Sunday, September 16, 2012

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, by Joshua Muravchik

Visions of an ideal, intentionally designed society are at least as old as the writings of Plato, but only in modern times have there been efforts to realize those visions through social movements and political efforts.  Following the French Revolution, socialism developed as one of the most inspiring and influential programs of social and economic planning.  Socialism, as Joshua Muravchik recognizes in this new history, took on several forms but all were united by the ideas that cooperation, rather than competition, could and should be the driving force of human productive activity and that all members of a society could and should share equally in the fruits of production.

Muravchik recounts the history of socialism through a series of biographical vignettes. He begins with François Noël Babeuf, who became known as “Gracchus Babeuf” and who is justly recognized as the father of modern socialism.  Babeuf, a pamphleteer and agitator during the French Revolution, organized a group of plotters known as the Conspiracy of Equals. Their goal was to create a society in which private property and money would be abolished and all people would live in completely equal circumstances. This would not be accomplished merely by changing the social system, but by changing people. Babeuf and his collaborators intended to have the state take control of each individual at birth in order to educate selfless citizens. This plan of re-making society by remaking people, in Muravchik’s view, became central to socialism. It was also, he suggests throughout the book, why socialism fell. Humans beings were not readily re-designed.


While Babeuf began a tradition of social change through conspiracy and violence, the Scot Robert Owen pioneered a more humane and voluntary path to utopia.  Owen, who reportedly coined the word “socialism,” achieved public recognition after he bought a textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland. Reacting against the horrific conditions common in factories in his day, Owen reduced working hours, used authoritarian but gentle methods of evaluating and rewarding works, and attempted to control and direct workers’ lives in the company-owned village. Had he ended his reforming career at New Lanark, Owen might today be regarded as an early paternalistic capitalist, a forerunner of Henry Ford and George Pullman. Instead, he moved to America and in 1825 he founded the famous communal settlement at New Harmony in Indiana. As a model for idealists, New Harmony became legendary, but as a place where people actually lived and worked, it was a failure. Since no one received any special benefit from production when everything was equally shared, community members did not produce what they needed. Since goods were distributed by committees, there were shortages even of the goods that were available.  Muravchik argues that Owen’s failed efforts inspired, rather than discouraged socialism because his goals seemed so lofty. However, the experiences of communes such as New Harmony suggested that utopia could not be created by forming isolated communities within the existing society. Instead, the whole of society would have to change in order to make an environment favorable to the re-shaping of human nature.

Socialists found what appeared to be a practical and realistic program for changing the whole of society in the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Muravchik’s chapter on Marx and Engels is one of his most interesting because he makes a good case for the argument that Engels was the true originator of most of the ideas known as Marxism and the primary author of The Communist Manifesto.  Whether Marx or Engels deserves the greater share of the credit, though, Marxist theory became the basis of a systematic ideology for change.

As a scientific theory, Marxism offered predictions, as well as interpretation. Predictions can be dangerous, though, because events may not bear them out. Marx and Engels (or, if Muravchik is correct, Engels and Marx) had maintained that workers in capitalist society would see their living standards steadily deteriorate and that entrepreneurs who were continually reduced in number by competition would produce more and more goods that could not be sold to the impoverished majority. As a result, workers would take control of industrial society and establish a new communist order. By the early twentieth century, though, these predictions seemed to be wrong. Workers were better off than they had been in earlier years and most advanced industrial nations showed few signs of collapse into revolution.


Eduard Bernstein, a former colleague of Marx and Engels, argued that capitalism had become less vicious and that gradual reform rather than revolution should be the goal of socialists. This argument angered the true believers, including a true believer living in Russia, who assumed the name of Vladimir Ilych Lenin.  When Lenin managed to outmaneuver the reformists in a Russia thrown into upheaval by World War I , he initiated a new era for socialism, one in which socialism seemed to have finally come to power.


Muravchik describes several versions of socialism in power. One of these was the Soviet system, established by Lenin and taken over by Stalin after Lenin’s death. Another was fascism, under the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Muravchik argues persuasively that Mussolini did not abandon his early socialism when he turned to fascism, but simply developed a heretical version of the socialist faith. Another branch of socialism was the social democracy of England initiated by Prime Minister Clement Atlee, which attempted to re-make society and its members by means of elected government. Finally, the Third World socialism exemplified by the ideology of Ujamaa, or “familyhood,” advocated by Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, which became Tanzania after its 1964 merger with Zanzibar.

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.

Heaven on Earth departs from its biographical approach in the epilogue, where the book considers an instance of socialism that, in the author’s view, was almost a success. The kibbutz movement in Israel, charged with nationalistic idealism, for a time appeared to be providing models of cooperative, communal living.  But even the kibbutzim have now been shifting rapidly to cash economies.

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.

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