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Schmemann on Socialism

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schmemannMan’s nature is to reject it, because it can only be thrust on people by force. The most fallen possession is closer to God’s design for man than malicious egalitarianism. Possession is what God gave me (which I usually (mis)use selfishly and sinfully), whereas equality is what government and society give me, and they give me something that does not belong to them. (The desire for) Equality is from the Devil because it comes entirely from envy.

– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, page 330-331.

(HT: AOI Observer)

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Curt Day

    Any person who speaks of socialism as a monolith is one who does not understand what he/she is talking about.

    BTW, what Schmemann missed is possession, selfishness, and envy is that these are the natural ingredients used to create wars.

  • Let me guess. You’ve identified a purer, non-monolithic form of socialism that is working wonderfully without the usual by products of economic ruin and class hatred. Where exactly is this non-monolithic socialism now being practiced successfully? Or do you argue that it would work if only people would, sheep-like, practice this pure form under the benevolent supervision of their socialist masters.

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    Fr. Schmemann saw it much more clearly than you do. He saw through the lies that have seduced so many. Socialism can only over ride the natural human desire for freedom through massive centralization and degrading coercion.

    • RogerMcKinney

      Clearly his definition doesn’t align with those of leading socialists over the past century. Maybe Curt will start a new socialist movement that can do what no other socialist has been able to achieve in the past two centuries of socialism.

      • Curt Day

        Don’t have to Roger. There are plenty who have been doing that for a while now. Those who know socialism know that.

        • Are you ducking my question, Mr. Day? I asked: Where exactly is this non-monolithic socialism of yours now being practiced successfully? So far, all I’ve heard from you are assertions, not facts.

          • Curt Day

            Your question does not make sense. There are different kinds of socialism just as there are different kinds of capitalism. For capitalism, you had the Bretton-woods system which placed countries in charge of their own currency and the flow of capital. That is not the case under the current form of neoliberal capitalism.

            So for socialilsm, even in the elite-centered forms you had differences between Old Russia-Soviet Union vs Red China. Unfortunately, both were elite-centered and thus bore the authoritarian to totalitarian flaws of such a government.

            But you also had the non elite-centered Paris Commune, the Spanish revolution of the 1930s and you have worker-owned and operated companies both here and in other countries. Though the Paris Commune and the Spanish Revolution were short-lived, they were terminated not by internal failure but because the military, filled with conservatives, sided with the aristocracy in France and Fascism in Spain.

            Btw John, you sound pretty defensive for someone who is so confident in another system.

          • You ARE ducking my question. Again and again. All you have are assertions.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Fill in the blank: The socialist system in _____________ is worthy of emulation by the United States.

          • Curt Day

            If only things were that simple but they aren’t. There are things in both the Paris Commune and Spanish revolution that is worth emulating. But since socialism is about dispersing decision making first, there are things we have to discover in order to make a socialist system work here in the U.S.

            What is apparent except to the most committed ideologue is that the current system is not just not self-sustaining, it is self-destructive both economically, socially, and environmentally.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Given the histories of the major socialist states in the world, what makes you believe that the socialist system is not self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally?

          • Curt Day

            The question is whether socialism, if it existed in these states, was an important variable or an extraneous variable. We see nonsocialist elite-centered states fall as well and perhaps the key is whether a state is elite-centered or not.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Curt, with all due respect, the question is what makes you believe that socialist systems are not self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally. Your response casts no light on that question.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            A few other thoughts occur to me: Perhaps you are asserting that it is impossible to judge the impact of socialist systems due to the fact that “socialism” as defined by true socialists (presumably including you) has never actually been implemented. If that is the case, why has it never been implemented? Were Lenin and Mao not socialist? Were they corrupted? If so, how and why? Did they simply err in the implementation of the system?

            Or, put another way: if the major socialist states failed because they were elite-centered, how did they become that way? And how do you propose to avoid such a problem with any future attempt at socialism?

            But all that aside, answer the original question about socialism and self destruction, please.

          • Curt Day

            Just as Capitalism is not a monolith, neither is socialism. So to talk about “true socialism” invites problems. There are certain certain characteristics of socialism but socialists will disagree as to whether a particular regime has those characteristics. Realize that the same disagreement occurs when discussing the free market.

