Magazine | May 6, 2019, Issue

Socialism’s Life after Death

Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, England, September 26, 2018. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, by Joshua Muravchik (Encounter Books 424 pp., $18.99)

The volume here reviewed is the second edition of a book first published in 2002. I reviewed it favorably (with some reservations) in 2003. A good case can be made for the new edition, given the survival of socialist ideals and the persisting disagreements about their nature and realizability. It remains of interest why people in different parts of the world are still attracted to these ideals and why the same ideals have been so difficult to implement. Of special interest is what Joshua Muravchik calls the “afterlife” of socialism — what happened to these ideals and political aspirations after the political systems supposedly dedicated to their realization, such as the Soviet Union, ceased to exist.

As the reader is informed in the preface, the new edition is largely unchanged, except for the addition of an epilogue, some updating of the chapter on the kibbutzim (collective farms of modern Israel), and the correction of small errors.

The difficulty of coming to grips with the subject — that is, the proper understanding of the nature of socialist ideals and their realizability — has not diminished since the book was first published. The problem begins with the widely held, undifferentiated views of socialism shared by most Americans. They are unaware of the fundamental differences between authoritarian (or totalitarian) state socialism embedded in one-party systems, such as the former Soviet one or the Chinese one under Mao, and social-democratic societies, such as those in Scandinavia. The latter are politically liberal and pluralistic and seek to reduce economic inequalities through high taxes and a range of social services. It is this ignorance of the deep moral and institutional gulf between these two very different political systems that allowed President Trump to hold forth about the horrors of socialism without specifying whether he had in mind the Soviet Gulag or child care in Sweden. By the same token, it is also incumbent on the new, young Democratic representatives in Congress who sing the praises of socialism to make clear that they are aware of the morally decisive differences between democratic socialism and the repressive one-party states calling themselves “socialist.”

Since one-party-state socialist systems largely succeeded in usurping the “socialist” designation, it might have been wiser in this new edition to either completely eliminate or greatly reduce the discussion of British social democracy (i.e., the chapters on Atlee and Blair). On the other hand, if it was the author’s intention to present different approaches toward the realization of socialist ideals, the durable democratic socialism of the Scandinavian countries should have been included.

Important conceptual distinctions are further obscured when under the same heading (“Triumphs”) we find chapters on Lenin’s seizure of power, Mussolini’s “socialism,” British social democracy under Atlee, and Nyerere’s African socialism. It is also unclear why a chapter on conflicts within the American trade-union movement was put in the part entitled “Collapse,” along with chapters on Deng and Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and the kibbutz.

The volume might have been made more coherent by clearly separating the discussion of socialist ideals from the historical attempts to realize them, whether in small utopian communities, social-democratic countries, or authoritarian one-party states.

Apart from these structural-organizational problems, the book remains an informative introduction to the attempts to create socialist systems or communities variously conceived. Especially interesting is the chapter on the kibbutz, a unique experiment in creating, without coercion, utopian communities that had an authentic socialist — that is to say, egalitarian — inspiration.

It is the attempted updating by means of the epilogue that is the least satisfactory. The “afterlife” of socialism, its continued appeal and divergent interpretations, and the unforeseen consequences of its attempted realization, cannot be adequately dealt with in a brief epilogue. There have been developments in this century that deserve attention and that this epilogue did not, and could not, address. They include the political disposition and influence of some prominent Western intellectuals — Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, Angela Davis, José Saramago, and Slavoj Zizek, among others — who still cling to certain socialist ideals or seek to revive them. The afterlife of socialism cannot be reduced to the toxic disposition of Jeremy Corbyn of Britain or the more benign concerns and misconceptions of our Bernie Sanders — two figures (and their supporters) who dominate the epilogue. A particularly important phenomenon overlooked is the alienation of left-leaning young people in affluent, pluralistic Western societies and similar sentiments among the new right-wing populists. The former know little about the repression, regimentation, and scarcities that prevailed in the state-socialist systems. This ignorance makes it easier to harbor illusions about the sense of community attributed even to the remaining authoritarian socialist societies. Many of these young people are anti-capitalist because they associate capitalism with selfishness, impersonality, and lack of community more than with social injustices.

Arguably, it is the “afterlife” that brought us right-wing populism, especially among the white working classes and older people similarly concerned with loss of community, weak social bonds, and meaninglessness. It seems to me that the central, shared grievance of  the “new New leftists” and the right-wing populists can be traced to modernity (in its familiar capitalist incarnation): that is, to social isolation, secularization, and the loss of meaning. The populist nationalism and glorification of the past are pathways to a hoped-for restoration of community and stable moral values that modernity has undermined.

Muravchik is well aware of the persisting, core attraction of socialist ideals, that is, their being a substitute religion:

Engels and Marx . . . succeeded in recasting socialism into a compelling religious faith. . . . By investing history with a purpose, socialism evoked passions that other political philosophies could not stir. . . . Thus part of the power of Marxism was its ability to feed religious hunger while flattering the sense of being wiser than those who gave themselves over to unearthly faiths. 

Similar quasi-religious hungers also animate the right-wing populists who seek social solidarity and moral support in the revival of nationalism and ethnic purity. Their grievances and longings help us understand their readiness to admire and attribute charismatic qualities to a human being such as Donald Trump.

While the “afterlife” of socialism is insufficiently explored, the book continues to shed light on some of the historical attempts, and the individuals associated with them, that were aimed at the realization of some variety of socialism.

This article appears as “Whose Socialism?” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Paul HollanderMr. Hollander was a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. His most recent book is From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship.

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