Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable, as it were, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual … into a part of a much greater whole, … of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762
We are all socialists nowadays.
—Edward, Prince of Wales, 1895
The most important political event of the twentieth century is not the crisis of capitalism but the death of socialism.
—Irving Kristol, 1976
What is socialism? In part, it is optimism translated into a political program. Until he took up gardening, Candide was a sort of proto-socialist; his mentor Pangloss could have been one of socialism’s founding philosophers. Socialism is also unselfishness embraced as an axiom: the gratifying emotion of unselfishness, experienced alternately as resentment against others and titillating satisfaction with oneself. The philosophy of Rousseau, which elevated what he called the “indescribably sweet” feeling of virtue into a political imperative, is socialism in ovo. “Man is born free,” Rousseau famously exclaimed, “but is everywhere in chains.” That heart-stopping conundrum—too thrilling to be corrected by mere experience—is the fundamental motor of socialism. It is a motor fueled by this corollary: that the multitude unaccountably colludes in perpetuating its own bondage and must therefore be, in Rousseau’s ominous phrase, “forced to be free.”
We owe the term “socialism” to some followers of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century British industrialist who founded New Harmony, a short-lived utopian community on the banks of the Wabash in Indiana. Owen’s initial reception in America was impressive. In an 1825 address to Congress, Joshua Muravchik reports in Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism,1 Owen’s audience included not only congressmen but also Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, President Monroe, and President-elect John Quincy Adams. Owen described to this august assemblage how his efforts to replace the “individual selfish system” with a “united social” system would bring forth a “new man” who was free from the grasping imperatives that had marred human nature from time immemorial. (And not only human nature: the utopian socialist Charles Fourier expected selfishness and cruelty to be obliterated from the animal kingdom as well: one day, he thought, even lions and whales would be domesticated.)
The starry-eyed aspect of socialist thinking did not preclude a large element of steel. As Muravchik points out, the French Revolution was “the manger” of socialism. It was then that the philosophy of Rousseau emerged from the pages of tracts and manifestos to strut across the bloody field of history. The architects of the revolution invoked Rousseau early and often as they set about the task of “changing human nature,” of “altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.”
This metamorphosis does not come easily. Human nature is a recalcitrant thing. It is embodied as much in persistent human institutions like the family and the church as in the human heart. All must be remade from the ground up if “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” are at last to be realized. Since history is little more than an accumulation of errors, history as hitherto known must be abolished. The past, a vast repository of injustice, is by definition the enemy. Accordingly, the revolutionists tossed out the Gregorian calendar and started again at Year One. They replaced the Genesis-inspired seven-day week with a ten-day cycle and rebaptized the months with names reflecting their new cult of nature: Brumaire (fog), Thermidor (heat), Vendémiare (wind), etc. A new religion was born, as imperious as it was jealous. It is significant that the socialist mentality is usually also an atheistic mentality, where atheism is understood not so much as the disbelief in God as the hatred of God—an attitude as precarious logically as it has been destructive in practice. There is an important sense in which religion as traditionally understood reconciles humanity to imperfection and to failure. Since the socialist sets out to abolish failure, traditional religion is worse than de trop: it is an impediment to perfection. (“Criticism of religion,” Marx said, “is the prelude to all criticism.”) In 1793, the churches were closed to worship and ransacked for booty. The anti-clericalism that had been a prominent feature of revolutionary sentiment grew increasingly vicious. Muravchik describes so-called “revolutionary marriages” in which priests and nuns were tied together naked and drowned. Rousseau was always going on about establishing the “reign of virtue.” His far-seeing disciple Maximilien Robespierre spoke more frankly of “virtue and its emanation, terror.”
Since the socialist sets out to abolish failure, traditional religion is worse than de trop: it is an impediment to perfection.
It is one of the great ironies of modern history that socialism, which promises a more humane, caring, and equitable society, has consistently delivered a more oppressive and mismanaged one. Socialism’s motto— Muravchik optimistically offers it to us as socialism’s “epitaph”—turns out to be: “If you build it, they will leave.”
If, one must add, they are allowed to leave. As Muravchik reminds us in this excellent survey of socialist personalities and socialist experiments, encouraging dissent is never high on a socialist’s agenda. The socialist pretends to have glimpsed paradise on earth. Those who decline the invitation to embrace the vision are not just ungrateful: they are traitors to the cause of human perfection. Dissent is therefore not mere disagreement but treachery. Treachery is properly met not with arguments but (as circumstances permit) the guillotine, the concentration camp, the purge.
In tracing “socialism’s phenomenal trajectory,” Heaven on Earth tells 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 revelation.” It is, to say the least, a cautionary tale. Muravchik provides a devastating anatomy of the socialist dream—a dream that with clocklike regularity becomes a nightmare. If, as Muravchik suggests, “socialism was … the most popular political idea ever invented,” it is also undoubtedly the bloodiest. Of course, many who profess socialism are decent and humane people. And it is worth noting that socialism comes in mild as well as tyrannical versions. Muravchik, who was once a socialist himself, pays frequent homage to the generous impulses that lie behind some allotropes of the socialist enterprise. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “regimes calling themselves socialist have murdered more than one hundred million people since 1917.” Why? Why is it that “the more dogged the effort to achieve” the announced goals of socialism, “the more the outcome mocked the human ideals it proclaimed”? And why is it that conservatives, who by and large have agreed with Samuel Johnson that “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization,” have regularly been demonized as uncaring brutes?
