"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ideologies of Modern Western Civilization

This is a paper I wrote for a class during my freshman year of college. It may not be the most well written piece, but I believe it does a decent job of explaining socialism, communism, liberalism, and conservatism.
An ideology can be loosely defined as a shared system of thought about society’s social and political order that competes with other sets of belief regarding the world.[1] In the centuries since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution numerous different ideologies, largely detached from religious influence, have gained prominence and large followings; the most important of them being conservatism, liberalism, communism, and socialism. Though they can be considered separate from religions, they are not entirely. Conservatism for example, most closely describes the beliefs of the Catholic Church and many Christian religions for that matter. Today though, these names are commonly associated with political parties. For example, in the United States conservatives usually identify with Republicans and liberals with Democrats. In this case, the liberalism of the Democratic Party has come to mean something entirely different than its original, historical meaning. These ideologies rose as organized belief systems mainly during the age of Enlightenment and thereafter, but in the time since they have changed considerably, and in some cases drastically. The origins of these main ideologies can be traced back farther than the Enlightenment, but it was during this period that they took their modern form.

Perhaps the oldest of these ideologies is liberalism, at least according to some Catholic scholars.[2] Satan can be considered the very first liberal, because of his revolt and desire for unfettered personal liberty.[3] From this single act of rebellion can be traced the entire liberal ideology. And here enlies the problem; the precise definition of liberalism is rather vague. In its most stripped down, abstract definition, liberalism seeks liberty as an end in itself, not a means to an end, because for the liberal, everything comes from an individual’s own unrestricted use of reason as the measure of everything. In effect the liberal sees man as self-sufficient and essentially good, with a free will subjected to nothing; he is always seeking progress in everything, equality for all, radical individualism, and the ability to do as one pleases.[4] In modern times, the 20th & 21st centuries to be precise, the term “liberal” is used to describe a desire of big government, which interferes with economic, political, and social life, balanced somewhat with some personal freedom, separation of Church and State among other things. Modern liberalism has drifted far from its original roots of personal freedom at any cost. In the 18th and 19th centuries, “liberal” referred to the idea of individualism, and thus capitalism, free trade, limited government, strict Rule of law, and a secular but rational outlook on life.[5] If we look back even farther to the 16th and 17th centuries, liberalism was mainly focused on the field of economics and in this we see even a greater difference between then and now.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his Wealth of Nations offers one of the first and most well known works espousing liberal economic theory, or laissez-faire. Basically, Smith puts forth an idea of “natural liberty” and the notion that an “invisible hand” guides the economy. This invisible hand is simply individual consumers who, by following their own interests and desires, facilitate the betterment of the general welfare.[6] It was during this time period of the 14th-18th centuries that liberalism produced individualism, and from this came the teaching of Protestantism. The latter two spawn from liberalism because Luther taught that an individual need not the Catholic Church to interpret Sacred Scripture for him, instead a layman could interpret God’s Word any way he wanted so long as he was “free” to do so.[7] It was in the 18th century that liberalism became much more radical and effective as a means of social and political change.

Since a basic element of liberalism is that government be based on consent of the governed and political right,[8] the monarchies of the 18th century came under intense attack from freedom seeking philosophes, such as John Lock, Thomas Hobbs, even Rousseau and Voltaire. The liberal philosophy produced during the enlightenment came to a head during the American and French Revolutions. Feelings of individualism were strong, and the people rose up against the established regimes in America and France with ruthless revolutions. Both revolutions had strong liberal voices behind their movements; Thomas Jefferson was the toned down American version of what Voltaire was in France. These revolutions gained popularity in part because the economic activity was hampered by government intervention, which liberal laissez-faire doctrine stood against. Today, the modern Democratic Party in the United States garners the label of liberal, but as a party it holds none or few of its traditional values. Instead it prides itself on being “progressive.” In the 1920s and 1930s, under the presidencies of Wilson, Hoover, and Roosevelt, liberal ideology took a drastic turn towards socialism, becoming “welfare liberalism.”[9] In other words, liberals now believe in large government influence on economics. The old-school liberalism of Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbs is drastically different from the modern liberalism of today.[10]

