A book offers a comprehensive tour of the history of socialism.
In the last U.S. presidential election, Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate, openly described himself as a socialist, sparking controversy over the contemporary meaning of the term. Bryson (The Economics of Henry George, 2011, etc.) slowly unravels the developmental spool of socialism, tracing its origin and ascendancy, its theoretical repudiation and practical collapse with the demise of the Soviet Union, and a kind of resurgent reinterpretation in contemporary America. The book divides into three main sections—in the first, a philosophical history of socialism is supplied that traces its moral core back to biblical theology, ancient Greek thought, and idealistic utopianism. With Marx, that utopianism takes on the patina of science and becomes a revolutionary attempt to eliminate private property as well as an entire class of people. Bryson also examines the view of Adam Smith and ably illuminates the moral core of it, a defense of human liberty. In the second section, the author limns the rise of socialism as it took root in Eastern and Western Europe, China, and, of course, the Soviet Union. The treatment of the Soviet experiment in communism is a highlight of the book and demonstrates that a “second economy” necessarily emerged, an underground free market of exchange demanded by the system’s resounding failures to meet its citizens’ needs. The last section details the insinuation of socialist ideas into the U.S., a nation in many ways inoculated against an unabashed embrace of them. As in Western Europe, socialism in America doesn’t necessarily mean the end of free markets but rather the establishment of a welfare state and aggressive redistribution of income and property. The scope of Bryson’s treatment is dizzying, the erudition nearly unbelievable, and his scholarly rigor impressive. But even in a book that reaches nearly 850 pages, one can still expect some depth to be sacrificed on the altar of thoroughness. For example, Hegel’s ontology of history, a crucial philosophical influence for Marx, is given only a handful of quick paragraphs. In the main, however, this is a magisterial work, encyclopedic and astute.
A remarkably exhaustive account of one of the 20th century’s—and perhaps the 21st century’s as well—most impactful ideologies.