- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

There was a time, we are reminded by Joshua Muravchik in "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism," when the idea of socialism not only seemed to be the wave of the future, but when it appeared so triumphant that in one form or another 60 per cent of the earth's population lived under its domain. Yet by the dawn of the 21st century, what once appeared to be inevitable was swiftly on the way to its complete demise a discredited ideology in which regimes based on its precepts fared even worse than its critics ever argued they would.
Mr. Muravchik organizes his exploration of socialism in the modern world through biographical and analytical examinations of the beliefs, activities and motivations of the doctrine's main founders, from Francois-Noel Babeuf's "Conspiracy of Equals" in revolutionary France; to the Utopian Socialism of Robert Owen, through the rise of so-called "scientific" socialism of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and later V.I. Lenin, to the Fascism of Benito Mussolini which had strong socialist roots, and the Third World socialism exemplified in Africa by the reign of Julius Nyerere in what became Tanzania.
Finally, the author pays full attention to the thinking and policies of the Western democratic socialists, whose regimes generally termed social democratic reigned in nations as diverse as Sweden, France, Spain, Germany and Britain. In all cases, despite their strong differences, each variant of socialist theory and reality proved a failure, and the last remaining adherents at the 20th century's close sought desperately to reform its practice in order to salvage whatever possible of the socialist dream.
It is the great strength of Mr. Muravchik's study that he treats his subjects with respect; indeed with the greatest sympathy. They are not the demons and monsters so many of the socialists' opponents hold them to be, but largely with some notable exceptions like Mao Tse-tung, Lenin and Joseph Stalin men of good will and the most noble of motivations, such as that expressed in the 1840s by one of the earliest of the so-called communists, Moses Hess of Germany. It was Hess who proclaimed in 1846 that the socialist's goal was nothing less than creating "heaven on earth," which gave Mr. Muravchik the title for his book.
Such a vaunted goal, of course, turned out to be the greatest of all illusions. Towards the end of his book, Mr. Muravchik notes that the strength of the doctrine, especially Marxism, was "its ability to feed religious hunger while flattering the sense of being wiser than those who gave themselves over to unearthly faiths."
As we all know, wiser they were not. Their doctrine was predicated on the absence of concepts of good and evil, right and wrong. Whatever was done to attain the lofty goal was deemed worthwhile, with the horrible results that tarnished the last century. As Mr. Muravchik notes, the Crusades claimed a total of two million lives over three centuries; socialist regimes murdered 100 million people in an 80-year period, beginning in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution.
As for social democracy, its founders and followers hewed firmly to the democratic path. But they too found their doctrine in shambles by the last century's end. It was the brilliance of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair to redefine social democracy, removing its last links with doctrinal Marxian-style socialism and changing it into a softer version of Margaret Thatcher's conservative renewal. His heralded "Third Way" amounted to miniscule differences with Tory positions on issues such as the extent of the minimum wage and opposition to some privatization measures. Socialism became in essence nothing more than values to be upheld in the operation of the existing capitalist system.
What Mr. Blair was doing was moving social democracy away from socialism, Mr. Muravchik explains, back to its earliest roots in 19th-century liberalism, before the creation of the Labor Party, which in essence Mr. Blair viewed as a historical mistake. Ironically, the end of social democracy was taking place contemporaneously with Mikhail Gorbachev's doomed effort to rescue communism by transforming the Leninist state into a variant of Western social democracy. In the political sphere, Mr. Gorbachev sought to democratize the moribund one-party state. In the economic sphere, however, he remained a convinced old-style socialist, and balked at real privatization, and remained committed to centralized control.