            As for how did socialist states become elite-centered, I just answered that in my last post. And please note, that socialism isn’t the only political-economic approach that struggles with elite-centered rule. The U.S. has been struggling with that kind of problem for a long time. Elite-centered rule was favored by the writers of the Constitution.

            Just as with other approaches and theories, there is no guarantee that one can avoid elite-centered rule. The only thing you can do is to try to educate people into realizing that the more they are distracted with the materialistic fringe benefits of prosperity or its promise, the more at risk one’s system becomes to elite-centered rule. ANd that is regardless of whether one is socialist or capitalist. Both economic systems face the same threat.

          • Curt Day

            If you don’t understand the meaning of what I said, that is fine. Here is your problem, you are too eager to attribute the self-destructiveness of states like the Soviet Union to the label of socialism without examining the dynamics. And so I was posing that their self-destructive tendencies were due to elite-centered rule and thus something we could share with them because though we aren’t socialists, we are elite-centered.

            It is your assumption that it was socialism that made what the Soviet Union did self-destructive that is your hinderance here.

            Certainly any system can be self-destructive. The advantage that a bottom-up socialist approach has over our elite-centered capitalism is that power is dispersed. So the harmful desires of some can be more controlled and restrained.

            What we are witnessing now is elite run gov’ts who first purpose is to maintain, if not to enlarge, the status of those with power and wealth.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Curt: My problem at this point seems to be that I am asking a direct question of you and naively expecting you to answer it in a direct manner. Let me try again.

            I realize that you like to dance in circles and celebrate shades of gray and nuance and all that wonderful stuff, and far be it from me to prevent you from doing that. However, I would like to know what it is that makes you believe that socialist systems are not self-destructive economically, socially, and environmentally. It is a simple, direct question. It is not draped in layers of nuance, nor does it revel in the deepest mysteries of the universe. It cries out for a simple answer. Don’t assume anything about me or my motives or my intelligence or anything. Just read the question, and answer it as directly as possible.

            So again: Given the histories of the major socialist states in the world, what makes you believe that the socialist system is not self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally?

          • Curt Day


            My basic point is that things are more complicated that some would like to believe. And when I try to point that out, people like you interpret my words as dancing in circles. In addition, people here hold to stereotypical, monolithic views of socialism and when they do use it, it is more likely used as a pejorative than anything else.

            So here is the point, since socialism is not a monolith, why restrict the judgment of socialism to the major socialist states whose formation was just as much influenced, if not more so, by the authoritarian culture from which they sprang.

            Also, why repeat a question when I already answered it. First, I said there is no guarantee that any system will not become self-destructive. However, the advantage that a bottom-up socialism has is that it disperses power. Our current problem is that elites are consolidating power and wealth without a concern of how it affects the rest of humanity. So now we have a greater disparity between the rich and the rest where the poor are in greater need and yet offered fewer resources. Such creates a volatile society where, unfortunately, armed revolution becomes more and more likely.

            And with greater consumption comes both more harm to the environment as well as a depletion of necessary resources. So we see climate change entering infancy. How it proceeds cannot be guaranteed but we see the negative effects such as the number of dead zones and acidification of the oceans, the melting of the permafrost which releases methane, the higher global temperatures that contributes to more dramatic weather events and the disruption of rain as thus the growing of food. In addition, we are seeing a drop in the number of bats, birds, bees, and other creatures that have distinct contributions to make in maintaining our natural world.

            Now again, does socialism guarantee that political-economic systems will not become self-destructive? Certainly not. But the decision making becomes more widespread and thus the welfare of those being favored becomes more diverse as well.

            Now if I have not answered your concerns, rather than being insulting, be specific. BTW, as for the socialist systems I favored, I did not see any self-destructive pattern in them so why not read up on them to see if you can.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Wow, you’re a trip. Let me try this again.

            You have asserted that “the current system is not just not self-sustaining, it is self-destructive both economically, socially, and environmentally.” I presume that by “the current system,” you are referring to capitalism, or whatever variant of it we now have. I think it is safe to assume that you believe that the system you advocate – socialism – is either not or would be less self-destructive than the “current system.”

