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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 173-176

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Books in Review

Flogging a Dead God?

John Gould

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. By Joshua Muravchik. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. 417 pp.

Thirteen years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the stunned optimism that greeted it in the West seems to belong to an era as historically distant as the Soviet Union itself. Then, as photographs and news footage circulated of smiling West Berliners reaching over the Wall's crumbling remains to shake hands with stiff and bewildered East German border guards, a whole future appeared to be unfolding: Socialist dictatorship itself was giving way, and liberal democracy was coming to the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Of course, grounds for sobriety soon emerged, eventually multiplying quite terribly; and even now, with the worst extremes of post-Soviet interethnic violence having abated, the formerly communist societies of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are mostly far from the buoyant democratic hopes of 1989.

All the same, the imminence of socialism's death seems not to have been exaggerated. Of the small number of ostensibly socialist "peoples' republics" still in existence today only two or three are even trying to operate on the basis of a socialist economy (China, by far the largest and most important of them, is certainly not). Meanwhile, parties in the West identifying themselves as socialist or "social democratic" are essentially, if not explicitly, procapitalist—participating from the left in mainstream liberal-democratic debate on the proper scope and direction of the modern welfare state. The Labour Party currently dominates British politics, but it has been five years since it abandoned Clause IV of its party constitution, which from 1918 had committed Labour to [End Page 173] seeking "the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service." The success of center-left parties throughout the West over the course of the past decade has depended on similar "third way" reconciliations with market economics. Hard-line socialists still organize, and they still have sympathizers in more or less obscure quarters of middle-class society—including the largely inchoate and directionless "antiglobalization movement"—but otherwise things look about as good for socialism now as they did for the Habsburg Empire at the end of the First World War.

Historians have only begun to argue over the reasons why so globally influential an ideology has come so thoroughly to lose support. Nor is the drama of that loss easy to overstate. As Joshua Muravchik accentuates at the outset of his new book, socialism was "arguably . . . the most popular idea of any kind, surpassing even the great religions." And it spread faster and farther than any religion ever, becoming by the 1980s—just two centuries after it was first mobilized politically during the course of the French Revolution—the "official ideology" under which about 60 percent of the world's population lived. But from the outset of Heaven on Earth, it is clear that Muravchik, deeply convinced as he is of the fundamental human unviability of the socialist undertaking, does not intend to focus on historical controversy about the reasons for its collapse; he clearly believes that this outcome was so profoundly overdetermined as to be virtually inevitable. The real question that haunts Muravchik is the obverse one: How did an ideology that has so thoroughly lost support become so globally influential in the first place?

A former socialist himself, whose parents raised him on socialist doctrine and have stayed true to it since (his father even offered a good-natured rebuttal to the son's book at a May Day symposium in Washington this year), Muravchik stands in a tradition of ex-leftists whose confrontations with their abandoned beliefs produced some of the twentieth century's most powerful literary examinations of political ideas. His title (taken from a phrase in Moses Hess's 1846 A Confession of Communist Faith) even seems deliberately to echo the seminal 1950 essay collection by former communists Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard...