November 20, 2006
Egalitarian Reformers and Liberty
By John Parrott
Egalitarianism is a seductive political perspective, offering a beautiful vision of the future, and appealing to some of our noblest ideals. It is the perspective of reformers like John Dewey and Roger Baldwin and Martin Luther King, some of the most prominent figures in American social history. It seeks to bring about equality where there is inequality and tolerance where there is intolerance. You can feel good about yourself for being an egalitarian.
Liberal or activist egalitarianism's wisdom lies in its ability to recognize that individuals become great when they live and interact with other individuals in a common community.
Liberal egalitarianism differs from classical liberalism in that the latter draws its inspiration less from the idea of fairness and more from the concepts of liberty and individual choice. John Stuart Mill observed that
"the great creative individual ... is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man can ever be."
Whereas the classical liberals believed that great societies were made so by the actions of great individuals, today's liberal egalitarians believe that great individuals are made so by just societies.
Activist egalitarianism is not carried under the arms of the social reformers alone. The politicians also lay claim to it, and the concern of all political elites is for one thing--power. And just as ideological vision sings gloriously of human beings and the challenge of bringing about the Good, so too does it sour when it is brought into the service of politics and power.
Let us examine the case studies of three men, who were colleagues.
The first man was described by an observer as "looking vaguely aristocratic with his dark pointed beard and his slender elegance; his manners were correct and he spoke in a soft voice." He was born into a family of gentry and the intelligentsia, and as a boy he wanted to become a Catholic priest. At his job, he would advise those around him to possess a "cool head, warm heart and clean hands."
The second man studied architecture and received a degree from a technical school. So curious was he about learning that he traveled over four hundred miles to attend the school. During his tenure as a student he worked assiduously to support his mother and sister, who were dependent upon him.
His mother was a deeply religious person, and went to church every day of her life.
The third man was doted over by his mother because he was a sickly child. As a youth he enrolled in a theological seminary, and entered the institution on a scholarship.
They were, these three men, part of the same cultural, social and political circle. They all went to the same shows, dined at the same restaurants, and pored over the same economic and political issues. What's more, they all embodied the same virtues and adhered to the same code, and the virtues they embodied, and the code they adhered to, were virtues and a code that contained ideals and visions and myths--and spoke to things and images which purported to be for the betterment of their society. And the ideals and visions and myths were all said to root in that which was Good, and oppose that which was Evil.
The first man was Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky was the first head of the Cheka, the Soviet regime's intelligence and domestic security organization and the forerunner of the KGB. It was Dzerzhinsky who organized the concentration camps system in Russia. The institution he created became what a scholar called "the most ruthless and pervasive instrument of repression in the world."
The second man was Lavrentii Beria. Joining the Bolsheviks before the 1917 Revolution, he was Dzerzhinsky's most infamous successor as head of the Soviet secret police. One scholar said he was "Stalin's alter-ego constantly at his side from the early 1940s on and able to exploit his neuroses as no one else could." Beria was shot in December of 1953.
The third man was Joseph Stalin.
These men held to egalitarian ideals and visions and myths. They were ideals and visions and myths intended for building a society based upon equality and community. These things are good in themselves, but they corrupted under Marxism and the press for collectivism and ideological conformity and one-party rule, and the state they founded and supervised was a vast despotism.
These men were men who--just perhaps--in another place and time might have helped build a great society composed of great individuals. But they succumbed to an elitist power urge which positioned itself at the head of a mass movement, and became a power urge and a mass that valued only conformism and subjugation of the individual. Activist egalitarianism see humans as collective beings. Thus it harbors doubt that the individual carries out truly meaningful behavior on its own. Intrusions of the state do not generate the horror felt by classical liberalism. If anything, the power of the masses must be organized to be bring about the good. Political intrusion on the individual can be a good, productive thing.
When we look at American activists and liberals and egalitarians we don't normally describe them as authoritarians. We assume that because they work in an open system and their conclusions are honestly arrived at, they automatically fall into the democratic tradition. But ideas have consequences, and activism grafted onto collectivist ideas brings those consequences closer. Reducing inequality can get very dicey when people resist giving up what they have.
Activism need not necessarily lead to a kind of society that would be regimented, but under a selfish and ambitious political leadership it could be manipulated or coerced to go in this direction. In the political setting, where power is the goal, and the thing that men covet most of all, it is not hard to believe that some men and women might make the effort.
Dewey, Baldwin and King were all revolutionaries for their times. George Orwell said in 1984 that one doesn't establish a dictatorship to carry out a revolution.
One carries out a revolution to establish a dictatorship.