            CAVEAT: I fully understand that socialists may differ as to what constitutes pure or proper or true socialism.

            Operating under the assumption that you believe socialism to be less self-destructive than capitalism or free markets, I have asked you what reason you have to believe that to be so, especially given the history of those nations that have attempted to implement socialist regimes. Your response so far has been essentially to assert that “it’s complicated,” and then more or less to argue that the actual, real-world experience of socialist states in the 20th century is not a valid yardstick by which to judge whether socialist theory works, because all of those nations just happened to have other problems that proved fatal to the socialist dream.

            So no, you haven’t provided me with an answer that I would consider satisfactory.

            Here’s what I’m looking for, Curt. I’m going to ask the same question again, and the type of response that I’m looking for is something like “I believe socialism isn’t self destructive like capitalism is because socialism does a better job of accounting for human nature” or “…because socialism has a better track record of protecting such and such environmental concern,” or something like that. No more of this “It’s so dreadfully complicated and you just don’t really understand my point, you poor thing.”

            If you can’t provide me with a relatively simple, direct answer, I’m going to do us both a favor and assume that you don’t have an answer, or that you just aren’t capable of persuasion.

            So, one last time – here we go: with full knowledge that there is no “true Socialism,” but with the understanding that in the 20th century a great number of people attempted to implement socialist policies in a variety of countries (for example, in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union), and having the benefit of knowing the outcome of those policies for the populations under the various socialist systems that were imposed, what makes you believe that the socialist system is not self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally?

            (Blogging protip: People who say things like “If you don’t understand the meaning of what I said, that is fine” automatically forfeit the right to accuse others of being “insulting.”)

          • Curt Day

            I have clearly stated the problem in plain english and all I get is you blaming me for you not understanding.

            The problem with our current system of capitalism is that it enforces the consolidation of wealth. We should note that power follows wealth. And considering that the first concern of those with wealth and power is to maintain if not improve upon their status, the economic, social and environmental impacts that are destroying society are ignored by those who make the decisions.

            All I said about bottom-up Socialism is that because it disperses power, the people cared for becomes more diverse. When this happens, the system becomes more productive and less self-destructive. That is of course, power is truly dispersed and there is a spirit of collectivism operating in the decision making.

            I really don’t know why you have such difficulty in understanding the ties between the consolidation of wealth and the evidence for self-destruction that is around us and how dispersing decision making will mean a greater diversity of people will be watched over leads to less self-destructive tendencies.

            Perhaps you are in denial of the self-destruction that surrounds us.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Or, conversely: perhaps you simply can’t provide an adequate answer to a relatively simple question. That might be the problem too.

          • Curt Day


            You are simply denying the answer I gave. Your question was, “what makes you believe that socialist systems are not self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally?”

            I replied that there was no guarantee and I added what is causing the current system to be self-destructive is the consolidation of power and wealth. In contrast to that, a bottom up socialist system disperses the power so that the interests of a wider range of people, of a greater diversity of people are represented. I added that that kind of democracy must have a spirit of collectivism to succeed.

            So in case that was too complicated for you, note that the problem I identified as making our system self-destructive was the consolidation of power and wealth under our current neoliberal capitalist system. And one possible solution is the dispersion of power that comes with a bottom-up socialism. A bottom-up socialism allows for all to participate more directly in the democratic process.

            That is a more than adequate answer to your question. If you want to insist that I refer to elite-centered socialists systems of the past, you can forget it. I oppose all elite-centered gov’ts whether they are capitalist or socialist.

          • Marc Vander Maas
          • Curt Day

            Perhaps you already self-destructed.

          • Wouldn’t a claim like “true socialism has not been tried and found wanting; it has not been tried” be vulnerable to precisely the same criticism that Lind (and Dionne) attempt to level at libertarianism?

          • Curt Day

            Again, if Socialism was a monolith, then your statement and analogy is true. But it isn’t nor should any political-economic system be if it is to be robust to the different conditions and problems the people who employ it will face.

          • Curt, can you point to a source that defines, describes, or characterizes socialism as “about dispersing decision making first”?

          • Curt Day

            Certainly, a tenet of socialism that has been around at the beginning is worker control over the work place. Now if one extends that from worker control to stakeholder control, one a increases the extension that worker control of the workplace started.

