Philosophy strives to interpret history as a single totality.
In this time of exacerbated nationalisms, the notion of the unity of mankind seems almost an anachronism. Yet if we are to dispel the shadows of barbarism, we must regain some sense of this profound reality. Karl Jaspers suggests that such a sense is to be derived not from any single religious or philosophical system but from a specific historical experience, that of the “axial age” of the years 800-200 BCE. This article is translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.
Philosophy strives to interpret history as a single totality. In the West, the philosophy of history developed on the foundation of the Christian faith. In great works from St. Augustine to Hegel, history is seen as the work of God, and God’s acts of revelation define the decisive epochs. So late a thinker as Hegel could write: “All history moves toward Christ and begins with Christ. The coming of the son of God is the axis of world history.”
But such a view of universal history can be valid only for Christians; Christianity is but one faith, not the faith of mankind. Through a specific historical development beginning in late antiquity, Christianity has become the faith of the Western world; but even in the West, the Christian has not allowed his religion to determine his view of history as human experience: even for him, a statement of faith is not a statement about the actual course of history, and sacred history remains in essence different and separate from profane history. The believing Christian can examine the Christian tradition just as he might examine any other object of his experience.
If there does exist such a thing as an axis, or turning point, in history, it must be based on observable or recorded fact; and it must be valid for all men, including Christians. Such an axis would be that point in history where man first discovered the notion of himself that he has realized since, the point in time where there occurred that shaping of man’s being which has produced the most important results. And the existence of this turning point would have to be, if not absolutely demonstrable, at least convincing on an empirical basis for Europeans, for Asiatics, and for all men, without the need to appeal to the criterion of a definite religious doctrine. Only thus could it provide a common frame of historical self-understanding.
Such a historical axis, or turning point, seems to be situated in the years around 500 BCE, in the intellectual development that took place between 800 and 200 BCE. There lies, it appears to me, the most crucial turning point in history; it was then that man as he is today was born. Let us, for the sake of brevity, refer to this period as the “axial age.”
Many extraordinary developments were crowded into this epoch. In China lived Confucius and Lao-tse, and all the characteristic Chinese philosophical tendencies were born; such thinkers as Mo Ti, Chuang-tze, Liadsi, and innumerable others were at work; in India it was the period of the Upanishads, of Buddha, and, just as in China, every philosophical possibility was then developed, including scepticism, materialism, sophistry, and nihilism; in Iran, Zoroaster taught the dramatic cosmology of the struggle between Good and Evil; in Palestine, it was the age of the Prophets, from Elijah to Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Deutero-Isaiah; in Greece it was the age of Homer, of the philosophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato, of the dramatists, of Thucydides and Archimedes. All the great developments that these names suggest occurred in those few centuries—and almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, though none of these three worlds was aware of the others.
The new element that appeared in this epoch was that man became aware of existence as a whole, of his self, and of his limitations. He experienced the awesomeness of the world and his own weakness. He raised radical questions and, in his quest for liberation and redemption, came face to face with the abyss. While gaining consciousness of his limitations, he set himself the highest aims; he experienced the absolute in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.
Man became aware of consciousness itself; the fact of thought became itself an object of thought. Spiritual battles arose, in which men strove to convince others by the communication of ideas, reasons, experiences. Contradictory possibilities were explored. Discussion, partisanship, the splitting-up of the intellectual sphere into antithetical tendencies that yet remained closely related by their very opposition—all this produced an unrest bordering on spiritual chaos.
This age produced the basic categories within which we still carry on our thinking, and the beginnings of the world religions by which man has lived until today. In every sense, a step was made towards the universal.
Opinions, customs, conditions that had been unconsciously accepted were now scrutinized, questioned, dissolved. The world became a retort in which the substance of tradition, still living and real, was brought to consciousness and thereby transformed.
The age of myth—age of the static and self-evident—came to an end, and there began the battle of rationality and practical experience against myth (logos versus mythos); the battle for the transcendence of the one God against the demons who did not exist; the battle of an aroused ethical sense against the false gods. Religion was informed with ethics, and thus the idea of divinity was enhanced. The myth became the vehicle of a language that expressed something entirely different from what the myth had originally meant; the myth became parable. Myths were transformed and given new depth; and during this transition period, new myths were still produced even while the myth as a whole was being destroyed. The mythical world slowly receded, but it remained, in the beliefs of the masses, the background of all life (and therefore it could triumph again in later periods over wide areas).
This whole transformation of man’s condition may be called a spiritualization. An impulse surging up from the unexplored depths of life loosened the mainstays of existence, transforming stable polarities into antinomies and conflicts. Man was no longer self-sufficient. He had become unsure of himself, and thus open to new and boundless possibilities. He could hear and understand what until then no one had questioned or even noticed. Wonders were made manifest. Along with his world and his ego, Being itself now became perceptible to man, but not finally: the question remained. And his highest upsurge ended in new questions.
For the first time there were philosophers. Men dared to rely on themselves as individuals. Hermits and wandering thinkers in China, ascetics in India, philosophers in Greece, prophets in Israel—they all belong together, however much they may differ in faith, content, and inner orientation. Man was now able to set his inner life in opposition to the whole world; he discovered in himself the principle through which he could rise above both himself and the world.
In speculative thought man soared to the level of Being, which he grasped without duality; subject and object disappeared, and opposites became one. The objective formulations of speculative thought express, ambiguously and in a manner open to misunderstanding, what man in his highest flights experiences as a discovery of himself within the whole of Being, or a unio mystica, a merging with the godhead, or else a transformation of the self into an instrument of God’s will, or a consciousness of the self as transcending the arbitrary particularity of the hic et nunc.