Favoring an unsullied pure socialism the kind he believed in decades earlier Mr. Gorbachev was forced to preside over the collapse of the Soviet system itself. Meanwhile, Mr. Muravchik notes, Deng Xiaoping sought to introduce a controlled market economy in formerly Maoist China, to move toward privatization and a lessening of state control of the economy, while at the same time maintaining political control of the country in the hands of the old Communist Party. For him, Leninism meant the "dictatorship of the party"; everything else in the socialist vision was negotiable. The result was not socialism, but a system Mr. Muravchik more accurately calls "capitalism under the rule of the Communists."
Among the most insightful of Mr. Muravchik's profiles are those of Mussolini in Italy and Nyerere's in Africa. It has become commonplace to view Fascism as the opposite of socialism. Mr. Muravchik shows, to the contrary, that Mussolini was Lenin's twin. He too espoused rule by a revolutionary elite, favored organized violence, and an end to class war in the new Fascist regime.
But he departed in one major regard; instead of proletarian internationalism, Mussolini attached socialist programs to extreme nationalism, in which the people and its leaders would fight its enemies abroad. He sought to assimilate aspects of the socialist tradition and bind it to nationalism but like the Bolsheviks, he believed that the power he wielded would end in the creation of a "new Man."
As for socialism in Africa, the sad picture Mr. Muravchik paints of the fruits of Julius Nyerere's brand of socialism, based on extension of the communal African tribal system called ujamaa, (familyhood) into what he thought would be a full fledged indigenous and humane new form of socialism, ended in what was the destruction and collapse of a possibly flourishing economy. Nyerere was not the kind of evil demagogue like Uganda's Idi Amin; rather, he was an idealistic British-educated man, who had absorbed the work of the moderate Fabians and democratic socialists of London.
A fierce opponent of Western colonialism, Nyerere believed that his own tribesmen were "natural socialists," people who grew up practicing communal ownership, collective decision making and practicing social and economic equality.
Nyerere sought nothing less than a democratic and socialist homeland, and the British agreement to independence in 1961 led him to believe that his nation was on its way to attainment of his goal. Yet, the harsh reality led him too to depart from democratic means and norms. To maintain power, he enacted preventive detention measures, restrictions on free trade unions, and moves to "Africanize" the civil service.
By 1965, he presided over a new one-party state the only vehicle that could successfully implement the socialist program. But believing that socialism could be built in a poor and backward country, without industrial and cultural development, Nyerere moved to nationalize all land, abolish private ownership and work to support the new nascent "national liberation" movements emerging in the continent. He soon modeled his reign on Mao's Cultural Revolution in China, through complete government ownership of all means of production and exchange, as well as the nationalization of all banks.
Western socialists, including those of Sweden, Britain and even the United States Michael Harrington was one of his great admirers gave Nyerere their complete support, precisely as he was abandoning democracy and ruining his nation's economic lifeblood. So did the World Bank under Robert S. McNamara's leadership. All of this while state run economic bodies destroyed any productivity, and at a time when all independent associations were being crushed.
Nyerere did not engage in "gratuitous cruelty … political executions or concentration camps," Mr. Muravchik writes, nor was his government totalitarian. Yet he too ended in a dictatorial direction because of one factor alone: "his unyielding determination to bring the benefits of socialism to an unreceptive populace."
In the book's epilogue, there is a nuanced and devastating account of the fortunes which befell the Israeli kibbutz, Mr. Muravchik treats the one example where socialism thrived, and was built voluntarily and with dedication by its adherents. The results here too are vividly portrayed but sad to contemplate. The dreams of the valiant kibbutzniks fell apart, as the succeeding generations found that living a human and meaningful life militated against the assumptions of the socialist system.
The founders indeed created socialism, and it lasted for a brief moment in time. Unlike the Bolsheviks, Mr. Muravchik notes, the kibbutzim remained true to democracy. "And after they had experienced it [socialism]," he concludes, "they chose democratically to abolish it." Dreams die hard, it has been said. Joshua Muravchik's brilliant and exciting book should help those who still live in dreamland face reality.

Ronald Radosh is author of "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left," and professor emeritus of History at the City University of New York.


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