Why Won't Socialism Die?

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Americans are more receptive to socialism today than any time in memory—with 43% of the adult population willing to embrace some form of the collectivist ideology, according to a May 20th Gallup poll. How has an idea responsible for so much global human suffering found new life in American society? RealClearBooks recently interviewed author Joshua Muravchik about the re-issue of his book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, and the persistent attraction of a failed idea.

RealClearBooks: What was your goal in writing Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism?

Joshua Muravchik: This story is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all time, or at least since the Garden of Eden. Here was an idea that enchanted the world but could not be made flesh. Some of the efforts to realize it brought about unparalleled suffering and ruin. It is what made the twentieth century so awful. I wanted to capture the story in broadest compass, how this idea marched through history, but not in a Hegelian sense as if the idea were a disembodied thing. Rather, I wanted to examine the experiences and thoughts of the key individuals who conceived the original idea and then each of its variants from theory to practice to disaster or recantation.

RCB: People often use socialism, communism, and Marxism interchangeably. Are there important differences between these terms and why are you writing about socialism?

JM: Socialism is the omnibus term. Before 1917, the terms “socialism,” “communism,” and “social democracy” were used interchangeably—at least there was no consensus about distinctions among them. Shortly after Lenin seized power, he decreed that his group, previously known as the Bolsheviks, would call themselves Communists. Around the world, socialists divided between those who approved Lenin’s accomplishment and those who decried his dictatorial ways. Thereafter, the former were “Communists” and never again “social democrats” while the latter were “social democrats” and never again “communists.” But both sides still claimed the label “socialist,” as did other subsequent political movements like National Socialism, African Socialism, Arab Socialism, etc. I shrank from trying to define “true” socialism. Rather, I wanted to tell the story of this captivating idea in all its variants and mutations.

RCB: In Heaven on Earth you sometimes refer to socialism as a faith. In the prologue you write, “In this book I trace socialism’s phenomenal trajectory. It 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 religion.” Why do you compare socialism to religion?

JM: Socialism was not proposed as a solution to a discrete problem but rather as a path to human redemption. It would spell the end of exploitation, alienation, jealousy and competition. Michael Harrington, the leader of the Socialist Party to which I once belonged, and the founder of Democratic Socialists of America to which Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib belong, wrote that socialism would constitute “an utterly new society in which some of the fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended. … [W]ork will no longer be necessary.… The sentence decreed in the Garden of Eden will have been served.” Ergo, the title, Heaven on Earth, which I borrowed from the words of Moses Hess, the mentor who tutored young Marx and Engels in socialism. 

RCB: Heaven on Earth follows individuals who have been attracted to, and shaped the history and theory of socialism. How did you decide which individuals to write about?

JM: Babeuf, Owen, and Engels created and developed the idea. (I chose Engels over Marx because it was he who really made Marx, not only supporting him financially but also putting across the image that Marx’s ideas were of world historic importance.) Lenin, Mussolini, Attlee, and Nyerere each either invented or exemplify a main branch of the socialist tree: Communism, fascism, social democracy, and third world socialism. Gorbachev and Deng, on the one hand, and Tony Blair on the other, represent the fall of Communism and of social democracy. (The fall of the other two branches didn’t need to be personified because fascism brought its own demise through war and the fall as well as the rise of third world socialism can be seen in the experience of Nyerere.) For the “afterlife,” Corbyn, Sanders, and Chavez were obvious choices. A few other figures are portrayed to represent what I regard as other critical elements in the unfolding of the history or in the possible future.

RCB: Are there psychological similarities among socialism’s leaders? Are there common reasons they have been attracted to socialism?

JM: Almost every one saw himself as larger than life, as engaging with the world or with history in a momentous way. These were not people who were out merely to have a career, even a big career. Some were extreme narcissists, for example, Owen and Mussolini (and Marx, who looms in the background of the Engels chapter). Just a few demonstrated compassion in their private lives. For most, the solicitude for mankind was highly abstract.

RCB: Of all the socialists you write about, whose ideas do you think were most dangerous? And whose were most responsible for the major failures of socialism in the 20th century?

JM: Lenin was the greatest disaster the world has known. Without Lenin there would have been no Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot, no Mussolini, no Hitler. Lenin set the model they all imitated. 

RCB: Have there been any experiments with socialism that have not resulted in authoritarianism?

JM: Social democrats kept faith with democracy. But, while some admit it and some do not, they jettisoned socialism. Instead, wherever they have held power, they contented themselves with erecting welfare states while preserving capitalism as the underlying generator of wealth. Kibbutzim in Israel stand as the only example of true socialism that was also completely free and democratic.

RCB: In your op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Socialism Fails Every Time,” you write that “Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried – even where it succeeded.” What do you mean by that?

JM: This was a reference to the kibbutzim, a true laboratory experiment in socialism. I devote a full chapter to them, the only chapter not built around an individual but rather around a specific kibbutz. Kibbutzim practiced complete socialism, sharing not only work and property but meals, childrearing, sometimes even clothing. And everything was decided by discussion and voting. They were successful in that they were pillars on which the state of Israel was erected. But once the state was firmly and securely on its feet, the kibbutzniks decided democratically to turn away from socialism and put their communities on a private property basis.

RCB: What is it about socialism that continues to make it attractive despite so many failures?

JM: I could answer this question two ways. First, I could point to its religious quality, the enduring allure of the promise of redemption in a secular age. Second, I could say ignorance or pigheadedness. This idea has been around more than two hundred years. It has been attempted in every imaginable way and in every corner of the world, and its record is catastrophic. It beats me why people think it would be a good idea to do it all again.

RCB: What can we learn from the current situation in Venezuela?

JM: I see two glaring lessons. First, it had often been said that the failure of socialism in “third world” countries was due to their poverty and lack of capital. Venezuela when Hugo Chavez took power was a middle-class country with unlimited capital in the form of the world’s largest known oil reserves. Even this could not shield the country from debacle. Second, with Russia propping up Maduro as it has Assad, we see that Moscow will be a vicious, belligerent, malign force in global politics. After 1989, I had hoped that Russia and China would evolve into peaceful, democratic countries. Instead, although Russia is post-Communist and China post-socialist, the secret police and the Communist Party—the two pillars of Communist regimes—continue to rule, respectively, Russia and China. This makes each an ongoing menace with which we will have to contend for years to come.

RCB: And from the continued popularity of Bernie Sanders?

JM: Sanders appears as an anti-politician which clearly has some appeal. Running always as an independent and declaring himself a socialist, which used to be considered taboo, show he really is different. He also seems to promise lots of new, large benefits that will be paid for by someone else. As with Trump, Sanders shows that Americans are not immune to the appeal of demagogues.

Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism is now available from Encounter Books. 

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