To anyone in 21st-century America who has never succumbed to the temptation, buying into socialism must seem at best an exotic and at worst a deeply perverse thing to do. For socialism—that system under which all or most of the means of production and distribution are owned by the state in order that it may impose ever greater economic equality—painfully violates everything the world has learned about the behavior of human beings and the behavior of economies, taking the starch out of the former and killing off the energy of the latter. That is true even when socialism has been benignly intended (as in the case of Israeli kibbutzim or the Labor government of postwar Britain). When not benignly intended—that is, especially in serving as the justification for the policies of Lenin, Stalin, and their disciples—socialism has set world records for cruelty, oppression, and plain murder.
Startlingly, however, an appendix to Joshua Muravchik’s new book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism1 instructs us that as late as 1985, eighteen countries were still suffering under Communism proper, 41 others languished under a system that he dubs “third-world socialism” but that is not all that easily distinguishable from its Soviet original, and another eleven were being governed by the milder variant known as social democracy. Thus socialism, despite all the misery and penury and oppression endured in its name, continued over the course of nearly two centuries to fail upward.
How this strange and nearly unrelievedly grim development came about is Muravchik’s theme. He tells his story, in fascinating detail, primarily through a series of portraits of socialist thinkers and/or political leaders, from François-Noel Babeuf in the early years after the French Revolution to Tony Blair of today’s Britain. You might thus say that the book sets out to de-Marxianize the historical development of socialism: that is, to provide an account of it not as some overarching rational “process” but rather as the work of this or that particular man’s mind and character and circumstances. And because Muravchik has elected to tell the story in its human dimension, his book, once opened, is very hard to put down.
To be sure, much that is in Heaven on Earth is by now familiar. We have long known, for instance, that with only rare exceptions, socialist thinkers and leaders were themselves raised in homes that were at least financially comfortable and sometimes plain rich. As a consequence, most of them had little or no natural contact, or indeed any particular sympathy, with the workers who were the ostensible objects of their wisdom and beneficence.
We have also long known that Karl Marx was an inveterate cadger, who considered his work too earth-shakingly significant to bind him to mere earthly responsibilities; instead, he and his wife and children depended almost completely on the largesse of his wealthy friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, who for years continued to keep them in the far from meager style to which they felt themselves entitled. (As Muravchik also reminds us, Engels was the ghost author of most of Marx’s writings that are even minimally felicitous.)
Similarly well known are the details of how VI. Lenin managed, by sheer steely nerve, to hijack the revolution against the Czar that had been made by others, thereby offering a hint of what he would do in far bloodier fashion to the Russian people at large. Then there is the British philanthropist and Utopian Robert Owen, who merits a chapter of his own in Heaven on Earth; even a reader unacquainted with the minutiae of Owen’s biography can readily recognize the blend of unpleasant psychic hungers that led to the creation of his short-lived and disastrous community in Indiana called, laughably, New Harmony.
So it is not by virtue of new discoveries that this book grips the reader. Rather, Muravchik’s distinctive voice—mixing a compelling liveliness with a certain quiet dispassion—makes the book’s material feel somehow freshly perceived. And one is also simply carried along by the authoritative ease with which Muravchik moves from the late 18th century through Marx & Co., Lenin & Co., Nazism and fascism, Clement Attlee and postwar British social democracy, Julius Nyerere and African socialism, Samuel Gompers and American trade unionism, Gorbachev, Deng, and the modernization of Communism—all made vivid in a mere 320 pages.
Given this tone of lively familiarity, it should come as no surprise that the author of Heaven on Earth was himself once a socialist, indeed a youthful member of the Socialist Party USA and later, after one of the inveterate splits for which leftist groups are notable, a stalwart of the faction (or “fraction”) known as Social Democrats USA. But Muravchik’s personal relation to his story goes back still farther. In the book’s prologue, he announces: “Socialism is the faith in which I was raised.” His grandparents had been members of the radical wing of the Russian Social Revolutionary party before emigrating to America, and his father declared himself a socialist in 1929, at the age of thirteen, under the influence of Norman Thomas’s campaign for the mayoralty of New York.
