I’m reading two really wonderful books right now, each of which has gotten me thinking about my own history. My starting point for this post is David Horowitz’s Radical Son, about his journey from Red diaper baby to outspoken conservative. He describes a childhood completely defined by party doctrine, intrigue and paranoia. It’s quite an amazing story and, as he takes us through his parents’ life and his early childhood (that is, from the 30s through the 50s) you see so many of the seeds of our morally confused modern era.
Horowitz’s book got me thinking about my own father’s life and how it affected me. My father was born at the end of 1919, into war ravaged Berlin. His childhood began with the decadent, corrupt Weimar Republic. The decadence didn’t affect him much. Growing up in a Dickensian slum, what affected him much more was the complete economic shambles into which Germany sank after WWI, partly because the country bankrupted itself with the War, and partly because of the desert-like peace the European powers imposed against it. In his poverty-stricken, Jewish enclave, Communism seemed like the only way out.
My father was young enough that this Communist influence affected him, but didn’t dominate him, especially because he was placed in an Orthodox Jewish orphanage when he was five. He kept in touch, however, with his brother (12 years older than he was) and his sister (6 years older), both of whom were ardent, hardcore, Stalinist Communists. His brother was too passive ever to make much of his Communist beliefs, but his sister was another story.
On the run from the Nazis (not because she was Communist, but because she was Jewish), his sister eventually ended up in Palestine and stayed there long enough for her to see the creation of the State of Israel. As many of you may know, Israel was initially founded on Socialist principles. These weren’t enough for her, though, since she considered them wussy. When it was clear that East Germany was going to become a Soviet Satellite, she knew what to do — she went back, leaving behind her husband and child.
Those few friends she had in Israel were horrified. “How can you go back to the Germans?” She had an answer, though. “These weren’t Germans, these were Communists.” How conveniently she forgot the fact that this German Communism was something the Soviets forcefully imposed on these former Nazis (and their innocent children). While her response was surprising then, I’m sure you don’t find it surprising now. East Germany long ago disavowed its citizens’ responsibility for the Nazis on the ground that Communism, like bleach, magically removed the stain. And I do believe that having to live under the Communists for 40 years was certainly adequate punishment for those Germans who had been active Nazis.
My aunt remained a committed party apparatchik until the day she died. My father visited her in the early 1980s when the City of Berlin gave Jews chased out of Berlin in the 1930s an all-expense paid trip to their birthplace (he had a wonderful time). A one day visa got him to East Berlin, where they met at her home. Although his sister had attained a fairly high civil service position before she retired, the “fine” apartment that she’d earned was a depressing slum. Her kitchen sink was broken, she explained, and she had to do all her washing up in the bathroom. When Dad asked how long it had been broken, she told him, without complaint, that it had failed nine years before. She was on the list for a new sink. And that was the last he ever saw or heard of here.
But what about my Dad? Well, he was part of the founding of a kibbutz and of the State of Israel, both of which satisfied any nascent Communist yearnings he had. When he came to America, he renounced absolutely and completely any ties to Ccommunism. His political party, from the moment of his American citizenship until his death, was the Democratic party, which was mine too. Nevertheless, a part of him always believed that, in theory, Communism, which sought to have the state provide for people, and envisioned universal equality, was a better system than the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. I didn’t buy that (probably because I was the last generation that wasn’t indoctrinated in school to believe that America is evil).
In any event, I have vivid memories of kitchen-table conversations in which I said that Capitalism’s virtue was that, rather than denying man’s baser instincts, it harnesses them. Men, I said, are competitive and tribal, both of which America turns away from warfare and channels into the capitalist system. I was willing to accept — as I still do — that unbridled capitalism is a problem, because it puts no constraints at all on our worse instincts. I do believe in a free market, but I also believe that the state has a responsibilty to punish those who do wrong. It’s not fair to murder a competitor. It’s not fair (and not capitalism) to reduce your workers to slavery, rather than to pay them. It’s not fair to dump unquestionably poisonous toxins into a nearby lake to maximize your profit. Not only are these wrongful acts, they’re cheating.
My father, however, believed that capitalism was a learned skill and that, Rousseau-like, people were born in a state of innocence. If we could just all have had the luck to be raised in a pure Communism, all those nasty competitive and tribal instincts would have vanished. (To do him much, much credit, Dad recognized how evil Soviet Communisn was, but he attributed this to a failure of purity, not to the nature of the beat.)
And all of the above leads me to the second wonderful book I’m reading, Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. Wade, using information gleaned from all branches of science, especially the genome project, walks us back in time to the development of modern man. When did man branch off from chimpanzees? When did man begin to look like modern man? How, why and when did people develop speech? How, why and when did the first modern men leave Africa, and where did they go? It’s a fascinating book, and Wade is a lucid and interesting writer. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It also gives me ex post facto support for the position I advanced so many years ago during talks with my Dad.
You see, the scientific record pretty much conclusively supports a few hardwired facts about humans: we’re competitive, aggressive and tribal. These traits are buried deep within us, at the genetic level. A glance at any newspaper also shows that they’re not being bred out of us any time soon. In other words, there is no exquisite political system that, enforced with sufficient rigor, will remove from society all traces of competition, aggression or tribal affection. The best system is still going to be the one that recognizes those traits and gives them a non-violent outlet. Currently, capitalism seems to be that system — capitalism tempered with old-fashioned morality. The former recognizes our immutable base selves; and the latter enables us to develop our better selves.