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Who Said Marx is Dead?

BY FATHER JOHN FLYNN

November 01, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/1/98 at 2:00 PM

 

President Clinton may be joining the leaders of England, Italy, and other left-leaning countries on the international socialism bandwagon

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many expected the world's left-wing parties to fall with it. Yet in the years since, communist and socialist groups have succeeded in re-inventing themselves, and in many cases wrested power from their conservative opponents. Now even President Clinton and others in the Democratic Party, who so recently denied the name of “liberal,” may be ready to climb onto the bandwagon of international socialism. How can this have happened, since the fall of the old Soviet Union has shown so clearly the fraudulence of Marxism?

In part, because the left has changed. Faced with the alternatives of electoral oblivion or recanting their ideological heritage, they chose the latter. Not that it was an easy task — in countries such as Italy, Germany, and Great Britain, it has taken many years to bring about this transformation; in some cases, it has led to splits in left-wing parties. Yet while economic realities may have dispelled many old leftist notions, in social and moral matters most leftists remain faithful to a cultural and moral relativism — a relativism which many across the political spectrum are emulating.

SEEDS OFTHE NEW LEFT

How did this begin? In the ‘80s, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and a wave of neo-conservative writers and thinkers brought electoral triumph and newfound intellectual confidence to the conservative movement. For liberals, communists, and socialists, crushing defeat at the polls combined with the crisis caused by the collapse of communism to force some serious self-examination. The resulting ideological reinvention has been largely successful: In America, a Democratic president racked by scandal has nonetheless retained support for his policies and job performance. Meanwhile, most of Europe is now governed by leftist or center-left coalitions. This is the case in Italy, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Finland, and Greece.

In Italy, the Communist Party changed its name, threw off the hard-liners who had insisted on fidelity to the past, and opened itself to capitalism. The reward was not long in coming. The ex-Communist Party now leads the current coalition government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, already the second most enduring in Italy's post-war history. France and also Germany, where the Social Democrats, after having moderated their position, have now ousted the Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl — the last of the ‘80s wave of conservative leaders — have seen a similar transformation on the part of socialist groups. This fall, in Sweden, the ex-Communist Party doubled its vote and has now entered the government coalition.

In Britain, old-line elements in the Labor Party were gradually purged, and the infamous Article Four of the party platform, which called for the confiscation and nationalization of all private industry, was dropped. Still, Labor suffered repeated electoral defeats, until Tony Blair, the most anti-ideological leader in the party's history, was selected to challenge the scions of Margaret Thatcher. The result was the triumph of a “New Labor” in Britain.

Which points to America, where Blair's good friend, President Bill Clinton, is navigating his own personal troubles, while adroitly maneuvering to occupy and maintain the political center on issues such as family care, welfare, and education. While the Democrats as a whole have been less successful in challenging their opponents in state and congressional elections, and many seem leery of their beleaguered leader, the president forges on, adding to his checkered personal legacy new international alliances which may survive his troubled presidency.

AN OVERLOOKED CONFERENCE

For instance, on Sept. 21, when most Americans were caught up in coverage of the presidential scandal, New York University (NYU) was host to a forum on democracy and the economy in the global era, which boasted an interesting assortment of world leaders. Hillary Clinton spoke at the morning session; later in the afternoon, the president and two prime ministers, Britain's Blair and Italy's Prodi, were on the agenda. Themes such as globalization, the reform of international institutions, and the protection of the poor were debated. Together, the three leaders discussed ways to guide the world into the next millennium.

Many observers suspect Clinton of trying to involve himself and the Democratic Party in a new international association for like-minded, mostly ex-socialist or ex-communist parties. Some have even speculated that he sees the possibility of leading such a grouping once he leaves the White House. The First Lady seems, if anything, even more interested in the idea; she, too, might hope for some sort of post, perhaps at one of the international agencies of the United Nations. Although press reports have given credit to the Dean of NYU's Law School, John Sexton, for organizing the discussion among the three leaders, the chief of Italy's ex-Communists, Massimo D‘Alema, is on record as saying that the idea came from the First Lady. For his part, Romano Prodi asserted before going to New York that the world needs another “New Deal.” While there's been little reaction to all these political mutations in England and virtually none in the United States, European newspapers have, on the whole, reported favorably on this matter, as an initiative to create a successor to the Socialist International. The International, which traces back in its prehistory to the old Bolshevist and revolutionary left, remains the hub of European socialism, though its only North American affiliates are Canada's New Democrats and two tiny splinter parties in the United States.