Now, partly because of the unique political history and culture of the United States, and partly because of Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor (AFL), even during the Great Depression socialist thinking gained no significant foothold in this country, not even, or perhaps especially not, among American workers. Its appeal was largely limited to small groups of intellectuals who in turn were split into various sub-groups, adherents of the ideas of this or that thinker. The exceptions were the Stalinists, socialism’s ugliest progeny, whose cultural influence would sweep like a warm breeze through the ranks of the glamorous, the fashionable, and the well-born, continuing to infect many even through the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, all the way through Castro and Ho Chi Minh.2
In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Gompers had been instrumental in organizing the AFL, and until his death in 1924 he remained its major political and intellectual influence. He was a passionate opponent of the socialists. If their object was to create an entirely new kind of society, his, and by extension his union’s, was to better the lot of workers as and where they were. Gompers was, for example, opposed to the minimum wage, on the ground that it would have the effect of rendering unskilled laborers unemployable. In short, his was a project to which true-believing socialists, their eyes on revolution, were either indifferent or downright hostile. Their idea was that the worse things became for the working class, the better—or, as this idea later and all too fatefully came to be expressed by the German Communists who acquiesced in the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933, nach Hitler uns (“After Hitler, us”).
When Lenin began to exercise his ill-gained power in the Soviet Union, Gompers became a fervent, outspoken, and uncompromising anti-Communist. In time, his shoes would be filled by a New York City-born plumber named George Meany, who became president of the combined American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955 and in 1972 led the AFL-CIO to take a neutral stance in the presidential election pitting George McGovern against Richard Nixon. By then, Muravchik’s Social Democrats, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, had largely deserted the ranks of socialism proper, their youthful radical faith having been replaced by the hope of political effectiveness and themselves having become disciples of Gompers by way of Meany. Later, their hearts if anything belonged more completely to Meany’s successor, Lane Kirkland, who throughout the latter part of the cold war displayed a faithfulness to America’s needs that was not widely on offer elsewhere.
America in the 1970’s was in a parlous condition, culturally speaking. The so-called “kids” were still on a righteous rampage, when not in a drugged stupor; women had begun to storm the ramparts; black-nationalist leaders were discovering that anti-Semitism was their wave of the future; public education had hit rock bottom; and the media were going haywire from an unprecedented attack of mindlessness combined with an unprecedented accession of power. In the meantime, the ideological conservatives, who by decade’s end would be preparing to take political power, were with only a few exceptions still sulking in their cultural tents.
For someone like me, who hated Communism and was both fearful and angry about what was happening in and to the United States, Joshua Muravchik and his small but hardy band of Social Democrats provided a haven of fellowship in those years.3 One evening, during a wedding celebration for two young members of the group, I leaned across the table toward a newfound friend, probably no more sober than I, grabbed a mimeographed party membership form, and signed on. Several days later, I received my first official piece of mail—and my first taste of socialist politics. Its salutation read: “Dear Fraction Member.”
As it turned out, the haven did not provide shelter for long, either for me, essentially an outsider, or even for a fair number of my new “comrades.” I would not presume to speak to what was moving them. Perhaps it was the fact that engaging all of their political and intellectual energies in a battle with their putative fellow-leftists inevitably affected their relation to the entire Left enterprise. Perhaps it was that, despite the AFL-CIO leadership’s unfailing embrace of them, in the end the unions had their own domestic fish to fry, and these were not always palatable to those whose true passion concerned America’s role in the world. (Ultimately, the labor movement itself would be captured by those who wanted to push it to the Left, and who would send George Meany and Lane Kirkland spinning in their graves.) Or perhaps a number of the Social Democrats were, like me, moving closer to a not merely pragmatic but also theoretical appreciation of capitalism.
But for a while yet my fellow Social Democrats were not prepared to give up their loyalty to unionism, and I too was not yet ready to drop my nostalgic attachment to certain old scraps of liberal sentiment, so many pressed roses in a long-unread book. In hindsight, I can see that I was biding my time, caught in a kind of meanwhile until the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan would come along, scoop up untold numbers of us, and carry us, at least for a time—in my own case, permanently—over the Republican line: ex-liberals, ex-Democrats, ex-Social Democrats, Reagan Democrats, and so forth.