Communism and Socialism
It is quite often the case that the terms “socialism” and “communism” are used interchangeably. While they do mean nearly the same thing, there is a slight distinction between the two. A good definition of socialism is; “public ownership of the means of production and distribution,”[11] as was the case with the USSR. Communism is the next step after socialism. Usually under a socialist regime a government exists, but under the guise of a “proletariat dictatorship.” The government thus becomes the “public.” Communism on the other hand, is complete removal of government, with the “community” taking precedence over everything else. As with liberalism, socialism and communism owe much of their development to the time of the so-called “Enlightenment.” It was in this period that many thinkers began to see the world in many new and different ways, and began developing theories for the overall betterment of society. An important thinker of this time was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).[12] Rousseau wrote extensively on the subject of what is now called sociology, developing several romantic notions of a virtuous human state, without the rampant greed of materialism, and thus free of hostility, destruction, or oppression.[13] In his work, The Social Contract (1762), he proposes an idea he calls “the general will,” which is in effect his idea that the community of society is basically the source of authority and legal basis for government.[14] This proposal of the general will of society as well as the philosophy of class conflict - the “haves” versus the “have-nots” - is the basis of communist ideology.

The idea of classless society emerged first in ancient Greece, and Plato in his famous Republic describes a sort of utopian, community centered society. It is not until Karl Marx however, that a precisely defined communist philosophy is developed. In 1848, Marx along with his associate Fredrick Engels, published The Communist Manifesto. The first line of the Manifesto says, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”[15] The classes into which Marx says society has split are the bourgeois and the proletariat; the bourgeois are the ruling or upper-class, and proletariat is the working or lower-class. Marx’s assertion is that the ideal society is one without classes, but in the imperfect world we live in a proletariat revolution is necessary first, and a man named Vladimir Ilyich Lenin took revolution to heart.

Lenin is considered by many to be on a par with Marx as the most influential communists. He was born in Russia in 1870 into the family of a low-ranking noble official in then Imperial Russia.[16] As he grew older he ran into trouble with authority because of his revolutionary beliefs. In 1903 he attended the Social Democratic congress prepared to split with the majority of socialists.[17] His view of socialism was unlike that of Marx, who believed that the working class needed to rise up and revolt. Lenin believed that the revolution needed to be brought “from the outside by a party of tightly organized professional revolutionaries.[18] He broke from the Social Democrats because he believed that to become a member of the party, a member needed to commit to being a full-time revolutionary. At the 1903 Congress he split and formed his own party based on these ideals; the Bolsheviks,[19] and the rest is history.
The basic goal of communism is a community where everyone works for everyone else, and there is no need for a government or money because there is no conflict. What Marx claims in many instances is that essentially the bourgeois are fat and happy with what they have, and the proletariat have nothing; “The proletarian is without property.”[20] So when Marx says that “the proletarian is without property,” that is precisely what he desires, but not only for the proletarian, but everyone from every class. The former Soviet Union is perhaps the greatest experiment in this regard, even though it never fully reached full-fledged communism. Society in Soviet Russia was a strictly controlled process. The workers worked, they were paid with what they needed, and they served the good of the “community.” God was removed as a figure for worship (again how Marx wanted it) and the “Party” was put in His place. But eventually this great communist experiment failed under pressure from the capitalist United States of America.

