Socialism and the Exhaustion of American Liberalism

American socialism is a degenerate departure from traditional European socialism. Arising out of the bourgeois, American socialism cleaves to the language of individual autonomy or self-creation, the very moral and metaphysical language that expanded with the rise of the bourgeois. Unlike traditional European socialism, then, which was anti-bourgeois, American socialism preserves socialism’s revolutionary passion but redirects it, seeking to expand both the bourgeois and the bourgeois ideology of individual autonomy. Because of these double genuflections before the bourgeois and before the altar of revolution, American socialism is Bourgeois Bolshevism. In imagining themselves as the vanguard waging war against minority oppression, Bourgeois Bolsheviks turn the political theology of the 1960s into the potent categories of contemporary identity politics. The irony, however, is that in pursuing its political and cultural revolution for individual self-creation, Bourgeois Bolshevism fuses its goals to the goals of American liberalism. American socialism is parasitical on American liberalism. Yet American socialism is a benign parasite on American liberalism, because its projects end up in an uncritical subservience to the agenda that American liberalism has pursued since the 1960s.

Such was my argument in “The Strange Rise of Bourgeois Bolshevism.” I am grateful to Susan McWilliams Barndt, Emina Melonic, and James Poulos for providing such thoughtful replies and constructive expansions of some of my underdeveloped themes. As Barndt puts it, my respondents are in “heated agreement” with my core claims. Nevertheless, it is worth elaborating on some of our differences with a view toward sketching American socialism’s ultimate flaws.

Barndt provides a valuable account of moments in recent American political history where contrarian impulses have given rise to efforts to reclaim the socialist label. For Barndt, these efforts break with moderate Democrats and “Third Way” era politics, yet do not opt for socialism per se: the aim is still to be faithful to an older Democratic Party, keeping it within the confines of American liberalism. As Barndt notes, and I implied, unmasking American socialism exposes a socialism with a Rawlsian face. Once we agree on what autonomy is, and delegitimise those who do not accept it, the only legitimate debates remaining are about appropriate levels of economic redistribution.               

Unlike Barndt, though, I stress the distinctiveness of American socialism, which emerges in how it directs the revolutionary passion. American socialists may harken back to the old Democratic Party, but they offer a revisionist history of it on revolutionary terms. For example, Franklin Roosevelt, who incarnated state capitalism to mid-20th century socialists, is now considered a socialist. Incrementalists, moderates, or skilled horse-trading progressive politicians have been erased from this picture. Additionally, the revolutionary self-image of Bourgeois Bolsheviks is distinct, enabling a much more ambitious agenda. They see themselves as passionate moral crusaders, appropriating the theology that informed the battles of the 60s. But when this political theology is abstracted out of that historical context, what began as a fight against segregation turns into an attack on the whole system in the name of a limitless individual right to self-creation.

We should not write this off as vacuous talk: Bourgeois Bolsheviks mean what they say. They campaign to change the “system,” to turn their theology into juridical concepts that will radically transform and administer the “system” of American institutions. This fosters a long-term scorched earth campaign against its real target; not the Democratic Party, but what I called the practices of acknowledged dependency. Paramount in family and religious life, these are the activities that, in limiting self-creation and dispelling illusions of self-sufficiency, teach how we rely on other persons to achieve what is good for us and how we help others achieve what is good for them.

One important political example is the practice of entrusting the making and changing of laws to elected rulers or representatives. But here we witness another departure from European socialists. Richard Tuck’s The Left Case for Brexit argues that a socialist defence of democracy means strengthening “the Crown in Parliament,” giving it back the competencies and discretion that have been handed off to Brussels, courts, and administrative bodies. This strand in British socialism believes that endorsing the traditional institutions of British constitutionalism gives voice to the working classes. It trusts the electorate.

Barndt observes that there is much talk of “democracy” in American socialism. The Bourgeois Bolsheviks have a familiar lament against classical federalist and legislative institutions of American constitutionalism: these silence the people! But they couple this lament with a cheer for the new administrative and juridical practices that break from the traditional institutions of American constitutionalism: these silence the wrong kind of people! This is a “democracy” that distrusts the American electorate. We are not far from what Christopher Lasch describes in The True and Only Heaven: the legacy of the 1960s “ended up reinforcing the worst qualities of American liberalism: a sense of superiority to the unenlightened masses, a refusal to credit opponents with honourable intentions, a growing reluctance to submit their policies to public approval.” Whereas American liberalism was ambivalent about these qualities, Bourgeois Bolshevism champions them.

