The Dream and Death of an Idea; Socialism across Two centuries.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Dream and Death of an Idea; Socialism across Two centuries.(BOOKS)


Byline: Ronald Radosh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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