Imprisoned in a body fettered by passions, separated from the light and only dimly aware of himself, man longs for liberation and redemption; and he finds that he can achieve liberation and redemption in the world, whether it is by an ascent to the Idea; or in ataraxia—passive resignation; or by immersion in thought; or in the knowledge of himself and the world as Atman, the Universal Self; or in the experience of Nirvana; or in harmony with the Tao—the cosmic order; or in surrender to the will of God. There are, it is true, great differences among the various faiths, but they all alike come to serve as instruments by which man transcends himself, by which he becomes aware of his own being within the whole of Being, and by which he enters upon pathways that he must travel as an individual. It becomes possible for him to renounce the goods of the world and retire to the desert, the woods, the mountains; he can become a hermit and discover the creative power of solitude, and return to the world as philosopher, sage, prophet. What took place in this axial age was the discovery of what was later to be called reason and personality.
The conquests of individuals did not become the property of all; the distance between the heights of human possibility and the crowd was enormous. But what the individual became, changed everything indirectly; humanity as a whole took a leap forward.
Even sociological conditions in China, India, and around the Mediterranean show similarities during this age. There is an abundance of small states and cities, and a battle of all against all, making at first for astonishing prosperity, a development of power and wealth. In China, under the impotent empire of the Chou dynasty, cities and petty states flourished; the over-all political process consisted of the aggrandizement of small states by the subjection of other small states. In Greece and the Near East, there existed an independent life of small social units, even, in part, for those under the dominion of the Persians. n India also were many independent states and cities.
Within the three worlds, travel and trade created intellectual movement. Previously the world had known relatively stable conditions under which, despite catastrophes, everything repeated itself, horizons were restricted, and intellectual movement was gentle and very slow, unconscious and hence not understood. Now out of constant tension came tumultuous and swift movement, leading to revolution; and this was on the conscious plane.
The Chinese philosophers, Confucius and Mo Ti and others, roamed the country, gathering together in famous places favorable to intellectual life. They established schools which the Sinologists call academies, like those of the Sophists and philosophers in Hellas; or else, like Buddha, they spent their lives wandering from town to town.
Men became conscious of history; an extraordinary age was beginning, but men felt and knew that an endless past had gone before. Thus at the very outset of this awakening of the truly human spirit, man was already preoccupied with memories, conscious of lateness, even of decadence.
Now men wished to take the course of events into their hands: to restore conditions that had existed in the past, or to create new conditions. History was conceived as a series of stages: either as a process of steady deterioration, or as a cycle, or as an ascent. Thinkers began to speculate on how men could best live together, how their lives could best be administered and governed. Ideas of reform inspired political activity. Philosophers wandered from state to state, acted as counselors and teachers, were despised or courted, argued with one another. There is a sociological analogy between Confucius’ failure at the court of Wei and Plato’s failure in Syracuse, and between the school of Confucius and the academy of Plato, in both of which future statesmen were trained.
This long epoch represents no simple ascending development. It was both destructive and creative, and its potentialities were never fully realized. The highest possibilities realized in individuals did not become common property because the mass of men could not follow. What started out as freedom of movement ended as anarchy. When the creative power of the epoch was lost the same thing happened in all three worlds: a petrifaction of dogmas and a general leveling; out of a disorder that had become intolerable there grew an urge toward a new stability, toward the restoration of static conditions of life.
The process of constant change first came to a stop in the political sphere. Great, all-encompassing empires came into being almost simultaneously in China (Chin Shih-Huang Ti), in India (the Maurya dynasty), and in the West (the Hellenistic empires and Rome). Everywhere collapse brought initial gain in the form of a highly systematized order. But nowhere was the relation to what had gone before completely extinguished; the achievements and figures of the axial age became models and objects of veneration: the Han dynasty in China established Confucianism, Asoka established Buddhism in India, and the Augustan age in Rome set up the conscious Greco-Roman cultural tradition.
The universal empires that developed at the end of the axial age were considered to be established for all eternity. But their stability was illusory; although these empires lasted a long time measured by the political standards of the axial age, all ultimately declined and disintegrated, and the subsequent millennia have brought enormous changes. Since the end of the axial age, political history has been a history of the decline of great empires and the founding of new ones.
In Order to establish the truth of a historical conception, it is not enough to glance at a few facts, as I have done. An accumulation of historical analysis must increasingly clarify the thesis, or else it must be abandoned. The observations I have made are intended merely to invite further exploration.
Assuming, however, that this idea of an axial age is true in the main, it seems to illuminate the whole of world history in such a way that something resembling a structure emerges. I shall attempt briefly to indicate this structure:
1. Age-old high civilizations everywhere end with the axial age. The axial age smelts them down, takes them over, submerges them, whether by internal revolution or foreign conquest. Much that existed before the axial age was indeed magnificent—for example, the cultures of Babylonia, Egypt, or the Indus, and the primitive culture of China—but all this has something unawakened about it. The old cultures survived only in those elements that were assimilated by the new beginning and became part of the axial age.
Measured by the radiant humanity of the axial age, a strange veil lies over the preceding ancient cultures, as though in them man had not yet truly come to himself; this remains true despite such impressive, isolated impulses—therefore without general or future influence—as can be found, for example, in an Egyptian literary document, the well-known “Dialogue of a Man Weary of Life with his Soul,” or in the Babylonian penitential psalms or the epic of Gilgamesh. The axial age continued to venerate the monumental in religion and religious art, and the corresponding monumental phenomena in the political realm—the great authoritarian states and legal systems. These things were even regarded as prototypes—by Confucius and Plato, for example—but if so, it was in a new conception that informed them with the spirit of the new age.
Thus the imperial idea, which at the end of the axial age achieved new force and, politically speaking, ended the age, was inherited from the old monolithic civilizations. But whereas the imperial idea had originally been the culture-creating principle, it now served to entomb and stabilize a declining culture. It is as if the principle which had once served to drive humanity upward, and which had been a despotic principle de facto, now broke through in the form of a conscious despotism that congealed and preserved like frost.
