The Rise and Fall of Socialism

Much of the history of the last two centuries has revolved around the pursuit of a single idea—socialism. It has been the most popular political idea man has ever invented. In some ways, even the great religions cannot compare. Christianity, the most widely embraced religion in history, today claims adherence by one third of the human race, a proportion reached about a century ago, in other words, after 1,900 years. It took Christianity 300 years before it could claim to speak for ten percent of the world’s people. By comparison, within 150 years after the term "socialism" was coined, roughly 60 percent of the human race found itself living under socialist rule of one kind or another.

Of course, not all who lived under socialism adhered to it philosophically, but vast numbers did adhere to socialism philosophically. No other political belief claimed the allegiance of so many voters or party members. Nor was there any in which so much energy and hope was invested.

The story of socialism began in the French revolution. The rights it first proclaimed—"liberty, property, security"—closely resembled the American triad of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." However, soon a fourth was added—equality. To be sure, the Americans had proclaimed that men were "created equal," but the French innovation was to include "equality" among the mandatory pursuits of government. "Equality" was no longer simply a moral value which needed to be asserted but a condition of life which needed to be fostered. And, to this the revolutionaries added still another objective, brotherhood, so that the enduring slogan of the Revolution became "liberty, equality, brotherhood."

The first to see that the way to give shape to this stirring but vague slogan was through socialism—to wit, the substitution of common ownership for private property—was a revolutionist from Picardy named Francois-Noel "Gracchus" Babeuf.

There had been earlier thinkers—Rousseau, Thomas More, Plato—whose ideas were in some sense socialist, but it was the French revolution, and specifically Babeuf, who transformed socialism from a speculative fancy into a fighting creed.

In 1796, Babeuf organized the "conspiracy of equals." The "equals" advocated a system "depriving every individual of the hope of ever becoming either richer, or more powerful, or more outstanding through his learning, than any [other]." They recognized that this would not be easy to achieve. "The sole means," they said, would be "to abolish private property; to have each man . . . deposit the fruit [of his labor] in a common storehouse; and to set up a simple distributing agency, . . . which . . . will allocate the [goods] with the most scrupulous equality."

Babeuf counted himself a thorough democrat, denouncing the use of property qualifications for political functions. But he confronted a dilemma that was to plague socialists often: the people were not ready to follow him. They had been misled. "Thanks to the horrible cunning of the Patriciate," he wrote, "a handful of constant and energetic republicans," namely he and his confreres, found themselves opposed by "a coalition" consisting of not only " the government," and "the well-to-do," but also "the multitude." Thus his band would be compelled to establish a dictatorship "until this new revolution shall be consolidated" and "the level of opinion will be raised"—or as we would say today, the people’s consciousness will be raised.

Before they could launch their insurrection, Babeuf and his fellow conspirators were arrested, tried and punished, Babeuf guillotined.

It was not until a generation later that a new group of socialists emerged, this time in England as well as France. They are known to us as "the utopians," a sobriquet attached to them by Marx and Engels. It was they who coined the term "socialism." Whereas Babeuf had hoped to seize power violently and impose his system on the whole nation, the utopians set about to teach by example. Their method was to create model communities, the happiness of which would so impress mankind as to inspire general emulation.

The most fruitful of the utopians were Britain’s Robert Owen and France’s Charles Fourier. Both looked to the virgin soil of America as the natural ground on which to erect their experimental societies.

Indeed, the New World extended an idealistic embrace to these innovators. Owen arrived in the United States late in 1824 and before long was invited to address the House of Representatives. Both President Monroe and President-elect John Quincy Adams sat in the chamber to hear him.

A few months later the "Preliminary Society of New Harmony" was founded by Owen and some eight to nine hundred followers. It was located on the Wabash River in Indiana on a tract of land purchased from George Rapp and his followers, a Lutheran sect that had successfully developed it over the previous decade into one of the most prosperous communities in the West. A letter by one William Shephard, a neighbor who handled the continuing financial transactions between Rapp and Owen, described the transformation in evidence within a year after the Owenites took over: "The comfortable gardens, and vines which used to spread and twine about the older habitations, generally gone to ruin. The gardens mostly full of weeds (not full of usefull vegetables as formerly) and in many instances the fences broken down and completely open to the streets—a general carelessness seems to prevail; I have seen cows and hogs grazing in some of the gardens and grounds."

