On April 24th, 2019, The Institute of World Politics Adjunct Professor Dr. Joshua Muravchik delivered a lecture on his new book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, to the public. Professor Muravchik began his presentation by first reflecting on the political prominence of socialism throughout history. Socialism, Professor Muravchik explained, “Did more than any other idea to shape the history of the 20th century.” The lecturer explained that socialism was, in fact, the most popular political idea ever conceived, and has achieved renewed prominence in modern times. During the 150 years of the political ideology’s existence, it has dominated up to 60% of the world.
After reflecting on socialism’s prominence, both past and present, Dr. Muravchik elucidated the origins of socialism, including its birth during the French Revolution and the changes it experienced during the 1820s and 1830s as the political ideas underpinning the doctrine evolved. Dr. Muravchik then explained in detail the efforts made to propagate socialism within the United States, including the various experiments in socialism that were conceived in the U.S., all of which were largely unsuccessful.
Finally, Professor Muravchik recounted the dramatic rise in prominence that socialism experienced after featuring in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both of which ignored the previous failings of socialism as a viable political system. Karl Marx, Dr. Muravchik reflected, promised that he espoused “scientific socialism,” that that his form of socialism would be more effective than that of his predecessors, to great effect. Not only did Marx claim to have a more effective form of socialism, but he also claimed that it was “inevitable” that all the world would invariably embrace socialism as a natural global progression towards equality. Marx believed that class struggle would help usher in this revolution of political systems and society in general, creating a great socialist revolution.
Professor Muravchik then related in intimate detail how socialism would continue to evolve, metastasize, and change, spreading in power even as different socialist thinkers debated over the nature of socialism. During the 20th century, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin introduced the idea of the “vanguard of the proletariat,” a small elite group who would liberate the people from their oppression under their pre-existing economic and political systems and save them by installing a socialist and communist one. Lenin would employ this idea during the Russian Revolution by engaging in the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and helping to install a communist government.
Professor Muravchik then related how socialism has been involved in the political ideas of various autocrats and malign actors throughout history, from Mussolini to Hitler, who led the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” also known as the Nazi party. Muravchik explained that the destruction of fascism after World War II helped eliminate that political idea, but the aftermath helped lead to the rise of socialism as a seemingly innovative and attractive political idea. Muravchik then explains how socialism changed and propagated during the Cold War, becoming a core facet of the ideological and economic struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. As mentioned before, by the 1970s, approximately 60% of the world lived under the auspices of socialist governments, with largely deleterious results.
Professor Muravchik elucidated how the United States, despite Soviet attempts, was able to resist the influence of socialism, and that the capitalist countries’ prominence and power helped detract in part from the attractiveness of socialism worldwide. From its height during the early 1970s, Dr. Muravchik explained that socialism began to decline in power.
One key element of this decline, he explained, was the People’s Republic of China’s pivot from a predominately state-run economy to a market-based system under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and later Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to eliminate socialism in the United Kingdom. A final key event in the collapse of socialism’s allure was the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rapid conversion of the Russian Federation into a market-driven capitalist state.
Dr. Muravchik closed by expressing surprise at the fact socialism has managed to have a resurgence in recent years, and that the ideas that underpin this doctrine appear durable enough to have survived their large-scale failure during the 20th century.