A large part of the answer lies in the intellectual dynamics of utopianism. “Utopia” is Greek for “nowhere”: a made-up word for a make-believe place. The search for nowhere inevitably deprecates any and every “somewhere.” Socialism, which is based on incorrigible optimism about human nature, is a species of utopianism. It experiences the friction of reality as an intolerable brake on its expectations. “Utopians,” the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed in “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” “once they attempt to convert their visions into practical proposals, come up with the most malignant project ever devised: they want to institutionalize fraternity, which is the surest way to totalitarian despotism.”
There was also the intervention of Marx. Intellectually, Marxism is the most highly developed—as well as the most influential and most murderous—form of socialism the world has seen. But Kolakowski is surely correct that Marxism’s influence, far from depending on its alleged “scientific character,” depends “almost entirely [on] … its prophetic, fantastic, and irrational elements.” Marxism says that as capitalist societies develop, most people are hounded into abject poverty while a tiny coterie of capitalists thrive. This scenario is presented, à la Hegel, as a “dialectical” inevitability. But in fact capitalism has always made societies richer, much richer. Capitalists get rich, and workers become more prosperous than their grandparents could have ever imagined possible.
Capitalism has always made societies richer, much richer.
Whether or not this is a “necessary” concomitant of market forces, it is an historical fact. The curious thing is that this phenomenon, which any dispassionate observer might count as a refutation, leaves the true-believing Marxist entirely unruffled. Whatever else one can say about it, Marxism is surely one of the most impervious systems of thought ever devised. It is also one of the most protean. It has always, as Kolakowski notes, been able to change “content from one situation to another and [crossbreed] with other ideological traditions.” In part, this is a testimony to its intellectual adaptability; in part, it is simple mendacity. As Marx himself explained in an 1857 letter to Friedrich Engels about an election prediction he had made, “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.”
Muravchik begins his account of the career of socialism with figures like François-Noël Babeuf and Sylvain Maréchal, whose radical egalitarianism and endorsement of violence helped set the tone—and the murderous program—of the French Revolution. Maréchal, who took to signing himself l’HSD (l’Homme Sans Dieu, the man without God), was above all an apostle of radical egalitarianism: equality understood not as a legal postulate but as an existential imperative. “If there is a single man on earth who is richer and more powerful than his fellows,” he wrote, “then the equilibrium is broken: crime and misfortune are on earth.” It is imperative, Maréchal said in his Manifesto of Equals, to “remove from every individual the hope of ever becoming richer, or more powerful, or more distinguished by his intelligence.” Tough work, that removal, but the promised rewards were great: really establish equality, Maréchal argued, and the result would be “the disappearance of boundary marks, hedges, walls, door-locks, disputes, trials, thefts, murders, all crimes … courts, prisons, gallows, penalties, … envy, jealousy, insatiability, pride, deception, duplicity, in short all vices.” Of course, until that happy day arrives there will be plenty of “trials, thefts, murders, … courts, prisons, gallows, penalties” in order to hasten the institution of equality.
Babeuf, who called himself “Gracchus” Babeuf after the legendary Roman land reformer, also put radical equality at the center of his revolutionary program. Since nothing institutionalized inequality more than private property, he reasoned, private property and its distillate, money, must go. Babeuf looked forward to the “general overthrow of the system of private property” as an “inevitable” adjunct of revolution. “Society,” he said, “must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others.” Like Maréchal—like Robespierre whom he admired as a “regenerator” who “mow[ed] down all that impeded him”—Babeuf (who also called himself “the Marat of the Somme”) believed that “in order to govern judiciously it is necessary to terrorize the evilly disposed, the royalists, papists and starvers of the public. … [O]ne cannot govern democratically without this terrorism.” If the cost of paradise was unfortunately high, it was as nothing compared with the envisioned benefits. “I don’t think it is impossible,” Babeuf enthused to his wife, “that within a year, if we carry out our measures aright and act with all necessary prudence, we shall succeed in ensuring general happiness on earth.”
Today Babeuf is little more than a footnote to the history of tyranny. As with many extremists, the very extravagance of his pronouncements is implicitly taken as a license to dismiss him or deprecate his importance. What fundamentally challenges the status quo is defanged by the rhetoric of extremism: what is extreme is also exceptional, a special case, i.e., not really threatening. But this line of reasoning misunderstands the threat posed by radicals like Babeuf. His extremism was not limited to acts perpetrated in the late eighteenth century. It lived on in the murderous socialist programs he helped to inspire. Babeuf’s importance in the history of socialism was underscored by Marx and Engels. In The Holy Family, their first work together, they fondly note that Babeuf’s attack on private property “gave rise to the communist idea.” (The essence of Communism, Marx correctly observed, can be summed up in a single phrase: the abolition of private property.) Babeuf’s importance was reaffirmed in the founding manifesto of the Comintern in 1919, whose authors saw themselves as “the direct continuators of the heroic endeavors and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations [starting] from Babeuf.” In our own day, the Frankfurt-school Marxist Herbert Marcuse has championed Babeuf’s thought as a tool to battle the seductive evils of advanced capitalism.