Conservatism is entirely opposite from liberalism. In its modern American political context conservatism is a system of beliefs including, a limited government, lower taxes, strong national defense, pro-life stances, and strong moral influences on decision making. However, like liberalism and even socialism, or any ideology for that matter, conservatism has changed since its beginnings. The term “conservatism” did not come about as part of typical political speech until around 1830 in England.[21] However, some of the fundamental beliefs of conservatism are embodied in a much older term: solidarity. Solidarity means in part, that those who are closer to a problem are better able to handle the problem than someone who is more detached from the situation. Yet, it was Edmund Burke in 1790 who really laid out the notion of conservatism that we hold today.[22] He attacked the secular and contemporary thinkers of his time during the French Revolution. He noted some specific things that were contrary to the ideals of the Revolution, but are founded in very conservative standards, such as patriarchal family, local community, and church.[23] Even today these ideals are some of the most basic of conservatives everywhere; family, community, faith.

Another way some people describe conservatism is traditional; and indeed it is. Monarchies, aristocracies, and traditional forms of government came under intense attack during the 18th and 19th centuries. Those who were defending the pre-existing order were naturally labeled as conservatives.[24] Yet, the label of conservative has been used to describe many different groups. Some instances throughout history involve those previously defined as liberal, who because of social change and “more liberal” groups coming into the fray come to be eventually defined as conservative. One example is during the French Revolution when Thomas Paine, a classic liberal, was denounced and held for execution by another, far more radical liberal, Robespierre.[25]

The problem with conservatism is that it receives undue criticism for believing in the “old-fashioned” and “outdated.” But Dick Armey, former United States Congressman, described the modern ideals of political conservatism, which are not in reality too far removed from the traditional ideals, in a very abstract but effective way:

If we are in touch with and governed by what I like to call the beautiful side of our egocentricity, then we are self-confident, we are humble, we are appreciative, we are dedicated to family, to country, to the well-being of other people…It is on this basis that I come to the conclusion with which I began – that a free society will always be morally and intellectually superior to a society that places its confidence in government.[26]

Basically he says that a conservative way of life, one that is moral; and government, one where individual, competitive production, and citizens’ lives are not interfered with by government is superior to the liberal and socialist views.

With all of this ideological discussion we still have not reached a conclusion for the question, which is better? Nearly everyone can agree on some point of each ideology, but the problem lies with finding a coherent set of beliefs that one can agree wholeheartedly with. I find conservatism more appealing, mainly because it is how I have been raised, but also because it is very moral, orthodox, and based on a hierarchy. It is very interesting to see in the development of each ideology how much they have pulled from the others. Socialism spawned partly from liberal views, but also takes some points from conservatism. I also find interesting how they labels and in some cases the ideology itself has changed over time. This only goes to prove that almost everything that is material and man-made can change with time. Thus, we should not look merely for a man-made ideology, but something far superior, something transcendent, something bigger than ourselves, and that lies in a belief in God. Whatever ideology may be more appealing to a person, it still cannot reach the perfection of the divine ideology of God.

[1] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 562
[2] Rev. Fr. A. Roussel, Liberalism & Catholicism, (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1998), p. 11
[3] Ibid. p. 11
[4] Ibid. p. 46
[5] Murphy, Dwight D., Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 97
[6] Cecil, Andrew R., Moral Values in Liberalism and Conservatism, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), p. 31
[7] Ibid., p. 35
[8] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 563
[9]Murphy, Dwight D., Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 97
[10] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 564
[11] Harrington, Michael, Socialism: Past & Future, (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1989), p. 28
[12] Lerner, Warren, A History of Socialism and Communism in Modern Times, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1982), p. 4
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 5
[15] Marx, Karl and Fredrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Bedford Series in History and Culture, John E. Toews, Ed (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1848), p. 65
[16] Pipes, Richard, Communism: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2003), p. 28
[17] Ibid., p. 31
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Marx, Karl and Fredrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Bedford Series in History and Culture, John E. Toews, Ed (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1848), p. 75
[21] Nisbet, Robert A., Conservatism: Dream and Reality, Transaction Ed., (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 19
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Murphy, Dwight D., Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 40
[25] Ibid., p. 35
[26] Cecil, Andrew R., Moral Values in Liberalism and Conservatism, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), p. 110 & 118

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