THE SOCIALIST PHENOMENON

     Readers could find the review of world-renowned mathematician by profession, Igor Shafarevich’s book, “The Socialist Phenomenon”1 of great interest in light of the ‘revolution’ that is at present being played out in the western world.  The review was written in 2007. Igor Shafarevich died in 2017

     Igor Shafarevich’s book, first became widely known in the West when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn mentioned it in his commencement address to Harvard University in 1978 A World Split Apart .

     This venture into history is a remarkable example of the breadth of his interests and learning. As Solzhenitsyn noted in his preface to this book, the profession of historian being almost extinct in the Soviet Union (except for Party hacks of whom it was joked that none of them could predict the past), it was necessary for physical scientists and mathematicians (who had some mental space for creative work since the Party needed their discoveries for military purposes) to stand in for their massacred colleagues in history and the social sciences.

     Shafarevich notes that Socialism (defined here to mean movements or societies that attempt to monopolize all means of production) bears a number of recurring characteristics throughout history:
·      the abolition of private property,
·      abolition of the family,
·      abolition of religion,
·      and communality or equality.

Experiments in Co-Habitation
     While some of these characteristics are certainly familiar enough from the example of Communism, others are lesser known. In the earliest days of the Soviet state, various experiments in cohabitation by men and women were permitted on the grounds that the family was a `bourgeois’ institution that should be superseded and allowed to die out. For a time at least, childbearing out of wedlock was encouraged on the grounds that children could be better brought-up in state-run institutions while mothers worked. These experiments so disordered a society already reeling under forcible collectivization, the imprisonment and mass-murder of ‘suspect’ classes, and economic collapse; that the Bolsheviks soon abandoned them.

     Far from being innovative, the origins of these ideas go back at least as far as Plato, and recur frequently throughout the history of utopian Socialism, as Shafarevich abundantly and cogently illustrates with examples drawn from a number of cultures widely separated in time and space.

     Shafarevich is especially astute in his observations of various medieval chiliastic [1] groups, of which he considerers Communism to be a sort of modern-day offshoot. In them the goal of commonality and equality were typically taken to grotesque extremes, including not only commonality of goods (no private property--not even personal possessions), but frequently commonality of wives as well, i.e., every man could have sexual relations with whichever woman he fancied. This stress on perfect equality ultimately works itself out in the infliction and, even the willing self-infliction of mass death (certainly the one state in which all human beings are completely alike).

     Shafarevich writes with all the passion of a Russian patriot and Orthodox Christian repulsed at the effects, both moral and material, of decades of Soviet Communism on his homeland. Anyone expecting a dry treatise will not find one here. It is here, perhaps, where Shafarevich’s thesis finds its gravest weakness as well as its greatest strength.

     Shafarevich’s view of history is passionate--and brilliantly insightful for this, yet it is (perhaps necessarily) impressionistic. Although many of his observations have been independently confirmed by Western scholars such as Norman Cohn and Karl Wittfogel; Shafarevich’s linking of utopian socialism and the ‘scientific’ socialism that displaced it is not quite as self-evident as he would claim--though it is suggestive. Yet this only means that it is now necessary for other scholars to take up these questions anew, and research them more thoroughly.

     The credit for blazing this trail goes to Shafarevich, and however wrongheaded some of his most recent work may be, he deserves praise for researching and writing this book under arduous conditions, and for his courage in seeing to it that it would see print--whatever the consequences to him.

Note
[1] chiliasm. n. c.1600, from Latinized form of Greek khiliasmos, from khilias, from khilioi “a thousand, the number 1,000,” of unknown origin; supposed by some to be related to Latin mille. The doctrine of the millennium, the opinion that Christ will reign in bodily presence on earth for 1,000 years.

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