The word “socialism” — like capitalism, liberalism, and fascism — means different things to different people.
While libertarians picture the deprivations of actual socialism in places like the Cuba, Venezuela, and the former Soviet Union, idealists prefer to cherry-pick Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway.
Talking with a socialist can be like playing whack-a-mole. You point to a failure and they tell you, “But that wasn’t REAL socialism.”
In his 2003 book Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, World Affairs Institute fellow Joshua Muravchik documents the many faces of socialism throughout history, and none of them are pretty. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal this week, Muravchik notes that even the best case scenarios for socialism have been disasters (or else morphed into something that was no longer socialism). Now he’s publishing a new edition that includes “the Afterlife,” on the recent reincarnation of the bad idea that just won’t stay dead.
Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a Democratic candidate is just one worrisome sign that socialism is regaining influence. Humanity might be forgiven for initially falling for socialism and its utopian promises of a “New Socialist Man.” Two centuries later, however, ignorance is no excuse. Marxism was supposed to be scientific, but Karl Marx’s intellectual legacy has brought about more human misery than virtually any ideas in history.
Muravchik charts this tragic history of the world’s worst idea with clarity and fascinating detail. His book includes the story of a relatively obscure Welsh social reformer named Robert Owen, whose efforts to help industrial workers led him to found several experiments in communal living — both in the UK and the US. In almost every case, these experiments were dystopian and short-lived.
But before Owen and his followers coined the term socialism, the French Revolution had given birth to the spirit of Egalité by any means necessary. The Reign of Terror and elimination of the hierarchy would soon morph into a totalizing economic doctrine that swept away traditions of property rights. Much like the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the 1900s, the French Revolution used fear and violence to replace religious ideals, customs, and institutions with allegedly more “rational” ones that would usher in heaven on earth.
Socialism, Muravchik demonstrates convincingly, was always a substitute religion — and an extremely popular one at that.
He himself was brought up under this religion, and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1962, the same year as Bernie Sanders. However, his anti-communism and growing awareness of the failure of socialist experiments around the world turned him into a neo-conservative.
[Watch this 2002 video of Muravchik in discussion with Irving Kristol and Charles Krauthammer at the American Enterprise Institute]
Resurrecting the Corpse
So what should we make of the rapid ascent of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib? Considering that the Democratic Socialists of America, of which they are members, stand in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution, we probably ought to be worried.
In an article for the Weekly Standard, [Up from the Grave, Nov. 8, 2018], Muravchik explains that the seeming compromise of “democratic” socialism is merely a cover for a coercive socialist agenda. Democratic countries never adopt socialism, and real socialism requires taking away people’s democratic rights. Therefore democratic socialism is a contradiction in terms.
But What About Sweden?
Neither are “social democracies” in countries like Norway and Sweden the shining beacons of socialism their proponents claim them to be. After a few decades of lukewarm socialism, most Nordic countries embraced free markets in most areas — using the explosive growth allowed by capitalism to generate revenues for a more expansive welfare state.
Muravchik notes that the kibbutzim in Israel are not the a demonstration that socialism works on a small scale, since these have gradually replaced the shared purse with private ownership. Thankfully, the participants in Israel’s kibbutzim seem to have acknowledged the failures of socialism rather than taking them as evidence for a need to simply expand the scope.
It remains to be seen whether Sanders, AOC, and the vanguard of the unemployed college graduates will organize into a force to be reckoned with, or if we can put socialism back to rest in peace — permanently.
President Trump went on the record at the United Nations recently to say that the United States will never be a socialist country, adding that “America was founded on liberty and independence, not coercion, domination and control.”
Let’s hope he’s right.
- Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall and Afterlife of Socialism (Encounter Books, April 1)
- Foreign Policy Institute
- VIDEO Joshua Muravchik at AEI with Charles Krauthammer and Irving Kristol — Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism — YouTube
- Up from the Grave, The Weekly Standard, Nov. 8, 2018