“We are all socialists now,” Newsweek Magazine decrees, so we should at least try to understand the prospects entailed in the editors’ celebration. Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, c. 2002) is an engaging, historical description of what’s happened wherever it’s been tried. The title comes from Moses Hess, the 19th century “Father of German social Democracy,” who said (in A Communist Confession of Faith, 1846): “The Christian . . . imagines the better future of the human species . . . in the image of heavenly joy. . . . We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth” (p. 338). This endeavor—what Muravchik calls “man’s most ambitious attempt to supplant religion” (p. 3)—has everywhere failed, and revealingly (given the glossy advertisements) “socialism’s epitaph turned out to be: If you build it, they will leave” (p. 6).
Though rooted in the ideology of the French Revolution and its call for equality, the word socialism was first coined by the wealthy English utopian, Robert Owen. He was an atheistic materialist who detested all religion and believed that a good environment would necessarily produce good people. Thus he bought land in Indiana, where he launched “New Harmony” to establish “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” He further determined to eliminate three evils—private property; religion; and marriage—the goal of most socialists (whether totalitarian or democratic) in decades to come. He then ordered the letters “C.M.” inscribed on one of the buildings, “standing for ‘Commencement of the Millennium’” (p. 55). Within less than a decade, however, New Harmony proved most unharmonious and the community disintegrated, largely because idle ideologues rather than workers joined it.
Though Owen’s New World utopia failed, he helped inspire budding socialists such as Friedrich Engels, who (rebelling against his parents’ devout religious faith) joined Owen in assailing Christianity. Here he was joined by another young German, Karl Marx. Both men celebrated the skepticism of David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus and Ludwig Feuerbach’s atheistic The Essence of Christianity. Muravchik largely credits Engels for the ideology we call Marxism, though he was overshadowed by Marx’s domineering personality. Few socialists actually read Marx’s Capital, taking their precepts from Engels’ popular writings. As Karl Kautsky explained, “’Engels stands as a master of popular exposition; his writings are read by all thinking proletarians, and the majority of those who have accepted socialism have obtained their knowledge and understanding of the Marx-Engels theory from these writings’” (p. 91). “It was to Engels the popularizer that we can trace many of the catch-phrases of Marxism: ‘historical materialism,’ withering away of the state,’ ‘dialectical materialism,’ ‘scientific socialism’ and, above all, ‘Marxism’ itself” (p. 91).
Various thinkers sought to own the Marxist label, but Lenin most effectively grasped it by calling for a “proletarian revolution” to establish a utopia in Russia. Like Marx and Engels, he was an intellectual with little knowledge of the real workers for whom he struggled to establish a “workers paradise” in Russia. His Italian contemporary, Benito Mussolini, soared to prominence in the Socialist Party and launched a journal called Utopia. Though he broke with his leftist confreres following WWI (preferring dictatorial to democratic methods), his Fascism retained salient socialist precepts. So too Hitler espoused scores of socialist notions and declared that “’National socialism is what Marxism might have been if it could have broken its absurd and artificial ties with a democratic order’” (p. 164).
The totalitarian systems established in Russia, Italy, and Germany manifestly failed. But softer forms of socialism endure. Before WWII ended, Clement Atlee led Britain’s Labor Party to victory and began the transformation of his country. Atlee’s socialism served as a surrogate for his parents’ Christian faith; it was not, he said, “’ just a piece of machinery or an economic system, but a living faith translated into action. I desire the classless society’” (p. 186). Atlee implemented the socialism advocated for nearly a century by English Fabians (including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb), who had patiently worked to democratically establish their faith. At the same time, many new nations, liberated from colonial rule, followed Atlee’s approach, effecting what Daniel Patrick Moynihan “dubbed the ‘British revolution’” (p. 199). Thus Julius Nyerere subjected Tanzania to the Fabianism he’d absorbed while studying in Edinburgh. Lavishly supported by Western philanthropy, Nyerere brought into being a nation wherein everyone was reduced to the perfect equality of utter poverty! And much the same transpired, uniformly, in the rest of the three score new nations who embraced the socialist creed.
