Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism
Reviewed by James R. Vanderwoerd, Applied Social Sciences, Redeemer University
“If you build it, they will leave” (xvi). What could be more ominous, obvious, and even humorous than this pithy observation at the end of Joshua Muravchik’s preface? Muravchik grew up as a card-carrying socialist who was thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of socialism from an early age—actually, he calls it faith: “Socialism was the faith in which I was raised. It was my father’s faith and his father’s before him” (xi). However, like many others, he eventually came to see the deep flaws in socialism: logical incoherence, contradictions, and worst of all, utter failure to realize any of its dreams. In short, it does not work, despite its allure. His own experience leads him to conclude late in the book, “Historically socialism always appealed most to the young” and then he quotes “…an aphorism sometimes misattributed to Churchill but in fact coined by conservative French politician Clemenceau, who had begun as a leftist journalist: ‘any man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, and any who is still a socialist at forty has no brain’” (387).
That is the story that Muravchik wants to tell, or re-tell in this 2019 revision of a history he first recounted in 2001, at a time when it appeared all that needed to be said was how socialism rose and fell and could be left behind as a historical relic. Now, nearly 20 years later, Muravchik notes with dismay that socialism is making a comeback, and he returns to the task of debunking socialism by adding a chapter on socialism’s surprising “afterlife.” It is no accident the book is titled “Heaven on Earth” and that he describes it as his family’s faith, for at its root it is a religion, a worldview. For example, early on he observes that “…Marx and Engels achieved the far more profound breakthrough of imbuing socialism with something of the intellectual and spiritual force of the great religious texts. Their doctrine provided an account of man’s history, an explanation of current sorrows and a vision of redemptive future” (xiv). His description of the socialist vision echoes the creation-fall-redemption narrative familiar to many Christians. Similarly, he describes Engels’ contem-porary and protégé, Eduard Bernstein’s, observation (when he begins to doubt orthodox Marxism for its empirical failures), “Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true….It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook” (120).
Given socialism’s rejection of religion, many observers have come to think of socialism as primarily a political and secular movement, perhaps especially among its twenty-first-century neophytes. Although Muravchik is not a Christian, his immersion in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its texts enables him to recognize how adherents repeatedly used religious terms to describe, explain, and rationalize socialism. Not only does Muravchik recognize the religious impulse in socialism, but he goes one step further by invoking bib-lical language in sometimes clever phrasing to reveal and espouse socialism’s visions and failures. Early in the book, for example, he describes socialism’s “…promise that all things could be made new” (xiv), while later he concludes, “From New Harmony to Moscow, from Dar es Salaam to London, the story of socialism was the story of a dream unrealized, a word that would not be made flesh” (335).
Muravchik points out many instances in which socialism was explicitly understood by its proponents as a replacement for and improvement of Christianity. For example, Francois-Noel Babeuf, Filippo Buonarroti and others associated with the “Conspiracy of Equals,” prior to and after the French Revolution, were explicit about this. As Muravchik explains, “In their hostility to established religion and their plan to bend it to political ends, the Equals were carrying forward a spirit that had suffused the Revolution from its early months” (14). A similar posture was true for Engels and Marx. Muravchik describes how Engels, as a young man in London, was attracted to Robert Owen’s “halls of science” meetings in which Engels was charmed and attracted by the attacks on and jokes made about Christianity as “our enemies” (58). Similarly, Muravchik describes Marx’s interest in philosophy, which he understood particularly as a method of critiquing religion (60). Mussolini also rejected his mother’s Catholic faith and published an “atheist tract” in his early 20s. Clement Attlee, the first elected socialist prime minister of Great Britain, “turned decisively against the Christian piety of his parents” (180) and embraced socialism as a replacement of his Christian faith, unlike his brother Tom, who viewed socialism as a way to live out his Christian faith (181-182). Finally, Muravchik argues that it was Moses Hess “who had played the major part in winning Marx and Engels to communism” (352) and then elaborates on Hess’ religious motivation:
“I had to have a God—and I did find him, after a long search, after a terrible fight—in my own heart.” The God he found was communism. In a catechism composed in 1846, Hess contrasted his new faith with the one that prevailed in the society around him. Whereas Christians invest their hopes “in the image of heavenly joy….We, on the other hand, want this heaven on earth.” (353)
