Ask First: Will It Work?
It is astonishing the degree to which intelligent people, especially intellectuals and academics, seem willing to accept theories in place of reality. We have seen in the case of Machiavelli that his theories have never worked in practice, except temporarily. Of the test cases we examined, all of them eventually lost their power. Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last part of his life in exile on the island of St. Helena. Hitler committed suicide. Mussolini was killed by an angry mob and hung head downward in Piazzale Loreto in Milan. The question doesn’t merit an in-depth study: Further proofs are not needed, surely, to convince any sensible person that ruthless cruelty can only attract retribution in kind. The astonishing thing, as we’ve said, is that people with a fondness for theories can be satisfied if a theory is merely expressed cleverly, even when it has been shown not to work. Sometimes a theory is actually abhorrent to human nature: It doesn’t seem to matter. Indeed, the more it defies common sense, the more eagerly people seem to embrace it as a challenge to their “scientific objectivity.” How to explain this curious phenomenon? Are people’s egos flattered by the cleverness of those moves they see on their intellectual chessboards? Machiavelli basically a republican at heart? I ask you! As well stress that a Mafia capo can’t really be considered criminal, since he’s the loving grandfather of the handful of brats who bear his proud name.
Jean Paul Sartre was an excellent case in point. I submitted his writings to lengthy analysis in a book of mine, Out of the Labyrinth,(1) so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that, as an intellectual and a philosopher, the man was a fraud. One example should suffice: He based one of his most important arguments on the declared, but untested, premise, “Man is radically free.” After pages of intellectual dust thrown into the reader’s eyes, he concluded, “Therefore, man is radically free.” This is logic?
Yet Sartre has been the darling of intellectuals for decades — not because what he writes rings true to anyone’s experience of life, but because he states it so cleverly and audaciously. He tries to persuade the reader by trickery that his case is plausible, until finally the reader finds himself questioning his own powers of reasoning. This is mental sleight-of-hand, in which the “magician” begins his spiel by announcing, “Let’s say — just for the sake of argument, mind you — that such-and-such is the case. Assuming that this is a possibility — a mere possibility — here is what follows logically from that premise.” The reader, having continued along these lines for paragraphs, pages, or an entire book, finds himself stumbling through dark corridors by candlelight, marveling at the man’s cleverness, and forgetting at last altogether that the whole structure was founded on the simple question, “What if?” To accept illogic “tentatively” is almost to be committed already to error. It is a path from which few ever find their way back.
Some people are reluctant to abandon a beautifully reasoned argument, even if they know, or once knew, that it is built on sand. Sartre enjoys less of a vogue today than he once did, but his theories are still propounded vigorously by others who “bought” them and then made them their own.
Plato proposed several unattractive prospects in The Republic for what he considered the ideal political state. Because his ideas were elaborately thought out — and because he was, after all, Plato — his notions have been debated solemnly for more than two thousand years, especially in university classrooms. His was the first attempt I know of to present a detailed plan for the “perfect” society.
Plato, like many utopists since, formulated a system that might just conceivably work. He then proposed that everyone be squeezed into it, as Procrustes forced his “guests” onto the bed where he’d said they could sleep. The most common mistake in utopian theory has always been the supposition that people’s behavior can be determined radically by systems. The individual’s willingness is not even considered. This was B. F. Skinner’s philosophy in his novel, Walden Two. Will it work? Well, it never has.
I really cannot believe that behaviorist psychologists like Skinner, most of whom presumably have had children of their own, will be able to continue forever in the delusion — for them it is a dogma — that environmental conditioning is the whole explanation for the diversity of human nature. Environment is important, yes, but it is only one factor. The most obvious disproof of this modern folly is that children are so widely varied from birth. Some of them show a tendency from the beginning to be positive; others, to be negative. Some are cheerful and courageous by nature; others are naturally dour, timid, or fearful of being dealt the worst cards by others and by life. Siblings are often surprisingly unlike one another, and again very different from their parents and from anyone among whom they’ve been raised. The behaviorist theory not only contradicts common sense: It has never been verified in action. It all stems from that old question, “What if?”
“Let’s just suppose,” the theorist says. To his “suppose” I must reply, “Play your own games. I’m busy with ideas that at least hold promise of leading somewhere.”
Perhaps the greatest mistake utopian writers have made is to presume that people’s behavior can be known in advance, or else made to fit that prediction.
Vance Packard described psychological tests that had been given soldiers during World War II as a means of ascertaining which of them would make good commandos. In most cases, the results were no more accurate than if the selection had been made by blowing the test papers onto a staircase with a fan, after assigning a different value to each step. Men whose written tests gave an impression of resource and courage showed themselves, under combat conditions, to be deflated balloons, whereas some of those who had raised suspicions that they were too timid, showed themselves in the field to be courageous, resourceful, and, in some cases, heroic.
