By the mid to late twentieth century, it seemed that future of the world was socialism in one form or another. America, though, the world’s most prosperous nation by many measures had never embraced socialism. By looking at the lives of two influential American union leaders, Samuel Gompers and George Meany, Muravchik illustrates the kind of reformist practicality that led American workers to spurn seizing the means of production and concentrate on good wages and favorable conditions. In the Soviet Union, birthplace of the Communist state, socialist inefficiency in production became so serious that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to liberalize the system. As a result, the Soviet Union literally fell apart. China, the other major Communist state, maintained the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, though, it adopted a market economy, so that the Chinese system largely became a Communist government without a Communist economy. In the United Kingdom, the social democratic Labour Party, under the direction of Prime Minister Anthony (“Tony”) Blair, following the reforms of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, turned away from its program of state ownership and state control and began to forge ties with businesses.
Two useful appendixes summarize the extent of world socialism in the late twentieth century. The first lists all the countries under communism, social democracy, and third world socialism in 1985, the year in which the largest number of countries was governed by socialists. The second provides a list of all the nations that are or have been under socialist governments, with the dates that they maintained this type of political and economic system
Muravchik’s strategy of telling his story by focusing on selected individuals and events is an effective one for holding the interest of readers, but this approach necessarily leads him to leave out some important parts of socialist history. The lives and work of anti-socialist labor leaders Samuel Gompers and George Meany are relevant to the explanation of why socialism never achieved the organized influence in the United States that it did in many other countries. Still, leaders can only lead where followers are willing to go and the general support of American workers for the market system owes as much to a culture of individualism, to practical and compromising business and governmental leaders, and to the sheer material success of the American marketplace as it does to the ideological preferences of union chiefs. Muravchik largely ignores the anti-Communism of the Cold War, which contributed greatly to the distrust that Americans and many people in other nations came to feel for all shades of socialism.
There are only brief mentions of the Communist Party in the United States. Major American Communist leaders such as Earl Browder and William Z. Foster cannot be found in these pages. The socialist leader Eugene V. Debs makes only a couple of brief appearances and readers will look in vain for any trace of American socialist Norman Thomas.
Coverage of European socialism is similarly spotty. There is no reference to the French Communist Party, a major aspect of the French political system until the end of the twentieth century. Muravchik also ignores the brief efflorescence of Eurocommunism, an attempt by Communist leaders in Western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s to create a Communism that would be independent of Soviet control and, in theory, democratic. While he devotes two chapters to social democracy in the United Kingdom, where socialism arguably plunged the nation into economic disaster, he gives only passing attention to social democracy in Sweden, widely acclaimed in some modern academic circles as socialism’s success story. Sweden, of course, really has an economy based on heavily taxed private industry, but it would be useful to consider whether this system constitutes socialism and what this means for the lives of its citizens politically and economically.
While it may not provide a comprehensive history of socialism, though, Heaven on Earth is a well-written and thoughtful meditation on some of the fundamental questions of modern political history. It attempts to address the question of how ideas of social organization that seem to be at odds with existing human nature came to be so widely held. It also seeks to say why movements dedicated to creating a better way of life often resulted in brutality and murder. For Muravchik, these two questions have the same answer. Socialism appealed to people because it offered a faith that could give meaning to life. By the same token, though, commitment to a faith that transcends the realities of the present and the lives of individual people could justify any action. This is not an original observation. Socialism has often been accused of offering a substitute religion. But it is an accurate observation and one worth remembering. Muravchik supports it with a series of persuasive cases.