Standing virtually alone in resisting socialism was the United States. Labor leaders such as the AFL’s Samuel Gompers warned against “’entangling alliances with intellectuals who did not understand that to experiment with the labor movement was to experiment with human life’” (p. 232). He decried laws dictating the eight-hour work day, though he supported gaining that objective in other ways, and he “opposed minimum-wage legislation as well as all manner of government social insurance except to cover physical disability” (p. 241). George Meany also supported the capitalist system that empowered workers by providing them amazing opportunities. (Gompers and Meany, of course, dealt with capitalists producing goods for market; today’s unions, such as the NEA, increasingly represent governmental employees, making them congenitally more sympathetic with the socialist agenda.)
Muravchik ends his presentation with an epilogue: “the kibbutz goes to market.” He shows how the Israeli kibbutzim, so idolized by various socialists, have failed to realize their dreams. For a generation, they usually thrived, but as children grew up they almost always rejected the radical demands entailed in bringing about “socialism’s perennial goal of a new man” (p. 329). So in large numbers they fled to find better lives and traditional family structures in Israel’s booming economy. Following the pattern of 19th century utopias in America, the kibbutzim fell apart on the hard rock of human nature.
A great American historian, Eugene Genovese (who was himself a Marxist for most of his life), says, in a blurb for this book: “Socialism has been a story of nobility, heroism, and self-sacrifice—and of self-delusion, absurdity, and murderous criminality. Joshua Muravchik provides a thoughtful account, at once objective and personal, in which he—miraculously-manages to eschew polemical point-scoring and holier-than-thou trumpeting. This sprightly and moving book combines warm sympathy with tough-minded criticism to help us understand the greatest tragedy of our age.”
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For a classic study of the phenomenon, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 1961; revised and enlarged 3rd ed. 1970), is irreplaceable. Apocalyptic themes in Jewish and early Christian sources were picked up and expanded by Medieval enthusiasts, who laid the groundwork for modern socialist notions. Thus we find a 12th century monk named Henry gaining hearers by denouncing the clergy for their failure to live up to his ideal of apostolic purity. He considered himself directly called of God (thus needing no ordination), rejected the authority of the Church, and reduced the Sacraments to symbolic acts of one’s faith. True believers would necessarily embrace poverty, and “love of one’s neighbour was the essence of true religion” (p. 40).
Henry was simply one of a great number of preachers who called for a religious revival that would totally transform society. Invariably, they both praised the poor and denounced the wealthy for refusing to enrich them. Equally inevitable, it seems, such movements lent themselves to aberrations! Take, for example, a renegade monk called Jacob, known as the “master of Hungary,” who denounced the clergy as corrupt, the sacraments as vain, and recruited an army of some 60,000 for the Second Crusade. In the process he freely performed marriage (or divorce) ceremonies as requested. “He was said to have married eleven men to one woman” (p. 95). He also praised his followers who killed priests. His career was mercifully brief, but his fanaticism illustrates fatal currents continually swirling within millennialism.
Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202) probably serves as the best illustration of Medieval utopianism. His “revelations” foretold the immanent coming of a “third age,” quite unlike Augustine’s view of a Kingdom of God that could never be realized until Jesus’ Second Advent. To usher in this new age, various devotees of “the Free Spirit”—including Gnostic Cathars (Albigensians) in southern France—taught a “quasi-mystical anarchism—an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kid of restraint and limitation” (p. 148). Much like Friedrich Nietzsche, they called for “amoral supermen” who lived in accord with their own inner light. “The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit lay in the adept’s attitude towards himself: he believed that he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. Although the practical consequences of this belief could vary, one possible consequence was certainly antinomianism or the repudiation of moral norms” (p. 150).
Free Spirit visionaries flourished throughout Europe, featuring what Cohn dubs “an elite of amoral supermen.” Basically they identified themselves with God and thus claimed that whatever they said and did was enjoyed His approbation. Consequently, “What distinguished the adepts of the Free Spirit from all other medieval sectarians was, precisely, their total amoralism. For them the proof of salvation was to know nothing of conscience or remorse” (p. 177). As one of them said, “’He who recognizes that God does all things in him, he shall not sin’” (p. 177). Frequently this led to a “promiscuous and mystically coloured eroticism” manifested in various sexual deviancies. Still more: since they denied the legitimacy of private property, holding that all things are common, they condoned theft—especially when taken from the “rich.”