Within two years New Harmony collapsed entirely. The brevity of New Harmony was hardly atypical of the experimental socialist communities. Fourier’s communities were called "phalanxes." In Fourier’s design, not only would all members of the community be entitled to an economic "social minimum" but also to an assured "sexual minimum" since "the sexual needs of men and women can become just as urgent as their need for food." Perhaps due to the promise of the provision of sexual as well as material needs, Fourierist phalanxes sprung up in even greater profusion than Owenite villages, but there were many of each. Their median life span was two years.

Had socialism remained the province of adventurers like Babeuf and visionaries like Owen and Fourier it might never have constituted more than a footnote to history. But then it was taken up and transformed by the mightiest secular prophet who ever lived.

Karl Marx disdained the utopians as so many "organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind." In contrast, he offered "scientific socialism." This was a spectacular inversion. What is science but the practice of experimentation, of hypothesis and test? Owen and Fourier and their followers were the real ‘scientific socialists.’ They hit upon the idea of socialism, and they tested it by attempting to form socialist communities. In all, there were scores of these tests in America and England—and all of them failed, utterly and disastrously.

Then along comes Marx and says, never mind with these experiments at bringing about socialism by human devices, it will be brought about by the impersonal force of history. In other words, under the banner of "science," Marx shifted the basis for socialism from human ingenuity to sheer prophecy.

The Marxist historian Hobsbawm wrote that "it was not until Karl Marx . . . transferred the centre of gravity of the argument for socialism from its rationality or desirability to its historic inevitability that socialism acquired its most formidable intellectual weapon." Logically, the discovery that socialism was inevitable should have had the effect of bringing an end to the active quest for it. Why strive to achieve what must happen anyway? But it had the opposite effect, including on Marx himself, who devoted his life to the struggle.

He took the lead in founding the International Workingman’s Association in 1864, but eight years later, frustrated by the refusal of various affiliated parties to follow his dictates, Marx consigned the organization to oblivion by having its headquarters transferred to Philadelphia.

While Marx’s activism was fruitless his prophecy was fertile. Socialist parties sprung up all over Europe with the growth of parliamentary institutions and of industry, and in 1889, six years after Marx ’s death, they came together to form the so-called Second International. The ensuing twenty-five years—until World War One—constituted what Leszek Kolakowski has called "the golden age of Marxism."

Ironically, however, the core of Marx’s theory was already crumbling. Instead of growing poorer, the workers in industrialized countries were experiencing an improvement in their standards of living, and the middle class, instead of disappearing, was expanding. In the interval between the publication of the Communist Manifesto and the founding of the Second International real per capita income in the major European countries nearly doubled.

These developments not only weakened the original rationale for socialism, they also undermined Marx’s prediction that the working class would come to the conclusion that it must overthrow the system. If the workers could improve their lot under capitalism, then why turn to revolution? Indeed, half a century after Marx thought he had solved the problem of how socialism would come about, the proletariat showed little sign of playing its appointed role.

This disappointment impressed itself on the two most fertile socialist minds of the day, Eduard Bernstein and Vladimir Ulyanov, who called himself Lenin. Bernstein’s solution was to continue to use the label "socialist" but to abandon the goal of socialism. " I cannot believe in a final aim of socialism," he said. "But I strongly believe in the socialist movement, in the march forward of the working classes." Lenin, on the other hand, clung to the goal of socialism but gave up on the working class in favor of a "genuine vanguard" of "people who make revolutionary activity their profession."

Then, World War One delivered the coup de grace to Marxism. A key tenet was that "the working men have no country." This was not merely an expression of alienation. It was a corollary of the premise that class is the fundamental political variable. Yet when world war came, the majority of socialists on all sides put country ahead of class. Nonetheless it turned out that the life of socialism, indeed of Marxism, was scarcely begun. As Marx had rescued socialism from the failure of the experiments of the so-called utopians, so now Lenin rescued Marxism from the failure of major parts of its prophecy.

