There are several reasons why the Left seems to be winning the political struggle, even if it definitely lost the battle of ideas and failed the tests of reality...
There is little doubt that for the last few years the Left, in a broad sense, has made significant gains in the West, not least among the young. In the three Scandinavian countries Social Democrats have replaced the centre-right governments of yesteryear, most recently in Norway. The formerly right-wing Christian Democrats in Germany, dominant since the foundation of the federal republic, have abandoned the ideas and objectives of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, both firmly committed to economic freedom and to the military alliance across the Atlantic between North America and Western Europe. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the Christian Democrats have lost support both right and left. In the United States, unbelievably, the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders in 2020 almost became the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, although he sits in the Senate as an independent. Even if most Americans still view socialism more negatively than capitalism, this is not the case among the young generation. According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center, half of the so-called Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, 50 per cent, viewed socialism positively, while 47 per cent had a negative opinion on it. The Left dominates American media and academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences, as several surveys show. For example, in a vast sample from 2018 of professors in fifty-one leading liberal arts colleges, the ratio between registered Democrats and Republicans was ten to one. In some colleges and some disciplines, no Republicans at all were found.
This triumphant return of the Left seems astonishing after the complete debacle of socialism, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in 1991. It is estimated that socialism cost the lives of perhaps 100 million people in the twentieth century, not to forget the victims of its repudiated brother, national socialism. Other hundreds of millions were condemned to a life of oppression and drudgery in the communist countries. Of course contemporary socialists would vehemently protest and say that nowadays the term ‘socialism’ does not mean the same as in early twentieth century when it stood for public ownership of the means of production and central economic planning, essentially requiring a police state for its maintenance. It is rather a demand, contemporary socialists would say, for the fair distribution of incomes and assets in a society and also for the recognition of groups that have hitherto been ignored, such as women, or people of colour, or the inhabitants of former Western colonies.
A plausible response to this recent redefinition of socialism is that no political action is needed to meet such a demand. If you want to be a socialist, then you can simply start workers’ cooperatives in cities and agricultural communities in the countryside. If you find it unfair that Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey earn much more than you do, you can stop buying Microsoft products or watching Winfrey’s shows, or perhaps you could also search for a market niche in which your talents are in demand. If Warren Buffett thinks he is paying less than he ought to in taxes, nothing should hinder him in donating money to the government agencies of his choice. Furthermore, it is not the task of government officials to make invisible groups visible, as desirable as this might be. This should be left to writers and commentators, not least historians and journalists, who should of course then be held up to the standards of good scholarship and journalism.
The point of this response is that the innocuous words used to redefine socialism obscure that it still implies coercion: If you think it fair that Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey should earn less than they presently do through voluntary exchanges in the marketplace, then you have forcibly to seize some of their assets and transfer them to others (often greatly reducing them in the process and with the possible long-term effect that Bill and Oprah will make less efforts to satisfy their willing customers). If you think it essential that certain groups should be recognised as victims in history, then you have to impose an obligation on participants in the public discourse not only to refrain from making derogatory remarks about such groups, but also always to applaud them and never to ignore them. Thus, even socialism as so redefined requires the restriction, possibly a severe restriction, both of economic freedom and the freedom of expression.
This does not mean that the Left is winning because it has managed to hide its real programme. Unfortunately, most people will accept coercion if it is directed at somebody else, and sometimes they will even welcome it. If I am not rich, why should I not get a share in Bill’s and Oprah’s ample assets? If I am black, why should I not want black studies to be made obligatory at universities? There are, I would suggest, several deeper reasons why the Left has stridden from weakness to strength in recent times.
One obvious reason is that in the twentieth century people of the democratic left and right in the West united against the totalitarian threat, from communists in Russia and China and from the German national socialists. People are motivated alternatively by hope and fear, and during the Cold War many were motivated by fear. This was one of the main issues in many Western countries. However, the sudden collapse of communism largely removed it from the agenda. For a blissful decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire the West believed that it no longer faced any serious enemies, and this belief has only been slightly modified by the terrorist attack by Muslim fanatics on New York in 2001 and by the declaration in all but name of a New Cold War by the Chinese Communist Party after Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.
A related reason is that with the debacle of socialism in 1989–1991, another issue more or less disappeared also from the political agenda: the choice between public ownership of the means of production on the one hand and capitalism on the other hand. Politicians both of the Left and the Right followed the lead of the two real victors in the Cold War, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In Central and Eastern Europe, establishment communists reinvented themselves as social democrats, in Western Europe the governments of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Göran Persson in Sweden pursued relatively liberal policies, and in the United States Bill Clinton cut taxes and tried to control the excesses of the welfare state. But with this, the Right was deprived of one of its strongest issues in the struggle against the Left.
Capitalism was the victim of its own success in yet another way. The extraordinary economic progress in the last decades of the twentieth century and in the early twenty-first century not only reduced poverty greatly in the developing countries, but also removed any sense of restraint in many voters. It was as if scarcity was no longer a part of the human condition. It was as if anything was possible. One example of this is the amazing proposal that government should put everybody on a universal basic income irrespective of ability or effort.
While important issues have been removed from the political agenda, two wide-ranging trends have been slowly and quietly changing Western society, providing fertile soil for left-wing illusions. One such social trend is the increasing proportion of people who are dependent on government for their livelihood, both directly as public employees and indirectly as recipients of government benefits and favours. Such people are more likely to vote for left-wing parties than are businessmen, farmers, independent professionals or others working in the private sector. Nowadays, many people spend their whole life inside institutions, such as schools and government agencies, without any experience of market forces. They become accustomed to the idea that income need not be earned, but can rather be set in discussions: the louder, the better. In the 1980s and 1990s bureaucrats, politicians and other government beneficiaries may have been somewhat constrained by the possibility (articulated by Arthur Laffer) that tax revenue might fall if the tax rate became excessive because the tax base would shrink. This may partly explain the widespread acceptance then of ‘neo-liberalism’ as it was called, even by the reluctant Left. But the extraordinary economic progress seen since then may have removed this constraint on the growth of the state.
The second trend is the extraordinary transformation of the entire school system in most Western countries into a vehicle for collectivism. This has been going on for decades, but it only became evident relatively recently. Marxism may be dead, but the Marxists are still around, even if they have changed their vocabulary. What used to be denounced as the oppressive bourgeoisie is now the ‘patriarchy’ or the ‘one per cent’, and the exploited are no longer the workers as a class, but rather women and minority groups (not all of them, though, at least in the United States: the economically successful Jews and Asians are conveniently overlooked). Neo-Marxists have taken over most universities in North America and Europe, and they have imposed on them a new orthodoxy. If you are a would-be scholar holding opinions which are deemed not to be politically correct, you will neither get published nor receive tenure. Science is no longer regarded as the free competition of ideas, but as a venue in which to express grievances. Examples of opinions which are not tolerated at most universities are:
Left-wing university lecturers can without serious repercussions engage in hateful rant, on social media and in front of their students, but if their right-wing colleagues utter so much as one ‘insensitive’ word, even in closed discussion groups, they are out. One explanation of the fact that Millennials view socialism—despite its abysmal record—more favourably than did the older generations is that they have been subject to continuous indoctrination, sometimes very subtle, from their teachers almost since kindergarten.
The barbarians are not outside the gate. They are already inside. But is this a struggle the Left is bound to win? I do not think so. That is however a topic for another time.