Tuesday, February 03, 2004

A Useful Little Lie

The great historical villains have an advantage over their less colorful opponents. If you are a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Mao, your every act will be carefully rehearsed in print and on the History Channel, apparently from now until the ending of the world. That’s not exactly the same as a good press; but at least, metaphorically speaking, they will spell your name right. The same is true for the extreme and violent movements these monsters led. Meanwhile, the great moderate figures and forces of history—and there have been some of those—are routinely traduced and misrepresented when they aren’t just ignored. For example, after World War II, the Democratic Party and its leaders made the collective choice to support civil rights even though the decision cost them the South and set the stage for the Republican ascendancy of the last thirty years. That splendid act is scarcely remembered at all and certainly not by the conservatives, most of whom, we are also encouraged to forget, bitterly opposed the civil rights movement when it mattered. The more important instance of premeditated historical amnesia, however, is the libel perpetually perpetrated against European social democracy and its heirs.

One hundred years ago, the great socialist parties of Europe were no more revolutionary or authoritarian than they are today. Politically, they had opted for parliamentary democracy, a principled and often passionate support for individual liberties, and an irenic, internationalist foreign policy. Economically, they had largely given up the original Marxist notion of the public ownership of the means of production in favor of a revisionism difficult to distinguish from the American progressivism of the same era. Instead of wholesale nationalization, they stood for universal public education, religious tolerance, a progressive income tax, and regulation of industry. In lieu of the dogmatism one rightly associates with the Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet period, a great variety of ideas circulated on the Left before World War I. Marx was respected, but his writings were not treated like holy writ. It was widely believed, for example, that his economic theories had been wrong in important ways. In any case, many socialists didn’t think of themselves as Marxists at all.

My point is not to portray the socialists as saints. They had plenty of shortcomings, the most important of which were their very moderation and willingness to compromise. The failure of the socialist parties of Europe to effectively oppose the catastrophe of 1914 is well known and frequently bemoaned; and the Neocons, with some justice, blame them for not fighting Hitler by all means necessary, fair and foul—it may be plausibly argued that the real reason we invaded Iraq was because the SPD didn’t crush the brownshirts. That said, I wonder how many Americans are aware that the SPD were virtually the only party who fought for democracy in the 20s and 30s while the Nazis, communists, and nationalists competed to see who could destroy the republic first? It is also unfair to ignore the huge debt the mass of people in Western Europe owe to social democracy for their health and general welfare.

It is highly useful for the propagandists of authoritarian capitalism to promote historical untruths about a remarkably benign political movement like social democracy. Criticisms that address its real ideas and ideals are certainly possible and sometimes warranted, but you better results by creating an absurd strawman so that settles that. The downside is that you not only have to be willing to lie—hey, anything for the cause—but you have to be willing to be fatuous, too.

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