Capitol Ideas

Unrestrained

What the left's war on property has given way to.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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THE SOVIET mathematician Igor Shafarevich once spelled out the elements that have inspired socialists throughout the ages. Having won many prizes, he was freed from Soviet oversight and spent his days in the Moscow University library. Not surprisingly, it was well-stocked with books about the history of socialism. To the Soviet authorities, a renowned mathematician who perused those old volumes must have seemed harmless enough and perhaps admirable.

His book The Socialist Phenomenon, written at Solzhenitsyn’s suggestion, was published in 1980. Socialism began as a Christian heresy. Its constant themes have been the abolition of private property (central to The Communist Manifesto), the destruction of the family, and finally, as an ultimate goal, the abolition of religion. Equality was a continual obsession. Shafarevich concluded that “a striving for self-destruction,” for nothingness, for “the death of mankind,” is the true goal of socialism.

The abolition of property, pursued in the Soviet Union and then China, caused the deaths of tens of millions of people. It also created a governing class, consisting of those who told others what to do in the absence of property rights. This was the dictatorship of the proletariat, an extreme form of central planning. Both China and the Soviet Union also sought to abolish religion.

It’s shocking to realize how many intellectuals in the West supported the overall socialist mission. That same intelligentsia remains influential in the U.S. today. But there have been changes. We know now that when communist governments seized all property in Russia and China, those countries’ economies quickly crashed. Arguably, the idea that abolishing property would lead to disaster was not understood in 1917. But now it is.

Today, the instinctive socialist war on property has been minimized. It is shaved by taxation and curtailed geographically, as when the government controls great tracts of property in Western states. NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) tendencies give us a sometimes unjust control over other people’s property. The old war must also contend with democracy. The leftist policy thrust all over the Western world is the redistribution of income, and the recipient classes have to be fed with that money—which means there has to be something left over to redistribute.

My late friend Joe Sobran, noticing the subordination of liberals to Moscow by the 1960s, used the metaphor of a hive to describe what was going on. Liberals and communists belong to the same brood, but Moscow was the queen bee. The all-important media were deferential to it. Those who strayed were stung. The hive is the community of apostates, the rebellion of the intelligentsia against the constraints imposed by Creation.

Before the advent of so-called “McCarthyism,” anti-communism was popular in the United States. As David Horowitz put it in Radical Son, his memoir about his upbringing by two communist parents: “When the radical upsurge of the Sixties shifted the American political spectrum to the left, ‘old Reds’ like my parents became the heroes of the Cold War ‘repression.’ Celebrated in Hollywood films like The Front, they lived to see their antagonists become the arch villains of the era.”

American liberals—some of whom share the communist state of mind—were almost never critical of Moscow. They took great exception to anti-Soviet politicians who made it through media filters, Ronald Reagan being the leading example.

Anyway, the Moscow hive is now defunct. At times I even find myself admiring Vladimir Putin—when, for example, he jailed those punks who demonstrated in the sanctuary of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was blown up by Stalin in the 1930s and, in an inspiring moment, rebuilt by Russians after 1991.

There is now a new hive. After the Soviet collapse, Pope John Paul II spoke of an approaching “apocalyptic combat” with “the culture of death.” The sexual revolution is its core and New York its focus. Most prophetic in foreseeing this was G.K. Chesterton, who wrote in 1926 that “the madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, much more in Manhattan.” He added:

It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility. The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality, and especially on sexual morality.

Shafarevich saw the destruction of the family as one of socialism’s top goals, but “sexual revolution” illustrates it better. It is broader, and for once “revolution” is no exaggeration. Undermining marriage is key. The injunction against premarital sex, once central to Christian civilization, is almost unmentionable today. The hive sees this precept as a battle that has already been won, so why revisit it?

The war against the family is also waged by abortion-rights advocates and all the other liberationist strategists of our day. The ever-growing folly that the sexes are interchangeable is one more avenue of assault. Transgenderism shows that there are no limits to our modern madness. As for same-sex marriage, the pretense is that by welcoming gays into the marriage fold we are only strengthening marriage. The real goal is to normalize homosexuality.

The anti-family agenda advances under the banner of liberation. No one is saying that marriage should be abolished. Almost anything in the sexual realm today is legitimized by appeals to consent, diversity, and tolerance. In contrast, the anti-property campaigns of yore enlisted the forces of abolition. But the modern media dislike that. Sexual liberation is libertarian: The golden rule is that anything consensual is acceptable. If it feels right, do it. God is assumed either to be nonexistent, or to have no say in the matter. 

THE ABOLITION of property was well advanced in communist countries before its supporters realized it couldn’t work; Lenin and Mao had no idea what they were doing to their own countries. In the same way, those who tolerate the destruction of marriage and the family today have no idea how it will end up (possibly they don’t care). The hive has short time horizons and is as automatic in its operations as the bees themselves. They are oblivious to outcomes, just as the media are today.

But some predictions can be made. First, the loss of religious faith that is integral to socialist advance is causing smaller families. The replacement fertility rate is 2.1 children per family. Today it is 1.9 in America, 1.5 in Russia, 1.4 in Germany, and 1.3 in Japan. If this continues—and the fertility numbers are still declining—the income redistributionist strategy of the Left will be short-lived. In fact, its dangers are already well advanced. The infrastructure is crumbling, to use a modern metaphor. Soon there won’t be enough people to pay the bills.

This phenomenon is apparent in Europe, and in a few years everyone in the U.S. will be talking about it. Harbingers are to be found in new books such as Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. As Elise Hilton wrote about the book on the Acton Institute’s blog:

If people are going to have children, there must be a culture in place that values marriage, children, and religious values (sorry, atheists, but it’s true.) Specifically, Last says America must allow adults to keep more of their wages, increase tax relief for having more children, and reduce the economic distortion that Social Security currently creates.

But in an age of contraception, it is easier to get people to have fewer children than to encourage them to have more. Environmentalists are doing everything in their power to keep the population down, and the welfare state is so perversely “generous” that those entering low-income jobs will doubtless pay in vastly more than they will ever get back. Marriage becomes financially counterproductive. Attempts to boost the birth rate by subsidizing fecundity in Japan and elsewhere seem to have failed. In Tokyo, more diapers are sold to oldsters than to youngsters. 

Same-sex marriage will remain much in the news. In terms of numbers, its effect will no doubt be small. The Kinsey Reports’ estimate that 10 percent of the population is homosexual was exaggerated. But overturning millennia of morality will have hazardous, unforeseen consequences. One possibility is that other moral doctrines of the Catholic Church, already abandoned by other denominations, could be interdicted by legislatures or courts.

To date, at least, the culture war has dealt us one loss after another. A strong response is overdue. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).