Muravchik ranges confidently through the history of socialism, neatly weaving biography, anecdote, and political commentary into a fascinating chronicle of disappointed idealism. A large part of Heaven on Earth is given over to the rise and eventual foundering of what we might call “soft socialism.” Muravchik patiently details the experiments of utopians like Robert Owen, Marxist reformers like Eduard Bernstein (a protégé of Engels), the trade-union movements of Samuel Gompers and George Meany, and mid-twentieth-century redactions of the socialist impulse in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, and the Israeli kibbutz.
Perhaps his most illuminating pages are devoted to the careers of Mussolini and of Engels. We tend to think of fascism as the antithesis of socialism or Marxism. But as Muravchik reminds us, there are in fact deep continuities between them. Mussolini began as a disciple of Lenin and did not so much repudiate Marxism-Leninism as become a self-declared “heretic.” Thus one of Mussolini’s groups of thugs called itself the Cheka, after Lenin’s secret police. As Muravchik observes, “However fierce they grew in their antipathy to communism, the fascists never ceased mimicking it, implicitly underscoring their claim to be the true or superior heirs to the same legacy.” (Something similar can be said of Hitler, whose party, after all, was called National Socialism. It is true that Hitler was adamantly anti-Communist; at the same time, he acknowledged that he had “learned a great deal from Marxism.”)
We tend to think of fascism as the antithesis of socialism or Marxism. But there are in fact deep continuities between them.
Most of us think of Engels as the junior partner in the conglomerate of Marxism, Inc. In some ways that perception is accurate. But Muravchik shows that Engels’s contribution to the formation of Marxist doctrine was much larger than is usually recognized. The well-to-do son of a German textile manufacturer, Engels beavered diligently for decades in the Manchester office of Engels & Ermen in order to earn enough money to support his comrade-in-arms. (Engels was always sending Marx money; when he finally retired from the family firm, he made Marx an annuity of £350—several times more than the average family lived on but not enough for Marx, who always adjusted his spending to a level above what his benefactors supplied.) Engels was an indefatigable publicist. It was Engels, for example, who suggested the title “Communist Manifesto” for their jointly authored “confession of faith.” When Marx finally, after innumerable delays, managed to complete the first volume of that great reader-proof tome Das Kapital, Engels flogged it everywhere, taking it upon himself to write ten separate reviews of the book. He also completed volumes two and three of the book, working up Marx’s scattered notes into something resembling a consecutive argument. More substantively, Engels’s 1844 “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” articulated many central points of the doctrine we have since learned to call Marxism, above all the thesis that the evolution of capitalism necessarily leads to cutthroat competition among capitalists and poverty and dehumanization for the majority of the populace. Marx himself called it “a work of genius” and incorporated many of its central arguments into his later work.
Muravchik’s argument has two aspects. Like many other disabused commentators, he presents a sobering chronicle of socialism’s delusions and crimes. He reminds us—if we still need reminding—of the central role that the “annihilation … of reactionary races” (Marx), the “extermination” of enemies (Lenin) has always played in “really existing” Marxism. Muravchik also presents the cheering news that daybreak has come at last, that we have finally awakened from the long dream of socialist utopia. It is difficult to argue with the first part of his argument. What about the second? It is certainly significant that the Soviet Union imploded and that its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, should have recently acknowledged that Communist claims about economic progress had been “pure propaganda.” Perhaps it is also significant that Tony Blair in Britain should have campaigned on the slogan “Labour is the party of business.” But I cannot help receiving the news of socialism’s death with a certain scepticism. For one thing, the fact that an idea has been thoroughly discredited does nothing to render it impotent. It is part of the perversity of human nature that discredited ideas are often the most successful ideas. Then, too, I see little evidence that socialism’s fundamental tenet—namely, the ideal of equality—is on its way to the dustbin of history. The wheels of egalitarianism may grind away more slowly in liberal democratic countries than in Communist ones, but grind away they do. It would be pleasant to think that in leaving history’s bloodiest century behind, we have also left behind the passions that sparked its unprecedented carnage. But time and again history has taught us that the hunger for equality is among mankind’s most brutal passions. It is for this reason that I believe the philosopher David Stove was correct when he identified “bloodthirstiness” as a central ingredient in the psychology of egalitarianism. Socialism will be conquered to the extent that egalitarianism is conquered. In the meanwhile, I fear that Stove is correct that “very far from communism being dead, as some foolish people at present believe, we can confidently look forward to bigger and better Marxes, Lenins, Stalins, Maos, Kim Il Sungs, Pol Pots, Ceausescus, Baader-Meinhofs, Shining Paths, and all the rest.”
1 Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, by Joshua Muravchik; Encounter Books, 400 pages, $27.95.