To establish an egalitarian paradise, preachers such as John Wyclif argued: “’Every man ought to be in a state of grace; if he is in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common’” (p. 200). One of Wyclif’s admirers, John Hus, said much the same, and both inspired popular revolutionary movements—the Lollards in England and the Taborites (Hussites) in Bohemia. Fanatical Taborites believed the Millennium was at hand and an “anarcho-communist order” of Paradise was to be established. “Taxes, dues, rents were to be abolished and so was private property of all kinds. There was to be no human authority of any sort: ‘All shall live together as brothers, none shall be subject to another’” (p. 215).
Out of this soil sprang Thomas Muntzer, who took Luther’s revolt against the Church in thoroughly non-Lutheran directions and helped provoke the Peasants’ War in 1525—a bloody affair costing 100,000 peasants’ lives and prompting Luther to write “his ferocious pamphlet Against the Thievish Murderous Gangs of the Peasants” (p. 248). Muntzer also played a significant, if convoluted, role in the development of Anabaptism, which carried with it many of the mystical, anarchical themes of the Free Spirit devotees. Interestingly enough, Friedrich Engels and a host of Marxists have found in Muntzer “a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of ‘class war’” (p. 251).
Cohn’s research in primary sources enables him to set forth a richly-detailed treatise. While more suitable for scholars than general readers, The Pursuit of the Millennium reminds us of how perennially we not only long for a perfect world but move heaven and earth to establish it here and now.
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However anarchical their rhetoric, triumphant socialists unfailingly turn totalitarian. This is the message of The Coercive Utopians: Social Deception by America’s Power Players, by Rael Jean Isaac and Erich Isaac (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, c. 1983). They argue that “utopianism, by its inherent logic, leads to coercion” (p. 8). The book comes commended by one of America’s preeminent philosophers, Sidney Hook, who said: “I have rarely read a book which has contained such challenging information, and which raises so many troubling questions about the good will and bona fides of many organizations soliciting public support. The Isaacs’ book should be read by all intelligent laymen who are active in public affairs.”
Illustrating one of the facts that elicited Hook’s alarm was a 1980 decision of the General Conference of the Methodist Church to financially support communist regimes in Cuba and Vietnam as well as the PLO. Aligned with the National Council of Churches, which encouraged its functionaries to disguise how the organization’s funds were spent, the Methodists were simply one of the mainline denominations supporting Marxist movements that promised to inaugurate perfect societies. To one Methodist spokesman, the church’s mission was to establish “’solidarity with the poor and the powerless’” (p. 20). Church delegations visited Cuba and inevitably found what they hoped for—a wonderful, egalitarian society. Other representatives visited Vietnam and wrote glowing reports of the communist transformation taking place following the war. They found grounds for praising Pol Pot’s movement in Cambodia and gave financial support to Robert Mugabe as he began his brutal rule in Zimbabwe.
Linking arms with radical religionists, environmental utopians sought to restore the planet to a pristine “Mother Earth” condition. With Earth Day in 1970 the environmental movement began to shape the nation’s consciousness, prodding Congress to pass laws designed to “produce the perfect environment” (p. 49). To get clean air and water, to protect endangered species, to banish toxics of all sorts, became morally obligatory and justified a massive expenditure of public funds. Yet “no reasonable standards satisfy the perfection-seeking environmental organizations” (p. 56) and laws passed decades ago are now used to restrict personal liberties in unimagined ways. “The distinguished sociologist and historian of ideas Robert Nisbet sees environmentalism as a revolutionary social movement. Indeed Nisbet sees it as potentially the third great social movement of Western civilization after Christianity and socialism, and one, ironically, that strikes at the roots of that civilization. If environmentalists as such do not ‘hate the system’ they hate what is vital to the system—the development of energy sources, with the most environmentally benign source, nuclear energy, assuming a literally demonic character. Nisbet sees the reason for the movement’s fascination with the sun as ‘a form of spiritual purification, for there is a renascent primitivism in the envioronmentalist’s characteristic approach to life’” (p. 60).
Though a concern for the environment had shaped an earlier “conservationism,” the movement that emerged in the ‘70s was largely guided by the New Left. Its sacred texts included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. Its causes included the banning of DDT and nuclear power, despite the utter lack of hard evidence that they threatened anything. The environmentalist agenda, promoted by powerful groups such as the Sierra Club, successfully promoted a “utopian campaign against modern technology” (p. 70) that prevailed politically, despite counterfactual realities.
The environmentalists’ disdain for Western civilization was amplified by anti-American advocates in utopian think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies, which endeavored to destroy “public belief in the virtues of key American institutions, particularly those crucial to maintaining American power and influence in the world. An image of the United States is constructed as a rapacious imperial villain, the greatest single threat to the world’s peace and prosperity” (p. 108). To make their case, they camouflaged their presentations under the guise of seeking “to preserve traditional American values and institutions” (p. 109). Thus Derek Shearer, an IPS representative, confessed that because it was imprudent to “’use the “S” word [socialism] too effectively in American politics, we have found that in the greatest tradition of American advertising the word “economic democracy” sells’” (p. 131). Such folks also claimed to identify with the “workers” whose welfare they championed. In fact, however, they harbored “’a tremendous elitist contempt for ordinary Americans, hatred of blue collar Americans because they weren’t revolutionaries, contempt for them because they didn’t want to smash and destroy, contempt for their pastimes, contempt for their marriages, contempt because they were Americans. Yet these elitists wanted to take that away from them, smash it, set up a system based on China or Cuba or Vietnam or Tanzania’” (p. 135). Equally counterfeit was the pacifism espoused by many of the radicals. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth elicited fanatical fever within “peace” movements such as Clergy and Laity Concerned. Such pacifism, however, was largely a guise of anti-American tirades and generally followed dictates from Moscow, mediated through compliant popular front organizations.
Environmental organizations, along with other utopian groups, skillfully learned to “subvert the constitutional arrangements of the country” by infiltrating and manipulating governmental bureaucracies such as the EPA (p. 221). Here they saw themselves (though never elected by anyone) as “executors of the will of ‘the people’ as they intuitively understand it. Utopian bureaucrats thus feel free to reshape, circumvent and disregard the laws they are assigned to administer” (p. 222). This took place quickly under President Jimmy Carter, who allowed the Natural Resources Defense Council to effectively set the coal leasing agenda for the Department of the Interior. Federal monies flowed into various “alternative energy” schemes, many of which proved wastefully utopian. Even more gratuitously, the Legal Services Corporation has “consistently defied its Congressional mandate” (p. 234) and taken upon itself the task of reforming American society (as well as providing a comfortable income for thousands of lawyers). Taking money from the government, these lawyer-bureaucrats sought (always in the name of “social justice”) to undermine it through class action suits designed to destroy industries they disliked! As one of the presidents of the National Lawyers Guild declared, as reformers within the system they espoused “anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism” (p. 238).
Much of this activity goes unnoticed because the media, enamored with environmentalism and hostile to big business, acts “as a filter, screening out most of the information that could damage the utopians in the public view” (p. 251). Consequently, the nuclear power industry has been consistently misrepresented by journalists determined to destroy it. When government officials pled for stronger defense policies, TV personalities such as Walter Cronkite dismissed them as alarmists. Few Americans heard of the genocide in Cambodia, as horrific as Hitler’s holocaust, because it would have questioned the rectitutde of those who had opposed the Vietnam War. While millions died in Cambodia, the New York Times and Washington Post saw fit to mention it a total of 13 times in 1976! The next year, when the slaughter reached its zenith, America’s TV networks noted Pol Pot’s slaughter three times—and NBC said nothing at all. The networks were able, however, to devote 159 reports to human rights violations in South Africa. Shameful though it was, such media bias elicited no shame in journalistic circles. (Indeed, as the 2008 election showed, the media now sees itself as cheerleaders for the causes they support.)