2. Mankind is still living by what happened in the axial age, by what it created and what it thought. In all its later flights mankind returns to that age and gathers new fire. The return to this beginning is the ever-recurring event in China, India, and the West; the renaissances that have brought new spiritual surges have consisted in the recollection and reawakening of the possibilities of the axial age.
3. Although the axial age began within a relatively limited area of the globe, its historical effect was universal. Those peoples that did not participate in the developments of that age have remained “primitive peoples,” continuing the unhistorical lives they had been leading for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Men living outside of the three worlds of the axial age either remained apart from the stream of history or were drawn into it by coming into contact with one or the other of the three intellectual centers of radiation, as was the case, for example, with the Germanic and Slavic peoples in the West, and the Japanese, the Malays, and the Siamese in the East. Some primitive peoples died out as a result of this contact. All men living after the axial age were either relegated to the status of primitive peoples or took part in the fundamental new world process. Once history had begun, the life of primitive peoples took on the character of an enduring prehistory, which became increasingly restricted in area and has only recently definitively ended.
4. When the three worlds that experienced the axial age meet with one another, a profound understanding is possible. They recognize when they meet that their concerns are the same. Despite great distances, each deeply affects the others. To be sure, there is no truth common to all three that can be put into objective statement—this exists only in science, with its conscious and compelling methodology, which can be disseminated without change throughout the world and to which all men are called to contribute—but, even so, the authentic and unconditional truth that is lived historically by men of different origins is reciprocally seen and heard.
To summarize: out of the vision of the axial age grow the questions and criteria through which we approach all previous and all subsequent development. The high civilizations that went before lose their distinct contours, and the peoples who were their vehicles become invisible as they merge into the movement of the axial age. Prehistoric peoples remain prehistorical until they are absorbed in the historical movement that spreads out from the axial age-or until they die out. The axial age assimilates everything else. From that age history gains the only structure and unity that survives, or that has survived up to now.
The fact of the threefold axial age is a kind of miracle, in the sense that any really adequate explanation lies beyond our present scientific horizon. And in any case, the hidden meaning of this phenomenon cannot be found empirically, as if it were a meaning that someone had consciously sought to create. Rather, to inquire after this meaning is to ask: what are we to make of this fact, what does it give to us’ If, in attempting to answer these questions, expressions may occur that make it appear as if we were thinking of some plan of providence, they are to be understood only as metaphors.
a) Really to see the axial age, to gain it as a foundation for our universal view of history, means: to gain something that is common to all mankind above and beyond all differences of faith. It is one thing to see the unity of history only from the background of one’s own faith; it is quite another to conceive the unity of history in communication with every other human background, combining one’s own consciousness with that which is foreign to one. In this sense, it may be said of the centuries between 800 and 200 BCE that they constitute the empirically ascertainable axis of history for all men.
The transcendental history of Christian revealed faith knows creation, fall, the steps of revelation, prophecies, the coming of God’s son, redemption, and last judgment. As the faith of a historical group of men, it remains intact. But it is not on the basis of revelation that men can come together; the basis of solidarity can only be experience. Revelation is the form of a particular historical faith; experience is accessible to man as man. Through our experience of history we—all men—can know in common the reality of the universal transformation of mankind that took place in the axial age. This transformation was, to be sure, limited to China, India, and the West, but, although there was at first no contact among these three worlds, it laid the basis for universal history, it drew the minds of all men into it.
b) The threefold historical form of the great advance of the axial age is something like a summons to boundless communication. To see and to understand others helps us toward the greatest clarity concerning ourselves, helps us to overcome that narrowness which is the danger in every self-enclosed history, and to make a leap into the distance. This venture in boundless communication is once again the secret of achieving humanity, not in the prehistoric past but in ourselves.
The call to such communication—which arises from the very fact that our historical origins are threefold—is the strongest force opposing the fallacy that any faith enjoys exclusive possession of the truth. For faith must always be conditioned by historical existence; it cannot, like scientific truth, be stated universally for all. The claim to exclusive truth—that weapon of fanaticism, of human pride, of self-deception through will to power, that scourge of the West in particular, with its secularization in dogmatic philosophies and so-called scientific Weltanschauungen—can be overcome precisely by the knowledge that God has revealed himself historically in many ways and opened up many paths to himself. It is as if God, speaking the language of universal history, were warning us against exclusive claims.
c) If the axial age takes on significance according to the depth of our immersion in it, the question arises: is this age and its creations a criterion for all that has happened since’ Even if we disregard the quantitative aspect, the geographical scope of political events, the preeminence that intellectual manifestations have enjoyed through the centuries, do we not find that the austere greatness, the creative clarity, the depth of meaning, the élan toward new intellectual worlds manifested in the axial age constitute the intellectual summit of all history up until now’ For all their greatness and uniqueness, does not Virgil pale before Homer, and Augustus before Solon’
Surely any mechanical answer would be false. What has come later has assuredly its own value, which was not present in that which went before, a maturity of its own, a sublime splendor, a spiritual depth, above all in its “exceptional” manifestations.
We cannot organize history into a hierarchy simply by setting up some universal idea and drawing automatic inferences from it. But the conception of the axial age may lead us to question what came later, perhaps even to form a prejudice against it—and this may lead us to a recognition of that which is truly new and great and which does not belong to the axial age. For example: the student of philosophy who has spent months with the Greeks may find in St. Augustine a liberation from too much coolness and impersonality, since Augustine raises questions of conscience that were unknown to the Greeks but have been with us ever since; but then a period spent in the study of Augustine may impel him to return to the Greeks, in order to cleanse himself from the mounting impurity. Nowhere on earth is there an ultimate truth, a perfect salvation.
The axial age was shattered. History continued.
