A GREAT MANY people are celebrating the collapse of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Marxist ideology that denounced capitalism and endorsed a state-run economy seems have failed. The principle of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" may have sounded appealing, but the evidence shows not only that people prefer to work for themselves, but that they work better -- and smarter -- when it is in their own interest to do so.
Yet Marxist ideology can claim a partial victory -- in the West!
Karl Marx, for example, had considered the abuses suffered by the workers in newly industrialized Europe. Today, workers' rights are often protected by unions and, more to the point, by governments. Nor is it only the worker who is protected by the government. A great many people in the industrialized world are sheltered by the state in some way. Whether we choose to call it Marxism or socialism, the state is involved in the social and economic life of virtually every man, woman and child in the Western world, not excluding the United States.
And most of us prefer it this way. Few people in the United States support abolition of disaster insurance, the social security systems or assistance for the handicapped. The majority of Americans are not unhappy that there are child labor laws, government standards for -- and inspections of -- the foods that we eat, and government verification that the advertisements that we read and hear tell us about products that at least bear some resemblance to the items that are sold.
The government demands that cigarette packages carry warning labels, that physicians be licensed and that food packages list their ingredients. Water, electricity and the air waves, as well as the roads we drive and the telephones we use, come under the aegis of the government. We expect the Federal Trade Commission to keep an eye on Wall Street, the Food and Drug Administration to insure that medicines are safe, and the Environmental Protection Agency to watch over the environment.
Not only do many people find these interventions into our social and economic lives tolerable; many complain that there is not enough government "intrusion." Some have argued for government regulation of cable television, others have complained that the government is not doing enough to educate our youth, and many more want increased government assistance in the battle against AIDS.
Although we all have complaints about specific instances of government involvement in our lives, few people would endorse eliminating that involvement altogether. Indeed, in coming years that involvement will increase, especially in the health field. Can anyone doubt that some form of socialized medicine is on the American horizon?
Depending upon your point of view, things are better or worse in Europe, where the state not only provides the individual with cradle-to-grave security but tells industry what to do. The situation in Japan, all things being equal, is pretty much the same. Industry in Japan protects the worker, while the government oversees industry. Throughout the industrialized world, the world about which Marx wrote, the state is inseparable from society and the economy.
Communism in Eastern Europe has crumbled, and it is unlikely that Marxism in the form of state-owned industry will ever pose a real danger to American ideology. Yet the supporters of Marxist ideology, at least the social and economic part of that ideology, can claim a limited victory. The socialist ideal of state involvement in the affairs of the nation is as much a reality in the world today as is its polar opposite, the one suggested by Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, the one that allows the "invisible hand" of capitalism to establish its own social and economic laws.
Socialism has not succeeded as thoroughly nor as intensely as Marx would have liked, and the basic premise of the collective superseding the individual has never had much appeal in the United States.
Yet the idea that the state has an obligation to protect the people is firmly rooted throughout the country.
An examination of contemporary Western society shows neither a purely socialist nor a purely capitalist economic model, but a combination of the two. The government is involved in selective -- and increasing -- areas of our lives, a situation that most people seem to endorse and one that is likely to continue here and abroad.
Alan Edelstein is an associate professor of sociology at Towson State University.