Human Rule Weighed in the Balances
Part 7—A Political Search for Utopia
Socialism: a social system advocating State ownership and control of the means of production that communists view as an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism; Communism: a social system advocating the absence of classes, the common ownership of the means of production and subsistence, and the equitable distribution of economic goods.
GREEK mythology tells of a Greek deity named Cronus, during whose reign Greece enjoyed a golden age. “All shared equally in the common lot, private property was unknown, and peace and harmony reigned undisturbed,” explains the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. The same source adds: “The first traces of socialism appear in the lament for a lost ‘Golden Age.’”
Not until the early and middle decades of the 19th century, however, did socialism make its appearance as a modern political movement. It found ready acceptance, especially in France, where the French Revolution had severely shaken conventional ideas. There, as in other European countries, the Industrial Revolution created harsh social problems. People were ripe for the idea that public rather than private ownership of resources would better enable the masses to share equally in the fruits of combined labor.
Socialism is not a new idea. Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato wrote about it. Later, during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, Thomas Müntzer, a radical German Catholic priest, demanded a classless society. But his views were controversial, especially his call for revolution, if necessary, in order to achieve this goal. In the 19th century, Welshman Robert Owen, Frenchmen Étienne Cabet and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and a number of other social reformers, among them prominent clergymen, taught that socialism was simply Christianity by another name.
The Utopias of Marx and More
But “none of these spokesmen for socialism,” says the above-mentioned reference work, “had an impact comparable to that exerted by Karl Marx, whose writings became the touchstone of socialist thinking and action.”a Marx taught that by means of class struggle, history progresses step-by-step; once the ideal political system has been found, history in that sense will end. This ideal system will resolve the problems of previous societies. Everyone will live in peace, freedom, and prosperity, with no need for governments or military forces.
This sounds remarkably similar to what British statesman Sir Thomas More in 1516 described in his book Utopia. The word, a Greek name of More’s coining, means “no place” (ou-topos), and was possibly meant as a pun on the similar expression eu-topos, meaning “good place.” The Utopia about which More wrote was an imaginary country (no place) that was, nonetheless, an ideal country (good place). Thus, “Utopia” has come to mean “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.” More’s book was a clear indictment of the less than ideal economic and social conditions that prevailed during his time in Europe, especially in England, and that contributed later to the development of socialism.
Marx’s theories also mirrored the views of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. According to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, “the apocalyptic, quasi-religious character of Marxian socialism was shaped by Hegel’s philosophical restatement of radical Christian theology.” Against this backdrop of “radical Christian theology,” explains author Georg Sabine, Marx developed “an exceedingly powerful moral appeal, backed by a quasi-religious conviction. It was nothing less than an appeal to join the march of civilization and right.” Socialism was the wave of the future; perhaps, some thought, it really was Christianity marching to victory under a new name!
The Road From Capitalism to Utopia
Marx lived to publish only the first volume of his work Das Kapital. The last two were edited and published in 1885 and 1894 respectively by his closest collaborator, Friedrich Engels, a German socialist philosopher. Das Kapital undertook to explain the historical background of capitalism, the economic system characteristic of Western-style representative democracy. Based on unregulated trade and competition without State control, capitalism as explained by Marx concentrates ownership of the means of production and distribution in private and corporate hands. According to Marx, capitalism produces a middle class and a working class, provoking antagonism between the two and leading to oppression of the latter. Using the works of orthodox economists to back up his views, Marx argued that capitalism is in reality undemocratic, and that socialism is the ultimate in democracy, benefiting the people by promoting human equality and freedom.
Utopia would be reached once the proletariat rose up in revolution and threw off the oppression of the bourgeoisie, setting up what Marx called a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” (See box, page 21.) His views, however, mellowed with time. He began allowing for two different concepts of revolution, one of a violent kind and the other of a more permanent, gradual kind. This raised an interesting question.
Utopia by Way of Revolution or Evolution?
“Communism” is derived from the Latin word communis, which means “common, belonging to all.” Like socialism, communism claims that free enterprise leads to unemployment, poverty, business cycles, and labor-management conflicts. The solution to these problems is to distribute the nation’s wealth more equally and justly.
But by the end of the last century, Marxists were already at odds about how to achieve these agreed-upon ends. In the early 1900’s, that part of the socialist movement that rejected violent revolution and advocated working within the parliamentary democratic system gained in strength, developing into what is now called democratic socialism. This is the socialism found today in democracies like the Federal Republic of Germany, France, and Britain. For all intents and purposes, these parties have rejected genuine Marxist thinking and are simply interested in creating a welfare state for their citizens.
