T&C Review: “Heaven on Earth”

First published 11 September 2005.

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism
By Joshua Muravchik
417 pp.  Encounter Books.  CDN $23.48

Socialism is a fascinating ideology, even for those of us who are not adherents.  Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, socialism’s embers burned slowly but steadily for one hundred and twenty-one years until Lenin’s October Revolution fuelled it into open flame.  At its zenith, socialism ruled fully two-thirds of the world’s population – a more explosive expansion than any comparable modern ideology or religion.  Yet today, two hundred and nine years after its genesis, socialism is a spent force.  All of her children have forsaken her: her communist offspring, China and Russia, backed away from command economies in the 1990s; her democratic offspring, such as Britain’s Labour Party, have abandoned their prior focus on nationalising private enterprise and the radical redistribution of wealth.  Almost no one, except die-hards, believes that a fully nationalised economy is politically or economically viable anymore.  Virtually everywhere socialism had succeeded capitalism, capitalism has subsequently been restored — in whole or in part.  The inevitable progression of dialectical materialism does not seem quite so inevitable nor quite so progressive anymore.

Tracing the history of socialism from cradle to grave, the scope is epic and the narrative compelling.  Mr. Muravchik’s book is a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining history of socialism as seen through biographical vignettes and excerpted works of selected socialist luminaries:

  • François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf (1760-1797), the first advocate of revolutionary socialism, political journalist by trade and supporter of the French Revolution by inclination.  Publisher of the political journal Journal de la liberté de la presse (later the Tribun du peuple), and populariser of Sylvain Maréchal’s 1796 tract the Manifeste des Égaux.  Babeuf tirelessly agitated for the radical redistribution of wealth and restructuring of society via a great revolution.
  • Robert Owen (1771-1858), father of the co-operative movement, Welsh industrialist and philanthropist.  He believed that nurture, not nature, formed man’s character, and that changing society was as simple as exposing men to the proper cooperative education and ideas.  In 1826, Owen founded the community of New Harmony, Indiana, based on his utopian concepts.  New Harmony foundered only three years later, impoverished by a lack of productivity and riven by societal discord over the suppression of individual property rights.
  • Karl Marx (1818-1883), the god of scientific socialism, and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), his prophet.  Men like Owen propounded the rationality and desirability of socialism, but the collaboration of Marx and Engels clothed socialism with a veneer of historic inevitability via allegedly scientific calculus.  Under Marxian theory, the rich would become fewer, the poor would get poorer, and the middle class would disappear almost entirely.  The predestined clash of the rich and poor would generate the spark of a worldwide socialist revolution.  Marx and Engels did not see that human agency was necessary or required; rather the grand sweep of History itself would bring about the inexorable socialist revolution.
  • Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), theoretician, politician and Engels’ star protégé.  Publisher of Sozialdemokrat magazine.  Fifty years after Marx and Engels’ predictions, Bernstein observed several faults with Marxist theory.  First, the rich and middle classes were both more numerous, and the poor’s standard of living had gone up, not down.  Second, ownership of capital became more, not less, diversified over time. Third, as the working class became wealthier and their concerns were addressed, they became less and less enthusiastic about any notions of radical social revolution.  Bernstein published some of these findings in a series of articles entitled Probleme des Sozialismus (Problems of Socialism), and abandoned the revolutionary aspects of socialism.  Instead he began to advocate the amelioration of workers’ concerns through democratic action and incremental modification of capitalism.
  • Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), lawyer, Russian revolutionary, leader of the Bolshevik party and first Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.  Whereas Bernstein abandoned the revolutionary project in favour of the common workers’ goals, Lenin abandoned the common worker in favour of revolutionary zeal.  Lenin postulated that it was no longer necessary for the workers themselves to start the worldwide socialist insurrection, but that a vanguard of intellectuals (not unlike say, Lenin himself) could jump-start the process for them.  Most telling, even Lenin himself could not implement a fully socialist economic policy, and food shortages forced him to adopt the New Economic Policy (allowing peasants to keep and sell a portion of their produce) in 1921, a tacit turn back toward capitalism.
  • Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), by turns soldier, journalist, author and comic-opera dictator of fascist Italy.  Initially a member of the Italian Socialist Party, Mussolini left when the party refused to back Italy’s entry into the First World War, joining a pro-war socialist party (Fascio Autonomo d’Azione Rivoluzionaria) instead.  Mussolini even called himself a socialist as late as two years before ascending to the office of Prime Minister, and frequently described fascism as “a heresy of socialism”.  Both fascism and socialism sought to motivate the common man through the vision of a secular millennium, attained through a radical popular revolution.  Both ideologies promised the result of that revolution would be an equal, fraternal society created, maintained and furthered through the apparatus of the state.  And just like socialism, fascism relied upon a spirit of collectivism, heavy nationalisation of industry, expropriation of capital, and thorough social re-engineering.  What differentiated fascism was a particular focus on nationalism, fevered visions of ethnic greatness, and the utter abandonment of socialism’s traditional internationalist rhetoric.   Despite the rise of this heretical challenge, socialism would emerge even stronger after the Second World War.
  • Clement Attlee (1883-1967), lawyer, soldier, member of the Fabian Society, leader of the Labour Party and forty-second Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  The Labour Party dismantled Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime national unity government two weeks after Germany’s collapse, and in the following election their leader, Attlee, won a landslide victory.  The Labour government went on to nationalise vast sectors of British industry, including the Bank of England, coal mines, civil aviation, radio and telephone communications, railroads, trucking, electricity, gas, iron and steel.  Attlee’s government also created the ambitious but expensive National Health Service.  Although he was committed to democratic means of advancing the socialist project, Attlee was no less sanguine about the ultimate goal: “We have only gone a few steps towards the kind of society of which we Socialists dream”.
  • Julius Nyerere (1922-1999), economist, teacher, leader of the TANU party and President of Tanzania.  Educated at the University of Edinburgh, Nyerere came into extensive contact with members of the Labour Party and Fabian Society, becoming an avowed socialist.  As President, Nyerere outlawed all political parties except TANU, nationalised all land and introduced an agricultural system based on collective farms, known as Ujamaa (or “familyhood”).  Few of the collective farm locations were properly sited and situated with regard to soil conditions and arable land, and many farmers were reluctant relocate.  They were encouraged to do so by the army and roving, quasi-governmental bands of TANU party members.  This was followed by nationalisation of many industries with a predictable and precipitous drop in agricultural and industrial production.  The World Bank and many First World nations (including Canada) rushed to bail out Tanzania in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Canada also sent military advisors to train the Tanzanian armed forces.  By 1976 the Ujamaa agricultural policy was an obvious failure, and Tanzania had fallen from Africa’s largest exporter of agricultural products to the continent’s largest importer.
  • Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), cigar maker, trade unionist and first President of the American Federation of Labour.  Gompers was entirely concerned with the economic aspects of socialism — better working conditions, higher wages, job security, and so on.  Unlike many of his socialist contemporaries, he saw no allure in the political agenda of socialism, and had no desire to upend the existing social order in favour of a radically different one.  This did not prevent him from advocating strikes or labour-friendly legislation, though.  At the end of the AFL’s 1903 convention Gompers famously declared “I want to tell you Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy … I have kept close watch upon your doctrines for thirty years; have been closely associated with many of you, … And I want to say that I am entirely at variance with your philosophy … Economically, you are unsound; socially you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.”
  • George Meany (1894-1980), plumber, trade unionist and fifth President of the American Federation of Labour.  Meany, like Gompers before him, was a strong believer in a symbiotic, cooperative relationship of labour and capital.  A staunch anti-communist, Meany knew Stalin’s repressive USSR was no friend to the average working person.  Meany published maps showing the locations of Soviet gulags, deplored the wretched state of workers rights inside the so-called “workers’ paradise”, and denied AFL membership to unions that specifically endorsed Communism.  Serving on the advisory board of the Marshall Plan, Meany and the AFL sought to foster non-communist labour unions around the world.  Meany once boasted that the AFL “remains the most powerful mass organisation in the world in complete opposition to Communism”.
  • Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), revolutionary, soldier, paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China.  A contemporary of Mao Zedong, Deng identified and sought to remedy production and motivation problems inherent in socialist economies long before most of his Central Committee peers.  When he assumed the pinnacle of power, Deng resurrected the Chinese economy through something he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — elsewhere known simply as capitalism.  With Russia’s ailing post-communist economy as counter-example, Deng sought to implement economic reforms without significant political change.  Deng is also known more infamously to Western audiences as the man largely responsible for the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-), lawyer, apparatchik and last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev believed the economic reformation of the Soviet economy could only succeed if accompanied by political reform as well.  Unfortunately his political reforms provoked a coup attempt and, ultimately, brought about the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 — well before economic liberalisation could restore the ailing Soviet economy.
  • Anthony “Tony” Blair (1953-), aspiring rock star, lawyer, leader of the Labour Party and fifty-first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Blair abandoned Labour’s traditional support for redistribution of power and wealth, “closed-shop” trade unionism, nationalising industries, and Fabian socialism.  In 1997, Blair branded the Labour party the “party of business” and declared “the era of tax and spend is dead and buried”.  Additionally, he endorsed previous Tory policies like privatisation, stating “I believe passionately that our government will fail if it sees its task as dismantling Thatcherism. We can’t just switch the clock back.”