Plato proposed that people be selected early in childhood for their role in life. Future rulers, he said, should be chosen for their natural wisdom, intellectual superiority, strength of character, unselfishness, disdain for luxury, and eagerness to serve the public good. (Can you imagine all those traits revealing themselves in crib or nursery?) Those who served the rulers as “Guardians” must, again, be chosen while they were still very young, since their education must be determined well in advance. Both groups of children would be submitted to rigorous, well-rounded mental, moral, and physical training. Their reading material was to be carefully screened. The reading excluded even Homer, who too often represented the gods as weak and imperfect, and who overdramatized the human emotions, besides. The music the children were allowed to listen to must not be frivolous, and must be carefully censored.
The governing elite would live under a communistic system, sharing property, homes, and meals. People were to be allowed free entry into one another’s homes. They would live together, eat together, and eschew as distracting to their public spirit any semblance of a family life. The leading classes of society were not permitted personal mates, and any children they produced would not be known to them as their own, nor would the children know their own parents. All must be considered children of the state.
The more one ponders this mathematically exact but grotesque system, the more one feels repelled by it. Interestingly, Plato’s ideas suggest some of the least attractive features of modern communism.
To keep our focus on Plato, however, the decisive question remains: Is his system workable? An interesting feature of his life, to which few seem to have paid much attention, is that he actually tested his ideas. In the year 367 B.C. he was invited by Dionysius the Younger, ruler of Syracuse, to come and turn his kingdom into a utopia along the lines described in The Republic. Plato accepted. The experiment was a fiasco.
Enough said? Surely, yes!
At least Plato’s experiment was conducted on a limited scale, and not inflicted on reluctant millions. Communism, on the other hand, though supposed to come about by a spontaneous uprising of “the people,” is one of the cruelest jokes ever endorsed by theory-addled intellectuals. Karl Marx’s theories looked good to the intellectuals — on paper. Perhaps they still look good to a few of their philosophical descendants. Expounded theoretically, the ideas could be made to look as though they ought to work, and therefore must work! If they didn’t it could only be because people hadn’t developed true appreciation for them. Who, then, could blame the Bolsheviks and others for wiping out those misfits like faulty sentences on a page? As Ninotchka says in the movie of that name, after the recent purges there would be “fewer but better Russians.”
Countless millions had to die in order to produce those “better Russians” — and, later on, those “better” Chinese, Cubans, Cambodians, and all the rest. The “intellectuals,” however, have never lived to see the triumph of their theories. With every revolution, they’ve been the first to be eliminated. Their very intelligence has posed a threat to the New Order. The educated and intelligent, more than anyone else, would soon realize what a monstrosity they had spawned, and would expose it.
Karl Marx said his theories were for the upliftment of “the masses.” His so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” was ushered in by a mere handful of revolutionaries, relatively speaking: five thousand, in a country of many millions. Few of those revolutionaries were idealists. Most of them were motivated not by noble sentiments, but by envy, hatred, rage, and greed. Those who rose to the top, like scum on a pond, were the most ruthless of the lot: Machiavellian in practice even if few or none of them had ever read The Prince. Stalin — a veritable Genghis Khan — butchered everyone who stood in his way. His ambition was power. He feared for his own physical safety; certainly he was not devoted to fulfilling the “communist dream,” discussed by intellectuals in the fashionable clubs and universities of England and America. Stalin trampled the idealists underfoot along with the failed Machiavellians in his own ranks whose only “failing” was that they were less ruthlessly criminal than himself.
Marx was motivated more by social bitterness than by concern for his fellowman. His entire system may be compared to an upturned wine glass from which the red liquid — blood, not wine — pours out and stains the tablecloth and the carpet underneath. Since Marx’s day, the very definition of many words has been so distorted as to give new meaning to concepts mankind has long cherished. “Progressive,” for the modern communist, means what normal terminology defines as regressive. The “progressive” communist opposes true progress, and enslaves people by making them dependent on the government for every major decision in their lives. “Truth” is anything that affirms communist doctrine (even if it is manifestly a lie); “untruth” is whatever contradicts that doctrine. And “freedom” is government-mandated security, not the liberty to live and direct one’s life as one chooses.
Among concepts that have been twisted out of all recognition by communists are two more: conservative, and political sophistication. “Conservative” doesn’t refer to preserving hallowed traditions: It means reaction against the policies of the supposedly “enlightened” regime as it imposes a minority will on the whole populace. “Political sophistication” means to be naive enough to believe in a theory that defies universal experience.
