Skip to comments.Heaven on Earth -The Rise and Fall of Socialism (From the Epilogue)
Posted on 08/21/2003 9:56:36 PM PDT by Noumenon
France was the capital of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century intellectual movement spearheaded by writers who called themselves philosphes. They had waged a campaign of relentless criticism of the church and revealed religion, which their leader Voltaire called "The infamous thing." The crusade was so effective that by 1778, when an eighty-three year old Voltaire returned to Paris after decades away, he was received like a "victorious general," as Peter Gray describes it. The Jesuit order had been suppressed, and various indicators showed a decline in devotion among the public. The effects were most profound in the ranks of the articulate and the highborn. "Frank atheism was still comparatively rare, but among the enlightened scholars, writers, and gentlemen who set the intellectual fashions of the later eighteenth century, frank Christianity even rarer," writes historian E. J. Hobsbawm.
The decline of faith was fueled by a rise of science, but not all who lost faith became scientific. "Fashionable women kept books on science on their dressing tables, and, like Mme. de Pompadour, had their portraits painted with squares and telescopes at their feet," say the Durants. Nonetheless, "a thousand superstitions survived side by side with the rising Enlightenment." The same Mme. de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, frequented a fortune-teller who read the future in coffee grounds. Other leading figures of the court did the same.
Like Voltaire, those who were neither Christians nor atheists usually were deists. Deism affirmed the existence of God, or better, of some "supreme being," or "eternal cause," but denied the legitimacy of the church and and the authority of Scripture. What separated deists from atheists was a need to explain creation or a fear of the moral consequences of a godless world.
Deism enjoyed its apotheosis in the French Revolution with the replacement of the Christian calendar with one in which the days, months and seasons were renamed for plants and animals and types of weather. But this transformation like other innovations such as changing the name of the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the Temple of Reason, did not last long; for it served only to illustrate the depth of the human impulse to religion. Diderot, whose Encyclopedie was the flagship of the Enlightenment, confessed that he could not watch religious processions "without tears coming to my eyes."
Most anthropologists agree that religion is a universal; they have yet to discover a civilization of logical positivists. As the eminent scholar Edward O. Wilson said in his acceptance speech upon receiving the 1999 Humanist of he Year award:
There is no doubt that spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and, it appears, necessary parts of the human condition... the inability of secular humanist thinker s to satisfy this instinct, even when evidence and reason are on their side, is surely part of the reason that there are only 5300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Accordingly, the Enlightenment's discrediting of Christianity left Europe in the early nineteenth century hungering for a new faith. Robert Owen's movement with its church-like "halls of science" aimed to fill the need, but he was unable to fashion a coherent doctrine. Had socialism remained eh work of such fanciful souls as he, it would have been as marginal as humanism, pacifism, ethical culturalism, vegetarianism and so many other goodhearted but feckless theories.
Engels and Marx, however, succeeded in recasting socialism into a compelling religious faith, and their socialism absorbed or eclipsed all others. Attlee, for example, claimed in The Labour Party in Perspective that his thinking was rooted in Owen and Christianity rather than in Marx, but like Moliere's bourgeois gentilhomme who had been "speaking prose without knowing it," Attlee's idiom reverberated with Marxist concepts. He spoke of class struggle, historical materialism, the supersession of socioeconomic systems in response to technological change and the like. Nothing akin can be found in Owen or the Gospels.
Marxism made socialism a religion by reducing all history and all problems to a single main drama. "Communism is the riddle of history solved," said Marx. Solving the riddle meant not only comprehending the past but foreseeing the future. It "transferred the centre of gravity of the argument for socialism from its rationality or desirability to its historic inevitability," said Hobsbawm, giving it "its most formidable intellectual weapon." In truth, the claim of inevitability was not an intellectual weapon but a religious one. It had no logical weight but great psychological power, paralleling Engels' boyhood faith of Pietism, which embodied a doctrine of predestination.