“Democracy” becomes synonymous with individual self-creation. I used the term “libertine-Leninism” to call attention to the mistaken concept of freedom with which American socialism operates. As Melonic elaborates, Bourgeois Bolshevism’s brand of freedom is complicit with the loss of responsibility and the destruction of conscience. Following Jean Bethke Elshtain, Melonic writes that the real problem lies in the way we “understand and enact our freedom.”

Bourgeois Bolsheviks enjoy a level of material security that allows them to be theoretically ambivalent toward family breakdown.

Following Augusto del Noce, I would say the fundamental metaphysical mistake is to understand freedom as “self-creation.” While Melonic stresses a proper understanding of sovereignty, I stress the practices of acknowledged dependency as the condition for understanding and enacting our freedom: understanding, for example, that certain social practices, such as marriage, require that we accept our persistent reliance upon other people, and align our will with theirs. Only by acting within these practices can we hope to enact in freedom the activities that allow us to achieve our good, the common good, and ultimately the Highest Good.

Starting with social conditions need not discount spiritual ends, then, but Poulos obliquely offered the most radical challenge to my argument. While my analysis prioritised social conditions and class, explaining American socialism in terms of its bourgeois origins, Poulos’s analysis focused on spirituality, ultimately explaining American socialism in terms of Gnosticism. So it is worth elaborating what we gain when we start analysis with social conditions. Let us have another look at the libertine-Leninist challenge to the practices of acknowledged dependency.

Poulos is right to point out that this libertinism is hardly “restricted to the upper middle class.” But with the loss of the spiritual discipline that Bourgeois Bolsheviks despise and destroy, those who do not belong to the upper middle class experience the damaging consequences of that loss most acutely.

A friend of mine from a mostly working class community once heard of a woman who worked at a large grocery store. When word got around the store’s workers that she was having an affair, which was wrecking another’s marriage, the other women working in the store swiftly ostracised her. When my friend enquired about this, one of the other women said, “If someone came along and stole my husband, what would happen to me?” For these women, the success or breakdown of their marriages was the difference between security and destitution. Adultery is an existential threat to their livelihoods. The upper middle class, in contrast, sees no such existential threat in adulterous libertinism. Bourgeois Bolsheviks enjoy a level of material security that allows them to be theoretically ambivalent toward family breakdown. To adopt their parlance, their privilege blinds them to the damage such breakdown actually risks. This makes it easier for them to shift their critique of the above situation to exposing traditionalist prejudices against consensual relationships, and scrutinising how women are complicit with the patriarchy by seeing whether they also ostracise adulterous men.

Whereas Poulos entertains the thesis that “the bourgeois do not really exist,” being a conceptual invention that Marxists and others peddle, I think analyzing the relationship between social conditions and moral language provides a more precise disclosure of how socialism emerged in the United States and what it means in the American context. There was once a time when the idea of socialism in America was a laughable debate point. No longer. Barriers to social advancement are greater than they were at the start of the last century. Classes are more static and a virtually hereditary political and cultural elite has entrenched itself. But contrary to the predictions of classical Marxism, these changing social conditions did not produce a class-conscious socialist proletariat ready to play their world-historical role. Instead, it produced, among the bourgeois, a socialism based on the “rejection of every form of dependence,” on the moral and metaphysical language of revolutionary self-creation. This socialism does not end the alienation purportedly caused by capitalism. Instead it deepens the dehumanisation of a purely bourgeois world, a world defined purely in terms of autonomy.

When we start by discussing social conditions and class, then, we are not just able to warn about how American socialism rejects the totality of American constitutionalism and the American soul. We are also able to clarify that the final outcome of American socialism is the radical opposite of what it intends. In spite of all the agitation, American socialism shares in the exhaustion of American liberalism. It cannot discover what freedom is and it cannot address the social question.