Religion & Liberty Online

Can you create a libertarian dictatorship?

Bernie Sanders’ reflexive defense of Marxist dictators has raised concerns literally left and right. Democrats on the considerable space to his right worry that Sanders’ apologies will cost them the election, while leftists worry his rhetoric will cause people to equate socialism with tyranny.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialists have done all they can to encourage a social amnesia about the crimes of Marxism. Academia and the media have been happy to oblige. However, as Sanders said when defending Cuba, “Truth is truth,” and those whose families fled Communism have kept the memory of their suffering loved ones alive.

For reasons I describe in this week’s Acton Commentary, Bernie Sanders can’t condemn Communist dictators without equivocation. Some fellow leftists have attempted to help Sanders out of his rhetorical bind.

Masha Gessen, who has called Marx “a genius,” took to the pages of The New Yorker to proclaim “What Bernie Sanders should have said about socialism and totalitarianism in Cuba.” Gessen wrote:

What Sanders could have said, and should have said, is that totalitarianism, that most horrible of inventions of the twentieth century, is one of the greatest crimes against humanity. But it should not discredit the ideas of common welfare and basic fairness that make up socialism. Totalitarianism can weaponize any ideology; socialism is no more essentially totalitarian than capitalism is essentially democratic.

Does Gessen have a point? Could, say, overzealous Jeffersonians create a despotic state? To ask the question is to answer it, because Gessen’s apologia misses a vital truth.

While it’s true that demagogues can attempt to build a totalitarian regime around any ideology, totalitarianism cannot weaponize any means. Aspiring tyrants inevitably employ the same modus operandi: media censorship, state control of public education, widespread surveillance, scapegoating of a common enemy, suppression of dissent, gun confiscation, state control over (if not outright ownership of) the means of production, wealth redistribution, and idolatry of the leader sufficient to justify the systematic imprisonment or liquidation of his political enemies. Karl Marx outlined a remarkably similar, 10-point program in The Communist Manifesto.

All of these have the effect of rendering the population helpless. Despots have cultivated this dependence from ancient times. The Book of Lord Shang, written in the third century B.C., states: “A weak people means a strong state, and a strong state means a weak people. Therefore, a country, which has the right way, is concerned with weakening the people.”

This weakening process requires the expropriation of private property. Private resources serve as another source of power and grant citizens autonomy. That is why Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Money is coined liberty.” And that is why Marx confessed that the triumph of socialism “cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property.” He also advocated the use of “revolutionary terror” to induce the “bloody birth throes of the new society.”

Concern for the common good and “basic fairness” still lure idealists to accept the theory of socialism. However, its chief result is the seizure of wealth and power by a small clique. It cannot be otherwise, when unlimited power and resources are available to fallen human beings. Collectivism tills the soil of totalitarianism, until the most fanatical strongman can reap its harvest. A nation with a strong people, robust civil institutions, widely dispersed private property, respect for human dignity, and strong checks-and-balances on power is always the antidote, and never the antecedent, to totalitarianism.


The key to understanding Bernie Sanders

(Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout,, Issues & Insights, The Conservative,, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are and His views are his own.