          • Head fake, then DUCK! Was the Red Terror in Spain part of this “dispersed” decision making process you speak of? Worth emulating?

            Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. — John Adams

  • RogerMcKinney

    Nice! For a deeper understanding of the role of envy in organizing societies I highly recommend Schoeck’s “Envy: a Theory of Social Behavior.”

  • “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”

    “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” 1945

    — Winston Churchill

    • Curt Day

      And so what does the fact that Churchill said that imply? And what kind of socialism was he referring to? And what would motivate him to say that beside ideological concerns?

  • The conclusion of George Will’s fact-filled column in the Washington Post yesterday:

    Government requires trust. Government by progressives, however, demands
    such inordinate amounts of trust that the demand itself should provoke
    distrust. Progressivism can be distilled into two words: “Trust us.” The
    antecedent of the pronoun is: The wise, disinterested experts through
    whom the vast powers of the regulatory state’s executive branch will
    deliver progress for our own good, as the executive branch understands
    this, whether we understand it or not. Lois Lerner is the scowling face
    of this state, which has earned Americans’ distrust.

    • Curt Day

      Unfortunately for your argument, George Will was referring to elite-centered gov’t. In fact, that is how he looks at all elections. According to Will, each election is a battle between “their elites vs our elites” that is from Will’s perspective. And anytime you have an elite-centered gov’t, you imply that the public either trust or capitulate. Bush’s venture into Iraq with known faulty information is a prime example of how Repubs rely on the same “trust me” motto as the dems. And except for Obamacare, all of Obama’s worst decisions are simply extensions of Bush’s policies.

      Besides, since you seem not to know the difference between progressives and leftists, what good is your argument anyway.

  • Soviet jokes:

    Q: What exactly constitutes a developed socialist society?
    A: The victory of progressive powers over strong logic.

    Q: What is the difference between socialism and capitalism?
    A: Capitalism makes social mistakes while socialism makes capital mistakes.

    Q: Will there be any theft after we reach the communist stage of development?
    A: Yes, but only if, after socialism, there is anything left to be stolen.

  • RogerMcKinney

    What Curt refuses to face is the fact that all of his multivariate forms of socialism have something in common or he couldn’t classify them all under the heading of socialism. What is that one thing that unites them all? Curt will refuse to give a straight answer, so here’s my view based on years of reading socialists: 1) the blank slate theory of human nature; economic systems determine the character of the people. 2) The evils of private property; it causes most evil in the world.

    Yes, there have been many forms of socialism developed throughout history, but they all revolved around those themes. So when most honest people talk about socialism, they mean the grand themes that unite all socialists and makes it possible to refer to the many variations as variations on socialism. Curt just wants to muddy the waters and make discussion impossible by continually asserting that many forms of socialism exist, which is a trivial point.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      As far as I can tell, there are two primary forms of socialism. The first is the type as it has existed in the real world, which generally leads to (at best) poorly operating welfare state programs, and (at worst) to brutal oppression and mass casualties. And then there’s the socialism that exists in the minds of socialists which will end war and bring equality and harmony, but which has unfortunately never been correctly implemented and is thus immune to criticism based on past human experience with ACTUALLY EXISTING ATTEMPTS AT SOCIALISM.

      • RogerMcKinney

        I agree. Socialism will always be a legend in the minds of socialists. The insist on comparing the real world with their fantasy world and refuse to compare real for real. They remind me of my two sons when they were young and began to realize that Star Trek was fantasy. It was very disillusioning for them.

  • Curt Day

    The problem here is that non socialists want to use non-socialist references in defining socialism. They would rather use worn out stereotypes that do not relate to all of the different forms of socialism. And they do this for one reason, so that socialism can be used as a pejorative and that capitalism, without defining which form, is presented as our only viable option.

    However, in neoliberal capitalism, we see too many businesses operate without any regard for externalities. And as we witness the businessfication of more and more of society, we see the rest of society, including individuals, repeat that disregard for externalities. When individuals are only concerned with themselves, we call it narcissism. When businesses are only concerned with themselves, we call it both dangerous to the community and self-destructive because their practices can eventually kill their own host. And when we see a system be overloaded with members who have no regard for externalities, we see the system become self-destructive because it will act in ways that causes strife between people as well as destroy the environment.

