How the Right Gets Us Wrong

How the Right Gets Us Wrong

Because Dissent loves totalitarian politics.

Kevin D. Williamson, a National Review correspondent whose recent highlights include comparing a black nine-year-old to a monkey, has read Dissent’s Summer 2014 special section on economic policy, and has found it “disappointing.” The articles, he wrote, were “intellectually exhausted and sodden with nostalgia,” offered “cheap homiletics,” and featured arguments of “magnificent crudeness.” Lest you think Williamson’s conservative corrective was mean-spirited, I should also mention that, in the same piece, he called Dissent “one of the Left’s better journals—possibly its best.” And he explained why: Dissent “has resisted the pressure to disguise its ideological commitments as Ezra Klein–style pseudo-pragmatism. Rather, it forthrightly makes the case for a command-and-control economy and a totalitarian politics.”

Readers of this magazine might be surprised by the apparent ignorance of that last sentence. After all, Dissent’s founding statement promised to “attack all forms of totalitarianism, whether fascist or Stalinist” (this would prove a not-incidental part of the magazine’s politics), and we have spent decades publishing heterodox left economic ideas.

But Williamson isn’t ignorant. He knows we “certainly would object to this characterization”; in the past, he has even expressed interest in market socialism. Yet he has some bad news for us: “Dissent’s contributors have not yet got their heads around the idea that it is impossible to have a government that is simultaneously totalitarian and humane; if they had, they would not be a part of the Left.”

This isn’t the first time in the last few months that Williamson has dropped the T-bomb. After writing this spring that transgender actor and activist Laverne Cox “is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman,” Williamson suggested that the negative Twitter response he received “was a useful reminder that the Left, including its sexual-liberationist faction, is inarguably totalitarian.” In this inarguable argument, he builds on the contributions of his National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg, whose 2008 book Liberal Fascism made the case that all political ideas not endorsed by the Ludwig von Mises Institute were fascistic, i.e. totalitarian, i.e. communist, i.e. socialist.

Williamson shares Goldberg’s predilection for collapsing political categories. In his Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, he asserted that because socialists sometimes refer to communists as “socialists,” “socialism is not separate from communism.” As evidence, he points to the opening of Michael Walzer’s 2010 Dissent essay “Which Socialism?”:

In the not-so-distant past, when Norberto Bobbio, the Italian political theorist, first asked this question, it was (or so it looks today) relatively easy to answer. There were only two choices: the version of socialism that prevailed in what we might think of as the Long East, which stretched from North Korea across the Soviet Union all the way to Albania, and the version that prevailed in the Short West, from the Bonn republic to the British Isles.

What perfect proof of our crypto-Stalinism! Alas, Williamson declined to quote from the next paragraph, where Walzer wrote, “It is perhaps a sign that the honor of the name has been partially restored that no serious person would think of calling the North Korean regime ‘socialist.’” Williamson isn’t ignorant. He’s just a hack.

Nick Serpe

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: