089 Socialism Revisited

A century ago, Feodor Dostoevsky, speaking through the character Aloyosha, said: [If] God and immortality did not exist he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on earth.” Long before the actual “successes” of socialist revolutions in Russia and China, Germany and Cuba, Dostoevsky discerned the underlying currents which truly constitute socialist ideology: the denial of God and His authority in our world.

What Dostoevsky discerned in the 19th century has been validated by courageous Russian writers such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn a century later. While still in the belly of the Breshnev beast, one of this century’s premier mathematicians, Igor Shafarevich, a professor at Moscow University, wrote a powerful study entitled The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980). In his fulsome forward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that the book “emerged from the country that has undergone (and is undergoing) the harshest and most prolonged socialist experience in modern history” (p. vii). This is not to say the Soviet experience is unique, however, for Solzhenitsyn further noted that “It could probably be said that the majority of states in the history of mankind have been ‘socialist.’ But it is also true that these were in no sense periods or places of human happiness or creativity” (p. ix).

Shafarevich begins his study with the statement that “This book is inspired by the conviction that the cataclysms which humanity has experienced in the twentieth century are only the beginning of a much more profound crisis–of a radical shift in the course of history” (p. xi). It rivals the transition period which separates the Medieval from the Modern epochs, and at its heart one finds burning the powerful passion for socialism.

It’s a radical cry for change, rooted in scathing critiques of “injustice, inequality, and slavery” wherever they’re found. Paradoxically, however, the very patterns pilloried in evil capitalist societies reappear as admirable goals in socialists’ utopian writings . In socialist dreams, one finds a “perfect” world of erstwhile “disobedient citizens” obediently working “in paramilitary detachments and under close supervision,” asking permission to move about, reduced to an equalitarian non-distinct drabness (p. xiii). Capitalistic slavery, strangely enough, gives way to a harsher (but curiously liberating) socialistic slavery!

Generally speaking, Shafarevich says that socialism, wherever it appears, always advocates four things: 1) the abolition of private property–the state owns the land and controls all significant resources; 2) the abolition of the family–the state takes control of education, child care, and subtly encourages the dissolution of marital bonds; 3) the abolition of religion–the state officially denies the reality or importance of God, destroying the Church or at least limiting her influence; and 4) the abolition of all social hierarchies–the state mandates the equality of the sexes, the abolition of stratified economic classes, the elimination of any voluntary associations which might divert peoples’ loyalties.

In the process of doing all this, socialist thinkers couch their arguments in terms of quantitative social science, cries for social justice, expositions of philosophical atheism– none of which withstand the careful scrutiny Shafarevich gives them. They’re all rational explanations for an essentially irrational phenomenon. Socialism, in fact, is as irrational suicide! Indeed, in the final analysis, this one thing is clear, he contends: “The death of mankind is not only a conceivable result of the triumph of socialism–it constitutes the goal of socialism” (p. 285). Still more: “Understanding socialism as one of the manifestations of the allure of death explains its hostility toward individuality, its desire to destroy those forces which support and strengthen human personality: religion, culture, family, individual property” (p. 294).

These assertions, for Shafarevich, stand startlingly clear once one reflects upon the sources. That they are convincingly unveiled (in the Greek sense of alethia: the revealing of what is) makes Shafarevich’s work most compelling. His “proposition that all striving for self-destruction is the main impulse in socialism has been extracted from a multi-stage analysis of socialist ideology, and is not taken directly from the writings of socialist thinkers or the slogans of socialist movements. It seems that those in the grip of socialist ideology are as little governed by any conscious understanding of this goal as a singing nightingale is concerned with the future of his species. The ideology’s impact is through the emotions, which render the ideology attractive to man and induce him to be ready for sacrifice on its behalf” (p. 295).

However one explains it, mankind possesses a powerful death-wish. Eros and Thanatos war for supremacy within the human psyche! Rejecting the fountain of life, we plunge into maelstrom of death. Displeased with what is, we jump like skydivers into the darkened abyss of what’s not. Freely choosing to lose our freedom in sin, we submit to the chains of a slavery which prefers death to life. In the biblical account, Adam and Eve turned themselves and their progeny away from God (and His life), choosing to die clasping the comforting illusion that we can become gods. Repudiating Reality, denying the Deity, we become vandals, devouring the world’s goods in with homicidal fury. The nothingness of Buddhism’s Nirvana, resurrected in the darkened despair of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Sartre, permeates socialism. There’s “being and nothingness,” as Sartre said, and when we deny or destroy being we cannot but slide into nothingness.

Death and destruction, Shafarevich shows, routinely sparkle socialist writings–and their historical implementations. Albigensians and Anabaptists, though oft-portrayed as peaceful victims of established powers, too often engaged in furious blood-letting when empowered to do so. The nihilism of the 19th century Russian bomb-throwing socialists (and the equally the violent anarchism of the bomb-planting Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960’s), apparently stem from a pervasive philosophical and religious “pessimism or nihilism” (p. 286). (The mass suicide of Jim Jones’ community dramatically illustrates what Shafarevich insists is the implicit death wish of socialism!)

Consequently, socialist dogma always begins with a repudiation of existent social structures. We find (throughout human history) a “chiliastic socialism” which forever faults what is and propounds a utopian alternative which we’re promised can come to be if only we follow the prophet. There are some basically philosophical proposals, such as one finds in crucial passages in Plato’s Republic–a pivotal work which sketches out certain socialist themes which will, like STDs, endlessly re-cycle through the generations. Then there are more “spiritual” socialisms. Ancient Christian heretics–the Nicolaites, Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes, the Manicheans–all tried to blend egalitarian socialism with Christian doctrine. Too frequently, social issues preempted theological doctrines–a “social gospel” supplanted the gospel of grace and glory. Old Epiphanes’ oft-repeated notion that “God’s justice consists in community and equality” easily led to efforts to share property (and wives) so as to inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth. “The majority of these doctrines have the same source–the gnostic and Manichean heresies which, as early as the second century A.D., spread through the Roman Empire and even beyond its borders, for example, into Persia” (p. 67).

Medieval heresies revived gnostic and Manichean ideas, so Shafarevich meticulously describes the Cathars; the Brethren of the Free Spirit (following the chiliastic proclamations of Joachim of Flore); the Taborites (followers of John Hus) and their even more radical spin-offs, the Adamites; Anabaptists; Lollards; Ranters; Diggers. Anyone interested in eccentric and outlandish behavior, shrouded in exalted “spiritual” rhetoric, will find Shafarevich’s descriptions both amazing and distressing. In Marxist circles, apparently, such heretical groups have long been celebrated as precursors of modern socialism, and Shafarevich makes clear how their socio-economic concerns were, indeed, less biblical doctrines than chiliastic critiques of society.

Generally speaking, Shafarevich says, Medieval heretics fall into three groups: “Manichean” heresies such as Cathars and Albigenses; “Pantheistic” heresies, including the Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit, Beghards and Beguines; and “Reformation” heresies such as the Anabaptists and Moravian Brethren (p. 67). In the judgment of an eminent Church Historian, Joseph Dollinger, “‘Each heretical doctrine that appeared in the Middle Ages bore, in open or concealed form, a revolutionary character; in other words, had it come to power, it would have been obliged to destroy the existing state structure and implement a political and social revolution. The gnostic sects, Cathars and Albigenses . . . were socialist and communist. They attacked marriage, the family and property. Had they been victorious, the result would have been a traumatic social dislocation and a relapse into barbarism'” (p. 77).

Equally “chiliastic,” though tacking to a different breeze, is “the socialism of the philosophers.” Here Shafarevich examines the works of Thomas More, Tommasso Campanella, Gerrard Winstanley, et al. Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot, Revolutionary leaders such as Phillipe Buonarroti, all imbibed deeply in such utopian and intoxicating brews, and their political pronouncements and activities reveal it. Intermingled with the lava erupting from the French Revolution, socialist themes have energized and characterized (for the two centuries–1789-1989–routinely labeled the “revolutionary era”) the upheavals which have shaped modernity.

In addition to “chiliastic socialism,” Shafarevich examines, in the book’s second section, various examples of what he calls “state socialism.” Whereas Marx claimed to find a dialectical historical process driven by “class struggle” wherein the rich oppressed the poor, Shafarevich–more committed to the facts available in the documents–discovers the real source of much oppression, which is socialism! He finds–in such diverse times and places as the Inca Empire, the Jesuit State in Paraguay, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and China–illustrations of strictly, and often brutally, imposed socialism. The cast characters certainly change, but the same conditions persist. Everything was owned by the state– there was no private property–and workers were treated as conscripts who were effectively enslaved by the state. Rather than being something radically modern, the effort to ameliorate capitalism, socialism proves to be, historically understood, one of the oldest and most oppressive of all systems.

With penetrating insight, Solzhenitsyn sums up his friend’s case: “Shafarevich points out with great precision both the cause and the genesis of the first socialist doctrines, which he characterizes as reactions: Plato as a reaction to Greek culture, and the Gnostics as a reaction to Christianity. They sought to counteract the endeavor of the human spirit to stand erect, and strove to return to the earthbound existence of the primitive states of antiquity. The author also convincingly demonstrates the diametrical opposition between the concepts of man held by religion and by socialism. Socialism seeks to reduce human personality to its most primitive levels and to extinguish the highest, most complex, and ‘God-like’ aspects of human individuality. And even equality itself, that powerful appeal and great promise of socialist throughout the ages, turns out to signify not equality of rights, or opportunities, and of external conditions, but equality qua identity, equality seen as the movement of variety toward uniformity” (p. ix).

Few studies of socialism prove more penetrating and thought-provoking than Shafarevich’s. Many of his historical materials were new to me, many of his insights shed new light on the subject, and his central thesis, that socialism is fleshed-out death-wish, simply startled me with its freshness and power. Apparently not well-known in the West, this treatise is an important source for anyone seeking to understand not simply socialism in the USSR but the story of mankind in general! The translation is quite readable, the research impressive, and the courage of the author quite admirable!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fifty years before Shafarevich wrote to explain the anguish of his own people, another brilliant European, Ludwig von Mises, analyzed socialism and discerned the inner dynamics if an ideology which would, more than anything else, devastate much of the world in the 20th century. “The essence of Socialism is this: All the means of production are in the exclusive control of the organized community. This and this alone is Socialism. All other definitions are misleading” (p. 211). Von Mises’ Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, c. 1981) was first published in 1922 and has been translated into many languages. It stands at the heart of the Austrian school of economics–liberalism in the classic sense–made famous by von Mises and F.A. von Hayek, who added, in 1978, an introduction to this edition.

Anticipating a bit of Shafarevich’s thesis, von Mises insisted that Marxism lacks both logic and scientific evidence. Indeed, Marxism denied the very value of logic, discounting it as an “ideological superstructure” devised by the bourgeois oppressors! Marx himself was a masterful demagogue, not a scientific or philosophical thinker. Thus “The rapid expansion of Socialism has been compared to that of Christianity. More appropriate, perhaps would be a comparison with Islam, which inspired the sons of the desert to lay waste ancient civilizations, cloaked their destructive fury with an ethical ideology and stiffened their courage with rigid fatalism” (p. 417).

Socialism is in fact a chiliastic philosophy of history, and the Marxists, like magicians, have managed to pass off “their chiliastic teachings” as “science” (p. 255). Its success resides in its promise to satisfy “those dream-aspirations and dreams of vengeance which have been so deeply embedded in the human soul from the time immemorial. It promises a Paradise on earth, a Land of Heart’s Desire full of happiness and enjoyment, and–sweeter still to the losers in life’s game–humiliation of all who are stronger and better than the multitude” (p. 7). Thus Socialism shares some strikingly “romantic” perspectives. “Romanticism is man’s revolt against treason, as well as against the conditions under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and nature. . . . . The romantic is too weak–too neurasthenic–for work; he imagines the pleasures of success but does nothing to achieve them. He does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination. He has a grudge against reality because it is not like the dream world he has created. He hates work, economy, and reason” (p. 419). In truth: “The socialist’s claims are as vain as those of the astrologers and the magicians” (p. 535).

Interestingly enough, such aspirations are deeply rooted in 19th century German philosophy. “Engels called the German Labour Movement the heir to the German classical philosophy. It would be more correct to say that German (not only Marxian) Socialism represents the decadence of the school of idealist philosophy. Socialism owes the dominion it won over the German mind to the idea of society as conceived by the great German thinkers. Out of Kant’s mysticism of duty and Hegel’s deification of the State it is easy to trace the development of socialist thought; Fichte is already a socialist” (p. 388).

The masses, enamored with collectivism and its “New Idol,” the state (that “coldest of all cold monsters” in Nietzsche’s view), easily embrace Socialism “because in their infatuation they expect it to bring full salvation and satisfy their longing for revenge. With “the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, they maintain that the State is God” (p. 487), and they devoutly follow her edicts. And so they will continue to work for Socialism, helping thereby to bring about the inevitable decline of the civilization which the nations of the West have taken thousands of years to build up” (p. 13). Socialist demagogues, free to hawk their wares in democratic societies, substitute the equality of distribution of commodities for the equality before the Law, thus eliciting the resentment of the poor against the rich. Demagogues harp on the “increasing relative social poverty” so as to gain support for “policies based on the resentment of the masses” (p. 343). Consequently, “Socialism is the expression of the principle of violence crying from the workers’ soul, just as Imperialism is the principle of violence speaking from the soul of the official and the soldier” (p. 320). However sincere their beliefs, however, socialist violence ultimately destroys the workers as well as their imagined oppressors.

