Monday, December 11, 2017

The Socialist Phenomenon

The Socialist Phenomenon, by Igor Shafarevich

Igor Shafarevich has written this book as an examination of socialism, from antiquity to the present age.  Who is Igor Shafarevich?

Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich (3 June 1923 – 19 February 2017) was a Russian mathematician who contributed to algebraic number theory and algebraic geometry. He wrote books and articles that criticize socialism, and was an important dissident during the Soviet regime.

Shafarevich's book The Socialist Phenomenon, which was published in the US by Harper & Row in 1980, analyzed numerous examples of socialism, from ancient times, through various medieval heresies, to a variety of modern thinkers and socialist states. From these examples he claimed that all the basic principles of socialist ideology derive from the urge to suppress individuality.

Shafarevich introduces a concept that I have not read elsewhere, the concept of chiliastic socialism:

Chiliasm: the doctrine of Christ's expected return to reign on earth for 1000 years; millennialism.

The Foreword is written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  He offers:

It seems that certain things in this world simply cannot be discovered without extensive experience.

The ideal of socialism butts up against the reality of socialism; Solzhenitsyn suggests that only those who have lived it can understand it.  Something for those who dream, unbelievably, of a socialist utopia sadly are unable to grasp.

Shafarevich points out with great precision both the cause and the genesis of the first socialist doctrines, which he characterizes as reactions: Plato as a reaction to Greek culture, and the Gnostics as a reaction to Christianity.  They sought to counteract the endeavor of the human spirit to stand erect.

Shafarevich offers that the twentieth century represents merely the beginning of a profound crisis: “a radical shift in the course of history.”  While he previously felt that the transition during the twentieth century was akin to the transition from the Middle Ages, he has been swayed to a different view, one that sees this as a transition from the 3,000 year period that began with the iron age.

Shafarevich describes the root of socialism:

We see concealed in Marx’s Hegelian phraseology and Aristophanes’ buffoonery almost the same program:

1)      Abolition of private property,
2)      Abolition of the family – i.e. communality of wives and disruption of the bonds between parents and children,
3)      Purely material prosperity.

His first chapter examines the socialism of antiquity – coming primarily with an examination of Plato’s Republic.  Plato describes as the ideal society one which is based on justice”

“…what we did lay down, and often said, if you recall, was that each one man must perform one special service in the state for which his nature was best adapted.”

Society is to be divided into three social groups: philosophers, guardians or soldiers, and artisans and peasants.  The philosophers hold unlimited power; the guardians guard the artisans and peasants.  For the most part, the group into which one is born is the group in which he will remain.

Property in common, meals in common, women in common, and children in common; education of children handled by the state.

It is difficult to deny that Plato’s Republic is morally, ethically, and in purely aesthetic terms far superior to other systems of chiliastic socialism. …modern systems like that of Marcuse seem much nearer to the caricature than to the original.

It is the system offered by Marcuse, I believe, that is the current version underlying the drive to utopia under which we live.


I am not sure that I will write extensively on this book.  Looking through the chapter titles, I see a few topics of particular interest; I will likely focus on these.


  1. I believe this article accurately describes the destruction of capitalism by socialism. the ideas of socialism are cancerous and destroy not only society but individual rights. I'd like to learn more about Shafarevich

    1. I don't know if I can tell you much more about Shafarevich, but I will be writing additional posts based on the book.

  2. Oscar Wilde put the best possible face on Socialism in his essay 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism'. It should be noted that for Wilde only voluntary socialism would do. As well the people he felt would most benefit from socialism were the rich but rather than the poor:

    'Of course, it might be said that the individualism generated under conditions of private property is not always, or even as a rule, of a fine or wonderful type, and that the poor, if they have not culture and charm, have still many virtues. Both these statements would be quite true. The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising, and that is, of course, one of the reasons why Socialism wants to get rid of the institution. In fact, property is really a nuisance. Some years ago people went about the country saying that property has duties. They said it so often and so tediously that, at last, the Church has begun to say it. One hears it now from every pulpit. It is perfectly true. Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. It involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother. If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.'

    1. I would not be surprised if Oscar Wilde was lampooning some limousine liberals of his day with that quote. Satire?

    2. Sounds like the lackadaisical rant of a spoiled and lazy intellectual who never had to worry about putting in a hard day's work to put food on the table.

      He must have written that before he was sentenced to two years of forced labor for being gay.

  3. "Chiliasm: the doctrine of Christ's expected return to reign on earth for 1000 years; millennialism."

    I've been reading Norman Cohn's "The Pursuit of the Millenium." I found it in the footnotes of one of Rothbard's books, though I can't remember which one. It describes a multitude of heretical-christian movements throughout the middle ages of Europe which predominantly involved the poor and which targeted primarily the rich, and the Jews of course. He highlights certain individuals who lead these movements like the Revolutionary of the Rhine, King Tarfur (a leader of the people's crusades), and numerous 'reincarnations' of Emperor Frederick, who all preached a similar message that they would usher in a golden age of peace and plenty for those who served them. They roused the masses against the materialism of the clergy, but they themselves appropriated its wealth when they had the power to do so.

    I believe it was the kindling of the politics of envy (and hypocrisy) which would ignite the world in the 20th century in the forms of socialism and fascism.

    It's been a fascinating book so far. The main takeaway is don't ever trust an ascetic. Thanks for the reading recommendation!

    1. My next post on this book will examine a few of these heresies of the Middle Ages and, as you state, their very socialist worldviews (and bloody programs).

      At least some portion of the "bad" that is attributed to Rome during this time was not Rome at all, but these heretics.

    2. BM,

      Should I read into your appellation of heretical to non-Catholics, and therefore your designating Catholicism as orthodoxy? Are you giving away your doctrinal beliefs here, or merely using these terms as proxies for opposed sides?

      p.s. FYI, I don't fall into either camp. I'm neither Catholic, nor Protestant.

    3. Ron,

      Heretical as seen by the Church at the time. It is also the word used by Shafarevich to describe same.

      So I am using the term common to the purpose and author. Nothing more is intended by me.

      Thank you for asking.

    4. Didn't know about the term Chiliasm, but I'm pretty sure that's what Rothbard is talking about here?

      It's a powerful distillation of the essence of communism, if you haven't read it. It was the big eye-opener for me, in terms of seeing socialism not merely as a misguided earthly ideology but as a completely nutty faith in salvation through destruction.

    5. In response to Ron:

      During this time period 11th-14th centuries, there was only the Catholic church, and so any other movement claiming to be a true faith of Christ was considered heretical. Often the leaders of these groups claimed to be God at some point and were worshiped as such by their poor and desperate followers.

    6. A Texas Libertarian,

      Do you mean to say that there was only one CATHOLIC church, or do you mean to say that there was only one (nominally "Christian") CHURCH (system/doctrine) and it was Catholic?

      Because, I can assure you that the latter is not true. I will respect BM's wish not to turn these pages into doctrinal argumentation by going no further. Also, please know that I mean no offense in my comments. Text can often leave much (e.g. tone) to be desired.