Liberals hide the truth of socialism

Posted: May 29, 2002 12:00 AM
There is no one so bitterly despised as an apostate, one who's given up his faith, which may explain why author Joshua Muravchik has become anathema to the Left. Muravchik, the one-time chairman of the Young People's Socialist League, has written a book, "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism," that has him in hot water with some of his former comrades. It's one thing for a non-believer to sound the death knell for socialism and quite another for one who once believed in the promise of an egalitarian society to do so. The faithful have punished Muravchik by ostracizing -- or worse for an author, ignoring -- him. "Heaven on Earth," a scholarly but delightfully readable analysis of socialist experiments from Robert Owens' New Harmony colony in the United States to Julius Nyerere's Tanzania, has yet to be reviewed by the New York Times, the sometimes prickly arbiter of serious books in America. The Times isn't the only liberal institution to snub Muravchik. Last week, a Washington, D.C., bookstore gave Muravchik the cold shoulder, too. Politics and Prose, a popular, independent bookstore that boasts that it hosts authors' lectures "almost every night," invited Muravchik to discuss his book. But then the bookstore's events manager sent Muravchik's publicist a note saying, "After further review, I regret that we will not be able to host the event." What caused the turnaround? Apparently the store is a favorite among local socialists -- namely, a small fringe group, the International Socialist Organization, which according to the dismissive missive "have had several discussions and readings with us." The ISO, which publishes the weekly newspaper "Where We Stand," argues that "Capitalism must be overthrown. ... The working class needs an entirely different kind of state -- a workers' state based on councils of workers' delegates and a workers' militia." Hmm. Where have we heard that before -- and to what ends? From all too many believers, as Muravchik reminds us. In the decades when socialist governments ruled much of the world -- at their height in 1985, some 60 percent of the world's population -- the consequences were often bloody. Millions died at the hands of socialist zealots, an estimated 100 million in barely 80 years, in the most totalitarian socialist regimes, such as Mao's China, where as many as 30 million died to appease the socialist gods. But Muravchik trains his critical eye not just on the obvious excesses of totalitarian communists but on the faith that undergirds even the most benign socialist enterprises, such as the kibbutz system in Israel. Muravchik's contribution is to understand socialism as a religion of sorts, but one devoid of that most important of religious elements: a moral code. "Socialism was the faith in which I was raised," he writes. "It was my father's faith and his father's before him." Notwithstanding Marx's dictum that religion "is the opium of the people," socialism itself became the new religion of many intellectuals who looked for a substitute for faith after the Enlightenment onslaught against organized religion. As Muravchik demonstrates, however, the effort to establish this "heaven on earth" -- as Moses Hess, a contemporary of Karl Marx, once described socialism -- was doomed to failure. "What was different about [the religion of socialism] was not the absence of God, since Buddhism and Confucianism also have no God, but rather the absence of good and evil or right and wrong. This opened the doors to the terrible deeds that were done in the name of socialism," notes Muravchik. Socialism "lacks any internal code of conduct to limit what believers may do," he says. "By no means all socialists were killers or amoral," he avers. "Many were sincere humanitarians," most notably some democratic socialists, he says. "But democratic socialism turned out to be a contradiction in terms, for where socialists proceeded democratically, they found themselves on a trajectory that took them further and further from socialism," he concludes. Not since "The God That Failed," the 1950 classic collection of essays by six famous former communist intellectuals, has there been such a trenchant analysis of the failures of socialist ideals. In another about-face, Politics and Prose bookstore has now decided it will host Muravchik after all. Now if only the New York Times would pay similar attention, Muravchik's message might get the audience it deserves.