    What socialism can bring is not just an extended democracy that allows all to have an equal voice, it brings the idea of a collective that we must all be conscience of the needs of others and not just our own. Socialism can bring that unless it is elite-centered socialism, as we saw with the Soviet Union and Red China. In such a sociallism, we see the same preoccupation with self and disregard for externalities and others that we see in neoliberal capitalism. That preoccupation with self and disregard for all outside of self allows the outside to decay and be destroyed and that makes neoliberal capitalism, as well as any elite-centered gov’t, self-destructive.

    • RogerMcKinney

      I doubt socialists would recognize Chavev’s government as socialist. So far socialism has never been tried.

      • Right, Roger. Came across this over the weekend in a little book titled “Philosophy of Science — A Very Short Introduction” by Samir Okasha. Strikes me as apropos of our exchanges here:

        Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was one of Popper’s favourite examples of pseudo-science. According to Popper, Freud’s theory could be reconciled with any empirical finding whatever. Whatever a patient’s behaviour, Freudians could find an explanation of it in terms of their theory—they would never admit that their theory was wrong. Popper illustrated his point with the following example. Imagine a man who pushes a child into a river with the intention of murdering him, and another man who sacrifices his life in order to save the child. Freudians can explain both men’s behaviour with equal ease: the first was repressed and the second had achieved sublimation. Popper argued that through the use of such concepts as repression, sublimation, and unconscious desires, Freud’s theory could be rendered compatible with any clinical data whatever; it was thus unfalsifiable.

        The same was true of Marx’s theory of history, Popper maintained. Marx claimed that in industrialized societies around the world, capitalism would give way to socialism and ultimately to communism. But when this didn’t happen, instead of admitting that Marx’s theory was wrong, Marxists would invent an ad hoc explanation for why what happened was actually perfectly consistent with their theory. For example, they might say that the inevitable progress to communism had been temporarily slowed by the rise of the welfare state, which ‘softened’ the proletariat and weakened their revolutionary zeal. In this sort of way, Marx’ theory could be made compatible with any possible course of events, just like Freud’s. Therefore neither theory qualifies as genuinely scientific, according to Popper’s criterion.

        • RogerMcKinney

          Very interesting! It confirms what Paul wrote in Romans that people don’t want to know the truth and will do anything to avoid it. Of course, Paul wrote about spiritual truths, but your post confirms that once people reject spiritual truth they are just as stubborn in resisting other truth as well.

  • More from the socialist paradise created by Hugo Chavez: App Helps Venezuelans Locate Scarce Food

  • tamsin

    Curt Day was referencing an

    Example of bottom-up socialism in which power is dispersed and there is an internal spirit of collectivism, and no external elite seeking its destruction?

    I suggest you read Joshua Muravchik’s book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism.

    Pay attention to Owen’s New Harmony experiment in America, and to the lessons from kibbutzim in Israel.

    From the epilogue,

    The story of the kibbutzim bears resemblance to the history of New Harmony and other communes founded in America in the nineteenth century. Those created for the explicit purpose of practicing socialism collapsed quickly. But many religious communes, in which socialism was ancillary to a binding faith, succeeded for long periods. Only a small fraction of the kibbutzim were religiously based, and those are holding up better than most. For others, the burning commitment to Zionism was the functional equivalent of a religious faith, and the old veterans look back with satisfaction on what they accomplished. “I am not sorry about how I spent my life,” reflects Isaac. “I feel proud; I feel like I did something.”

    With the passing of the heroic pioneering phase of Israel’s development, however, the communal way of life proved difficult to sustain. Ovadia, who sweated to support the kibbutz by mining potash from the Dead Sea, told me: “Now I think the system is mistake because not all people will give their best if they can get things free.” And Isaac admits: “We were abnormal.” Driven by the most powerful motivations — rebuilding a country, rescuing a people — they accomplished great feats. But one goal defied them utterly. As an old member of kibbutz Kinneret put it, they had “tried to change human nature and create a new man. To my regret, the kibbutz did not succeed at this task.”