Writing an Epilogue to this work in 1947, von Mises could look back over 25 years, and exclaimed: “The dogma that the State or the Government is the embodiment of all that is good and beneficial and that the individual are wretched underlings, exclusively intent upon inflicting harm upon one another and badly in need of al guardian, is almost unchallenged. It is taboo to question it in the slightest way. he who proclaims the godliness of the State and the infallibility of its priests, the bureaucrats, is considered as an impartial student of the social sciences. All those raising objections are branded as biased and narrow-minded. The supporters of the new religion of statolatry are no less fanatical and intolerant than were the Mohammedan conquerors of Africa and Spain” (p. 482). Indeed: “History will call our age the age of the dictators and tyrants” (p. 482). And “It is important to realize that Fascism and Nazism were socialist dictatorships” (p. 523).

Consequently, “Socialism is not in the least what it pretends to be. It is not the pioneer of a better and finer world, but the spoiler of what thousands of years of civilization have created. It does not build; it destroys. For destruction is the essence of it. It produces nothing, it only consumes what the social order based on private owner ship in the means of production has created” (p. 414). Both von Mises and Shafarevich insist that there is a suicidal death-wish which ultimately prevails in socialist systems–a death to private property, family, religion, and social hierarchies which destroys man in the process. Thus von Mises predicted: “Wherever Europeans or the descendants of European emigrants live, we see Socialism at work today; and in Asia it is the banner round which the antagonists of European civilization gather. If the intellectual dominance of Socialism remains unshaken, then in a short time the whole co-operative system of culture which Europe has built up during thousands of years will be shattered. For a socialist order of society is unrealizable. All efforts to realize Socialism lead only to the destruction of society” (p. 465).

Socialists seek to abolish private property. “For fundamentally,” von Mises says, “Socialism is nothing but a theory of ‘just’ distribution; the socialist movement is nothing but an attempt to achieve this ideal. All socialist schemes start from the problem of distribution and all come back to it. For Socialism the problem of distribution is the economic problem” (p. 131). With the abolition of property, Godwin fantasized “that men might be immortal” and Trotsky intoned that “‘Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical . . . The human average will rise to th4 level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx'” (p. 143). On such utopian fantasies classic Socialism built its agenda. In fact, as we know far better than von Mises in 1922, human nature doesn’t change under Socialism–if anything it loses the integrity which work and responsibility develop.

The family too must be changed, along with the economy. “Proposals to transform the relations between the sexes have long gone hand in hand with plans for the socialization of the means of production. Marriage is to disappear along with private property, giving place to an arrangement more in harmony with the fundamental facts of sex. When man is liberated from the yoke of economic labour, love is to be liberated from all the economic trammels which have profaned it. Socialism promises not only welfare–wealth for all–but universal happiness in love as well. This part of its programme has been the source of much of its popularity. It is significant that no other German socialist book was more widely read or more effective as propaganda than Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, which is dedicated above all to the message of free love” (p. 74). Wherever feminism goes beyond seeking the establish legal equality between the sexes, whenever “it attacks the institutions of social life under thee impression that it will thus be able to remove the natural barriers, it is a spiritual child of Socialism. For it is a characteristic of Socialism to discover in social institutions the origin of unalterable facts of nature, and to endeavour, by reforming these institutions, to reform nature” (p. 87).

Von Mises’ final paragraphs, in the book’s Epilogue, contain this haunting indictment: “It is not true that the masses are vehemently asking for socialism and that there is no means to resist them. The masses favour socialism because they trust the socialist propaganda of the intellectuals. The intellectuals, not the populace, are moulding public opinion. It is a lame excuse of the intellectuals that they must yield to the masses. They themselves have generated the socialist ideas and indoctrinated the masses with them.” Ordinary people never read Hegel, Marx, Sorel, et al. Yet “The intellectual leaders of the peoples have produced and propagated the fallacies which are on the point of destroying liberty and Western civilization. The intellectuals alone are responsible for the mass slaughters which are the characteristic mark of our century. They alone can reverse the trend and pave the way for a resurrection of freedom.” In the final analysis, “reason and ideas determine the course of human affairs. What is needed to stop the trend towards socialism and despotism is common sense and moral courage” (p. 540).

That socialism has been rejected in many lands, dramatically evident since 1989, makes clear how truly von Mises understood the essence of the ideology. That it still enchants intellectuals in the 1990s remains an illustration of man’s perennially perverse desire to build the Tower of Babel.

# # #