Whether the coup that Lenin pulled off in October 1917 was either "socialist" or a "revolution," properly speaking, has been disputed. But as far as most of the world was concerned, a socialist revolution had come to Russia. And however much violence was done to Marxist doctrine in the process, this event furnished Marxism with its most compelling validation: its teleology was confirmed. Until then, socialism was only a banner, a platform. Now it was in power one of the largest nations. Here was the proof that history was indeed headed in a direction, with capitalism at its back and socialism in its future. This assurance buttressed even those schools of socialism that rejected the Soviet model.

Lenin said later that wresting power from the weak and scrupulous provisional government had been as easy as "picking up a feather." Destroying "capitalism" was also easy. People could be shot for exchanging goods in the market, and shot they were. But building "socialism" was more difficult. For six years Lenin labored at it until the exertion killed him. Still, despite failing to create anything that resembled the abstract model of socialism domestically, the USSR achieved dramatic results internationally. Either by conquest or by nurturing local Communists, it succeeded in spreading regimes modeled after itself over one third of the world’s population. In addition, Lenin’s model inspired emulation in the form of fascism and Nazism.

Benito Mussolini was raised in a Red household where his father used to read to the family from Das Kapital. (You parents who have trouble putting the kids to sleep might take note.) Mussolini rose rapidly in the ranks of the Italian Socialist Party. When he decided to support Italy’s entry into World War One, he left the party to join other pro-war socialists who took as their symbol the fasces that had been a symbol of Revolutionary France. This did not prevent Mussolini from continuing to call himself a socialist as late as 1920, two years before seizing power, and continuing to campaign for nationalization of the land, workers’ participation in the running of factories and partial expropriation of capital.

Like Mussolini, Hitler studied and admired Lenin. Hitler, too, developed his own unique ideology, and not in name alone were the socialist roots of National Socialism visible. Upon taking power, Hitler made May Day—the international socialist holiday—a national holiday. Nazi authorities commissioned statues, reminiscent of Soviet "socialist realism," glorifying heavily muscled laborers. They developed the "people ’s car," the Volkswagen. And they incanted the slogan: "equality of all racial Germans."

If fascism and Nazism were metastasized forms of socialism, socialism spread in benign forms, as well. The most important was social democracy, which pursued peaceful and piecemeal reform. But it wold be an exaggeration to say that Bernstein’s views prevailed. Moderate though they were in action, most social democrats did not accept Bernstein’s idea that "the final aim is nothing." Rather, they believed that the final aim could be reached gradually and democratically.

After World War Two, new varieties of socialism were created in the newly independent states of Africa, Arabia, and elsewhere. In all some fifty to sixty Third World countries went down this path, not counting those like Cuba or Vietnam that adopted more standard Communist systems. By the mid or late 1970s, socialism—either in its Communist, social democratic, or Third World forms—held sway over sixty percent of the world.

Yet behind the surface of these dazzling political successes, socialism was suffering two critical failures. The first was its inability to sink any roots in America. The history of socialism in American consists of European socialists immigrating here, and setting up socialist parties, clubs, and newspapers only to have their own convictions or those of their children dissolved in the American atmosphere of freedom and social mobility.

America itself did not embody a formal ideology but it offered a model. It showed the world a system of prosperity, opportunity, and civic equality, or, to put it more simply, a society in which the good life was available to the common man. Although lacking in theoretical paraphernalia, the American way presented an alternative to socialism.

America’s success underscored socialism’s other critical failure, and that was its own economic performance. The more that socialism was implemented, the worse things got. Even with socialism at its apogee, leaders in a variety of disparate corners of the earth were groping for paths by which their societies could escape the cul de sacs into which socialism had led them. The two who launched the worldwide about face were an odd couple: China’s Deng Xiaoping and England’s Margaret Thatcher. In 1978, at the party’s Third Plenum, Deng announced China’s "second revolution."