I hold only this as certain: whether we adopt or reject this thesis, the conception of an axial age affects our contemporary consciousness of our situation and of our history in fundamental ways which I have been able to intimate only partially. What is involved is nothing less than the question of how the unity of mankind can become concrete for each of us, of whatever tradition.
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The Axial Age of Human History:A Base for the Unity of Mankind
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Socialism is on the march! It’s just that nobody quite knows what it is.
A Gallup poll in August found that 57 percent of Democrats said they view socialism positively, while only 47 percent had a favorable view of capitalism. Only 16 percent of Republicans thought well of socialism. Findings like this—along with other polls showing socialism’s support among millennials generally as well as the sudden celebrity of avowed socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after her stunning defeat of fourth-ranked Democratic House leader Joseph Crowley in a New York primary—have invited waves of op-eds crashing across the waterfront: What is socialism? Why can’t we have it? Why we will have it!
In a piece called “It’s Time to Reclaim ‘Socialism’ from the Dirty-Word Category,” the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig says, “Clarifying exactly what ‘socialism’ means once and for all likely won’t happen anytime soon.” One common tactic is to point to countries that liberals like and dub them real-world models of socialism. Thus Scandinavian countries with generous social safety nets become the real-world proof that socialism works. Others will just point to government-run programs or institutions—national parks, the VA, whatever—and say “socialism!” (What about Venezuela? “Shut up,” they explain.)
Corey Robin, in a New York Times op-ed, acknowledges that definitions have always been a burden for American socialists. He notes that the best definition Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, editors of the socialist journal Dissent, could come up with in 1954 was “socialism is the name of our desire.” The “true vision” of socialism, Robin says, is simply “freedom.” Robin objects to the way we must enter the market in order to live—since we need to work if we are to eat. “The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor,” he writes. “It’s that it makes us unfree.” If you can get past the utopianism—where in the world has it ever been true that most people did not need to work in order to live? How do you create a society where work is optional?—there’s much to admire about the honesty of this definition.
This is because socialism has never been a particularly stable or coherent program, a point I made in these pages in 2010.* It has always been best defined as whatever socialists want it to be at any given moment. That is because its chief utility is as a romantic indictment of the capitalist status quo. As many of the defenders of the new socialist craze admit, socialism is the off-the-shelf alternative to capitalism, which has been in bad odor since at least the financial crisis of 2008. “For millennials,” writes the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter, “‘capitalism’ means ‘unaccountable rich people ripping off the world,’ while ‘socialism’ simply means ‘not that.’”
“Listen to today’s socialists, and you’ll hear less the language of poverty than of power,” Robin says. He’s right. But this has always been the case. As a matter of practical politics, socialism’s durability as a concept owes almost nothing to economics and almost everything to the desire for power—power for the poor, for the left-out, for the “workers of the world”—and for the intellectuals who claim to speak for them. In countries experimenting with what Friedrich Hayek called “hot socialism,” the transfer of power from one set of elites to another was bloody and total (and no one, save those at the top of the new system, experienced much of the freedom Robin describes). In countries that have pursued “soft socialism” of the Western European varieties instead, power shifted primarily to bureaucrats and politicians—but these managerial classes managed to work well enough with other elites and recognized that their long-term interests were best protected by subsidizing not the poor but middle-class voters instead, mostly in the form of trade unions and government workers. The cost for this kind of socialism is typically a few points of GDP growth and the sort of sclerotic, corporatist economy that invites populist uprisings at the mere hint of reform and makes integration of immigrants much more difficult.
But to talk about socialism as a function of practical politics means gliding past its underlying appeal. After all, there are countless other ideologies that can be similarly reduced to the desire for power expressed by certain elites or certain segments of the aggrieved masses themselves. The most obvious example is, of course, nationalism, which has more in common with socialism than is ordinarily believed. From the French Jacobins to the Italian Fascists, nationalists tend to be in favor of state-directed economics, the redistribution of wealth, and a collectivist or communal organization of society.
What unites all of these movements is a sense that liberal democratic capitalism doesn’t provide a sense of social solidarity. It is too atomizing, too cut-throat, and mostly unconcerned with how we should all live together. These critiques came in response to both the chaos and the promise that accompanied the spread of the industrial revolution. The dislocations that characterized modernization, urbanization, and industrialization unleashed widespread discontent not simply with economic conditions—even though people were, on the whole, getting richer—but with social and political arrangements as well. Say what you will about the old rule of throne and altar; everyone knew his place in God’s design. It should be no wonder that the collapse of the old order was marked with a certain amount of nostalgia for the stability of ancient regimes.
For intellectuals, politicians, and clergy across an incredibly diverse ideological landscape, convinced that the new democratic and commercial age left much to be desired, the debate over how people should live could be summarized in a single phrase, “The Social Question.”
Thousands of books, speeches, law-review articles, sermons, and debates centered on “the Social Question,” often without explicitly defining it because everyone knew what it was asking, even if they had trouble articulating it. John Ruskin, one of the leading intellectuals (and the premier art critic) of the Victorian era, defined the Social Question thus:
Given a number of human beings, with a certain development of physical and mental faculties and of social institutions, in command of given natural resources, how can they best utilize these powers for the attainment of the most complete satisfaction?
For the broad and diverse socialist faction, this was largely a question of economic arrangements. The old system dominated by exploitive aristocrats deserved to be interred, but the idea that it should be replaced by a new aristocracy of wealth did not seem much better. The solution lay in following through on the democratic and populist project, by giving not just political power to the people but economic power as well.
It was with this in mind that the economist Sidney Webb drafted Clause IV of the British Labour Party’s constitution in 1918. It read:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
In 1995, after a bitter internal struggle within the party, then Prime Minister Tony Blair had Clause IV revised:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth, and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.
