A Reviewer's Notebook - 1978/7
JULY 01, 1978 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Jean-Francois Revel, one of France’s sharpest critics of Communism, including "Euro-Communism," thinks of himself as a democratic socialist. In a tantalizing book, The Totalitarian Temptation, he opposes what he calls the "unofficial Stalinists" and the "pidgin Marxists" from a middle ground of "pluralist democracy" without ever quite realizing the connection between the property right and pluralism. He is willing to take capitalism in preference to the collectivist state, and he is not cowed when Communists call him "reactionary," but in fighting the "excesses" that crop up in the average socialist’s critique of capitalism he betrays a yearning for something that he is unable to put into words.
The best he can do is to say that "socialism," by which he means some undefined ideal thing, "can only take root in capitalism and develop by outgrowing—not destroying—capitalist civilization, while preserving its two cornerstones: the capacity to produce, and political, individual and cultural freedoms."
Such a sentence I find very puzzling. Isn’t Revel trying to tell us that he is a voluntarist who wants to build a cooperative world on a base of private property and free association? The word "socialism," with the connotations it has gathered, hardly covers Revel’s desire.
Oddly enough, Revel’s "socialism" seems to be very much the French equivalent of the "neo-conservatism" that Irving Kristol accepts in his witty Two Cheers for Capitalism. Unlike his French brother, Kristol disdains to use the word "socialism," saying that the socialist doctrine is dead but as yet unburied. But he is still a socialist in the Revel sense when he puts in a plug for a "conservative welfare state." The idea of a welfare state, he says, "is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy—as Bismarck knew a hundred years ago."
Bringing Bismarck, the Prussian junker who prepared the soil for Hitler, into the picture I find just as confusing as Revel’s attempt to root "socialism" in capitalism. The terms of the argument get unbearably fuzzy. Actually, Kristol is not for a welfare state; he is for a welfare society, which is something quite different. He is willing to let the state define the uses to which people shall put their own money during a sort of Fabianism-in-reverse transition to a cooperative world built on a base of private property and free association. This is a tactical compromise, not a philosophy of the "conservative welfare state" as such.
Fabianism in Reverse
I feel a certain kinship with both Revel and Kristol, for I have personally been through the evolution that they have, in my judgment, only half-completed. To have a pluralist society using democratic methods of government, there must be the property base. It’s a matter of physics, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago. The free man must have something to stand on. He can’t have free speech unless he can own his own sources of wood pulp and his own printing press. (If he wants to make that free speech oral, he must be able to hire his own hall in the market place.) If the state has the power to conscript one’s income, thus preventing the acquisition of private property, the possibility of pluralism and democracy tends to disappear as the government pushes its power toward the totalitarian extreme.
Yet, in deference to Irving Kristol, we must acknowledge the tactical necessity of getting from "here to there" in a Fabianism-in-reverse movement back to the voluntary society. Kristol is full of ingenious suggestions: he wants to move away from state social security and state medicine by letting individuals take their voluntary insurance payments to pension funds and Blue Cross and Blue Shield schemes as wholly tax-deductible items. He wants to see the Republican Party build itself anew on a program of offering "incentives for the citizen to provide for his own welfare."
No Sense of Direction
The difficulty of working from the Kristol—or the Revel—position is that, when one becomes engaged in the game of Fabian compromise, it becomes increasingly hard to keep one’s sense of direction. To get a compromise in a libertarian, voluntaristic direction, you need some muscularity and conviction in your preference for, say, private education versus the public school. There must be a determined opposition in society to the idea of state support of education in order to provide the leverage to fight for even the mildest Fabianism-in-reverse voucher system for parents who might prefer private schools. The question comes down to the polarities of pluralism. Where, and on what, do you take your stand?
Polarities are created in society before they send their representatives to the legislature. Mr. Kristol sees this point at times. He attacks what he calls the "new class" for its greed for controlling the levers of power that are operated from a political base in Washington. The "new class" sets itself up as an elite with a mystical call to use the common man’s tax money—and the inflationary paper dollar—to set the standards for society. With its support in the media, the new class has no compunctions about using compulsion to get its way. It wants no part of pluralism.
Kristol supports some regulation, but in his evolution to "neo-conservatism" he is having second thoughts about putting fetters on individuals and private organizations. He is worried about the bureaucratization of society that results from "new class" management of the people’s tax money. The welfare state, he says, is on a collision course with a working class psychology which, while not rejecting any of the benefits of welfarism, feels victimized by it. It turns out that it isn’t much fun to be managed by the elite "new class" sons and daughters of the old middle class.
An Ugly Battle over the Question of Power
In his progress from a quasi-socialism to neo-conservatism, Kristol has discovered "a dirty little secret." The new elite talks about the "redistribution of income." But it wants the income to be handed over to the state, with the elite assuming the prerogatives of dishing it out. The battle is over the question of power. It is an ugly battle.
So Mr. Kristol has become a tax rebel. He would force the rich to bequeath their money to heirs in small amounts, but for the living he advocates letting them keep their money. He still chides capitalists for not "thinking politically." But in his own mind he considers the world has become too politicized. He ends as he begins, by giving "two cheers" for capitalism on the grounds that the alternatives to it supported by the new elites range from the "hideous" to the "merely squalid." Communism, socialism and fascism have all turned out to be illusions or frauds. So let us have a political order that allows men and women a private life, using their energies as they themselves may choose.
The Totalitarian Temptation by Jean-Francois Revel. Published by Doubleday & Co., 245 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, $8.95
Two Cheers for Capitalism by Irving Kristol. Published by Basic Books, 10 E. 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022, $10.00