But the place I was briefly occupying was a pleasant spot—and “pleasant” does not even come close to describing it. For an ardent anti-Communist, this was home. Muravchik and his “fraction” were the very best of comrades—a term they themselves had long since ceased to use. And when, not long after, I found myself where I actually belonged, on the Right, I once again discovered, looking around, a goodly number of my old companions moving along behind and beside me. We came to be labeled neoconservatives, or neocons. Though it no doubt hurt at least some of them to say so, their old foes within the Socialist party had seen the truth about them: they were not, and had not for a very long time been, true members of the Left. Gompers, Meany, Kirkland, and an abstraction called trade unionism had enabled them to hang on for a while to their commitment to social justice as defined by the Left. But the very term “social justice” had turned sour, captured by the blame-America-first wing of the Democratic party, by the so-called “rights” movements, and, in the end, by large and unfriendly segments of the union movement as well.
Besides, the Left, along with its liberal hangers-on, was setting out in the early 1980’s to launch a moral attack against the United States for entering, under Reagan, into a serious confrontation with the Soviet Union. For my new-old companions, this would no doubt have been the straw that broke the socialist camel’s back if it had not already been broken for some time. For where could even the idea of social justice prosper in a world in which the United States had become a weak and second-rate power?
It is surely Joshua Muravchik’s experience, first as a true socialist, next as an uncertain socialist, and finally as an ex-socialist that accounts not only for his book’s air of easy familiarity but for its unusually dispassionate tone. The theories and claims and disputes he deals with have been, for him, virtually a lifelong affair, in play around him from, as it were, the womb. At the same time, all anger spent, he has managed to put a distance between himself and the acidity that seems so often to afflict disappointed dreamers.
The equilibrium achieved by Muravchik and many of his fellow former Social Democrats is, indeed, far from common in the history of the Left. To the contrary, disequilibrium seems to have been built into the system from the beginning—the disequilibrium that springs from the collision of brute reality with false theory.
One of the great shocks to Marxist theory was administered by war. Thus, at the onset of World War I, the workers of the world—those theoretically inevitable agents of revolution—failed rather spectacularly to do their duty as predicted. As good and true members of an international community of interest, they were expected to lay down their arms and decline to fight their fellows. Instead, loyalty to fatherland or motherland—in other words, plain old patriotism—in every case trumped their common status as proletarians. Only among intellectuals were there then (and are there now) people who even in wartime would place fidelity to their world-remaking ideas above concern for the security of their own community and country.
Nor has war been the only hindrance to the realization of socialist theory. As Heaven on Earth suggests but does not completely document, everywhere that socialist theory has been put into some semblance of practice, from a high civilization like Britain’s to the most crudely organized ex-colony in Africa, it has resulted in a significant degree of immiseration. When challenged on this point, socialists used to say—some, it seems, still do say—that socialism has not yet really been tried. Which is a strange if psychologically convenient idea, considering that after more than 150 years the system has at one time or another or in one form or another been instituted, and has failed, in something like 80 different countries.
But disequilibrium, and even disgrace, have even now not stopped the socialist Left from theorizing onward—or from expressing its seemingly permanent disaffection from democratic systems that actually work. The socialist tradition is kept warm in Europe by a glow of hatred for the manners and mores of the United States, and in the United States by a magpie collection of “progressive” attitudes and ideas.
Those attitudes and ideas were on display again in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the downtrodden undeveloped world—that great abstraction so beloved of the Left—assumed a particularly ugly form and caused havoc and murder on our soil. Almost immediately, and all too predictably, agitated voices could be heard declaring that the United States, in retaliating for this assault, was really out once again to dominate the whole world; that masses of innocent Afghan civilians were about to be mercilessly slaughtered by American forces; and that here at home the government would take advantage of the impending war to snuff out civil liberties.
This time, however, the Left’s tired, bewhiskered line—encountered most noticeably on the country’s campuses but not there alone—also gave rise to some internal opposition. In particular, a very interesting dispute has broken out in the community clustered around the socialist quarterly Dissent. Since its founding by Irving Howe in the early 1950’s, Dissent has remained the center of an especially somber kind of leftism—socialism with a heavy-hearted face. Now, in the magazine’s spring 2002 issue, its co-editor, Michael Walzer—who if magazines had deans would by now have inherited from Howe the title of dean of Dissent—has published an essay that is critical of the way his fellow leftists responded to September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism.
