Socialism is so hot right now. Democrats and young people prefer it to capitalism. Cranky Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, and first-term socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) is a celebrity.
Socialism is also poorly understood. Many of its American advocates are unclear on whether they are promoting real “the state owns the means of production” socialism or something like Sweden before the Swedes made a lot of free-market reforms. This confusion stems from some genuine disagreements, but much of it results from people using socialism as a vague, aspirational ideal for something better than what we have now.
This confusion on the left is too often matched by sloppy thinking on the right that fails to understand socialism and its appeal. Writing in National Review, Kyle Smith has denounced Plato as the first socialist, based on the regime of philosopher-kings in Plato’s “Republic.”
Smith should have stuck to reviewing Disney movies. His analysis of the “Republic” is the philosophical equivalent of the angry atheist whose insistence on biblical literalism exceeds that of the fundamentalists he despises. For instance, Socrates is not a mere sock puppet for Plato; the dialogic nature of Plato’s writing precludes the complete identification of Socrates’ statements with Plato’s views.
Plato Was No Socialist
How seriously we are to take the “ideal regime” Plato outlines is an ancient philosophical debate. In the “Republic,” the character of Socrates repeatedly noted the absurdity and effective impossibility of his proposed polis, but Smith accepts it at face value without even acknowledging the existence of alternative interpretations.
Perhaps we are not meant to take Smith’s raillery against the founder of Western philosophy seriously—the back page of National Review has long played host to contrarians and curmudgeons. But even if Smith’s sophomoric take on Plato is meant as farce, it is a minor tragedy that he misses the real insights studying Plato can provide regarding socialism’s appeal.
Plato was not a socialist. He did not believe the strange regime he has Socrates describe was a realizable ideal. Rather, the “Republic” is primarily concerned with justice and the right ordering of the soul. The city ruled by philosopher-kings represents the rightly ordered soul, whose appetites and passions are governed by reason. But while Plato likely did not believe the regime of the “Republic” to be attainable, he was concerned with how a community oriented toward the transcendence of the good, true, and beautiful could be founded and sustained.
The opening of the philosophic soul to something greater than the goods and gods of the polis was a fragile achievement, as exemplified by the death of the real Socrates. Philosophy needed a community for sustenance and protection. Plato’s impossible regime extended the bonds of family throughout society, unifying it in pursuit of common earthly goods and, for the philosopher-kings, the transcendent goods of the philosophical life.
Outside of this fantastical realm, Plato has Socrates declare that true philosophers will generally “lead a quiet life and do their own work.” The philosopher is “satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope.” At most, philosophical enclaves might be established within existing regimes, and hope to avoid the fate of Socrates.
Plato Sought the Church and the Family
What Plato was inchoately looking for was the church, which offers a universal community that unites believers as God’s family and directs them toward the transcendent good, true and beautiful. The church provides a way to extend the love, unity, and sacrifice of the biological family beyond it.
Thus, it is the decline of the church, along with the deconstruction of the family, that fuels socialism’s popularity today. A better National Review article, by Tim Carney, noted this connection between community breakdown and socialism’s appeal.
In the United States, marriages are being delayed; fewer Americans adults are married than in the past, and more are totally un-partnered. Birthrates are down. The decline in marriage has also led to a decline in sex. Despite culture standards that overwhelmingly accept fornication, many people are not getting it on. Young men, in particular, are increasingly stuck in involuntary celibacy. For many men, sexual freedom is not a party with plenty of partners, but the lonely consumption of porn, perhaps punctuated with the occasional hook-up.
Formal religious belief and church attendance are down, especially among the young. People are free from each other, released from the bonds of family and creed, and increasingly lonely and unloved. The decline of marriage and family drains social capital and renders people more dependent on the government for welfare services and financial security. Thus, the decline of family formation and spiritual communities leaves room for socialism.
Socialism Tries to Fill a God-Sized Void
Socialism does not seduce with spreadsheets, but with visions that appeal to the aches and voids in our souls. As various political philosophers have noted, Marxism functions as a secular religion. Many of those favorably inclined toward socialism know that something important is missing in modern liberal life—connections and care that are not contingent on the marketplace. And they are right. But the socialism we need is not a command economy; the socialism we need is that of family, church, and community.
Of course, families and congregations fail far too often, and even the good ones have their flaws and conflicts. But the Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is more consistently (albeit still imperfectly) realized in family and churches than anywhere else—including Marxist nations. The government cannot provide unconditional love in a community of universal brotherhood and transcendent meaning. Even Plato knew that his city of philosopher-kings would fail if it somehow came into being.
It is the church, not the state, that can extend the love and communion of family beyond the limits of family, tribe, and nation, ordered toward a transcendent good. The brotherhood of man is realized in prayer and communion, not political action.
Plato was unaware of the church. But both his philosophical triumphs and limitations direct us to a concern for our souls, not for socialism. He still has much to teach us, and conservatives who wish to address socialism should be learning from Plato, not trash-talking him.