Bumps Against Reality

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

Stalin statue
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April 14, 2019

Joshua Muravchik's definitive history Heaven on Earth was originally published in 2002 with the subtitle "The Rise and Fall of Socialism." In order to stay definitive, it is now being updated and rereleased, with a third act added on to the historical drama of socialism in the form of its 21st century "Afterlife."

Socialism, Muravchik writes, "was the faith in which I was raised." And while he doesn't belabor the personal, his status as an apostate from a long period as an involved socialist lends the entire project a bit of authority and a lot of fluency. He knows his stuff from the inside out, and he wants to understand and analyze, not merely attack, this tradition.

To quote another onetime socialist, George Orwell wrote in 1948 that:

Until well within living memory the forces of the Left in all countries were fighting against a tyranny which appeared to be invincible, and it was easy to assume that if only that particular tyranny—capitalism—could be overthrown, Socialism would follow. Moreover, the Left had inherited from Liberalism certain distinctly questionable beliefs, such as the belief that the truth will prevail and persecution defeats itself, or that man is naturally good and is only corrupted by his environment. This perfectionist ideology has persisted in nearly all of us, and it is in the name of it that we protest when (for instance) a Labour government votes huge incomes to the King's daughters or shows hesitation about nationalising steel. But we have also accumulated in our minds a whole series of unadmitted contradictions, as a result of successive bumps against reality.

What Muravchik has done in Heaven on Earth is chronicle the whole story of those bumps against reality, in largely chronological order and in prose that is both direct and extremely stylish. This is the history of an idea, and it is told mostly through the human characters who conceived, advanced, and wielded that idea. We start with French Revolutionary radical François-Noël (or Gracchus) Babeuf, the "first socialist," and key member of the "Conspiracy of Equals." His derring-do and philosophical commitments, expressed as he navigated the Revolution and the Terror, inspired Marx, the Comintern, and everyone else to ever evoke the S word.

From there we head across the Channel to England, where the mill owner and ideaman Robert Owen has decided that with the right vision (read: his own vision) and appropriately "scientific" principles, we could organize towns that function as perfect communities that develop people of high character, sharing everything, and producing products at a higher rate than their purely capitalist counterparts. If this sounds fanciful, he also apparently believed that as they developed science and society, they would be able to lessen the workload by taming previously untamed animals such as whales and lions. And if that seems fanciful, he also believed no revolution would be necessary to install socialism as the whole world's system. The results of these towns that he set up by buying land in England and Indiana would prove so exemplary that they would be emulated everywhere. When his Indiana venture failed and was shuttered, he explained it away by blaming the character of the people who had populated it and nonetheless declared a moral victory.

This type of thinking, which is repeated over and over in Heaven on Earth, is the backwards "solution" Bertolt Brecht writes about in his poem of that name, in which he jokes about a people who:

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Stalin and Mao tried this "easier" solution quite literally.

For believing that no revolution would be necessary to bring the socialist future of the world they both believed would soon come, Marx called Owen a "utopian." Marx's prediction of an inevitable, spontaneous global class revolt followed by a post-capitalist utopia seemed to him, by contrast, pretty down to earth. Here Muravchik will have you chuckling—indeed, one of the most surprising and enjoyable things about Heaven on Earth is that it's funny.

This is a unique quality in a definitive history—Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years doesn't elicit much laughter, despite its brilliance. Not so with Heaven on Earth: Here is Communist Manifesto author Friedrich Engels taking a two month wine-drinking vacation during a much-anticipated revolutionary period in 1848-49. "The 1848 harvest was so infinitely rich … better than '46, perhaps even better than '34! ... It will therefore readily be believed that I spent more time lying in the grass with the vintners and their girls, eating grapes, drinking wine, chatting and laughing." (Champagne socialism has its own long history, too, it seems, and it traces to the same place as the regular kind.)

Muravchik has an eye for great quotes as well as details: The union organizer Samuel Gompers calls socialist theoreticians outside of the actual card-carrying labor force "men of isms and schisms" and reduces his cigar consumption to "twenty-five a day" out of concern for his health.

Muravchik covers real events and movements: the Russian Revolution through the end of the Soviet empire; the birth of fascism and its roots in socialism (Mussolini was editor of leading socialist journal Avanti! as a young leftist); the creation of social democracy as a political force in England and elsewhere in western Europe by Attlee and others; and "third world socialism" in postcolonial countries, focusing on Nyerere's Tanzania.

We then learn about socialism's defeats and repeals at the end of the 20th century, in a section that was the 2002 book's close. Gorbachev and Deng modify the Russian and Chinese systems to be something quite unlike what early socialist theorists might have wanted. Tony Blair turns a perennially losing Labour Party into a winner by compromising on … virtually everything of socialist principle. The kibbutzim of Israel, where socialism had been practiced at small scale with some success, break down in the third generation, as the family instinct and incentive to compete for more draw the communities apart.

But what of that surprise third act, the fresh Afterlife portion of Heaven on Earth? Muravchik has not lost the touch since 2002. It contains, for one, the least polemical and most exhaustive case that Jeremy Corbyn is a dullard, terrorist sympathizer, ideologue, and menace that I have yet encountered. That alone is worth the book's purchase price. It also assesses Chavist Venezuela, Bernie Sanders, and the Occupy movement. And it closes with a look at the surprising and threatening disappointments of how China has developed under Xi, not back in a socialist direction but neither in the predicted postsocialist one.

Heaven on Earth is one of those books that's so clearly communicated you could open it anywhere and start reading and enjoying a section. But read it as a whole and you will find themes, the same forces reasserting themselves and undoing the socialists' predictions and promises, even as theoreticians invoke the same excuses and evasions.

Socialists are always abstractly analyzing capitalism, and perhaps a reversal is in order: A capitalist analysis of this socialist problem must start from the law that for human beings "incentives matter." So if you truly believe your incentive is creating and living in a "heaven on earth," a phrase Muravchik borrows from a quote by 19th century socialist Moses Hess, that will outweigh any disincentive. You will of course do anything and believe anything and commit any atrocity to achieve it. The results are always impractical and usually ugly, because the goal is not achievable. Not with human beings as we really are. This, Heaven on Earth so ably demonstrates, is the reality socialism inevitably bumps against.

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