Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conservatism: The God that Failed, Part 1

In 1949, a book called The God that Failed appeared. It is a collection of essays by ex-Marxists about their disillusionment with Communism, and signaled the beginning of the end of intellectual respect for Marxism-Leninism. The disillusionment was largely due to the economic and moral failures of the Soviet Union under Stalin. But it was also the result of intellectual critiques of Marx’s ideas. If the problem were only bad leadership, the ideology could have survived. The added intellectual critique was essential and in the long run fatal, because old leaders couldn’t convince bright young students that a more ‘pure’ Marxism could ever deliver on its original idealistic promises.

The Soviet Union didn’t fall for another forty years, but as an American graduate student at the London School of Economics in the late 1960’s I could see that, intellectually, the case for Communism was dead. I was working on my PhD in Philosophy under Sir Karl Popper, who had written The Open Society and Its Enemies, a book which exposed as bogus Marx’s claims to be “scientific”. The book was one of the nails in the coffin of intellectual respect for Marxism-Leninism.

In the 1968 I participated in the protests against the Vietnam war at Grosvenor Square (organized by Bill Clinton, as I later found out), discussed politics with some in the SocSoc—the student Socialist Society—and experienced the shutdown of the LSE in 1968 over student protests. The spirit and shallowness of the arguments of the young radical Left in England at that time was wonderfully captured by John Lennon, when he sang: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t goin’ to make it with anyone anyhow.”

In recent years, I have been seeing the same movie again, but this time the God that Failed is ‘conservatism’ of the Reagan variety: the idea that minimizing the size of government, the amount of government regulation, and the level of taxation, particularly on the wealthy, will make a country freer and more prosperous. Reagan’s philosophy was summed up in a famous phrase from his first Inaugural Address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

In cases of both Marxian Communism and Reaganite Conservatism there is a background of impressive intellectual work to give credibility to the ideology. But in the end it turns out that this intellectual superstructure is largely irrelevant to the actual question of the viability of the ideology as a practical program. The intellectual superstructure is fog and misdirection, and in the ‘Emperor's New Clothes’ moment it turns out that the ideology was based on nothing but faith, faith that turns out to be quite misplaced. It is a God that Failed.

Coming Next: Marxist and Reaganite Fantasies.