Joshua Muravchik told an American Enterprise Institute forum on Monday that he structured his new book, "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism," as a string of biographical portraits "in defiance of the Marxian canon that history is the interplay of forces rather than human individuals."
Columnist Charles Krauthammer praised the book's epistemology. "Unlike the way socialism tells history -- which is from the bottom up, the material substructure, the economic structure, to the spiritual superstructure -- he tells it from the top down. He tells it from the story of ideas, and he endorses the theory that men make history and not the other way around."
This point of view is true, Krauthammer said.
But some people who abhor the idea of a centrally planned economy, state ownership of the means of production, the violence of compelled collectivization and the leadership of a self-appointed revolutionary "vanguard" nevertheless believe that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made an important contribution to Western thought.
That is the realization that although ideas certainly affect behavior, constraints in the material world shape thought. This was the theme of the life work of my mentor in anthropology, the late Marvin Harris (1927-2001), who was reviled by Marxists in and out of the academy for being a "vulgar" or "mechanical" materialist.
Harris' offense was in rejecting the religious element of doctrinaire Marxism -- i.e., Georg Hegel's idea that social formations develop internal contradictions that at once cause their own destruction and form the basis of emerging new institutions.
Muravchik addressed the essentially theological nature of the Hegelian dialectic in his talk. He began by reviewing the loopy Utopian fantasies of Robert Owen (1771-1858), the British factory owner who came to the United States in 1825 to establish a commune in Indiana.
The irony, Muravchik said, was that socialism proved that it could not work at its inception, with the failure of such communes in the first half of the 19th century. But Marx and Engels raised the ideology behind these fuzzy experiments to a prophetic religion.
"Marx was one of history's most thoroughgoing misanthropes," Muravchik said. "He not only hated his enemies, but he hated and despised his own followers. ... Above all, he hated the Jews, having been born one himself."
Muravchik said his research has shown that Marx's masterpiece, "Das Kapital," "has more or less never been read by anyone ... because the work is essentially unreadable."
Engels, Marx's financial benefactor, brought Marx's message to the world -- that socialism would not come about by human devising but by an inexorable historical dynamic. Muravchik said this transformed socialism from Utopianism to the recognition of a "scientific" principle by which the faithful could divine the future. In that way, Marx and Engels "made a religion and called it science."
This is all very well, but it will not do to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ideas do not emerge from thin air.
Farm families, for example, have more children than urban families. If natalist ideology is stronger in the country than in town, it because children are useful agricultural workers and city kids are consumers of expensive resources.
Epistemology aside, the comments of Muravchik and Krauthammer were incisive.
Socialism was an idea that more than any other shaped the bloody history of the 20th century, Muravchik said. Until 1989 it arguably was the most popular idea of all time, apart from Christianity.
"It took Christianity some 300 years before it could claim to speak for 10 percent of the world's population (and) 1,900 years before it could claim to hold the adherents of a third of mankind. Yet socialism took a mere 150 years ... until by the late 1970s it ruled over more than 60 percent of the world's people," he said.
Of course, not everyone ruled over by socialist regimes believed in the system. For some, the longer they were ruled by it, the less they believed it, Muravchik said. "Yet millions did believe in it, and fervently. ... It was the faith of a large part of the intellectual classes even in this least socialist of countries, all the more so in Europe and elsewhere."
Moderator Irving Kristol, a founder of the neo-conservative movement, recalled the era -- around 1940 --when all his friends were socialists, including the author's father, Manny Muravchik.
Joshua Muravchik said that for decades socialism persisted in spite of the failure of Marxist predictions. Under capitalism, "The workers got richer, not poorer. The middle class got more numerous; it did not disappear." The claim that the proletariat had no homeland was "blown to smithereens" in 1914, when workers and the socialist deputies in the various parliaments flocked to their country's banners.
Just as the creed was being eclipsed, Muravchik said, Lenin rescued it by seizing power in Russia, the largest land power. The prophecy seemed to have been confirmed.
"But against socialism's failures there stood out a counter-model, and that was the successes of America. ... American workers and their own indigenous proletarian leaders examined the idea of socialism and found it wanting."
The author, a resident AEI scholar, said the momentum changed in 1978-79 with the accession of Deng Xiaoping in China, who undid collective agriculture and returned to the farming of private plots of land. And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "set out to cure the British disease by 'killing socialism' in its democratic form as it was practiced in Europe.
"From there, over the course of a decade, the whole amazing episode collapsed," Muravchik said, "leaving us to ponder how this idea had been so seductive and so destructive. ... The toll was more than 100 million lives snuffed out and countless others blighted."
Krauthammer said socialism's "almost Biblical" concept of perfect equality becomes, step-by-step, "coercion, restrictions, assignment of duties, assignment of wealth, assignment of everything. And you end up inexorably and inevitably with dictatorship and misery."