The essay, which was posted on the magazine’s website in advance of publication, is entitled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Walzer begins by noting that his fellow leftists, having initially opposed the war in Afghanistan, were thrown into some confusion by the discovery in late 2001 that the ordinary people of that country, far from feeling themselves victims of American imperialism, were enthusiastically embracing the arriving American forces as their liberators from Taliban oppression. Consequently, some of these leftists had become willing, albeit briefly and tentatively, to define the war itself as a humanitarian intervention, and therefore permissible from their point of view.
This, however, could not last. For, as Walzer writes, the simple purpose of the American war was not humanitarian but preventive: to make it impossible for al Qaeda to go on training terrorists and organizing attacks on the United States. And this species of war was illegitimate in leftist eyes. And so the Left, reverting to type, soon began to insist that the United Nations be called in to adjudicate our dispute with Osama bin Laden, that any captured al Qaeda terrorists be tried in a properly constituted court of law, and that the war be conducted without endangering civilians. This final condition, Walzer tartly observes, would have made it impossible to engage in any fighting whatsoever, and was thus an extreme but characteristic example of the Left’s willful denial of “one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing.”
Which brings Walzer to the question that serves as the title of his essay: can there be a decent Left in the world’s only superpower? Is it possible for his fellow leftists to sustain an intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced politics, or are they to remain forever enmired in the kind of resentment and unthinking hatred of American power that seems to have become the core of socialist passion?
True, Walzer concedes, the Left has its justifiable complaints, its list of American sins, ranging from our support of right-wing dictatorships during the cold war to our ill-begotten intervention in Vietnam, from our misadventures in Central America to our role today as the world’s leading globalizer. All this, in Walzer’s judgment, does give some warrant to the Left’s characterization of the country as a bully—privileged, selfish, hedonistic, and corrupt. Still, September 11 was different, and there is little to excuse the Left’s response to that event, its “failure to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused,” its reflexive search for ways to place the onus of guilt on the United States.
In characterizing that response, Walzer does not hesitate to use words like “stupid, overwrought, and grossly inaccurate.” And having thrown down these words, which must surely have made his comrades blanch, he goes on to adduce four tentative reasons for the Left’s having so dramatically lost its bearings.
The first reason is the residual effect of old ideology. The Marxist theory of imperialism, along with newer, “third worldist” doctrines of the 1960’s and 1970’s, have blinded leftists to the power of religion in the modern world, writes Walzer. Believing that anyone who attacks America must represent the oppressed and hence be of the Left or allied with the Left, today’s socialists do not understand that the al Qaeda movement is engaged in a different pursuit altogether: namely, holy war against the infidels. How many leftists, Walzer asks, have the intellectual wherewithal to understand such a thing as holy war?
The second reason is that leftist intellectuals tend to “live in America like internal aliens,” bereft of power themselves and never expecting to gain any. In Walzer’s judgment, this accounts for their inability or refusal to identify with their fellow Americans, their habit of regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect. (That the intellectual Left is powerless will come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the world of American higher education or literary culture; but that is another matter.)
The third and fourth reasons are closely related. There is “the moral purism of blaming America first”; and there is the sense of guilt that comes from living in a rich and privileged country, which presumably disqualifies one from criticizing the behavior of those who are weaker and poorer.
What, Walzer asks, ought to be done about the Left’s indecency? By his own reckoning, his agenda for reform (which follows the order of his four reasons) is a modest one. First, he says, one must defend the major, enduring components of leftist values: secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government. Second, one must act as if the Left will not always be powerless, and engage with one’s fellow citizens as if one were as responsible for their safety as they are for one’s own. Third, one must accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had not only bad effects in the world but also good ones. And last, one must not hesitate to blame those who are blameworthy, even if they are third-world governments or actors.