The basic difference between Plato and Marx was that Plato at least envisioned leaders sincerely concerned for the public well-being: men who were intelligent, wise, and competent for their job. Plato assumed the existence of a potential toward which all can aspire. His “utopia” was a folly, of course, but at least it showed aspiration. Marx, on the other hand, considered the manual laborer the worthiest definition of the human race. To him, conditioned as he was by Darwin’s theory of evolution, our animal essence is our entire reality.
Much modern literature praises this “basic human being,” and sneers at people who aspire to selfless love, spirituality, kindness, and noble character as victims of false sentimentality, while suggesting that such persons are being merely dishonest with themselves.
“Dream Girl,” a Broadway play that was popular several decades ago, made fun of a young woman who spurned basic animalism. A young man, lusting for her body though he had little use for her soul, awakened her to life’s so-called “realities.” This fellow, the audience was to believe, was a realist, whereas the girl — high-minded and idealistic prior to her “awakening” — lived in a dream world. Of course, the playwright was on the side of the young man, and therefore had to make the girl look just as foolish and impractical as his dramatic art allowed.
One simple example, minor in itself, speaks volumes for the lack of integrity in Marx’s philosophy. The value of a commodity, he said, should be determined by the amount of labor that went into its production. Others — notably Adam Smith — had proposed this concept before him. No one, however, had infused into that idea so much emotional fervor.
Viewing the theory with simple common sense, and leaving aside such complicating matters as the cost of the machinery and its maintenance, one must ask: If an untrained carpenter takes longer to build a house than someone who has had more experience, and if he makes the house less suitable to live in, will it be worth more simply because he devoted more days or weeks to its construction? Marx and others like him, exponents of the “labor theory of value,” sought to address this problem, and wrote of an “abstract labor” that took differences of skill into account. A person’s training, artistry, and intelligence, however, are at least as crucial to the value of any contribution a person makes to society. These factors are discounted when man is defined in merely animalistic terms.
Friedrich Engels, who eulogized Karl Marx at his funeral, declared, “He discovered the simple fact, heretofore hidden beneath ideological overgrowths, that human beings must have food and drink, clothing and shelter, first of all.” These needs, Marx said, determine everything else a man does. Do they also, then, determine the heights to which humanity can aspire? Aspiration itself, according to the “basic animal” theory, is only a mask for man’s lower impulses.
Even in the animal world, however, intelligence is often more highly regarded than brute force. The stupid “hulk,” whether possessing two legs or four, is never considered the best one to guide others in their affairs. Marx’s appeal to the lowest denominator of consciousness as the “cream” of humanity was a cruel hoax. All he did was appeal to men’s envy. In deriding high aspirations as pretentious, he drove society into a downward spiral toward brutishness. The system he proposed implies that genius should be penalized (unless it is harnessed in service to the state), and stupidity, exalted. The fact is, of course, that rulers in every communist state have always been people guileful enough to fool the rest into accepting slogans in place of the truth.
A friend of mine once wanted to bake a cake for a wedding. She was an excellent cook. Still, thinking the occasion warranted something outstanding, she tested her recipe first on a few friends, with only a small cake. Receiving their approval, she was confident enough to bake a large cake for the festive event. Isn’t it obvious that new social ideas, similarly, ought to be tested first on a few people, before being inflicted on many?
If a social philosophy works on a limited scale, it may, possibly, work for the many. Even so, however, it would be simple common sense to test it further before urging its adoption by everyone. Murdering everyone who opposes it is, among other things, counterproductive: It constitutes a frank admission that the theory is not valid for everyone. Of course, people theorize further that a perfect society, once it has been created, will produce perfect people. The theory crumbles, however, for two reasons: First, people are not mindless “products” of anything: To varying degrees they are intelligent and can think for themselves. Only the dullest minds think as they are told. Second, a society built on murder will necessarily carry that murderous tendency forward into the future. No society whose “comrades” cannot know who will be murdered next can have that security which one associates with “social perfection.”
No mere system can ever be acceptable to everyone, for human nature is infinitely varied. A social experiment, then, that is imposed wholesale on large and heterogeneous groups of people cannot succeed in serving all of them. The best that may be hoped for, realistically, is that a few people will succeed in creating a better society, and that a few others, seeing the idea in action, will then be inspired to try it.
“Example speaks louder than words.” No idea can be imposed widely by force. If, however, a few people are inspired to embrace it, others may be moved by their example. Only thus, like an expanding light, can a great change take place that will eventually affect the very course of history.
Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, California; third edition, revised and renamed, 2001.
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