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Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Russian Mathematician Who Exposed the Cannibalistic Nature of Socialism

Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich, born 100 years ago today, showed that socialism is fundamentally anti-individualistic.

Image credit: Konrad Jacobs

Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich is not exactly a household name, but the man richly deserves to be remembered, a century after his birth and six years since his death. In 1923, he was born on this date—June 3—in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, about a hundred miles west of Kyiv. He died in 2017 at the age of 93, leaving behind remarkable contributions to mathematics and, of far greater interest to me, a powerful indictment of the ancient calamity known as socialism.

Shafarevich ranks high in the pantheon of 20th Century mathematicians. His name is attached to numerous pioneering theorems and formulas I can’t begin to understand, but which are celebrated as genius among the numerical cognoscenti. In 1981, he was even inducted into the prestigious Royal Society of London as one of the brightest foreign scientists ever to grace its membership.

Growing up in Ukraine under Soviet-imposed socialism, Shafarevich harbored misgivings about the system from an early age. In his 30s, he began to run afoul of it because of his outspoken support of the Eastern Orthodox faith in an officially atheist empire. He eventually morphed into a full-blown, anti-Marxist dissident and an ally of Andrei Sakharov, the physicist famous for defending human rights against the regime’s assaults. Despite his world-class credentials in mathematics, Shafarevich was fired from Moscow University because of his collaboration with Sakharov.

When the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago and other seminal works) delivered his famous address at Harvard University in 1978, he cited a book by Igor Shafarevich that had appeared three years before. Solzhenitsyn, in fact, wrote the Foreword to the book’s English translation. 

Titled The Socialist Phenomenon, it is Shafarevich’s most significant and memorable foray outside mathematics and should rank as a classic in the voluminous, definitive critiques of socialism. My copy, purchased in 1981, is full of marks and notations where I found insights I did not want to forget.

The first 200 pages of the book surveys socialist ideas and experiments in history, from Plato and Greece to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China to the Inca civilization in South America. You can read a good rendition of the book’s chapter on the Incas here. The Incan nation was short-lived (it couldn’t defend itself against a few hundred Spanish) but it may well be the most thoroughly regimented and centrally planned society the world has ever known.

In the final third of the book, or about a hundred pages, Shafarevich offers his analysis of socialism. He argues persuasively that “at least three components of the socialist ideal—the abolition of private property, the abolition of the family and socialist equality—may be deduced from a single principle: the suppression of individuality.

Socialism presents itself in multiple flavors, of course, but the unadulterated version promises “the greatest possible equality.” This is the height of hypocrisy and delusion, Shafarevich argues, because at the same time, socialism offers up “a strict regimentation of all of life, which would be impossible without absolute control and an all-powerful bureaucracy which would engender an incomparably greater inequality.”

Individuals participate in life as thinking, acting individuals, not as indistinguishable portions of a collectivist blob. “Cultural creativity, particularly artistic creativity, is an example,” the author points out. Renaissance Italians didn’t paint The Last Supper. Leonardo da Vinci did. “And in periods when socialist movements are on the increase, the call for the destruction of culture is heard ever more distinctly,” Shafarevich explains. 

Socialism is fundamentally anti-culture because it seeks to supplant individual initiative with one-size-fits-all, top-down diktats. Its centralized, mandated blueprint is ultimately a death sentence because “Not only people but even animals cannot exist if reduced to the level of the cogs of a mechanism.” Shafarevich writes,

[A]ll the aspects of life that make it attractive and give it meaning are connected with manifestations of individuality. Therefore, a consistent implementation of the principles of socialism deprives human life of individuality and simultaneously deprives life of its meaning and attraction…it would lead to the physical extinction of the group in which these principles are in force, and if they should triumph through the world—to the extinction of mankind.

The collectivism that socialism champions is ultimately a mirage. There is no “blob” that thinks and acts. Only individuals do. So the so-called “collective”  reduces to some individuals wielding power over other individuals. Socialism is, therefore, cannibalism animated by philosophy. Shafarevich essentially told the world this a half century ago, and the world still struggles to learn it.

At the very least, we ought to thank him for letting us know on this centennial of his birth. 

For Additional Information, See:

Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Observations on the Gospel, Socialism and Power by Lawrence W. Reed

Communism’s Legacy: Tyranny, Terror and Torture by Richard Ebeling

The Incas and the Collectivist State by Richard Ebeling

The 25th Anniversary of the End of the Soviet Union by Richard Ebeling

Meet Igor Shafarevich, the brilliant mathematician whoby Mark Hendrickson


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.