In the Winter-Fall 2012 issue of Modern Age (54, nos. 1-4), Jonathan Daly contributes a helpful exploration of what happens when desire for the common good goes bad. His article, “Bolshevik Power and Ideas of the Common Good,” focuses on the disastrously ill-conceived effort by the Russian revolutionaries to promote the common good through their self-proclaimed “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Daly contends, “The horrors of Bolshevik governance stemmed directly from their repudiation of the precious fruits of Western political thought.” It is a classic example of the tendency of some to promote cheap moralisms while ignoring the empirical realities of any given context, what then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger termed in 1985, “the antithesis of morality.” In addition to fostering mass suspicion, starvation, and ultimately a despotic police state in Russia, the Bolsheviks also have the blood of literally millions on their hands, Orthodox Christians as well many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others—the rotten fruit of their noble quest for the common good.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk of the Russian Orthodox Church recently commented on the legacy of the Bolsheviks on the Day of the Assembly of Russia’s New Martyrs and Confessors, saying,
The Bolsheviks created an antihuman and criminal ideology to guide the rulers of our country for decades. This ideology led to millions of victims, the people of different beliefs and social status. They began with the class struggle against nobility and merchants followed by the dispossession of well-to-do peasants, then resettlement and destruction of whole ethnic communities. One destruction campaign followed the other and these criminal actions continued for several decades.
But what was the basis of such an ideology? Daly isolates the convergence of two principle ideas in the works of Karl Marx: utopianism and gnosticism. By utopianism, he means “aspiring to create a social order requiring behaviors that we humans, in our frailty, are incapable of sustaining.” He uses the term “gnosticism” in a general sense, noting that “[g]nostics typically lay claim to knowledge of the inner workings of society unavailable to most people.” He concludes, “Neither of these means constitutes a ready or apt tool for bringing about the common good. They can instead only justify hijacking the very idea thereof.” And that is exactly what the Bolsheviks did.
This, indeed, is precisely the methodology of the sort of person Wilhelm Röpke termed a “centrist”:
a moralist of the cheap rhetorical kind, who misuses big words, such as freedom, justice, rights of man, or others, to the point of empty phraseology, who poses as a paragon of virtues and stoops to use his moralism as a political weapon and to represent his more reserved adversary as morally inferior.
The lesson here (among others, to be sure) is not to be too easily enchanted by every appeal to the common good or other equivalent phrases. What a person means by such terms are far more important than how often they use it, how much they praise it, and with what colors they paint their opponents.
One would think that, with the monumental failure of Soviet Russia—indeed, more than a failure, it was true tragedy—such centrist, moralistic conceptions of the common good would have been abandoned by anyone who witnessed the demolition of the Berlin Wall, but such is not, unfortunately the case. The value of limited government for the common good meets strong opposition even still.
The words of James Buchanan, from his 1979 essay, “Politics Without Romance,” are just as timely in this regard today:
The socialist mystique to the effect that the state, that politics, somehow works its way toward some transcendent “public good” is with us yet, in many guises, as we must surely acknowledge. And, even among those who reject such mystique, there are many who unceasingly search for the ideal that will resolve the dilemma of politics.
According to Buchanan, it is not simply socialists who fall into such an error, but sometimes even those who actively seek to reject it. Any conflation of society with government, any policy that forgets the necessary role of civil society, operates under a misconception of the common good, whether progressive or conservative.
Daly concludes his article with four conclusions that we can learn from the Bolshevik legacy that ought to temper any facile equation between the common good and idealistic turns to centralization. I will highlight here, however, only the last as it seems to me perhaps the most pressing today:
[T]he regime that provides the most goods and services imposes the greatest demands on its people. By giving individuals everything, it can legitimately demand total loyalty.
Accordingly, when it comes to looking solely to government and centralization as the primary means to promote the common good, I would offer the following modification of the famous dictum from John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech: ask not what your country can do for you, lest it ask what you can do for your country.