In his party conference speech defending the change, Blair explained:
Socialism for me was never about nationalization or the power of the state, not just about economics or even politics. It is a moral purpose to life, a set of values, a belief in society, in co-operation, in achieving together what we cannot achieve alone. It is how I try to live my life, how you try to live yours—the simple truths—I am worth no more than anyone else, I am my brother’s keeper, I will not walk by on the other side. We are not simply people set in isolation from one another, face to face with eternity, but members of the same family, same community, same human race. This is my socialism and the irony of all our long years in opposition is that those values are shared by the vast majority of the British people.
Blair was here revising socialism into something he called “social-ism” instead. Many hard core and doctrinaire socialists balked at all this, but Blair was on to something. Socialism as a thoroughgoing system had failed. But the central emotion behind it had not. And that emotion has only deepened in the two-plus decades since Blair spoke. Millennials who supported Bernie Sanders almost certainly don’t care about the weedy specifics of his health-care plans. They do not want to live in a country with an economic system that could never have produced the iPhone or the Internet. What they want is a greater sense of social solidarity. They detest the idea that the “1 percent” is racing so far ahead of the rest of the pack.
Capitalism—at least as Sanders & Co. understand it—is not fulfilling. It doesn’t provide a sense of meaning and solidarity. It rewards—in their minds—the few and punishes the many. There must be a better, more humane way, in which we’re all in it together and sacrifice is shared. The word “social” comes from the Latin socii, meaning allies. People want to feel that they are allied with one another, fighting toward a common goal together for the good of the tribe, marching to the same drumbeats. This is innate in us. Our tribal brains crave social solidarity every bit as much as our palates crave foods that are sweet, fatty, or salty. We can train ourselves to resist the cravings or channel them toward productive ends. But very few of us can eliminate the craving itself. And the socialists have a point. The problem is that the central government in a sprawling country of over 325 million can’t provide solidarity (without resorting to anti-democratic means)—only the institutions of civil society (faith, family, etc.) can fill the holes in our souls.
The Harvard historian Richard Pipes argued that Bolshevism and fascism were both “heresies of socialism.” In a sense, socialism itself is a heresy of what Blair called social-ism. Doctrinaire or applied socialism is what you get when you try to apply a romantic abstraction to the real world. Similarly, love is an abstraction, a Platonic ideal. The shadow it casts in the real world often takes the form of marriage. There are many great and enduring marriages, but even the most happily married men or women will readily concede that the reality feels a lot different from the fantasy.
Think about how unhappily married men describe marriage. They feel as if their wives “don’t understand them.” They want to feel more respected, desired, and manly. They follow the drumbeats of extramarital attraction in search of a fantasy that is more exciting and authentic. Capitalism engenders a similar midlife crisis in many people. They reject the routine and boredom for the dream of something better or perfect that they rarely find.
hen I use the term “social-ism,” people tend to snicker. Too clever by half, seems to be the common reaction (and a common criticism of Tony Blair). Fortunately, there’s another term that does not invite snickers and that, at least in its original usage, is essentially synonymous with social-ism: “social justice.”
It’s worth taking a moment to understand where the term actually comes from. Social justice, as a concept, was introduced (some would say reintroduced) by the Catholic Church, specifically in an 1840 treatise by the moral theologian Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. Taparelli was concerned that with the growing popularity of various social-contract theories of the 19th century, people might lose sight of the “social fact” of humanity. Simply put, we humans are social beings. We are born into families and live in communities. An individual belongs to more institutions—more “societies”—than just the state. So there isn’t one civil society; rather, there are many civil societies. And those societies maintain a level of autonomy apart from that of the state. This idea has formed the bedrock of Christianity and Western concepts of civil society ever since Jesus insisted that Christians must “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The associations outside the state—family, church—serve to inoculate and protect the individual from the state. So long as these associations respect the role and sovereignty of the state in its functions, the state in turn has a responsibility not to “destroy the inner unity” of those associations, but rather to respect their freedom and autonomy within the society. In other words, the government cannot trample the structure of social ecosystems that makes life worthwhile.
Taparelli felt the need to stress this important division of social functions because the state in the 19th century was intruding on what Edmund Burke dubbed “the little platoons” of civil society. When the Obama administration told nuns that they must pay for birth control or attempted to cleanse the Church from the adoption business, the state was doing precisely what Taparelli had condemned 170 years earlier. “Social justice” back then had little, if anything, to do with efforts to redistribute wealth, never mind any of the more extravagant or fanciful objectives on the social-justice agenda today.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum on the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, which incorporated this new thinking on social justice. What makes the document so important is how it tried to split the difference between capitalism and socialism. Leo argued that capitalism was too cruel and atomizing. But he also argued that socialism was too contrary to natural law. Man is, by God’s natural law, a social animal in need of his fellow man, the Church asserted. “The consciousness of his own weakness urges man to call in aid from without. We read in the pages of holy Writ: ‘It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one fall he shall be supported by the other. Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he hath none to lift him up.’”
What was required was a new (or rather old but forgotten) social contract that bound together not just individuals, but institutions and the state alike. The Church found such an arrangement in the old guild system:
History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers’ guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age—an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.
The primary modern example of guilds, according to the Church, was the labor union. It is this fact, perhaps more than any other, that led to the term “social justice” being taken up by organized labor around the world. The constitution of the AFL-CIO proclaims, “The AFL-CIO is an organization of people who work. We help lead a movement for social and economic justice in America and the world.”
And while this is all perfectly fine as far as it goes, what has been forgotten is that the Church did not solely have labor unions in mind when it invoked the guild system of medieval Europe. The guilds were cartels set up not strictly by laborers but by producers. Among other things, they barred competition, dictated what consumers could legally buy, set prices, and, perhaps most perniciously stifled innovation.
