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September/October 2002 -- BOOK REVIEW: Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism . By Joshua Muravchik. (San Francisco, Calif.: Encounter Books, 2002. 417 pp. $27.95.)
Not long after his book was published, Joshua Muravchik was invited to speak at a well-known Washington, D.C., bookstore. Then someone realized that the message of this socialist-turned-conservative would upset some of their patrons. Muravchik was disinvited.
He fared better on Fox News Channel, where John Gibson interviewed him on The Big Story. Gibson found the episode amusing and also somewhat baffling: Why would anyone these days find it surprising to take "a few whacks at socialism"?
Muravchik replied that a big group which meets at the store likes to discuss their hope for the future—creating a Soviet America ruled by a workers' militia. He also hastened to correct Gibson on one point: "I don't take that many whacks in the direct sense, because this [book] is really an obituary for socialism. It's an idea that's failed; its time has come and gone. And I try to trace that history."
Muravchik's words are a fairly accurate indicator of what's good--and not so good—about his book. As a history, it is valuable—solidly researched, well written, and even entertaining, which is no small achievement, given the subject matter. As a critical analysis, it falls short. And as an obituary, I fear, it is premature.
Heaven on Earth is not a wide-angle-lens account of socialist ideas in the history of Western civilization. Thus you will not find any discussion here of the philosophers Plato or Rousseau, or of writers such as Edward Bellamy, whose late nineteenth-century utopian novel Looking Backward popularized socialism for generations of Americans. Muravchik has instead given us a history of the socialist movement since the late-eighteenth century, told primarily through profiles of selected theorists, agitators, and leaders, "each of whom," he writes, "exemplifies a critical stage or form in its evolution."
One can argue about influential figures whom he did not select—Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century, for example, or Antonio Gramsci in the twentieth. But one can hardly argue about whom he did select: Engels and Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Mao, and Gorbachev, to name some of the universally known, as well as "Gracchus" Babeuf, Robert Owen, and Julius Nyerere, to mention a few of the lesser known.
Muravchik also brings the story down to the present. He discusses at length Prime Minister Tony Blair and his transformation of the British Labour Party. And he has a provocative essay on Israel's once-famous kibbutzim. For generations, these communities used to be touted as a shining beacon of socialist success. Ever wonder why we don't hear much about them any more? You won't after you finish this book.
"Socialism," Muravchik writes, "was the faith in which I was raised," before he "became an apostate in my thirties and began to grope my way back to Judaism" (pp. 1-2). He also writes that the history of socialism is "the story of man's most ambitious attempt to supplant religion with a doctrine about how life ought to be lived that claimed grounding in science rather than revelation" (p. 3).
The emphasis here is on the words "faith" and "claimed." Muravchik makes it clear—and I agree entirely—that socialism was never grounded in science of any kind, despite the language of reason (and the ostentatiously anti-religious rhetoric) that its adherents have continuously employed since the Enlightenment. Socialism's appeal was as a moral ideal, a vision, a "heaven on earth." This helps explain why, for so many and for so long a time, neither reason nor evidence—the failure after failure of socialist experiments, and the ever-growing piles of corpses—mattered very much.
Take the slogan, "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs." Is this ethical injunction impractical? Are equality and the abolition of private property "contrary to human nature," as anti-socialists since Aristotle have argued? Socialists have proffered a variety of answers, but they all boil down to one I heard in college (and attributed to Rosa Luxemburg): "If socialism is contrary to human nature, to Hell with human nature."
To some, that sounds idealistic. But the person who says "to Hell with human nature" will soon enough say "To Hell with humans." Thus, as Edward Bellamy explained in Looking Backward, in a socialist society "a man who can produce twice as much as another with the same effort, instead of being rewarded for doing so, ought to be punished if he does not do so." Capitalist ethics would hold that "when a horse pulled a heavier load than a goat," the horse should get more hay; instead, "we should have whipped him soundly if he had not, on the ground that, being much stronger, he ought to" (Modern Library edition, 1951, p. 74).
Bellamy embraced socialism because he embraced altruism; he correctly understood that the morality of self-sacrifice was incompatible with capitalism. Here he followed his philosophical mentor, Auguste Comte, who coined the term "altruism." "To live for others," this influential French social theorist wrote, was "the definitive formula of human morality" ( The Catechism of Positive Religion , translated by Richard Congreve, 1858, p. 313). In social terms, Comte explained, we "cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such a notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries" (p. 332).