One dedicated Marxist, however, who strongly believed that a communist Utopia could be achieved only by violent revolution was Lenin. His teachings, along with Marxism, serve as the basis for contemporary orthodox communism. Lenin, a pseudonym of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, was born in 1870 in what is now the Soviet Union. In 1889 he converted to Marxism. After 1900, following a term of Siberian exile, he lived mostly in Western Europe. When the czarist regime was overthrown, he returned to Russia, founded the Russian Communist Party, and led the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Thereafter he served as the first head of the Soviet Union until his death in 1924. He saw the Communist Party as a highly disciplined, centralized group of revolutionists serving as the vanguard of the proletariat. The Mensheviks disagreed.—See box, page 21.
The line of demarcation between revolution and evolution is no longer so well-defined. In 1978 the book Comparing Political Systems: Power and Policy in Three Worlds observed: “Communism has become more ambivalent about how to achieve Socialist goals. . . . Differences between Communism and Democratic Socialism have been considerably lessened.” Now, in 1990, these words take on added meaning as communism undergoes drastic changes in Eastern Europe.
Communism Reintroduces Religion
“We need spiritual values . . . The moral values that religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too.” Few people thought they would ever hear these words from the mouth of a general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But on November 30, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev announced this dramatic about-face toward religion during his visit to Italy.
Does this perhaps support the theory that early Christians were themselves communists, practicing a type of Christian socialism? Some people make this claim, pointing to Acts 4:32, which says of Christians in Jerusalem: “They had all things in common.” Investigation reveals, however, that this was just a temporary arrangement brought on by unforeseen circumstances, not a permanent system of “Christian” socialism. Because they shared material goods in a loving way, “there was not one in need among them.” Yes, “distribution would be made to each one, just as he would have the need.”—Acts 4:34, 35.
“Glasnost” and “Perestroika”
Since the waning months of 1989, the Soviet Union and its fellow Communist governments in Eastern Europe have been experiencing mind-boggling political shakeups. Thanks to the policy of glasnost, or openness, these changes have been seen by all. East Europeans have demanded far-reaching reforms that, to a degree, have been granted. Communist leaders have admitted the need for a more humane and compassionate system and have called for a “rebirth of socialism in a different, more enlightened and efficient form,” as one Polish economist put it.
Chief among these leaders has been Gorbachev, who, shortly after coming to power in 1985, introduced the idea of perestroika (restructuring). During a visit to Italy, he defended perestroika as being necessary to meet the challenges of the 1990’s. He said: “Having embarked upon the road of radical reform, the socialist countries are crossing the line beyond which there is no return to the past. Nevertheless, it is wrong to insist, as many in the West do, that this is the collapse of socialism. On the contrary, it means that the socialist process in the world will pursue its further development in a multiplicity of forms.”
Communist leaders are therefore not ready to agree with the assessment made last year by columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote: “The perennial question that has preoccupied every political philosopher since Plato—what is the best form of governance?—has been answered. After a few millennia of trying every form of political system, we close this millennium with the sure knowledge that in liberal, pluralist capitalist democracy we have found what we have been looking for.”
However, the German newspaper Die Zeit candidly admits the sad picture Western-style democracy presents, calling attention to its “unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, curtailment of social programs, tax reduction and budget deficits,” and then asks: “Is this really the perfect society that has forever triumphed over socialism?”
A familiar proverb says that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. What form of imperfect human government can afford to criticize the weaknesses of another? The facts show that the perfect human government—a Utopia—does not exist. Politicians are still looking for the “good place.” It is still “no place” to be found.
a Marx, born of Jewish parents in 1818 in what was then Prussia, was educated in Germany and worked there as a journalist; after 1849 he spent most of his life in London, where he died in 1883.
[Box on page 21]
SOCIALIST AND COMMUNIST TERMINOLOGY
BOLSHEVIKS/MENSHEVIKS: The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party founded in 1898 split into two groups in 1903; Bolsheviks, literally “members of the majority,” under Lenin, favored keeping the party small, with a limited number of disciplined revolutionaries; Mensheviks, meaning “members of the minority,” favored a larger party membership employing democratic methods.
BOURGEOISIE/PROLETARIAT: Marx taught that the proletariat (the working class) would overthrow the bourgeoisie (the middle class, including factory owners), establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” thereby producing a classless society.
COMINTERN: Short for Communist International (or, Third International), an organization set up by Lenin in 1919 to promote communism; dissolved in 1943, it was preceded by the First International (1864-76), which gave birth to many European socialist groups, and the Second International (1889-1919), an international parliament of socialist parties.
COMMUNIST MANIFESTO: An 1848 statement by Marx and Engels of the principal tenets of scientific socialism that long served as a basis for European Socialist and Communist parties.
EUROCOMMUNISM: The communism of Western European Communist parties; independent of Soviet leadership and willing to serve in coalition governments, it argues that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is no longer necessary.
SCIENTIFIC/UTOPIAN SOCIALISM: Terms used by Marx to distinguish between his teachings, supposedly based on a scientific examination of history and the workings of capitalism and the purely Utopian socialist teachings of his forerunners.