What the Church favored was not a free-market society with strong labor rights and collective bargaining. What it wanted was a more ordered society where elite institutions (corporations) reprised the ancient social order—a social order in which the state, the aristocracy, the church, and the guilds all together guided and directed the lower classes toward a more unified and holistic society. Such a system is called “corporatism.” It was the core economic doctrine of Italian Fascism and, for a time, German National Socialism. Ten years before Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius set up a commission of Church officials and outside intellectuals to study the idea of corporatism. They defined it as a “system of social organization that has at its base the grouping of men according to the community of their natural interests and social functions, and as true and proper organs of the state they direct and coordinate labor and capital in matters of common interest.”
As a form of social organization—as opposed to an ideological doctrine—corporatism is far, far older than either socialism or capitalism, as Howard Wiarda documents in his book Corporatism and Comparative Politics: The Other Great Ism. It is and has been a standard form of government all around the world. Indeed, corporatism is the form of government of nearly all “natural states,” to borrow a term from Douglass North in his seminal Violence and Social Orders. “In the earliest societies of recorded human history, priests and politicians provided the redistributive network capable of mobilizing output and redistributing it between elites and non-elites,” North writes. “In a natural state, each of the nonmilitary elites either controls or enjoys privileged access to a vital function like religion, production, community allocation of resources, justice, trade, or education.”
North differentiates natural states from “open-access societies.” These are what we would call modern societies like our own (for now), where the legitimate use of violence is monopolized by the state and where economic institutions are open to individuals regardless of status from birth. In open-access societies, rules are written impersonally, which is to say that all are equal in the eyes of the law, and people have a right to form associations that are independent of state intervention so long as they adhere to the basic rules of the system. “Perhaps 25 countries and 15 percent of the world’s population live in open-access societies today,” North writes. “The other 175 countries and 85 percent live in natural states.”
Despite the fact that corporatism is an ancient system, it keeps getting a new lease on life as an exciting “third way.” That is how Pope Pius XI sold it in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, in 1931 (Quadragesimo Anno means “in the 40th year”). Pious endorsed corporatism or “syndicalism” because it was a way to “avoid the reefs of individualism and collectivism.” Corporatism, the Church argued, bound together all of the players in a web of social solidarity—social-ism.
In America, Quadressimo Anno hit like a thunderclap. Catholic social reformers embraced it as a blueprint for the needed reorganization of American life. Franklin Roosevelt hailed it as “one of the greatest documents of modern times” and read from it at length in speeches. Father John Ryan, one of the most important progressives of the 20th century, embraced it as the blueprint for a nonviolent social revolution. Father Charles Coughlin, initially an even more zealous supporter of Roosevelt’s than Ryan before becoming a more radical critic of the New Deal, also believed that in Catholic corporatism lay the salvation of America and the world. Ryan and Coughlin hoped that the National Recovery Administration would fulfill the vision of a society where capital and labor worked in tandem toward “social justice.”
Coughlin and Ryan had good reason to believe that the New Deal was ushering in precisely the age they prayed for. Under the National Recovery Administration, industries were cartelized. The NRA was a boon to big business precisely because under corporatism, the “stakeholders” get to write rules that are good for the stakeholders. Small businesses that couldn’t afford to comply with the new codes under the Blue Eagle program and similar authorities found themselves crushed under the combined weight of the state and big business.
As Coughlin’s presence in this history implies, concepts of left-wing and right-wing are irrelevant in this context. The temptation or tendency to fall back into North’s “natural state” is universal. In some societies, proponents of corporatism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, technocracy, and the like may be seen as “change agents,” “socialists,” “revolutionaries,” “progressives,” or some other label we associate with the left. In others, they may be called or call themselves “conservatives,” “traditionalists,” “monarchists,” or “nationalists.” The language and emotional appeals change along with the team jerseys, but the underlying social arrangement they are advocating remains the same.
he major difference between the left and the right when it comes to any movement dedicated to overthrowing the free-market order—corporatist, authoritarian, etc.—is which groups will be the winners and which groups will be the losers. A left-wing system might empower labor leaders, government bureaucrats, progressive intellectuals, universities, certain minority groups, and one set of industries. A right-wing system might reward a different set of industries as well as traditional religious groups and their leaders, an ethnic majority, aristocrats, or perhaps rural interests. But both systems would be reactionary in the sense that they rejected the legacy of the Lockean revolution, preferring a Northian natural state where the “stakeholders” colluded to determine what was best for their interests.
Today, in America, we associate defense of the market with the political right, although the new nationalist fervor aroused by Donald Trump and his defenders may overturn that somewhat. Already, the president’s economic rhetoric—and considerable swaths of his policies—is more reminiscent of natural-state economics. Just as Obama picked economic winners and losers to the benefit of his coalition, Trump rewards industries that are crucial to his. One can argue that favoring wind and solar power is better policy than favoring steel and coal, but it’s still an argument for favoritism.
Since the birth of free-market economics, the team jerseys have changed many times. Under Napoleon, for instance, champions of the free market were denizens of the political left. Even today, what makes a libertarian in America a “right-winger” makes him a “liberal” in most of Europe.
“Critics and advocates of a capitalist, market economy are forever reinventing the wheel, repeating arguments made by their forebears decades and sometimes centuries ago,” writes Jerry Mueller in summarizing the thought of Albert O. Hirschman. But while the arguments repeat themselves endlessly, it’s often anyone’s guess where they will appear on the political spectrum at any given moment. Consider this generic critique of capitalism, paraphrased from Mueller:
The unceasing search for profit unsettles authentic forms of living. Civic engagement, in politics and culture, is downgraded to a second-class concern that must always defer to economic efficiency. The citizen is no longer interested in shared sacrifice, preferring personal gain. As the machine of capitalism becomes more and more efficient, human beings are reduced to specialized automatons, motivated by instant gratification. To sustain this new orientation, capitalists market new products as needs instead of wants (ask a teenager whether she needs a cellphone or merely wants one). The workers are transformed into consumers who define themselves in terms of what they have. Even the family is not safe from the constant stoking of acquisitiveness, as advertising penetrates the home.