Modest, Walzer’s agenda assuredly is—and doubly so in ascribing to the Left alone such bedrock American commonplaces as secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government. And yet this agenda has elicited a heated response, duly posted on Dissent‘s website, from members of his own editorial board. One of his respondents, Jo-Ann Mort, denies the existence of any relation whatsoever between the socialist Left described by Michael Walzer and the socialist Left she embraces as her own. True, she writes, there may be a few deluded souls in the academy—professors and students who, as she puts it, “follow the Chomskys.” But she and her comrades are another kettle of idealists, being people whose views are “represented by the dictum of swords to ploughshares, lifting strangers from Egypt, . . . the voices arguing not against intervention but for truly multilateral intervention that would strengthen, not diminish, world bodies in this era when, indeed, America is the sole superpower.” Only multilateralism, Mort adds, can save us from American hegemony, and “aid us in putting a damper on the use of American superpower force.”
Another respondent, David Bensman, is even more insistent that American unilateralism “threatens . . . to feed our sense of righteousness and moral superiority”—two qualities that are “greater threats to Americans, and citizens around the world, than are all the terrorists.” Still another, James B. Rule, is angry with Walzer for insinuating that “criticism of America’s military activities necessarily stems from lack of concern for American suffering or failed patriotism.” Walzer, Rule complains, asks whether there can be a decent Left in the world’s only superpower; what he ought to have asked is, do we want to live in a world dominated by a superpower, especially by the kind of superpower being created under our political noses by the likes of George W. Bush? And then there is Ann Snitow, who, though somewhat more kindly disposed to Walzer’s description of the Left’s current malaise, insists that “the only path toward reducing massacres and ethnic cleansing is a (yes, slow) process of building a world consensus against military solutions to long-term problems.”
Were there, one wonders, discussions at this level of unreality going on around the samovars in the Russia of 1917? Surely there were. But then Lenin came along and defined for future generations of smug chatterers what exactly should be understood by such terms as “justice” and “consensus.” Similarly at the onset of World War II, when, for a time, the question for debate among certain groups of leftists was which of the two imperialisms, British or German, one hoped to see destroyed first—and when a young Trotskyist named Irving Howe could find it in his heart to give only “conditional support” to the Allies.
Michael Walzer is a man widely admired and rewarded for the graces of his mind and prose, and one would like to know his real thoughts about the response of his fellow Dissentniks to his challenge. Notwithstanding words like “stupid, overwrought, and grossly inaccurate,” his critique of them was, after all, rather gently couched. Thus, in admonishing his colleagues to take as much responsibility for the safety of their fellow citizens as their fellow citizens do for theirs, he pointedly avoided accusing them of being unpatriotic—which, in unwaltzed-around English, could be understood (as James B. Rule chose to understand it) to be what he was getting at. In no less gentle and backhanded a manner did he suggest that they were impermissibly ignorant, blind to the reality of religious fanaticism, and incapable—in the year 2002!—of holding third-world dictators to a single standard of political decency.
Nor—and this may be construed as his final act of gentleness—did Michael Walzer offer to follow the logic of his own argument, and to make an honest man of himself at last. For how does his essay conclude? Not with a declaration of intent to think about why the Left has, over and over again in the course of socialism’s unhappy and costly history, proved so resistant to the making of “the most basic and best understood moral distinctions.” On the contrary, his final words are: “The Left needs to begin again.”
Again? Begin again? God help the world if it must now put itself through yet another laborious round of discovery and reassessment. Can there be a decent Left? Michael Walzer has read many, many books; for an answer to this particular question, he could do worse than to read Joshua Muravchik’s. How much more misery and disappointment and suffering must the ordinary people of the globe endure in order that the squeamishness and moral vanity of the privileged may go on being forever tickled?
1 Encounter, 344 pp., $27.95. The epilogue, about the evolution of an Israeli kibbutz away from its absolutist egalitarian ideology, formed the basis of an article by Muravchik, “Socialism’s Last Stand,” in the March 2002 COMMENTARY.
2 The best analysis of Stalinism as a cultural force in the United States remains Robert Warshow’s in The Immediate Experience (1962). See my “Remembering Robert Warshow” in the April 2002 COMMENTARY.
3 The split in the Socialist party that I alluded to earlier was between those, headed by Bayard Rustin, who now called themselves Social Democrats and who along with the leadership of the AFL-CIO supported the aims of the war in Vietnam, and those, headed by Michael Harrington, who now called themselves Democratic Socialists (or D-Soc’s). The D-Soc’s not only bitterly opposed the war but were convinced that their opponents were straying off the socialist reservation.