Muravchik does not take up any of this, and as a result his analysis of socialism, while good as far as it goes, does not go far enough. The system is indeed impractical. But it is impractical because the ethics of self-sacrifice, upon which socialism is erected, is irrational, and hence immoral.
The "needs" slogan has an interesting history. Although it was popularized thanks to the writings of Engels, Marx, and their epigone, the phrase had actually been kicking around (in various versions, including the Marxist formulation) for decades among radical collectivists in the nineteenth century. According to Muravchik, Marx got it from Moses Hess, the man who "played the major part in winning Marx and Engels to communism" (p. 338).
Hess was a Hegelian who had rebelled against a strict Jewish upbringing "and immersed himself in the ideas of the Enlightenment. But his spirit was uneasy. He confided in his diary: 'I worked without rest to rediscover my God, whom I had lost. . . . Nor could I remain a skeptic for the rest of my life. I had to have a God—and I did find him, after a long search, after a terrible fight—in my own heart'" (p. 338).
His new God was communism, and in a "communist confession of faith" he wrote, "'The Christian … imagines the better future of the human species in the image of heavenly joy….We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth'" (p. 338).
Despite their obvious intellectual debt to Hess, Muravchik explains, both Marx and Engels treated him with contempt. Unhappy at his "persistence in trying to ground socialism on an ethical basis rather than on historical inevitability," Marx referred to Hess as a piece of excrement in a letter to Engels. For his part, Engels "wrote Marx gleefully about having seduced Hess's wife" (p. 339).
Revealing details such as these make Heaven on Earth an engaging book to read. Many of the Movement socialists whom Muravchik discusses were unpleasant as people; indeed, a less appealing crowd of parasites, congenital liars, airheads, and killers is not easy to imagine. Yet Muravchik's touch as a writer is light, and he lets the telling details speak for themselves—whether they are about Karl Marx's lifetime of repulsive mooching or Mao Tse-Tung's harems of teenage girls (and occasional boys). There is "Gracchus" Babeuf, the French revolutionary whom twentieth-century communists would praise as a founding father—a petty forger. There is Julius Nyerere, whose ujamaa (tribal African socialism) would prove so fabulously attractive to sanctimonious Western elitists from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Olaf Palme to Robert McNamara, and so miserably awful to the people who had to live under it.
And then there are lesser lights, such as Edward Aveling, who translated Das Kapital into English and shacked up with Marx's daughter Eleanor. A thief and an embezzler, who ran through Eleanor's money "all while repeatedly abandoning her to pursue other women," Aveling would later descend to behavior that is best recounted in Muravchik's own words:
Finally, just after she had nursed him through a long illness, Eleanor was informed that Aveling had gotten free to marry again, and had secretly married a young actress. A confrontation ensued in which Aveling must have feigned remorse, and he and Eleanor, who had not long before executed a codicil leaving her entire estate to him, agreed on a suicide pact. Aveling supplied the poison, and Eleanor, after writing a note declaring her eternal love for him, took a lethal dose.
Whereupon Aveling immediately left the house and proceeded to party headquarters to establish an alibi (p. 94).
One of Muravchik's more absorbing profiles is that of Lenin, the man for whom the term "fanatic" was seemingly invented. The ideological context in which he began his rise to power is worth recalling. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the obviously rising living standards of European wage earners made the so-called inevitability of socialist revolution seem less and less likely. In response, "revisionist socialists" such as Eduard Bernstein abandoned revolution in favor of piecemeal reform (typically interventionism). The danger to the movement, Muravchik writes, was that "Bernstein's approach would rob socialism of the religious mystique in which Marxism had clothed it. No longer would it offer the promise of a 'new age…which establishes the "kingdom of God" on earth and which will make all people into humans!' as a young, enthusiastic Kautsky had put it" (p. 102).
Lenin would have none of this. "From the philosophy of Marxism," he said, "cast of one piece of steel, it is impossible to expunge a single basic premise, a single essential part, without deviating from objective truth, without falling into the arms of bourgeois-reactionary falsehood." He concluded, "There is only one answer to revisionism: 'Smash its face in!'" (p. 108).