This critique, in one form or another, has been a staple of the left since the end of the Second World War. It can be found in the speeches of Ralph Nader, the writing of Naomi Klein, and across the whole range of writings from the Frankfurt School Marxists. It can be found in the policy programs of leading liberals such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, who recently proposed a sweepingly corporatist set of reforms that would yoke any business with more than $1 billion in revenue to a social-justice agenda. Warren’s “Accountable Capitalism Act” would create a new federal corporate charter that would require guild-like requirements in private-sector hiring, firing, compensation, and “worker participation” in corporate decision-making.
Warren’s ACA has received rave reviews from the left, which sees it as a breathtakingly modern and advanced program. But it’s not. Two centuries before such ideas were considered cutting-edge left-wing, anti-globalist indictments of “the system,” they were cutting-edge right-wing indictments of “the system.”
Justus Möser, a jurist and social theorist living in the small German village of Osnabrück, was one of the first critics of globalism. He “saw the international market as pernicious for destroying the particular culture of Osnabrück,” Mueller writes. “It did so, first, by creating new needs that could not be fulfilled by the traditional economy of the region. Second, competition from commodities that could be produced more cheaply abroad was destroying the traditional guild-based modes of production, and the social and political structures with which they were intertwined.”
Möser was right about that last point; it is hard to desire what one does not know exists. Which is why he argued so assiduously that his fellow residents of Osnabrück should be protected from the market and its diabolical innovations. According to Möser, new products eroded the moral fiber of the community. They caused wives to demand more from their husbands. They created undue pressure on guilds and local tradesmen who had been making the same products the same way for generations. New fashions were inherently disruptive. “What would it help to have the best hat maker,” he asked, “if the French were to decide all of a sudden to wear hats made of oil cloth? How easily a new fashion robs the best craftsmanship of its fruits. And how far must a state sink if it does not anticipate [these developments] or does not change its craft?”
Möser also believed that “our ancestors did not tolerate these rural shopkeepers; they were spare in dispensing market freedoms; they banned the Jews from our diocese; why this severity? Certainly in order that the rural inhabitants not be daily stimulated, tempted, led astray and deceived. They stuck to the practical rule: that which one does not see will not lead one astray.”
And what were the destructive products that he felt he had to save the noble people of Osnabrück from? For starters, a relatively new product called coffee, which he believed led to moral decay. Also on his list of horribles: silk kerchiefs, linen from Flanders, leather gloves, wool stockings, metal buttons, mirrors, cotton caps, (better) knives, and needles.
Möser’s economic policies were not grounded in, or even primarily rationalized by, economic arguments. He was making a social argument. The established order was good, and economic change was bad because it corroded that order. We see the same thing all around us today (a perfect example: the controversy over Starbucks’s opening its first store in Italy last month). Obviously economists will argue about what contributes to net productivity growth and what policies lead to Pareto optimality, but as a political matter, the opposition to free trade in goods, services, and labor (i.e., immigration) has always drawn its emotional power from dismay over disruptions to the social order. This does not make these concerns any less legitimate. But it is useful to see these controversies for what they really are.
The generations of American workers who grew up in the coal or steel industry opposed laws that “changed their way of life” just as the luddites despised the new industrial mills because those infernal machines were unraveling the social fabric of 19th-century England. The Swedish economic historian Eli Heckscher concluded that, from 1686 to 1759, the effort to protect wool and linen manufacturers from foreign competition “cost the lives of some 16,000 people, partly through executions and partly through armed affrays, without reckoning the unknown but certainly much larger number…sent to the galleys…. On one occasion in Valence, seventy-seven were sentenced to be hanged, fifty-eight were to be broken on the wheel, 631 were sent to the galleys.”
To the extent that the labels “conservative” and “liberal” or “left” and “right” mean anything in this context, the difference stems from which authority the combatants cite. Möser looked to established tradition to legitimize his arguments. Marx (and those like him) looked instead to the future, to an idealized and utopian Shangri-la at the end of History. What unites both worldviews is that each is based on a fiction. Möser defended feudalism by resorting to wholly literary and folkloric tales of an imagined past. Marx invoked not just an imagined past, but more important, an imagined future. What ties these visions together is that they seek to impose one coalition of elite preferences on all of society.
Möser was right about at least one thing. The homogenizing nature of the market society could and did pave the way to tyrannies impossible under the old order. During the Industrial Revolution, local laws were streamlined and standardized not only in the name of efficiency but in fealty to the doctrine of universal human rights. The French philosophes believed all men were the same, so of course they should all be bound by the same rules. Voltaire thought it absurd that a man could lose a lawsuit in one village but win it in the neighboring one.
Universal laws, Möser argued, “depart from the true plan of nature, which reveals its wealth through its multiplicity, and would clear the path to despotism, which seeks to coerce all according to a few rules and so loses the richness that comes with variety.”
It’s a good point. Industrial capitalism is as much to blame for the consolidation and homogenization of nations as champions of progressive central planning are, if not more so. One need only study the history of railroads in the United States to see this. Local particularity is the enemy of CEOs and social engineers alike, which is why they so often work in tandem (think of the outrageous use of eminent domain to bulldoze neighborhoods in the interest of progress and a business’s expansion) even as they denounce each other. Möser is also right that this convergence of interests makes despotism all the easier. As America’s Founders well understood, a society enjoying a multiplicity of institutions, interests, and intact communities (i.e., factions) is much more difficult to subjugate by a single central power, be it a king, a dictator, or a bureaucracy.
