Contra Sirico (Part 2 of 3)

In the last section of Part 1, I talked a bit about some of the sociological conditions that may have shaped the turn to libertarian thought. What I want to do now is shift our focus more directly to the major lights leading and legitimating that turn. Garry Wills’ devastating Bush’s Fringe Government (New York Review of Books, 2006) is pertinent in this sense. Wills names names: Novak, Weigel, Fessio, and (especially) Neuhaus. With an eye to the current question of libertarian thought in particular I would also add the name of Robert Sirico, the influential head of the Acton Institute and a Paulist Priest. The mission of Sirico’s Institute is a fusion of neoliberal political thought – Sirico is a member of the neoliberal Mount Pelerin Society among many other things – and Catholic teachings. Daniel Finn has gone after Sirico ably and with good reason, rightly calling his arguments “tendentious” and attacking his interpretation of liberty as “heresy.” My approach here is different, and my conclusion is perhaps even less generous.

To be sure, a crucial aspect of the neoliberal/libertarian self-understanding involves an attack on Marx and socialism; this is an approach that goes back at least as far as Hayek’s polemic The Road to Serfdom, and in this sense Sirico's topic and tone are typical. The sad reality of Sirico’s position, however, is a series of assertions that would barely muster a passing grade in an introductory course on political ideologies. One can assume that despite his distortions, Hayek knew what he was talking about. Can the same be said of Sirico? I'll report; you decide.

The arguments in question appear in the online magazine Crisis. They appear in a piece entitled (without a great deal of subtlety) “The Great Lie: Pope Benedict XVI On Socialism” (June 01, 2012). According to Sirico’s reading, the encyclical Spe Salvi is not merely a treatise on a primary Christian virtue (namely hope), but quite timely indeed as a critique of socialism (more generally) and Marx and Marxism (more specifically). Benedict’s encyclical is evidence, we are told, that the pope “has discerned the essential problem that has evaded vast numbers of academics for 100 years.” Vast numbers? Well that sounds impressive enough. And what might that “essential problem” be? More on that shortly. First, let’s take a moment to fully understand why a papal critique of socialism is necessary. Sirico here is worth quoting at length:

… he has done this in a time when socialism as an ideology seems to have been unfazed by the collapse of the communist experiment. Visit the philosophy and English departments on most college campuses, and you will still find intellectuals waxing eloquent on the glories of socialist theory. Students are still encouraged to imagine that it could work.

He continues:

What about the Soviet Union? We are told that this wasn’t really socialism. And what about Nazism–the German word for national socialism? Oh, that’s not socialism either. What about the growing impoverishment in once-rich countries with social democratic governments? The failure of micro-socialism in the United States, where entire communities have lived on government subsidies and are plagued with frightening levels of social pathology? They say that this is not socialism either.

So far as I can tell, Sirico’s position here is made up of three interrelated assertions. Let me try to summarize them: first, “socialist ideology” is a singular and coherent thing, and it encompasses a wide variety of positions from the left to the right (and including, apparently, Nazi Germany). Second, liberal arts professors in particular are responsible for perpetuating the myth that socialism might work. Third, their perpetuation of that myth requires a kind of selective blindness and perhaps active deception, both as to the pervasive danger of socialism and to the damage it has caused.

Sirico’s second and third assertions are built upon the foundation of the first, so let’s examine that one. To begin: the history of socialism (just like liberalism’s history) is a fractured thing. A major fault line was already apparent in Marx’s day, one that was resolved only by means of a radical split realized especially in the Russian Revolution: on one side were those advocates of gradual, constitutional change while on the other were those in favor of immediate revolutionary change. The term (democratic) “socialism” refers to the former camp, the reformers and constitutionalists, while the Leninist bolshevism of the latter is usually called communism. It feels painfully obvious to make this point, but this difference matters for reasons I will address in Part 3.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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