Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism

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Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism by Joshua Muravchik Encounter Books * 2002 * 417 pages * $27.95.

The history of socialism is a sad, bitter, and bloody story. Arguably it is mankind's greatest tragedy of all time. Joshua Muravchik notes that regimes calling themselves socialist have murdered over 100 million people since 1917. Nor have those same regimes brought economic prosperity or equality of opportunity, as the rhetoric of socialism invariably promises.

Muravchik is well positioned to present such a history of socialism. He grew up in a socialist family where socialism was treated as a religious faith, and he was once national chairman of the Young People's Socialist League. He is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a very learned man.

The book starts with the role of Babeuf in the French Revolution, a key advocate for socialism. We then hear about Robert Owen's experimental socialist colony in New Harmony, about Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Mussolini, and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. The final section of the book deals with the socialist collapse, covering American labor leaders, Deng and Gorbachev, and the fall of social democracy as an ideal. Each chapter is clear, to the point, and full of facts. The author focuses on portraits of thinkers who have been instrumental in propagating the socialist philosophy and its corresponding economic institutions. Those portraits are simultaneously enlightening and depressing.

The book nonetheless reads as a disappointment overall. It is difficult to find a central thesis about why socialism was ever so appealing, or why it was subsequently given up by so many. We are told repeatedly that socialism was a Utopian vision that sought to remake the world. True, but why would such an obviously flawed idea enjoy such a long and broad reign? What is the underlying human imperfection behind the attraction to socialism? Given the author's background, it is odd how little psychological insight the book conveys. Instead we get a tightly controlled narrative, fine as far as it goes but never gripping or compelling.

The choice of subject matter is problematic as well. Why start with Babeuf and the French Revolution? It is unlikely that the true root of the socialist ideal lies with this thinker, despite the author's claim that the French Revolution was the "manger in which socialism was born. …