“John Barleycorn” is an English folk song that dates back to at least the 16th century. Depending on one’s inclination, it can be seen as an allegory of death and rebirth, a disguised or subliminal collective memory of the ancient druidic sacrifice of the Corn God, or a temperance tract.
The lyrics read rather like a lengthy version of a traditional riddle, except that the answer to the riddle is revealed immediately by the name of the main character.
Below is one of the innumerable versions of the song that have come down to us:
There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three man made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn was dead.
Then they let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John sprung up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They let him stand till midsummer
Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John grew a long beard
And so became a man.
They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.
They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.
Here’s little Sir John in a nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the stronger man at last.
And the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles or pots
Without a little of Barleycorn.
They have worked their will on John Barleycorn, but he lived to tell the tale…
And so it is with Communism.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire came not with a bang, but with a whimper. If the Cold War had destroyed the Communist monster in the same way that Nazism was destroyed — with U.S. tanks in Red Square, the suicide of Gorbachev, and the hanging of the Politburo — we might have gotten some kind of closure on Marxism. Russia would have been fully de-Sovietized, and the barbarism of Communist ideology would have been fully exposed and universally reviled. But as it is, Marxist ideology just faded away into background noise without ever having its day of reckoning.
The Soviet Union was the full fruit of Marxist ideology, the realization of the great Utopian dream.
– – – – – – – – –
Unrepentant Leftists who repeat the old chestnut that “true Communism has never really been attempted” are blowing smoke. The USSR was the purest form of Socialism that is ever likely to be constructed. It took every single tenet of Marxism — the abolition of private property, the elimination of commerce, the dictatorship of the proletariat — and implemented it, extending it to its logical extreme. Since human nature proved not to be as malleable as Marx had envisioned, and Homo Sovieticus remained elusive, the dictatorship of the proletariat was simply prolonged indefinitely, right up until the end of the regime.
In the process, a country, a culture, a civilization, and an entire way of life were deliberately and systematically destroyed. To make this meager and foul-tasting omelet, every single egg in Russia was broken, and nothing could put them together again.
But it wasn’t only Russia and the “near abroad” where the drama played out. Socialism was, since it first appeared as a twinkle in Karl Marx’s eye, an international creed. World Communism knew no borders, and when the revolution came, it was prophesied to engulf the entire industrial world. Even though it didn’t work out that way — even though Communism emerged in only one marginally industrialized country and failed to spread any farther except through military conquest — the chimera of Socialism remained an international fantasy, the enduring dream of the intellectual classes throughout the West.
Long before the Bolshevik Revolution the various strands of Socialism were quite international. Centered in Western Europe, but with branches throughout the European diaspora and beyond, the Socialist Revolution was the coming thing for progressive-minded people. The Fabians in Britain, the Anarchists in Russia, Italy, and Germany, the Socialist Revolutionaries of various stripes in many different countries — all of them were quite cosmopolitan and looked ahead eagerly to the end of nations and the advent of World Socialism.
The Bolshevik Revolution turbo-charged this process in Europe and the United States. Germany and Hungary came close to joining the Bolshevik tide, and Britain seemed ominously near revolution when the General Strike occurred in 1926.
Then, after the Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, Socialism did come to Western Europe; it just happened to be the nationalist variety. The rise of the Great Dictators allowed for widespread experimentation with Socialism in its various forms. Communism remained the purest form, but the corporatist variants in Italy and Germany entrenched Socialist dogma across most of the continent.
The soft varieties of Socialism — the democratically-enacted programs which formed what came to be known as the “welfare state” — became ascendant during the same period. By the time Hitler crossed over into Poland in September 1939, there was virtually no country in the Western world that was not under the spell of some kind of Socialism.
Thus, when the Allies stood victorious over the ashes of Berlin in 1945, Hard Socialism and Soft Socialism had banded together to defeat National Socialism. When the dust settled, there was still nothing left standing but Socialism. No other significant ideology had any intellectual credibility.
From 1917 until the demise of Communism, various organs of the Soviet State worked clandestinely to undermine the Western democracies and hasten the revolutionary millennium. Propaganda, disinformation, infiltration, and the funding of ideological allies were some of weapons employed by Soviet intelligence.
All of this elaborate clandestine infrastructure did not simply disappear when the Soviet Union died. Most of it was at least nominally independent of Soviet patronage by that time, and much of Western Marxism was indigenous in origin, home-grown in the salons and universities and lovingly maintained by the infusion of KGB money and ideas.
Back in the 1960s the idea that the Soviets were behind much of the Leftist ferment in Western universities was considered right-wing paranoia. Yet when the USSR fell apart and the archives were opened, it turned out that almost everything asserted by the anti-Communists was true. Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration had been infiltrated at all levels by Communists. Universities really were hotbeds of card-carrying party members. Left-wing magazines were indeed funded by the KGB through chains of surrogates.
By the time the momentous year 1991 drew to a close, the West had already experienced three generations of Communist and Socialist ideologies in their various forms. We had all been drenched in it. Virtually anybody who attended university between 1921 and 1991 had come into contact with it.
When the USSR fell, only the Soviet model was discredited — and not even that, really, since Trotsky and Lenin were exonerated, and only the big bad Stalin bogeyman was to blame. Socialism is still the preferred ideological template for idealistic intellectuals.
