Socialism as Epic Tragedy
The idea millions killed and died for was a mirage
The saga of socialism constitutes an epic tragedy. It was the most popular political idea ever invented, arguably the most popular idea of any kind about how life should be lived or society organized. Only the great religions can compare. Within 150 years from the time the term “socialism” was coined, some 60 percent of the world’s people were living under governments calling themselves socialist. Of course, not everyone who lived under such a regime shared its philosophy, but many millions did embrace socialism, join socialist parties, vote for socialist candidates, and even kill and die for socialism.
The powerful allure of socialism lay in its appeal to idealism. Every major religion affirmed the superior importance of the spiritual realm as compared with material things. Socialism spoke to this value system, promising a secular path to its fulfillment — and, even better, one that entailed little sacrifice. Socialists reasoned that if only property were owned in common, everything shared, and the fruits divided equally, people would no longer have cause to vie with one another. A new day of brotherhood would dawn. Freed from competition and invidious distinctions, individuals could enjoy a closeness they had never known before.
And there was more. No longer obsessed with the scramble for wealth, individuals could instead pursue self-fulfillment. I might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and write criticism in the evening, said Marx. Individuals could thus focus on developing their talents. Every person, said Trotsky, could become a Beethoven or a Goethe.
There would no longer be want. Not only would the sharing of goods ensure sufficiency for all, but also, instead of wasteful production for profit, economies could be focused on producing for need. Schools and libraries might be built instead of casinos or brothels, mass transit or family sedans instead of thrill or prestige cars, and so on.
The early socialists, starting in the 1820s, created model communities, hoping to demonstrate the superiority of the system they espoused. These all fell apart, usually quickly. But the fact that the system proved difficult to put in place did not negate the beauty of the idea, and few socialists plumbed the question of why, exactly, it was so difficult to create and sustain this system.
In any event, Marx and Engels soon appeared and rescued hopes, dismissing the early experiments as “utopian” and thus devoid of meaning. Instead, the duo claimed to have discovered laws of history revealing socialism to be mankind’s more or less inevitable destiny. The deus ex machina that would dig the grave of capitalism was the “proletariat,” a fancy word for the working class. Ruthless competition would compel capitalists to squeeze the compensation of employees until the workers, finding themselves constantly more miserable and exploited, rose up and overthrew the system, replacing it with socialism.
Oddly, this prophecy did not induce complacency. On the contrary, Marx and Engels became intensely involved in socialist organizations and parties. In their footsteps, socialists thereafter balanced the confidence of being on the right side of history with political activism intended to help history along. But new disappointments were in store.
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