The very human need to believe,
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This review is from: Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (Paperback)
Joshua Muravchik is an apostate, a former National chairman of the Young People's Socialist League (USA), both of his parents were committed socialists, his mother apparently deeply upset by the contents of this book. Muravchik however, is not the hectoring, shouty, pointy fingered type. His review ( at just 350 pages) of the history of socialist development from Babeuf to Blairism is incomplete, Sweden being the most obvious exclusion, but contains sufficient information on a range of socialist intellectuals and followers to be both precise and informative. His writing style is easy to follow, well paced and engaging. Even though an American writer, other than a chapter on the two most prominent anti-socialist union leaders in the US, his case studies run the usual gamut, Robert Owen, a man apparently so esteemed in the US, that John Quincy Adams on his first full day as president when to listen to him lecture; Marx and Engels, I came away with the feeling that Engels was something of an intellectual masochist; Eduard Bernstein, one of the fathers of social democracy; Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Deng and Gorbachev. A chapter on Mussolini and Fascism shows the development and indeed seriousness with which Mussolini was taken at this period. It is interesting to note that his father corresponded with Lenin.
However, the most interesting chapters for me were on Clement Atlee, he was described as in every way a conservative except in his socialism. It is also interesting to note that despite his anti-war beliefs, he discovered that his socialist philosophy had not nullified his patriotism which he called 'the natural emotion of every true Briton'. He also said that 'it was not until the Great War that I fully grasped the strength of the ties that bind men to the land of their birth'. It is of course the conflict between international socialism and patriotic nationalism, both within and between countries that so many post WW1 conflicts have sat. It was not socialism that enabled Stalin to galvanise the Soviet Union into it's resistance to Hitler, but semi-theocratic nationalism.
The Chapter on Julius Nyrere in Tanzania is again full of interest because I knew so little about it, and it summed up very well the disparity between the socialist sentiment and it's inability to deliver standards of western living that the majority, even in avowedly theocratic countries aspire to.
But the most interesting chapter for me was the epilogue, which deals with the creation and decline of the Kibbutz system. A noble if limited experiment in some people's eyes, and one almost entirely dependant on a modernist state to protect and support it. The breakdown seems to have begun with the education and dormitory sleeping arrangements for children, many of whom were separated from their parents. Mothers particularly disliked the distress this sometimes caused and took their children back home. The additional space then required in their houses, then caused the buildings to be extended, made them more remote from communal living and gave them an enhanced pride in their personal surroundings, which they then wished to acquire and develop further. It is a fascinating examination of the battle between the communal and personal space. It is also similar to the communal living arrangements introduced at Magnitogorsk when it was being constructed. Workers were housed in open dormitories, but immediately looked to create private space. Some leaving altogether to build private mud and wood dwellings they could occupy privately.
A major thrust and a commonplace of discussions about socialism is the denial of its theocratic nature but the congruence with that fact. Eric Hoffer describes the need to believe in his book 'True Believer', and Muravchik illustrates it to good effect. In its frequent obsessions and schisms socialism reminds me of Millerism, the mid 19th century religious cult in America that once again prophesied the second coming and the end of time. It attracted a huge following, many people gave up everything to wait for salvation. Even when it failed to occur (again and again and again), it did not stop belief which merely morphed into other variants including the Seventh Day Adventists. It was known as the Great Disappointment. The fact that Marx tried to create a 'scientific' cause and effect in an effort to deny utopianism, does not of course make the argument persuasive.
There were and are many noble minded advocates of socialism, but like anything life in dealing with what Isiah Berlin called the crooked timber of humanity it is not a panacea or even from my perspective the majority of one in the everyday effort to support and maintain ever changing societies.
A good book from which I gained a lot. Recommended