The Magazine

The Heaven That Failed

An autopsy of socialism.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Heaven on Earth
The Rise and Fall of Socialism
by Joshua Muravchik
Encounter, 417 pp., $27.95

Holy Madness
Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871
by Adam Zamoyski
Viking, 512 pp., $34.95

THERE ARE TWO KINDS of radical: the consolable and the inconsolable. The consolables are those whose grievances can--at least in theory--be addressed, while the inconsolables are those whose rage admits no limits. The 1970s terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" is a good example of an inconsolable. Born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the son of a fervent Communist who named him after Lenin, Carlos has recently converted in his French jail to Islam because "the only people who do a good job" of fighting capitalism "are the Muslims."

In the course of the twentieth century, the Islamic world, its traditional religious identity shaken by its encounter with modernity, has moved with astonishing speed through liberal, radical nationalist, and socialist phases. All have failed, but the nationalism and the socialism--both Western imports--have become thoroughly intertwined with Islam itself, creating the totalitarian political theology known as radical Islam or Islamism.

This shouldn't have come as a complete surprise since the false promise of religious salvation through political means is a staple of European history. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the French Revolution was "like Islam," for it "flooded the whole world with its soldiers, its apostles, and its martyrs." Shaken by its own encounter with modernity in the Enlightenment, Christian Europe, too, would move through nationalist and socialist phases, which culminated in the twentieth century with the rise of fascism and communism.

The course of European political theology is chronicled in two strikingly well-written books. Last year, with "Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871," Adam Zamoyski gave a picaresque, almost novelistic account of the "spiritual and emotional conditions that gave rise to the cult of the nation" in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon's conquests. In the words of a popular French song, "the people is God--the manifestation of the divine principle on earth."

And now, with "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism," Joshua Muravchik tells the story of the kinds of socialism that took hold in the late nineteenth century after the "Holy Madness" of radical nationalism had burned itself out. As Muravchik points out, some socialists were consolables: the late-nineteenth-century German Eduard Bernstein, for instance, and the current British prime minister Tony Blair--people open to evidence and capable of responding to changes in capitalism. And then there are the inconsolables: the mild-mannered utopian socialist Robert Owen, for example, and the ferocious Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who were inoculated against doubt and experience.

FOR ZAMOYSKI in "Holy Madness," a key figure is Giuseppe Mazzini: the great conspirator who, inspired by the French Revolution, devoted his life to freeing Italy from the control of the Austrian Empire. Raised a Catholic, he transmuted the images of the French Revolution into symbols of a substitute faith. The French tricolor replaced the Cross and the "Marseillaise" became the romantic nationalists' "Te Deum." Preaching to a peasant population that identified with local villages rather than with an Italian nation, he insisted that "without Nationality neither liberty or equality is possible, and we believe in the Holy Fatherland." After one of his many failed uprisings, he dressed in black for the rest of his life in mourning for an Italy he described as "the people messiah" whose suffering was, like Christ's, destined to free all the captive peoples of Europe.

Mazzini spoke, says Zamoyski, of one master (God), one law (progress), and one earthly interpreter (the people). His was a generous, if naive, liberal nationalism, which assumed that when men of good will labored for their own freedom through national liberation, they were also working for the freedom of all nations. The great Russian liberal socialist Alexander Herzen best summarized Mazzini when he described him as a man of "grandeur, and, if you like, something of madness." Mazzini's path to freedom was a poetic war, a holy war directed against the divine-right monarchs who wanted to stifle the inner creative spirit of the individual nations in their cradle.

If Mazzini was the mind of romantic nationalism, Giuseppe Garibaldi was the muscle. The very model of a swashbuckling hero, Garibaldi was the most widely admired man of his era (so much so that Lincoln offered him a command in the Civil War). He is said to have shot disobedient followers dead "without stopping to take the cigar from his mouth."