Early this year, D‘Alema went to London to visit Blair, suggesting the creation of some kind of new world grouping of left-wing parties. In April the two leaders met with representatives of other European leftist parties, some of whom expressed concern at the idea of the new group's supplanting the Socialist International.

BIRDS OFA FEATHER

Nonetheless, in an interview published at the beginning of September, the British Prime Minister declared that the European Left has much in common with the Democratic Party in America, and that an alliance between these two would be beneficial. He also suggested including representatives of the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil. While Blair denied he was trying to depose the Socialist International from its leadership as the forum for socialist parties, he mentioned some points which could provide the basis for a common dialogue between Europe and America: the providing of public services without excessive spending of government funds; the need for restraint in monetary policy; reform of the judicial system; and an updating of the welfare state. The British leader specifically mentioned the need for a “Third Way,” as an alternative to the creed of the free market and the old ideologies of communism and socialism.

According to Blair, some of the principles which should orient this new political grouping are the following: stable and prudent management of the economy; a limitation of government intervention to education and the building of infrastructure, rather than endless government programs, paid for by exponentially increasing taxes; constructive reform of the welfare state; decentralization of government; and openness on the international level, to place the left in contrast to an isolationist right.

Blair's ideas draw heavily on the work of Anthony Giddens, a sociologist and head of the famous London School of Economics (formerly a home to many conservative thinkers), who published a book entitled The Third Way and serves as an advisor to Blair. According to a review of this book in The Economist, five principal dilemmas demand the creation of a new political force which is neither left nor right:

• Globalization is changing the way we consider the nation-state, governments, and sovereignty.

• A new individualism means that social cohesion can no longer be imposed from above.

• Some modern problems — devolution, ecology, etc. — cannot be understood in familiar, left-right political terms.

• Some functions in society can only be carried out by government — yet pressure groups will seek to impede this.

• While we can exaggerate environmental dangers, we should also not be overly optimistic.

Related ideas held some sway during Clinton's first term in office. The “communitarianism” of authors such as Amitai Etzioni found them a hearing at the White House and in the opinion columns of newspapers and magazines. Such communitarians held that both the free market and classical liberalism had fomented an excessive individualism in society. This atomization of civic life was, plausibly enough, held to be responsible for many of our current social ills; the remedy suggested involved community and public service, together with the promotion of common values. Yet this project has faded somewhat in recent years, as the Administration's quest for a vision was supplanted by more immediate concerns, and as critics of communitarianism pointed out its lack of cohesive philosophical underpinning and firm grasp of what values were to be promoted amongst the citizenry.

CONSERVATIVES’ WAKE-UP CALL

For the moment, the successes of the new center-left have offered an opportunity for its leaders to clarify a fresh blueprint for the world's future. Even though conservative groups may deride these intellectual speculations, they would do well to take them seriously. The center-left has come a long way in jettisoning its Marxist ballast and has undergone a substantial transformation; moreover, they have rightly concluded that a simplistic confidence in the invisible hand of the market and an excessively individualistic attitude, are no remedy for the many social problems with which we will enter the new millennium. At the same time one wonders whether men such as Clinton, Blair, and Prodi can liberate themselves, not just from tired economic ideologies, but also from the ethical relativism and cultural poverty which had led center-left parties, all too often, to central roles in the onslaught against the family, religion, and moral values.

Pope John Paul II dealt with the conflict between communism and capitalism in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pope pointed out that Marxism has proven to be a failure, on both theoretical and practical levels. At the same time, he reminded us that many of the social evils which led to the spread of Marxism are still in existence (cf. nn. 26-29). John Paul II also asserted that if, by capitalism, we mean a system that is individualistic and closed to human and social values, then we cannot accept it (cf. n. 42).

THE CHURCH'S VIEW

What does the Church propose? It does not offer a specific model or system in politics or economics. Rather it puts forth a series of principles which can guide the faithful in their concrete situations (cf. n. 43). In closing, we do well to cite John Paul's words concerning the relationship between the State and values:

“Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility. Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” (Centesimus Annus, 46).

We can only hope that those responsible for choosing the future direction of our societies heed these words.

John Flynn, of the Legionaries of Christ, writes from Rome.