The Nuts and Bolts of Socialism

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The Socialist Phenomenon, by Igor Shafarevich, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, 319 pp., $16.95.

Many readers of From under the Rubble expressed the opinion that Igor Shafarevich's essay on socialism was the best in the entire collection. Now we have a full-length volume on the history of socialistic theories, written in Moscow where the author is an internationally reputed mathematician, smuggled out of the Soviet Union, published in Russian in Paris in 1975, and finally translated into English. Included is a trenchant introduction by Solzhenitsyn, a close friend of the author and the principal inspiration for the work.

The Soviet system of state socialism is far from new. Reading this history of socialism, whose theorists were largely uninfluenced by one another, one sees with what monotonous regularity the same tenets are set forth. Whether in ancient China or Mesopotamia, whether among the Incas of Peru or the early Christian heretical sects, whether in the theories of Sir Thomas More or those of Deschampes, the same themes are reiterated: the regulation of all details of life by the State, the abolition of private property, the conscription of labor, the abolition of the family.

Private property makes one independent of the State and must therefore be outlawed. Family loyalties get in the way of allegiance to the State, so the family must be rigidly controlled or eliminated; in many cases (for example, Plato's Republic) wives and children are held in common, and education of children is always a State monopoly. When religion becomes a threat to State allegiance, it too is persecuted. The same little details keep recurring in diverse historical periods, such as the insistence that doors remain always unlocked because no one may have any secrets from anyone else. And always one's work is determined by the State, and the worker may not change jobs without permission.

The nature of a society is most clearly seen in its system of punishment. Trivial offenses are often followed by the most horrible punishments in socialist societies, since when all life is regulated by the State, any infringement of the law becomes a crime against the State. Among the Incas "there were jails in underground caves in which jaguars, bears, and venomous snakes and scorpions were kept." In ancient China there was a detailed system of punishment for such offenses as stealing a bit of corn from a state farm or whispering a secret to a neighbor: "quartering, cutting into halves, cutting to pieces, decapitation with exhibition of the head on a square, slow strangulation, burying alive, boiling in a cauldron, breaking of ribs, smashing the crown of the head." In an address to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1958, Mao Tse-Tung, reviewing the record of one of his ancient predecessors, said: "Ch'in Shih Huang buried only 460 Confucians alive, we did away with several tens of thousands of people. We acted like ten Ch'in Shih Huangs. We are better than he: he buried alive 460 people, and we, 46,000."

The suppression of intellectuals—and anyone who might have independent thoughts—is another common theme. Shang Yang (4th century B.C.) wrote that "the gifted are of no use and the ungifted can do no harm; therefore, the art of ruling well consists in the ability to remove the clever and the gifted."

The motives of socialist theorists are often held to be noble; but, says the ancient Book of the Ruler of Shang, "to transform his people into clay in his hands, the ruler must renounce love of man, of justice, and of people.…They must be ruled like a collection of criminals. In a state where the depraved are treated as if they were virtuous, sedition is inevitable; in a state where the virtuous are treated as if they were depraved, order will reign and the State will be powerful." And in modern times Marx wrote to Engels such tidbits as: "It would be good to have a bad harvest next year, and then the real fun will begin.…Only two or three very bad years could help.…Our fatherland presents an extremely pitiful sight; without being battered from the outside, nothing can be done with these dogs."

Socialism often parades under the banner of justice and the alleviation of suffering; yet, says Shafarevich, "the alleviation of suffering is set aside until the victory of the socialist ideal, and all attempts to improve life at the present time are condemned as postponing the coming victory. [It] is in no way compatible with compassion for today's victims of oppression, who will have no share in the future just society."

Socialism declares itself to be egalitarian. Equality ordinarily means "equality of rights and sometimes equality of opportunity. But in socialist ideology the understanding of equality is akin to that used in mathematics, i.e., identity, the abolition of differences in behavior as well as in the inner world of individuals." And this is impossible "without absolute control of an all-powerful bureaucracy which would engender an incomparably greater inequality." Dostoevsky, who foresaw the future history of socialism more clearly than any other writer, described the socialist ideal as that of an ant-hill and a bee-hive, and Stalin himself called the inhabitants of the socialist state "nuts and bolts."

Socialism, says the author, has no rational arguments in its favor, and its adherents cling to it more "by instinct" than by the specious arguments they use. "Socialist conclusions are radically at odds with experience," yet socialists rise eternal throughout history.

It is not enough to say that all these people merely want to manage other people's lives, though most of them do have this messianic delusion. Shafarevich concludes that on a deeply unconscious level the ultimate aim of socialism is death, the death of the human race: the recurrent attraction of this perennially fascinating but indefensible doctrine is the same as the attraction of death, to people with a deep hatred for themselves and the world. Psychologically, says the author in a conclusion that may have less provable basis than anything in the 300 preceding pages of historical research, what animates socialism is the hatred and fear of life and the readiness to impose suffering and death not only upon oneself but upon the entire human race.

Whatever may be said of this conclusion, the theory and practice of socialism through the ages has been admirably set forth in this volume. Each chapter in the history resounds like a loud gong that keeps sounding endlessly, with only minor variations, blasting us so loudly with its reiteration that it finally communicates to us a visceral fright, even while it lays before us a fatal panorama of ideas with which we desperately need to be acquainted in order to deal with them.

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and is REASON's movie reviewer.

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