Socialism didn’t die. It’s with us to this day.
Yes indeed, little Sir John proved the stronger man at last.
So what are the remnants of Socialism in 21st-century Western society?
First, obviously, are the official aspects of the modern Socialist welfare state, which include:
- Unemployment benefits
- Government old age pensions
- Disability benefits
- Nationalized industries of various types
- Government-controlled media
- The minimum wage
- Rent control
- The progressive income tax
- Government-controlled monetary policy
- State intervention in the economy
All of these are a legacy of the progressive ideals of the early 20th century and were eagerly adopted in the West without any necessity for Soviet infiltration.
The peace movements, disarmament initiatives, and anti-globalization activists are obvious children of the Socialist Age. But some of the other leftovers are more subtle, and are the long-term fruit of the persistent Leftist propaganda that most of us have been bombarded with since birth.
For example, a general uneasiness with income inequality is a legacy of Socialist thinking. Mere envy can’t account for it, since most people who adhere to this ideological position come from the privileged classes.
Another remnant of Socialism is an almost instinctive expectation that the State will be the instrument that solves all social problems. Not just crime, illiteracy, or sanitation, but poverty, mental illness, anti-social behavior, and general misfortune: government is the preferred solution to all these problems. Europeans in particular are accustomed to being funded, guided, corrected, and taken care of by their governments. Any evidence that the State does an inferior job when performing these tasks is ignored. Socialist orthodoxy has put almost all human activity under the care of the State, and there it will stay.
Even more subtle are the long-term results of the Left’s long march through our institutions. The Gramscian project has been underway now for more than eighty years, and the corrosive solvent it released into Western civilization is still eating away at the core structures of our culture.
This enterprise was not specifically a Soviet task, since it was eagerly adopted by Western Europe’s own native socialists. However, seventy years of Soviet aid and encouragement have contributed to its notable successes.
The Frankfurt School aimed to undermine, erode, weaken, and subvert the age-old structures of Western society so that it might be more easily overthrown, and thus immanentize the Communist eschaton. Everything that European civilization considered right and good and true had to be broken apart and discarded so that Utopia could be constructed upon the ruins.
The axe had to be laid to the roots of Western institutions, which were ancient and deep. Family, church, neighborhood, nation, corporations, voluntary associations — all must be uprooted to ensure the success of Communism.
To this end, people schooled in Gramscian ideology became teachers, professors, public administrators, and political office-holders throughout the West. Groups espousing this kind of ideology either formed or were subverted, and in the name of human rights attempted to impose new social forms on the general public. The “false consciousness” of the old culture needed to be overcome and replaced with revolutionary consciousness, but the enterprise had to proceed covertly.
The fruits of the Left’s labor are now so routine and commonplace that we wouldn’t think of them in association with Communism. Women’s rights, sexual liberation, recreational use of drugs, the debased aspects of modern pop culture, Multiculturalism, Political Correctness: all bear the marks of the Frankfurt school.
The mind-forms that have evolved from Gramscian beginnings over the last eighty years are so pervasive that it is all but impossible to think without them.
Whenever someone begins a sentence by saying, “I’m not a racist, but…”, he or she is unconsciously recapitulating Socialist indoctrination.
The widespread feeling that there is something inherently wrong with taking a profit in a transaction is a Socialist legacy.
The barely conscious political self-censorship that everyone engages in before speaking to non-intimates is a gift from Gramsci and the Communists.
The general assumption that the poor and unfortunate are the responsibility of the State is a Socialist idea. Before you jump all over me for talking about this, cast your mind back to the time before the New Deal, before Social Security.
How likely was it for an old person to fall into destitution before the modern welfare state?
Even though the per-capita productivity in the United States was far below its present level, it was very rare for the elderly to become completely destitute. Families, churches, communities, and local civic organizations carried out the functions that now routinely belong to the federal government.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? The government does all these things, and it has always been this way, or so it seems. And yet it has been less than a century since these new forms were instituted. You can thank Socialism for your near inability to conceive of any alternative.
The Federal Reserve, minimum wage laws, no-fault divorce, prayer-free schools, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gay marriage, “No Child Left Behind”, OSHA, the Department of Health and Human Services, sex ed, WIC, the demonization of religion of all kinds, Head Start, campaigns against nuclear power, a national ID card, food stamps…
Socialism. Every single one of them.
The fact that conservatives can and do make arguments supporting some of the above does not make them any less Socialistic. Every policy or project that requires massive state bureaucracy to implement and enforce is a Socialist initiative, no matter who proposes it or favors it, and no matter who benefits from it.
It may owe its origins to Wilsonian social fascism, or Mussolini’s fascist Socialism, or Roosevelt’s New Deal Socialism, or any one of dozens of flavors of collectivist ideology.
But it’s still Socialism, and it’s still the reigning ideology. It’s the air we breathe and the food we eat.
It holds sway in your local Social Services Department, or in FSLIC. It reigns in the National Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union. It thrives in the civil service of every Western nation.
Socialism didn’t die when the Berlin Wall came down and the statues of Lenin were toppled. Socialism is alive and well.
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles or pots
Without a little of Barleycorn.