In Russia, the faces Lenin wanted to smash were those of the Mensheviks. Muravchik quotes an experience of Maria Essen, who accompanied Lenin on a hike up a peak in France.
"To reach the top more quickly we left the road and pushed recklessly upward. With every step the climb grew more difficult. Vladimir Ilyich strode strong and secure, laughing at my effort not to fall behind…
"Finally we got there. A limitless landscape, an indescribable play of colors. In front of us, as on one's palm, were all the zones, all the climates. Brightly the snow shines; somewhat lower, the plants of the north, and further down the succulent alpine meadow and the turbulent vegetation of the south. I attune myself to a high pitch and am ready to recite Shakespeare, Byron. I glance at Vladimir Ilyich: he sits, deep in thought, and suddenly exclaims: "The Mensheviks really mess things up'" (p. 126).
Throughout Heaven on Earth Muravchik records the practical failures of socialism to deliver on its promises of a "just and humane society." But what about the kibbutzim—those several-hundred-odd agricultural settlements that took root in 1910 in what is now Israel?
These communities were inspired by the socialist ethic, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." For generations the settlers rotated jobs; pay was equal; everyone ate in communal dining halls; and, for the most part, children were even raised separate from their parents. With about 3 percent of the population, Muravchik says, the kibbutzim "produced a great part of the nation's agricultural goods and a disproportionate share of its industrial output" (p. 322).
The kibbutz has long been celebrated as the one experiment that shows that socialism can indeed be successful. Well, not quite. As one member admitted, his kibbutz was "paradise for parasites" (p. 333). Another said, "People like me who started as socialists concluded that you can work hard and get nothing while others don't work hard. It is so unfair." This could be overlooked, another individual explained, because of "the pride people took in being kibbutzniks" (p. 334), the sense that they were, in Muravchik's words, "rebuilding a country, rescuing a people" (p. 337). But only for so long.
The kibbutzim have gradually but systematically abandoned socialist practices as the price of keeping people—especially the best and most economically productive people—from abandoning the kibbutz. Thus, children moved back in with their parents; meals were taken in private homes; wages for work were adjusted according to skill and performance. The Israeli government stepped in with loans and subsidies if needed. Now, even privatization of communal assets (titles to dwellings, shares in the enterprises) is on the table!
"Only once" in history, Muravchik writes, "did democratic socialists manage to create socialism. That was the kibbutz. And after they had experienced it, they chose democratically to abolish it" (p. 344).
Does that mean socialism is finished? I don't think so. The fly in the ointment is the welfare state, which Muravchik (as a conservative) endorses, and the mentality that it fosters in the citizenry, which Muravchik (as a conservative) doubtless would not endorse.
There are a thousand ways to illustrate the point; take one casual example, a letter to the editor of Smart Money magazine this past September. In it, the writer declares that "because insurance reimbursements for mammography are so low, labs are closing, and the ones left are swamped. How many people are dying prematurely because of insurance companies' greed?"
Has the writer considered an alternative—that women themselves are responsible for paying for the test, and for the potential consequences if they don't? To ask the question is to answer it.
We encounter expressions of this kind all the time and know that the worldview they imply is shared to a greater or lesser degree by tens of millions of Americans. A decade ago the Clinton administration attempted to put them into practice by socializing the health-care sector of the economy.
The Clinton plan failed, but it was an alarmingly close call. Given the endless mess that government has created in medical care—and the wide appeal of altruistic ethics—it is an open question whether we will slide into a socialized system through piecemeal intervention anyway.
As Muravchik writes, "Today, it is all but universally acknowledged that the wealth that sustains the public sector is created in the private sector" (p. 319). Yes, and thus the core position of the socialist movement—government ownership of the means of production—is not likely to attract a following anytime soon. But that has not stopped the public sector from continuing to metastasize, relentlessly if unevenly—while citizens continue to be socialized into the habits of dependency and entitlement.
Howard Dickman, an assistant managing editor at Reader's Digest, is the author of Industrial Democracy in America: Ideological Origins of National Labor Relations Policy (Open Court, 1987). The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Reader's Digest Association.
This article was originally published in the September/October issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.