Nor was this the only way that socialism echoed revelation. It linked mankind's salvation to a downtrodden class, combining the Old Testament's notion of a chosen people with the New Testament's prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth. Like the Bible, it's historical narrative was a tale of redemption that divided time into three epochs: a distant past of primitive content, a present of suffering and struggle, and a future of harmony and bliss. By investing history with a purpose, socialism evoked passions that other political philosophies could not stir. As the American socialist intellectual Irving Howe put it,
Not many people became socialists because they were persuaded of the correctness of Marxist economics or supposed the movement served their "class interests." They became socialists because they were moved to fervor by the call to brotherhood and sisterhood; because the world seemed aglow with the vision of a time in which humanity might live in justice and peace.
Most socialists would deny that their creed is religious in character. Did not Marx say that religion is an opiate? But many have given evidence of the religious quality of their belief. Michael Harrington, a fallen-away product of Jesuit education who became the preeminent American socialist of his generation, once wrote: "I consider myself to be - in Max Weber's phrase - 'religiously musical' even though I do not believe in God... I am... a 'religious nature without religion.' a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural." A Harrington disciple, sociologist Norman Birnbaum, has been more blunt. "Socialism in all its forms," he writes, "was itself a religion of redemption."
Harrington may not have made as clean a break with the supernatural as he liked to believe. To be sure, Marxism contained no gods or angels, yet it had its own mystical elements. It claimed that human behavior was determined by abstract, exterior forces: people do what they do not for the reasons they think, but because of the mode and the means of production and the class structure. To compound the mystery, Marx and Engels did not believe that the forces they described governed their own actions, but they did not explain why they were exempt.
Nonetheless, Marxism's departure from empiricism was less glaring that that of revealed religions and did not prove fatal to its claim of being scientific. Marx and Engels were pioneers in applying the terminology of science to human behavior. The term "science" had only come fully into vogue in the early nineteenth century, replacing the older "natural philosophy," and it carried a powerful cachet. Every day science was finding explanations for things that had long seemed inexplicable, so Marxism's claim to have broken the code of history did not seem implausible.
Before Marx, Robert Owen always characterized his activities as scientific (as did Saint Simon, Fourier and the other utopian socialists), and the claim was valid. Owen hit upon the idea of socialism and then set about to test it by creating experimental communities. Such experimentation is the very essence of the scientific method. Owen strayed from science only at he point that he chose to ignore his results rather than reconsider his hypothesis. Engels and Marx replaced experimental socialism with prophetic socialism, and claimed thereby to have progressed from utopia to science.
Thus, part of the power of Marxism was its ability to feed religious hunger while flattering the sense of being wiser than those who gave themselves over to unearthly faiths. In addition, the structure of of rewards proffered by socialism was so much more appealing than in the biblical religions. Foe one thing, you did not have to die to enjoy them. Ernest Belford Bax, the most voluble of the founders of British Marxism, wrote a book titled The Religion of Socialism that that reprised the young Hesse:
Socialism... brings back religion from heaven to earth... It looks beyond the present moment... not... to another world, but to another and a higher social life in this world. It is in... this higher social life... whose ultimate possibilities are beyond the power of language to express or thought to conceive, that the socialist finds his ideal, his religion.
The same ecstatic tone reverberated in Trotsky's forecast that under socialism the average person would exhibit the talents of a Beethoven or a Goethe, and in Harrington's vision of "an utterly new society in which some of the most fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended... [W]ork will no longer be necessary... The sentence decreed in the Garden of Eden will have been served."
The biblical account of Adam and Eve's fall explained the hardships of life. It also portrayed mankind's capacity for evil as well as good, suggesting that we might ameliorate the hardship by cultivating our better natures. As Harrington's bold promise suggests, socialism made things easier. Not only did it vow to deliver the goods in this world rather than the next, but it asked little in return. At the most, you had to support the revolution. At the least, you had to do nothing, since the ineluctable historical forces would bring about socialism anyway. In either case you did not have to worship or obey. You did not have to make sacrifices or give charity. You did not have to confess or repent or encounter that tragic sense of life that is the lot of those who embrace a nonsecular religion. No doubt, many or most of those drawn to socialism felt some sense of humane idealism, but its demands were deflected onto society as a whole.