The "modernization" of agriculture rested upon a resurrection of private farming which was gradually expanded and extended into other spheres. The goal was not to create a market economy, but to move China forward. As Deng explained: "after years of practice it turned out that the old stuff didn ’t work." They called the new stuff " socialism with Chinese characteristics" but every day it bore greater resemblance to capitalism. The hard-of-hearing Deng himself obliquely confessed: "Marx sits up in heaven. . . . He sees what we are doing, and he doesn’t like it. So he has punished me by making me deaf."

Within a year of the Plenum at which Deng launched his "second revolution," Britain began its own "modernizations" with the election of Thatcher. Unlike previous Conservative administrations, Thatcher set out to "kill" socialism, which she believed was the true cause of the so-called "British disease" that others saw as a mysterious and irremediable decline of national culture.

She was so successful that when the Labour Party regained power in 1996 Tony Blair declared: "I believe passionately that our government will fail if it sees its task as dismantling Thatcherism. We can’t just switch the clock back." If Thatcher’s harsh judgment of democratic socialism was validated by the success of her policies, it was reconfirmed by complementary events across the English Channel. In France in 1981, the Socialist Party, led by Francois Mitterand, scored an electoral victory of historic proportions. At once it began to implement measures creating new public sector jobs, nationalizing industries, and mandating increases in wages, pensions, and welfare.

Within a year the economy was in such a tailspin that Mitterand ordered an abrupt reversal. "The aim is to bring about a real reconciliation between the left and the economy," explained Lionel Jospin, who was then the general secretary of the Socialist Party, today the Prime Minister. The French, like other European social democrats, recognized that socialism could be a kind of tax upon capitalism, but it could not be an alternative. Today the debate is about the limits of that tax.

The capitulation of the west European social democrats and the free market reforms in China were both momentous changes, but they were soon to be eclipsed by an even more dramatic chapter in the history of socialism: the crumbling of the Soviet Union. In addition to precipitating a flight from socialism in the nations that had been under Moscow’s rule, the Soviet collapse reverberated throughout the Third World. The most profound impact was felt in Africa, the principle redoubt of Third World socialism. Of the thirty-four African countries that had once embraced socialism, by the early 1990s all but a handful had renounced it. Even Julius Nyerere, once the avatar of African socialism, confessed: "If I call back the British to look at their old plantations, they will laugh at us because we ruined them."

In Nyerere’s Tanzania and all around the world nations attempted to escape from the wreckage of socialism. But in some ways the most telling episode in the global flight from socialism was not an escape from failure but from success. In Israel, dedicated Zionist pioneers struggling to recreate a nation in the most inhospitable of human and natural environments had built pure socialist communities called kibbutzim. In them, things were owned in common, children were raised communally, decisions were reached democratically, and economic arrangements attained to Marx’s formula, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." The kibbutzim played a critical part in the establishment of the Jewish state.

Yet by the 1980s, population began to flow away from the kibbutzim, and even the stalwarts who remained began to shed, a layer at a time, their socialist practices.

The kibbutzim constituted but a small part of a small country. Nonetheless, their decline makes for a terribly poignant ending to the story of socialism. In scores of countries over many decades, people strove to bring socialism into being. Again and again they failed. Some of the failures were attributed to unpropitious conditions, others to weak human material, or to coercive methods or to the stranglehold of the international financial markets. But the kibbutzim surmounted all such obstacles. There, at last, living, breathing socialism true to the ideal was built. And when this promised land was reached, it turned out to be an unsatisfying place to live, although there was milk and honey. In the end, socialism was a case of: "build it and they will leave."

This ironic denouement would make the story of socialism a nice little vignette in the human comedy, were it not for the devastating price that was paid. Communism took a toll of a hundred million or more lives, not to mention all of the other misery engendered. But isn’t Communism an aberrant form of socialism, a perversion of a great humanitarian ideal? In describing Lenin, I have already explained what made his emendation of Marxism necessary, but an examination of the thoughts and actions of the earliest socialists leads to the conclusion that far from being an aberration, the totalitarian impulse in socialism was there from the beginning.

Babeuf and his comrades knew that they could not cede power to the people until their consciousness had been raised. To this end they foresaw that it would be "of sovereign importance to the cause of equality to keep the citizens incessantly exercised—to attach them to their country, by making them love its ceremonies, its games, its amusements." They planned show trials for "enemies of the people." And they anticipated many of the other features we associate with 20th century Communism, including driving the population out of the cities, which they saw as dens of bourgeois decadence, back to the honest work of the countryside, a goal realized 180 years later by the Khmer Rouge.

