe it acceptable for the government to deprive my littlest ones of their very personhood? Why did you trust the government and not me?”

  • goral

    It is folly to think that what we used to call the Free World or the West is somehow too politically and economically advanced to even consider Socialism.
    Just the opposite is true. It’s the “Western World” that is most vulnerable to socialist tendencies, why because we are more secular than the second or third tier nations. They work it by force, we do it by persuasion and conviction.
    Antonio Gramsci succeeded where Lenin failed.