If this is what made the religion of socialism so attractive, it also explains what made it so destructive .Religion is ubiquitous, reaching far back into the human dawn: prehistoric cave drawings depict what appear to be mythical figures. But early ideas about the cosmos reflected little that we would recognize as moral content, as the bawdy shenanigans of the Greek deities illustrate. The Bible changed this. And the advent of the Bible was only a part of a global transformation that historian Herbert J. Muller places around the sixth century B.C., with the rise of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, as well as the culmination of he prophetic movement in Judaism. These faiths, he says,
...all moved away from the immemorial tribal gods and nature gods, toward more universal, spiritual conceptions of deity or the cosmic order. Their primary concern was no longer the material success of the nation or the assurance of good crops, but he spiritual welfare of man. They offered visions of some Good beyond earthly life, rescuing man from his long obsession with food and phallus. They proposed different ways of treating the powers above, but ways alike more amenable to his ideal purposes. Their service of deity was far from mere servility.
From then on, the world's major faiths connected some theory of the nature of the world with a moral code. Two and a half millennia later, the religion of socialism sundered that connection. What was different about it was not the absence of God, since Buddhism and Confucianism also have no God, but rather the absence of good and evil and right and wrong. This opened the doors to the terrible deeds that were done in the name of socialism.
To be sure, terrible deeds have also been done in the name of the traditional religions. One can cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, the World Trade Center and more. The idea of ultimate salvation - religious or secular - can be used to justify many things. Religious zealots have rationalized their depredations by selective interpretations of holy texts, finding authority for attacks against outsiders or coreligionists whom they deem wayward. But in doing so they also ignore or suppress core elements of their creeds that address moral commands to the believer himself, constraining his actions. Socialism, in contrast, lacks any internal code of conduct to limit what its believers might do. The socialist narrative turned history into a morality play without the morality. No wonder, then, that its balance sheet looks so much worse. In about three centuries the Crusades claimed two million lives; Pol Pot snuffed out roughly the same number in a mere three years. Regimes calling themselves socialist have murdered more than one hundred million people since 1917. The toll of the crimes by observant Christians, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus pales in comparison.
By no means all socialists were killers or amoral. Many were sincere humanitarians; mostly these were the adherents of democratic socialism. But democratic socialism turned out to be a contradiction in terms, for where socialists proceeded democratically, the found themselves on a trajectory that took them further and further from socialism. Long before Lenin, socialist thinkers had anticipated the problem. The imaginary utopias of Plato, Moore, Campanella and Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel, Looking Backward, was the most popular socialist book in American history, all relied on coercion, as did the plans of The Conspiracy of Equals. Only once did democratic socialists manage to create socialism. That was the kibbutz. And after they had experienced it, they chose democratically to abolish it.
the world's major faiths connected some theory of the nature of the world with a moral code. Two and a half millennia later, the religion of socialism sundered that connection. What was different about it was not the absence of God, since Buddhism and Confucianism also have no God, but rather the absence of good and evil and right and wrong. This opened the doors to the terrible deeds that were done in the name of socialism.
Then let's re-read Solzhenitsn's A World Split Apart to get the full flavor of the significance of the battle being fought in Alabama.
Known as the Mannheim paradox, first formulated by Karl Mannheim: if all ideology is motivated by economic interests, whose economic interests does Marxism serve? How is Marx immune from his own generalization, and how does he explain his own access to real causes behind ideology?
Thanks for posting an enjoyable essay.
I am reminded of the phrase, "one does not make history, one merely survives it".
I just finished reading Philip Howard's 1994 book, The Death of Common Sense, and much of what Solzhenitsyn said about humanism/rationalism and the legal structures of our society are amazingly profound when cast in the light of more recent events.
You know, for hairy-backed, knuckle-dragging gun-loving neaderthals, we sure do some interesting reading, dontcha think? $;-)
Sign of the times bump
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