1990s >> 1998 >> no-1129-september-1998

Goodbye Goldwater s.o.b.

I wish to acknowledge my debt to former senator Barry Goldwater, who died recently aged 89. When socialists write about other socialists it is hardly surprising to discover a general tenor of agreement. The rather more difficult trick is to find something in common with someone who appears completely antithetical. For me, Goldwater was just such a person.

Unlike the more usual mealy-mouthed politicians whose opinions are for sale to any multi-millionaire prepared to part with his loose change, the senator staunchly advocated an ideology to which he remained faithful, even though it denied him his ultimate goal, the presidency.

Of course, the libertarian conservatism Goldwater espoused is anathema to socialists. Yet, I maintain that even here there is a recognition of human worth and potential, even if this is seen as being achieved within the restraints of capitalism that deny it. These are basic human aspirations, however perversely expressed, that accord with the socialist case. Those aspirations are important for they are a step to human understanding. How many come to socialism because they perceive humanitarian need and then go on to develop the rational understanding that allows them to analyse the present and advocate the future?

As an enlightened (for the 1930s) employer he introduced a 5-day week, established medical and life insurance for his employees and a profit-sharing scheme. Of course, these are all devices paid for by the labour of those workers and I do not wish to suggest otherwise. However, it does indicate a trend of thought he confirmed on becoming a politician. He vigorously opposed welfare spending, detesting the concept of people becoming dependent upon the state. This is a line of thought socialists can appreciate. Consider the ideological damage done by the false identification of socialism with state charity. What he didn’t do, and this was true of all his politics and business practice, was think things through to their conclusion.

The vendors of various publications from the many stalls in the Leninist stable have very similar aspirations. It’s why so many, particularly young, idealists (and I use the word advisedly) join these misguided groups. They have accepted a basic Marxist analysis of capitalism, but failed to pursue what needs to be done to bring about change. Instead they opt for an advocacy of state capitalism.

Barry Goldwater simply wanted to drop the state from the formulation. It is true he did not profess any Marxist underpinning, but he was avowedly Libertarian. An ambition for freedom is a testimony to human potential. In truth, his ambition was as bound to be frustrated in this respect as was his tilt at the White House. Capitalist economics will have its own way and the radical Conservatism of Reagan (or Thatcher) had little or nothing to do with freedom, not even with free enterprise, no matter how much this was hailed as the official ideology. Trans-national corporations devour individual entrepreneurs as readily as whales swallow plankton.

So even in Barry Goldwater there were latent tendencies towards the betterment of humanity. At a Republican Convention he declared, “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” A socialist would have to say that there can be no liberty to defend until humanity is liberated from capitalism, but for that to be achieved there can indeed be no “moderation in the pursuit of justice”. To really be libertarian you have to want freedom from exploitation for all and that is not achievable under an economic system that actually depends for its very existence on exploitation. Free capitalism is an oxymoron.

Bombing Russia

My personal debt to senator Goldwater dates back to the early 60s when I was but a wee nipper. He is the first politician who scared the blue blazes out of me. I don’t recall his words, but I do remember that during the 1964 presidential campaign he seemed intent on A-bombing Russia if he won. In the context of the then recent Cuban missile crisis and the pervading feeling that utter destruction was just four minutes away, that sort of thing can bother a little head in the darkest hours of the night. And there, perhaps, the first ill-formed thoughts began develop what would lead to a socialist conclusion. I was relieved when Johnson won: but there again, I did not live in Hanoi. It takes a while to learn it matters not a jot who wins elections, until, of course, everyone wins.

An editorial in the Daily Telegraph (30 May) marking Goldwater’s passing also offered inadvertent succour to those who advocate the socialist cause at a time when so few seem to be listening: “above all, Goldwater proved that electoral defeat need not entail ideological oblivion”. It went on: “what Goldwater did was tell an alternative narrative to the orthodoxies of mid-century America”. What the Telegraph was referring to was the senator’s pursuit of his anti-liberal establishment line throughout the 60s and early 70s.

A real alternative narrative is indeed required, one telling the true story of the twentieth century. The false dichotomy between East and West as if there had been some profound ideological or economic difference between them. Two large-scale wars and countless small ones and the unnumbered workers who’ve been sacrificed in their execution. The development of technology and productive potential that means no-one should be poor or hungry, for satisfaction of need could be the raison d’etre for industry, not profit. Then there would be true “free enterprise”, with everyone able to offer all they can according to their abilities. That is an alternative narrative worth relating.

Commenting on the campaign run against him by the Democrats, the senator is reported as saying, “In fact, if I hadn’t known Goldwater, I’d have voted against the s.o.b. myself.” Politicians misrepresenting other politicians, surely not? Anyway, you son-of-a-bitch farewell and thanks, thank you for all you inadvertently did in helping to create one more socialist and showing in yourself that the merest flicker of a flame of humanity continued to burn-even if you might have used it to set fire to the world, given the chance.

Dave Alton

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