In the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley asks a question that has often occurred to me, as well: why has the collapse of Communism had so little impact on political discourse in the West?
[I]n spite of the official agreement that there is no other way to organise the economic life of a free society than the present one (with a few tweaks), there are an awful lot of people implicitly behaving as if there were. Several political armies seem to be running on the assumption that there is still a viable contest between capitalism and Something Else.
If this were just the hard Left within a few trade unions and a fringe collection of Socialist Workers’ Party headbangers, it would not much matter. But the truth is that a good proportion of the population harbours a vague notion that there exists a whole other way of doing things that is inherently more benign and “fair” – in which nobody is hurt or disadvantaged – available for the choosing, if only politicians had the will or the generosity to embrace it.
Why do they believe this? Because the lesson that should have been absorbed at the tumultuous end of the last century never found its way into popular thinking – or even into the canon of educated political debate. …
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism which followed it are hugely important to any proper understanding of the present world and of the contemporary political economy. Why is it that they have failed to be addressed with anything like their appropriate awesome significance, let alone found their place in the sixth-form curriculum?
The failure of communism should have been, after all, not just a turning point in geo-political power – the ending of the Cold War and the break-up of the Warsaw Pact – but in modern thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy, about collectivism vs individualism, and about public vs private power. Where was the discussion, the trenchant analysis, or the fundamental debate about how and why the collectivist solutions failed, which should have been so pervasive that it would have percolated down from the educated classes to the bright 18-year-olds? Fascism is so thoroughly (and, of course, rightly) repudiated that even the use of the word as a casual slur is considered slanderous, while communism, which enslaved more people for longer (and also committed mass murder), is regarded with almost sentimental condescension. …
[I]n our everyday politics, we still seem to be unable to make up our minds about the moral superiority of the free market. We are still ambivalent about the value of competition, which remains a dirty word when applied, for example, to health care. We continue to long for some utopian formula that will rule out the possibility of inequalities of wealth, or even of social advantages such as intelligence and personal confidence.
The idea that no system – not even a totalitarian one – could ensure such a total eradication of “unfairness” without eliminating the distinguishing traits of individual human beings was one of the lessons learnt by the Soviet experiment. The attempt to abolish unfairness based on class was replaced by corruption and a new hierarchy based on party status.
If the European intellectual elite had not been so compromised by its own broad acceptance of collectivist beliefs, maybe we would have had a genuine, far-reaching re-appraisal of the entire ideological framework.
I think a very partial answer to the question Ms. Daley poses is that leftism has never been based on idealism. It has always been based, for the most part, on hate and envy. So when Communism was conclusively proved to be a failure, leftists (including not only leftists in politics, but more important, leftists in the media and in academia) didn’t change their minds or admit their mistake. For in their eyes, while there may have been disappointment, there was no mistake. Their resentments and hatreds remained. They merely sought other vehicles, other terminologies, other tactics to bring down the West and the free enterprise system and democratic institutions that define it. Yesterday’s socialists are today’s progressives. They barely missed a beat.