A Crazy Man's Utopia: The Mobile Socialist State


Anyone who grew up with Godzilla movies has to feel joy upon hearing real-world news reports about large, menacing things moving toward the United States, whether it's those swarms of killer bees and fire ants we've been hearing about since the mid-'70s or that 1,000-square-mile hunk of Antarctica that broke off recently and started "threatening shipping lanes" (a radio reporter's words, not mine). And of course there are fascinating domestic threats such as kudzu, a vine imported from Asia to Georgia, where it grows at a rate of two feet per day and now covers an area the size of the state of Maryland (suggesting all sorts of cheap real-estate schemes), but such homespun juggernauts are beyond the scope of this essay.

The threat I am concerned with is a foreign invader that has been moving steadily closer to the United States since at least World War II: the model socialist state. In a display of plate tectonic activity that makes that Antarctica thing look paltry, the entire ideal socialist state—as defined by the sympathies of Western leftist intellectuals—has moved from Russia, through Central Europe, north into Sweden, across the Western European welfare states, across the Atlantic, up through Latin America, and into Canada (judging by recent praise for Canada's taxes and socialized medicine in the Utne Reader), where it sits poised on our northern border.

Is this a frightening new form of "creeping socialism"? Or is it that leftists keep changing their minds about what they want, gradually diminishing their vision of a centralized state as it becomes more and more apparent how unworkable that vision is? It's tempting to conclude the latter, although it would be wrong to assume everyone on the left has changed his mind: When leftist philosopher Michael Walzer spoke at Brown University last year about the future of social democracy and suggested that society needs some form of market as a foundation, a student in Brown's chapter of the Young Communist League shook his head, smiled, and said with regret, "Reformist."

For the less purist, fondness for one socialist state over another is guided, rationally enough, by which one appears to be functioning best. This is an improvement over the pre–World War II days when the Soviets made positive impressions on many Western intellectuals through such devices as parades and brass bands (like the one that welcomed a visiting George Bernard Shaw). Socialist states that are no longer "hot" might want to keep such tactics in mind, though. The socialists were recently voted out of power in Sweden, but perhaps they would have garnered more support from foreign intellectuals with a well-timed benefit rock concert (perhaps featuring singer Billy Bragg performing his catchy hymn to murderous Maoist policies, "Great Leap Forward").

Most likely, the geographic trend I've noted will end when the model socialist state finally moves inside the United States itself and the accompanying socialist vision becomes so watered down no one bothers to talk about it any more. The final geographic leap, then, may be into America's Northeastern liberal states (despite the ongoing revolutions there, such as the uprising against Lowell Weicker's introduction of an income tax in Connecticut, that make them shaky as models of domestic tranquility). Or the Great Leap Homeward may be into the "ecotopia" of the Northwest states, or into whichever state comes closest to socializing health care.

When this does happen, be prepared not only for leftists to say, "State X is a model of social democracy, government cooperation with working people, etc." but also for them to say, "This is the kind of ideal we've been promoting all along"—even if they were actually hardcore Marxists who were talking about the positive social role of the KGB two decades ago. Through this device, they not only retroactively whitewash the history of Western intellectual support for socialism (once again) but manage to give socialism credit for creating all the good things in life that State X will have in abundance precisely because the model socialist state isn't as socialist as it used to be.

Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.