As a former socialist, Mr. Muravchik treats his subject matter with respect and admirable objectivity.  He skilfully brings each era and each personality to life with lively and fascinating detail, all drawn from primary sources.  This is a must-read for conservatives, and not merely because we agree with the conclusion the author draws!  It is essential to comprehend the nature and history of socialism (and its failure) in order to avoid ill-fated conservative efforts at large-scale social re-engineering.

A particularly interesting section is the epilogue, where Mr. Muravchik describes the situation of Israeli kibbutzim.  Kibbutzim are collective farms, where four to five hundred people live and breathe socialism in every facet of life.  As Mr. Muravchik describes it:

The kibbutzim practiced socialism of a very pure kind.  The members rotated jobs, took their meals in a common dining hall, lived in identical little dwellings and deposited their offspring while still in swaddling clothes in children’s homes.  The youngsters lived and studied with their peers, save for a few hours’ visit with parents each evening.
The movement officially adopted Marx’s formula “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Kibbutzniks rarely saw money, for goods were distributed according to exquisite standards of fairness.  The goal was to go beyond mathematical equality to “human equality”, taking into account discrepancies in biological, familial and other circumstances.  Committees were formed to weigh special requests, and were in turn answerable to a general assembly, usually held weekly, in which every member was eligible to participate.  Everything was thoroughly democratic.

Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002) p. 322.

The disintegration of the kibbutzim was gradual and entirely unexpected.  The founders assumed, naturally, that children raised in the kibbutzim would be the best kibbutniks, thoroughly marinated from birth in ideas of complete equality and complete partnership.  What actually happened was that the first generation of kibbutniks established their collective farms with enthusiasm.  Their children were somewhat less enthusiastic but still clung to the spirit of their fathers.  But the third generation of kibbutzniks invariably wanted to promote change — or worse, disavow all the socialist ideals of the kibbutz.

The communal child-rearing strategies were the first to go.  Many kibbutz-raised people spoke well of their upbringing, but were very reluctant to have their own children raised in the same fashion.  Moving the children back in with their parents initiated a sort of domino effect; the communal dining hall was the next cooperative effort to fall.  Then clothes, which were communally owned, became articles of private property.  As time went on, kibbutzes slowly ceased to resemble communal farming arrangements and became much more like traditional towns, with private dwellings, private property, private industry, and so on.

Mr. Muravchik theorises, properly in my view, that human nature itself is incompatible with socialism’s underlying goal of creating a “new man”.  Humans are driven by an inextinguishable ego.  We like freedom.  We like to have our own property.  We want to own our own clothes and dine in our own dining rooms.  We do not want to rotate through a series of jobs every week, some of which are more agreeable than others.  We do not want to be isolated from our child’s upbringing.  And certainly, we want the just rewards of our own initiative and labour.  Socialism’s failure is also, paradoxically, part of its allure — the idea than man’s character and motivations can be perfected in this present world.  What it forgets is essential and unchanging human nature — we are all individuals, wanting things our own way; differing greatly in the amount of personal energy and resources we are prepared to expend not only for our own benefit, but also for that of our fellow man.

Religion, in the form of voluntary individual acceptance and practice of faith, may create changed attitudes and a personal interest in the welfare of one’s fellow man; coercive political, economic and social engineering definitely do not.

The book concludes that socialism has effectively died as a movement.  Very few leftist parties support radical wealth redistribution, the wholesale restructuring of civil society, and mass re-engineering of human behaviour.  Capitalism has won the judgment of history, ascendant virtually everywhere.  Socialism can act as a tax on free-market systems, but nowhere is it discussed as a total alternative.  As Mr. Muravchik notes, today we debate the proper extent of that tax.

By no means all socialists were killers or amoral.  Many were sincere humanitarians; mostly these were adherents of democratic socialism.  But democratic socialism turned out to be a contradiction in terms, for where socialists proceeded democratically, they found themselves on a trajectory that took them further and further from socialism.  Long before Lenin, socialist thinkers had anticipated the problem.  The imaginary utopias of Plato, More, Campanella and Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel, Looking Backward, was the most popular socialist book in American history, all relied on coercion, as did the plans of [Babeuf’s] Conspiracy of Equals.  Only once did democratic socialists manage to create socialism.  That was the kibbutz.  And after they had experienced it, they chose democratically to abolish it.

Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002) p. 344.

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