In 1886, Henry James, who may be the greatest novelist of all, published what he considered at the time to be his greatest work—The Princess Cassamassima. Unfortunately, critics hated it. But it is an extraordinarily deep and penetrating novel, and it deals with a theme that is causing us a great deal of trouble at the moment—socialism.
It may be surprising that socialism was already a problem in the late 19th century, but of course Karl Marx, not to mention his spiritual predecessor, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had already come and gone. A fresh generation of pseudo-intellectuals with too much free time on their hands was looking back on the Paris Commune of 1871 and even on the blood-soaked French Revolution with admiration, and looking forward to the time when they, too, would get to empower the underprivileged by exterminating the overprivileged.
It is difficult not to develop a deep and abiding hatred of the novel’s title character, an enormously wealthy and beautiful princess who, casting about for some meaning to the life she hates, becomes passionately devoted to social revolution and to elevating the lower classes. She is a greater destructive force than any deliberately evil character, combining her grandiose concern for the whole world with an almost limitless self-absorption.
She wants to see the worst slums of London. She wants to meet the lowest people in society—for the sake of their being low. She even wants to give up her money and luxury. And so she trades in her prime London residence for a vulgar little house with only one servant. She finds it disgusting that so many people work so hard and earn so little while others have so much more than they need.
The way the princess thinks is identical to today’s cutting-edge socialists. Except that a Bernie Sanders or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez manages gradually to amass wealth rather than giving it away. But there exists the same condescending attitude towards those who must work for a living, and an idea of “saving” them, not through one’s own work, but through stealing the work of others.
Suppose this 19th-century socialist visited you today, and you told the princess about life in contemporary America: The working classes no longer go hungry. They can afford places to live. In America, people of the working classes own more than one set of clothes and can afford more than one pair of shoes—several, even. Ninety-three percent of households have access to their very own carriage, which can go ten times faster and ten times farther than the horse carriages she’s familiar with, which were reserved for the rich. Even the lowest income earners can keep their homes warm in the winter. Moreover, the working classes have access to on-demand, private entertainment—the equivalent of 100,000 plays, and 1 million concerts. Even the poorest homes can afford to light a candle—the equivalent of hundreds of candles—whenever they choose. All their children get to go to school until they’re 18, and anyone who wishes to can get a college degree.
Your 1890s socialist would be knocked off her feet by a society as wonderful as this one. It represents undreamt-of success: Bravo, our princess would think: The revolution has clearly happened, and has achieved everything. More than everything! We 19th-century socialists might have hoped to improve the conditions of the poor, but we never in our wildest dreams imagined we’d get this far, not even if we’d confiscated every penny from every wealthy person in the world. How did you do it?
Then we’d have to laugh a little and say, “Well, that’s capitalism, baby. And sorry to disappoint you, but we still have people who are wealthier than everyone else. It’s just that now our poor people are more comfortable than your wealthy people were. And they live longer, too.”
The princess furrows her brow: “How long did all this take?”
“A little more than 100 years. Less, for some important bits, like novocaine for example. But we’re actually so comfortable now that we can spend our time worrying about what gender we are.”
“Well,” says the princess, “100 years is a very long time. I’m sure a proper socialist revolution would have achieved all of this much more quickly!”
And then we’d have to break it to her—how all the socialist revolutions actually went, how well they succeeded. How they produced societies powered not just by oil but by millions of slaves in labor camps (labor camps that still exist in China, North Korea, and elsewhere to this day). How tens of millions of the working class were shot. How hundreds of millions were starved. How Trotsky’s “food armies” swept over the countryside to steal the farmers’ produce to feed the city elites. How the rebelling peasants went to hide in the forests and were exterminated with history’s first use of air-dropped chemical weapons (the Tambov Rebellion, 1921). How Chinese peasant families swapped children—so they wouldn’t have to eat their own (the Great Leap Forward, 1958).
At this point, the princess wouldn’t want to hear any more. She wouldn’t believe it, no matter what you told her. She would again be in exact harmony with today’s socialists, who, despite a century of experiments and counter experiments, despite the creation of extraordinary everyday comforts in America, and despite hundreds of millions of deaths elsewhere, still refuse to consider that socialism conceivably might not work.
A socialist you argue with today might as well have died in 1890, for all the history he’s learned. For a socialist, history has no past, it exists only in the future: History is simply what is about to happen. History is what he’s going to make.
Socialists don’t give a damn about the objective conditions of the working man. Any honest assessment would have to admit that the typical American enjoys an excellent and historically superior quality of life. During any given decade of the Soviet Union, Russian workers would be willing to die—as many did—for a chance to enjoy what every American gets as standard.
Socialists claim to give a damn about the relative conditions of the working man. That is, it doesn’t matter how comfortable the average person is. What matters is the inherent unfairness of someone else being more comfortable. So while any normal observer would be astounded at how much progress America has made, and how quickly it made it, a socialist today sees society exactly as a socialist from 1890 saw his own. And a socialist 100 years from now will look at his new world and see exactly the same thing: No progress whatsoever. Socialism is immune to progress.
And in the final analysis, socialists don’t care about the relative conditions of the working man either. What a socialist really cares about are conditions relative to himself: Specifically, he cares that no one seems to understand what a gifted, special, vitally important human being he is.
Caring about the whole world is a fancy way of caring only about oneself. A social crusader sees himself as a liberator, as someone who will become a great immortal by uplifting an entire section of society. This messianic attitude explains why Marxism is woven through all companion socialisms—like Black Lives Matter race socialism or trans-rights sexual socialism—movements which should, in theory, have nothing to do with Marxism but which always do.
Socialists need only an aggrieved class. It doesn’t much matter who that class is. The operative belief is the socialist’s belief in himself—his belief that the one thing all these people need is for him to save them.
The socialist’s chosen underclass, whether it be the proletariat or a minority group or all women—is really just a damsel in distress. The most old-fashioned, most chauvinistic, most anti-leftist cliché of all: that is how a socialist sees his chosen cause. A damsel in distress can do nothing on her own, and is capable of no independent action. The damsel can do nothing to improve her own lot. She is at a permanent disadvantage; she is a victim. She has nothing to say for herself, she is in fact of no value at all except as a token or symbol—she simply waits to be rescued. And in the act of rescuing, the socialist validates his own existence. By rescuing her, in other words, he feels less worthless.
Whether a youth or an adult, a socialist is really nothing but an unhappy child. A child with every sense of self-importance, but no sense of self-worth. And that is a sad reflection on the failure of our education system, and on society’s broader failure to give our young people projects worthy of their energy and devotion.
This is from the introduction to This Deception, a memoir by reformed Soviet spy Hede Massing: “Communism in the United States has little, if any economic base. It does not primarily appeal to the poor and the downtrodden . . . . During adolescence, when children are normally fighting parental domination to walk by themselves, when they are questioning traditional beliefs, Communists separate children from parents and beliefs, and substitute Stalin for father and Marxism for religion. The Ku Klux Klan should be more fully analogized in this respect to communism.”
That was written in 1951. Stalin is dead now. What else has changed?