The explicit religious roots of socialism also led to the zeal with which socialists embarked upon grand visions, and ominously, their willingness to justify and embrace top-down, centralized methods as not just the means but the ends; radical schemes of re-education and the state supplanting of parental responsibility in the name of making the “new man;” and even the use and endorsement of violence, revolution, and racism/nationalism, particularly embodied in the socialism of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
There were some exceptions to the inclination to see socialism as a replacement for and attack upon Christianity. For example, in a chapter describing the vast spread of socialism across the world (Muravchik argues that socialism encompassed nearly 60% of the world’s population, and that at its peak in the mid to late 1980s, there were nearly 60 “Third World” countries that had officially adopted some form of socialist policies, including 35 African countries), Muravchik traces the rapid spread of socialism in the less developed world to at least two factors. One is the tendency for the Western world to consider socialism as the fastest route to modernization (which is curious, since their own ascent to modern industrialization and rapid growth and prosperity was built on capitalism, which reveals that at its root, the West does not really believe in itself, an observation that Michael Walsh makes in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace1). The second factor is that almost all of the leaders of the developed world were educated in the West, which means that many were fed a steady diet of neo-Marxist and critical theory. Muravchik, who once worked as his aide, attributes to Daniel Patrick Moynihan the moniker “British Revolution” to describe this movement of socialist ideas from the North to the South.
Muravchik focuses his discussion on African socialism by featuring Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the leader of Tanzania. Ironically, Nyerere became a Christian through the influence of British colonial education, which included religious training, and he saw Christianity as not just compatible with, but as foundational to, his embrace of socialism as the future of what was then known as Tanganyika, and, indeed, all of Africa. Partly due to his Christianity, his approach to socialism veered away from the anti-Christian and anti-religious Marxism of Europe. In particular, Nyerere rejected the grandiose titles and privileges that other socialist leaders had taken upon themselves, instead living a simple and frugal life-style. In this, however, he was decidedly out of step. Nevertheless, he advocated for strong government-controlled centralized economic planning and the pursuit of equality, which he argued was actually more natural to African culture than individualistic Western societies. Nyerere became a darling of the Western “intellectuals,” inspiring one observer to dub this “Tanzaphilia.” Despite the promises however, the results were like elsewhere: a dismal failure. Centralized agriculture resulted in poor crop yields, and governments had to resort to coercion and even violence (which Nyerere said he did not approve of, but he did look the other way) to get local farmers and business persons to agree to forced “villagization.” Late in his reign, Nyerere was forced to admit that his policies had not worked: there were regular shortages, forced disruptive relocations, rampant corruption, and the undermining of civil society institutions (other than churches). About the only thing that Nyerere acknowledged as a “success” was that they had kept inequality in check by preventing the development of an African middle class, or, as Muravchik ironically concluded: “Equality had been fostered by keeping everyone poor” (228).
A few other themes emerge in Muravchik’s history that are worth noting. One is the elitism of socialist leaders and the relative lack of participation from actual poor people and workers. Despite the rhetoric about equality and concern for ordinary workers, the vast majority of socialist leaders came from the upper classes, and thus parasitically lived off the system of wealth that they relentlessly attacked. Even more, Muravchik shows that many of the leaders actually regarded ordinary working-class and poor people with contempt and derision. Thus convinced of their own moral superiority, they had no qualms in dictating to others what was best for them. Related to that, there is also a tone of resentment and animosity towards others—both those “bourgeoisie” who represented capitalist wealth, or the ignorant proletariat who did not know better what was in their best interests. This gave rise to recklessness and careless disregard for the consequences of their policies, as well as an almost demonic attraction to violence. Although Muravchik is charitable towards some of history’s socialist adherents, for example Robert Owen, or Clement Attlee, his characterizations of others are particularly critical. For example, Muravchik’s summation of Marx reveals Marx as both pathetic and destructive:
The loneliness of his death and the failure of his life both owed much to a central paradox about Marx. He thought of himself as a man who had devoted his life to “working for humanity,” as he liked to phrase it, comparing himself invidiously with “so-called practical men,” who busied themselves with career and family. But whatever his devotion to humanity in general, to the concrete individuals with whom he came in contact, from childhood until old age, he was never kind and often cruel. (86)
This last observation brings to mind the Charles M. Schulz Peanuts cartoon strip in which Linus exclaims to Lucy, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!”2
Socialism’s rootedness as a religious worldview also leads to another of its key characteristics, and explains why it is so powerful: its dismissal of empirical reality in favor of beliefs. That is why observers such as Peter Berger and Michael Novak3 have argued that socialism has a more powerful narrative “myth” than capitalism. Ironically, as early as Marx and Engels, empirical evidence was dismissed when it revealed the failure of socialist arguments, even as they claimed that socialism was founded on science rather than religion. Actually, that might be putting it too charitably, since at times, Muravchik documents the extent to which socialists were inclined to distort the truth, which has long been a hallmark of socialist regimes (as made famous by Orwell’s Newspeak in Nineteen Eight-four4). Robert Owen’s experiments in the 1800s with founding little utopian communities in England and the USA are cases in point. Owen spent almost his entire fortune to subsidize these experiments which failed to produce the “new man” he envisioned, and which also failed to be productive and self-sustaining. Ironically, it was only after the communities abandoned the top-down centralization and collective ownership of property that they began to thrive. In other words, as Muravchik points out, the experiment demonstrated the opposite of what Owen hoped to demonstrate: namely, that private ownership, decentralization, and freedom were the keys to flourishing and prosperity. While Owen stubbornly clung to his beliefs till his death, his children went on to successful lives in America by rejecting his socialist idealism and adopting the principles of the American experiment.
Muravchik’s history is largely driven by his attempt to describe and explain how such a bad idea could have spread so far, so fast, a question he comes back to in the final chapter where he examines the promise and failures of the kibbutz as small-scale experiments in collectivist living. The stories of those who lived in kibbutzim, Muravchik argues,
“…points to answers to the central mysteries of socialism. Those mysteries are two: How could an idea that so consistently showed itself to be incongruent with human nature have spread faster and further than any other belief system ever devised? And how did an idea calling upon so many human sentiments lend its name to the cruelest regimes in human history? (352)
Even though this chapter zeroes in on the kibbutz, Muravchik’s investigation of the rise and demise of the kibbutz leads him to zoom out to attempt to provide an answer to his two “central mysteries,” and, hardly surprising, it comes down to religion. Historians might quibble with his claims as too broad and vague, but nonetheless, I will let Muravchik speak for himself:
Engels and Marx…had succeeded in recasting socialism into a compelling religious faith…by reducing all of history and all problems to a single main drama….It linked mankind’s salvation to a downtrodden class, combining the Old Testament’s notion of a chosen people with the New Testament’s prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth. Like the Bible, its historical narrative was a tale of redemption that divided time into three epochs: a distant past of primitive contentment, a present of suffering and struggle, and a future of harmony and bliss. (356)
And, finally, Muravchik gets to the root of it: human nature. Muravchik recounts an observation made by a man named George Rapp, who described Robert Owen’s New Harmony experiment as follows: “It goes with these people as with the Jews at the time of Jesus, they are seeking and want a sensuous kingdom of God, and not a spiritual one” (48). Rapp’s insight echoes what some Christians have observed: we want the kingdom but reject the King. Muravchik’s analysis of socialism suggests that we humans want heaven on earth, but we refuse to acknowledge God as the Ruler and Creator of all, including the very notion of heaven, but rather, wish to make ourselves gods, and by doing so, take the easy path.
Having attempted to answer these two central questions, Muravchik winds up back where he started with his observation “if you build, it they will leave” (xvi), and that is in his assessment of the kibbutz, about which he concludes, “Only once did democratic so-cialists manage to create socialism. That was the kibbutz. And after they had experienced it, they chose to democratically abolish it” (360). In this new edition of the 2001 original Muravchik added the chapter on the kibbutz, and also the “afterlife,” in which he laments the emergence of the popularity of socialism among a generation that apparently has little or no familiarity with the history he has just spent a whole book documenting. His goal, of course, is that people will read his book and disabuse themselves of the false promises of socialism. Alas, it seems an uphill battle. People crave the kingdom of heaven but we want it here and now, on earth, not as it is in heaven.