The good-hearted Robert Owen ran New Harmony, and later a similar venture in Britain called Queenstown, as a dictator. At his famous mills at New Lanark, Scotland, each employee’s behavior was ranked daily on a scale of 1 to 4, the ranking displayed prominently above his work-station and recorded in a permanent record book. There, too, neighborhood committees were organized to inspect and record the cleanliness of each household. Derisively referred to as ‘bug-hunters’ by the housewives, these were an early foreshadowing of the block committees by which Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas exerted social control.

Even Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel, Looking Backward, constituted a highpoint in the popularity of socialist ideas in America, and who was free to create his socialist society however he liked since he was building it only in a work of fiction, created a chilling image. All laborers were first to be sent for three years to "a very strict [school] in which the young men are taught habits of obedience, subordination and devotion to duty." After that, any slackers are put in solitary confinement on bread and water.

In light of these beginnings, not to mention Marx’s denigration of bourgeois democracy, his vituperation towards those who disagreed with him, and his own authoritarian manner, we are on stronger ground to say that it is the social democrats who constitute the aberration of socialism.

To the toll exacted by Communism we must add that of Third World socialism, which, in addition to countless episodes of brutality, wrecked the chance of progress for a full generation or more throughout the world’s poorest lands. The human price of this, no one has attempted to tally.

As for the social democratic and labor parties of Europe, while none of them produced socialism, neither did they produce mass death. They cushioned the bumps in the progress of free economies in exchange for a price in economic efficiency, which at its extreme had a stultifying effect. There is, however, one heavier item to be weighed in assessing the costs of European socialism. That is fascism and Nazism which themselves took tens of millions of lives. I have already described the socialist roots of fascism and Nazism. It remains to be added that they arose in a European culture in which bourgeois society had been systematically discredited by the enchantment of socialism, which characterized it as doomed to be replaced by a new and glorious epoch. This was the incubator that hatched Italian and German fascism just as it hatched Russian and Chinese communism.

In sum, socialism proved to be mankind’s greatest mistake since the serpent beguiled Eve. What was so beguiling about socialism?

Clemenceau said that any man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart and any man who is still a socialist at forty has no brain. A person at twenty might see that there are poor and there are rich, and the discrepancy can be painful. At twenty, knowing more about consuming than producing, he might assume that the poor are poor because the rich are rich, as if goods exist in given quantities and the main issue is how to distribute them. But sometime between twenty and forty he will probably learn that the amount of privation—in the world or in a society— is far more dependent on variations in the production of wealth than in its distribution and, moreover, that insofar as policy aims to control the distribution it runs the risk of impeding production. In other words, that there is no escape from inequality, except through uniform poverty. Contrary to Clemenceau, however, socialism has appealed far more than to twenty year olds; so to understand its remarkable attraction we must look beyond economic innocence.

Although socialism spoke a lot about economics, its appeal lay deeper. Babeuf and his comrades insisted on absolute equality because they believed it was essential to brotherhood. Socialism touched man’s pained sense of distance from fellow man, proposing to create an unprecedented bondedness among diverse individuals. Bellamy said they key to socialism is that "the brotherhood of man" would become "as real and vital as physical fraternity." But this, too, is a jejune ideal as Aristotle recognized in critiquing Plato’s suggestion of raising children in common: "we might say that each citizen has a thousand sons but . . . no person will concern himself very much about any of them. . . . Anybody would rather have a cousin who really was his cousin than a son shared in the manner described." Moreover, as the kibbutz experience has shown, people simply do not want to be that deeply involved in other people’s lives nor to have others that involved in theirs. Humans do have a need for sociality, but they also have a need for privacy, or, as pop psychology puts it, for "space."

