Commentary Magazine


Socialist Myth

To the Editor:

Any author would be pleased to receive a review as judicious and fair as Jeane Kirkpatrick gave my book, Pyramids of Sacrifice [Books in Review, August], and quibbling with details could be considered graceless. I’m pleased, indeed, and I don’t want to quibble, but there is one particular detail on which Mrs. Kirkpatrick has misunderstood me, and it is important enough to correct the misunderstanding: I argued in the book that the appeal of revolutionary socialism lies, at least in part, in its promise of the sort of human community disrupted by the processes of modernization. Mrs. Kirkpatrick criticizes this argument by pointing out that there is no evidence that members of socialist societies enjoy a greater sense of community than people living under capitalism. True. But I did not argue that they do. The “mythic” appeal of socialism is enormously powerful throughout the world—except in socialist societies. This is not just a piquant paradox, but it points to the most profound “contradiction” of socialism—namely, its apparent inability to keep its promise of liberating community. Put differently: those who have fallen under the sway of the socialist myth (and I have no quarrel with Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s observations on the particular susceptibility of Western intellectuals) often appear impervious to just about any empirical disconfirmation of their political dream. In looking at socialist societies from the vantage point of Western “alienation,” no illusion seems to be too grotesque, no justification too tortuous. Apparently there is only one fairly certain cure for this particular will to believe. It occurs, often very rapidly, when the believer finds himself living in a society that has undergone a socialist revolution. But then, of course, it is too late for the reassessment to have any political consequences.

Peter L. Berger
Brooklyn, New York

_____________

 

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes:

Peter L. Berger thinks that I misunderstood his position concerning the “mythic” appeals of socialism. I think that he has misunderstood my criticism. In Pyramids of Sacrifice Mr. Berger argues that an important part of the appeal of revolutionary socialism lies in its “promise of liberating community.” I agree with him that the validity of this argument does not depend on whether socialist societies in fact provide such community. But I not only doubt that revolutionary socialist regimes deliver on the promise to restore the human community disrupted by modernization. I question whether “alienation” (the split between the self and society) is a specifically modern phenomenon created by industrialization and urbanization, whether it is more widespread in modern urban settings than elsewhere, and whether the principal appeals of revolutionary socialism lie in its promise of the restoration of community. Careful examination of persons attracted to revolutionary socialism suggests that they may be seeking something other than integration, harmony, and purpose.

In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler wrote with feeling of the devastating impact of industrialization and urbanization on uprooted working-class families. There is little doubt that he sought the restoration of a romanticized German community. But we all understand that the appeals of power, destruction, violence, terror, nihilism were important to Hitler himself, to his lieutenants and followers.

In thinking about the appeals of revolutionary socialism it is important to begin from the fact that revolution means destruction, and the fact that revolutionaries are moved by intense hostility toward the people who embody the society and culture marked for destruction. There is entirely too much romanticizing of the appeals of revolution. I fear that Mr. Berger’s argument concerning the mythic appeals of socialism as “liberating community” falls into this error. But I should not like disagreement on this point to obscure my high regard for Pyramids of Sacrifice.

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