One of the most remarkable and perhaps most relevant aspects of communism is how it regressed from an idealistic and inspirational world view to nothing more than a deeply flawed engineering project. Communism started out as a set of beliefs about liberating mankind to reach its full potential. It was not about material goods or political power, but human accomplishment. By the time the Soviet empire collapsed at the end of the 20th century, it was about making enough toilet paper and boots.
The early communists, including Marx, looked at work and the pursuit of material goods as a burden on mankind. Capitalism turned men into slaves to their own desires for wealth and property. This crude desire for material goods made them easy to exploit by the capital class. The point of overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with communism was to free man from that burden. The resulting material prosperity of communism would allow mankind to reach its full creative potential.
The Soviet empire that emerged from the Second World War was noticeably short on talk about mankind reaching its full potential. The practical necessity of feeding, housing and clothing its people consumed the regime. The great dream of a post-scarcity world of mankind united in brotherhood had given way to figuring out how to produce enough necessities to prevent rebellion. The last half of the 20th century was communism trying to keep pace with capitalism in the production of consumer goods.
In contrast, what we call western liberalism or liberal democracy started from the opposite end. Dating and locating the origin of what we call liberalism is a topic for endless debate, but it is reasonable to say it is an English thing. The rise of parliament in England as the counter to aristocratic rule followed by the Industrial Revolution is as good an origin story as any for liberal democracy. Its purpose was to increase individual liberty so men could pursue their own material interests.
Similarly, the American revolution was about government control of economic activity and tax policy. There was plenty of grandiose language in the Declaration of Independence about the human condition, but the founding generation had no dreams of a post-scarcity world or the universal brotherhood of man. The end game for liberalism was to leave people to live their lives in peace. Liberalism was about freeing men from their duties to grandiose schemes of other men.
The Jacobins, of course, had grand notions about the universal rights of man, but that was all about the individual. Sure, a political system that respects the natural rights of man would be fairer and more equal than monarchy, but that does not necessarily lead to some great advancement in the human condition. A free society of equals would be free to just live mundane lives as farmers and merchants. More important, they have no duty to advance mankind past his present condition.
That’s the funny thing about the last half of the 20th century. The progress of the two great competing ideological systems was in the opposite direction. The idealistic communists gave up their big dreams and focused on the basics of providing material goods for their societies. The practical minded liberals slowly abandoned the simple goals of individual liberty and started to dream of spreading democracy to every corner of the globe. Liberalism emerged as the great dram of mankind.
At the end of the Cold War, it was largely understood that central planning and communism were unworkable as economic policies. Only a fool would compare the material results of communism to capitalism and think the former had any hope of competing with the latter. As Fukuyama explained, the West has reached the end point of its intellectual development. Liberal democracy had triumphed over all competing ideologies and was now the only moral option.
You can probably write a very long book on how liberalism evolved, developed and matured in its struggles from the Magna Carta to the end of the Cold War. Maybe the starting date would be the English Civil War. It first triumphed over aristocracy, then fascism and finally communism. In the end it matured from a simple desire to set men free to pursue their own interests and individual potential into a fully developed dream of setting mankind free from his natural condition.
That would be a great book if it were written in the first years after the Cold War, but the decades since have revealed something else about liberal democracy. That is those grand dreams are nothing more than decorations. Having reached the post-scarcity world dreamed of by the communists, western liberals look around and see that there is nothing to inspire them. There is no moving past the human condition into some next phase of man. There’s just work and consumption.
The last few decades can best be described as a thrashing about by the American ruling class and to a lesser degree the minor ruling classes of Europe, looking for a reason to exist. Having conquered nature and want, defeated all ideological challengers, liberal democracy looks around asking what was the point? If the end of the long cycle of history was simply work and consumption, why did mankind make the journey and struggle to get to this point in its development?
Of course, it must be noted that the high point of communism was citizens lining up at stores only to find the shelves mostly bare. It was order being imposed by neighbors spying on neighbors. The great triumph of liberal democracy is now people lined up outside stores that are increasingly short of product. Like the communists, the liberals now rely in neighbors to spy on neighbors and the fearful to bully the skeptical. There’s no getting around the fact that America is no longer a free society.
Maybe in the end this is the fate of all ideology. The communists started with lofty goals and dreams of transcending the human condition. They descended to the greatly reduced goal of making enough stuff to survive. Liberal democracy starting with the practical goal of individual liberty, got the ideology bug and began to dream of a world beyond the human condition. It too is now collapsing into less lofty goals, like maintaining the basics of civil society and material existence.
Perhaps the great lesson of the long intellectual development known as the Enlightenment will be that the danger to humanity is the ideologue. Genuine human progress is the systematic removal of those who dream of something beyond the human condition. True enlightenment is the embrace of man’s humanity and his innate desire to work, enjoy the fruits of his labor and spend his short existence with friends and family. Human progress is simply the embrace of humanity.
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