But while the system Möser was defending may have been a bulwark against centralized tyranny, it was also an apparatus for local tyranny. Möser was not defending local communities of free people, voluntarily choosing to live according to their own rules and customs. He was defending the feudal institution of serfdom, which allowed local lords to control the lives of their subjects. He believed serfs were better off under the protection of their lords, because the nobleman had a time-honored and tangible investment in their well-being. But history teaches us that the powerful often have an infinite capacity to rationalize their power over others as being “for their own good.”
Möser’s critiques were swamped by the simultaneous rise of nationalist movements and industrial capitalism. While the old guild system melted away, replaced by vastly freer, more efficient, and productive labor markets, the desire to live in a settled order only intensified.
ery few socialist thinkers have actually bothered to focus on the empirical case for socialism. Among the hundreds of thousands of pages written by Karl Marx, he dedicated a relative handful to how socialism itself would actually work. Georges Sorel (1847–1922), the French intellectual godfather of both Leninism and Italian Fascism, was also the foremost architect of syndicalism—“an ill-defined variant of socialism that stressed violent direct action and was simultaneously elitist and anti-statist,” in the words of Joshua Muravchik. Sorel recognized that the “science” in Marx’s work was almost worthless. But he believed that it was an incredibly useful tool for creating a “myth.”
Sorel, like Möser before him, recognized that the masses are moved by myths—shared understandings of meaning, destiny, and purpose. For Möser, it was the myth of his particular jewel of a community. Sorel, a man of the left, sought to create myths about the future. If the people could be not simply indoctrinated, but baptized, into a new revolutionary faith, their belief could achieve what Marx’s cold impersonal forces of history could not. As one of Sorel’s disciples, Benito Mussolini, put it: “It is faith that moves mountains, not reason. Reason is a tool, but it can never be the motive force of the crowd.” Sorel wanted to turn Marx’s writing into a religious force that bound men to a new proletarian crusade. As social science, Das Kapital was junk, but as scripture it was essential: “This apocalyptic text” Sorel wrote, was “created for the purpose of molding consciousness.”
And then there’s Hitler.
We can debate how much socialism there was in Hitler’s National Socialism. It is remarkable, however, that many of the people insisting that Norway or Sweden is obviously socialist even though they both are more free-market than Hitlerite Germany are aghast at the suggestion that the National Socialists were…socialists. Regardless, what is not debatable is that Hitler was one of the century’s foremost apostles of social-ism.
Hitler was obsessed with organic unity and his mystical, anti-rational conception of the volksgemeinschaft, or people’s community. He rejected “sterile” universal values and mechanical conceptions of the market that supposedly alienate man from his true self. “We have endeavored,” Hitler declared, “to depart from the external, the superficial, endeavored to forget social origin, class, profession, fortune, education, capital, and everything that separates men, in order to reach that which binds them together.”
The key concept for the Nazis in this regard was gleichschaltung. The term was borrowed from electrical engineering and roughly means coordination. The underlying concept was that all people and institutions should work in harmony toward a collective goal. At its core, gleichschaltung is no different from most other concepts of social solidarity, corporatism, social justice, and the like. But the fact that it was derived from the world of technology shows how social-ism can be adapted to seem cutting-edge. The reactionary desire to defenestrate the liberal order and replace it with something more tribal doesn’t have to be sold in the language of feudalism or tradition. It can sound new and revolutionary (a point made at great length and to great effect by Friedrich Hayek in his writing on the perils of “scientism”).
That is precisely what the Brain Trusters of the New Deal did. In my book Liberal Fascism, I devote tens of thousands of words to showing how many of the New Dealers were inspired by the events in Russia and Italy in the 1920s. FDR himself conceded as much, albeit in private: “What we were doing in this country were some of the things that were being done in Russia and even some of the things that were being done under Hitler in Germany. But we were doing them in an orderly way.”
Stuart Chase, credited by some for coining the phrase “The New Deal,” was besotted with scientific-sounding arguments for remaking society. When he visited the Soviet Union in 1927, he marveled how the benevolent state was in the saddle, “informed by battalions of statistics” wielded by the new feudal lords of the Communist Party who needed “no further incentive than the burning zeal to create a new heaven and a new earth which flames in the breast of every good Communist.” This was in contrast to America, where “hungry stockholders” were making the economic decisions.
But even if you deny that the New Deal had any such family resemblances to regimes in Europe—and I know many do, and I understand very well why—that doesn’t affect the argument I am making here. Franklin Roosevelt’s social-ism was in the main homegrown and authentically American. But it was still an effort to impose a sense of community, of nationalistic belonging and meaning, on the society. The economic policies were secondary to that goal. “At the heart of the New Deal,” writes William Schambra, “was the resurrection of the national idea, the renewal of the vision of national community. Roosevelt sought to pull America together in the face of its divisions by an appeal to national duty, discipline, and brotherhood; he aimed to restore the sense of local community, at the national level.”
The sense of local community, the feeling of espirit de corps, the satisfaction one gets from belonging to a settled traditional or even tribal order, and the feeling of centeredness and place one gets in the family: These are all wonderful things. But they can, and often do, become poisonous, oppressive, and even tyrannical when the state tries to impose them on the entirety of society. When we try to make the macrocosm of society like the microcosm of the family or tribe, we destroy it every bit as much as when we try to make the microcosm operate according to the rules of the macrocosm.
The theoretical gobbledygook and philosophical argle-bargle change from place to place, era to era, but what holds constant is this passionate conviction or feeling that social solidarity, tribal togetherness, must not only triumph, but be imposed from above. The cultural references that prompt us to ask the social question change from age to age, but the answer remains the same: The system that breaks up society into individuals by letting them compete freely in a rule-bound marketplace creates a chasm that must be refilled, primarily by the state. This is what binds social-ism and socialism, and why both must be resisted.
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