Judaism and Christianity tell us that people are brothers insofar as we are all children of G-d. But the bible also tells us that brotherhood in and of itself does not assure closeness or kindness. The first brothers were Cain and Abel; soon came Jacob and Esau; then Joseph and his brethren. Rather, in this view, it is by striving for closeness to G-d that people are most likely to achieve some measure of meaningful brotherliness with their fellow man. The Bible also recognizes the sometimes painful facts of human inequality, and it speaks to them. It sternly enjoins protection of the widow, the orphan, the blind, the lame. Its orders constant charity to the poor. It commands us not to covet. On the issue of inequality, as on the issue of brotherhood, Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches that perfect solutions are not to be found in this world. Instead it offers transcendence, man’s path to which lies through righteousness and good deeds.

Socialists have, however, in the main, militantly opposed the biblical religions. The French Revolution created a new calendar commencing with the overthrow of the monarchy instead of the birth of Christ. Babeuf’s comrade Sylvain Marechal, author of the Manifesto of the Equals was also the author of The Atheist’s Dictionary; he used to call himself l’HSD. Owen once said: "There is no sacrifice I would not have made had I been able to terminate the existence of religion on earth." Marx’s view of religion is well known.

This is not to say, however, that socialists have been austere rationalists. On the contrary, the French revolution offered its own deist substitute for Christianity. Owen became a spiritualist and held daily seances with the departed, even producing in this manner a couple of posthumous works by Shakespeare. Engels wrote the first two drafts of the Communist Manifesto, calling them the Communist’s Confession of Faith until Marx changed the title. Marx, as I have said, offered sheer prophecy in the imposture of science, which prophecy, Hobsbawm let slip, was socialism’s most powerful argument.

Socialists, in short, have not shrunk from cosmology, but they have on the whole rejected the monotheistic faiths of western civilization. In particular socialism rejects the belief that the kingdom of G-d awaits the beyond. As Ernest Bax, one of the fathers of British Marxism spoke of: "a higher social life in this world . . . whose ultimate possibilities are beyond the power of language to express or thought to conceive." I t is in this "that the socialist finds his ideal, his religion." Socialists from Babeuf on have promised a new age of effortless abundance. No one would have to work beyond the age of 25, promised Owen. Man will be free "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, . . . criticize after dinner," said Marx. Once socialism comes, said the famous American socialist author, Michael Harrington, "The sentence decreed in the Garden of Eden will have been served."

Harrington points us toward the deeper levels of socialism’s appeal when he tells us that "socialism . . . is the idea of an utterly new society in which some of the fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended." Material want is not the only limit that will be transcended, as Fourier’s promise of a sexual minimum reminds us. Indeed, many of the great figures of socialist history exemplified disdain for limits in their own lives. Mao kept a vast harem, Mussolini was a famous womanizer, even the austere Lenin kept a mistress, and Marx impregnated the maid, whose name, by the way was DeMuth (and we at AEI are doing our part to avenge the family’s honor.)

I mention these peccadillos not just to keep tune with the times but because I believe they point us to the ultimate element of socialism’s appeal. Not only did it perform the happy alchemy of shifting the kingdom of G-d from the next world to this, but it made getting there so much less burdensome. Monotheism had linked cosmology— the understanding of which is a universal human craving—to an ethical system. The establishment of that linkage constituted the single most important step in the progress of the mankind. Socialism severed that link. Socialism denied that the path to the kingdom of heaven lay in individual righteousness. Rather it was to be found in political outcomes. The individual could reach it not by striving for moral goodness but by planting himself on the right side of history or of the barricades. Robert Owen explained that what drove him to detest religion was "the . . . absurd [idea] that each [person] . . . determined his own thoughts, will, and action, and was responsible for them to God and his fellow man." This assault on the bonds of individual moral accountability together with the offer of earthly transcendence is what made socialism so sublimely seductive and so terribly destructive.

Then is the story of socialism over? I believe it is. Never mind that 12 of the 15 EU countries are now under social democratic parties. Whatever those parties offered the voters, it was not socialism. Tony Blair said in the campaign: "Labour is the party of business." The main argument about economics has been settled. But if I am right in believing that the deeper appeal of socialism lay elsewhere, then we can expect that the quest to reach the kingdom of heaven in the here and now, and without having to pay the price of moral rectitude, will reappear in new form, presenting us with tragedies and challenges in the twenty-first century.

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