Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Socialism = Morality?

So it is not often that I share any stories from graduate school in this forum, because for the most part they are not particularly relevant to what I do here. I am training to be an historian of the United States, concentrating in the political and intellectual history of the early American republic. Obviously, when it is relevant I use knowledge I have gained during this training in my arguments and writings, but I don't generally post on specific happenings within my graduate program. Today, I make an exception. A seminar I am auditing in preparation for my final oral examination before I begin my dissertation has brought me face-to-face with the explicit voicing of an all-too-frequent idea in this modern world we live in.

The setting: A discussion of essays concerning the advent of slave labor in the colonial period of Atlantic/Caribbean history. The specific point which interested my colleague was a moral condemnation of slavery as a labor system. This should be a rather humdrum occurrence in modern historiography (and is for the most part), no one would countenance for one moment a substantive disagreement on this point. However, this colleague of mine was fascinated by this overtly "socialist" judgment creeping into a work of history. What does that mean? For starters (and I confirmed this for my own understanding after the class), it means quite unequivocally that socialists are the only ones who make a moral case against slavery as a labor system. When I queried in class if it were possible for a capitalist to morally condemn slavery I was told quite simply, "No." The only thing which comforted me in this moment was the fact that I was not the only one in the room insulted by this remark, in fact the sense of shock was quite palpable.

Of course, the reasoning (if it can be called that) behind this argument is easy enough to tease out and I did so with this colleague of mine afterwards in an attempt to understand the thought process at work here. Essentially socialism is about as close to a secular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethical code as one can come up with. Materialism, selfishness, "greed," and individualism either have severely circumscribed or non-existent roles in both. As socialism is the only political and economic system devised entirely on the moral ethos of altruism, the life blood of the ethical doctrines of the western monotheistic tradition, it carries with it (whether stated or not) the gravitas which the religious version has gained with centuries of unquestioning obedience and worship. Things with thousands of years of history behind them tend to gain some degree of legitimacy whether they deserve it or not.

When I asked, "Well what about ethical systems which reject altruism as immoral," I was then asked, "Why is it immoral?" Rather than ask for my colleague to explain what exactly morality meant to man's life on earth and then explain how is was that altruism was moral to begin with, I merely countered that: "Altruism is self-destructive (sacrifice is, and is meant to be, destructive), a moral code which destroys you can hardly be called 'good.' [Unless, of course, you are evil] SO, back to my question, what about ethical codes which reject altruism as immoral?" Then I got the classic blank-out response, "They're wrong." The conversation ended there, I was fully satisfied that I had rooted out the origins of the statements in class, and my colleague was content to let the dialogue die on an unsupported assertion.

Of course, the horrid thing in this is that, if accepted or unchallenged (fortunately that did not happen!), a dreadful dichotomy is established. Either one accepts the awful ethics of altruism and its economic and political corollary of socialism in order to morally condemn slavery or one accepts slavery in order to avoid altruism. Obviously this dichotomy is false, not to mention a classic one dating back at least to Marx. Altruism is a doctrine of self-sacrifice, but it's essence is sacrifice. And it is the idea of sacrifice, in all its hideous permutations, whether of self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others to one's self, which underlays socialism and slavery. Sacrifice is the common denominator.

It is no accident that societies built upon socialism resemble societies built on slavery in that the great mass of people are being sacrificed either to some smaller group of people or, theoretically, to each other. In either case, their lives do not belong to them but to others. The only real difference is whether one prefers being ground up in the sugar mills of an 18th century French plantation in St. Domingue (Haiti) or being pounded into the dust of some five year plan in Soviet Russia. Either way, you are just as sacrificed; either way, you are just as dead.