All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

The World in the Grip of an Idea Revisited

Socialism Destroys Institutions, Societies, and Individuals

The notion of a work under the title The World in the Grip of an Idea began to take shape in my mind in 1976, and I began the writing of it in the fall of that year (which was also the thirtieth anniversary of FEE). A somewhat amended and expanded version was published as a book under that title by Arlington House in 1980. Many intellectual and spiritual changes have occurred in the past twenty years, some of them in directions sought by the Foundation for Economic Education. I hope to highlight some of these changes and their relation to the work of FEE by revisiting the theme of this book and placing them in the context of developments in the last several years.

The theme of the book was that the whole world, to varying extents among countries, had come under the sway of an idea, the essence of which was expressed in the convergence of three ideals.

1. To achieve human felicity on this earth by concerting all efforts to achieve common ends.

2. To root out, discredit, and discard all aspects of culture which cannot otherwise be altered to divest them of any role in inducing or supporting the individual’s pursuit of self-interest.

3. Government is the instrument to be used to concert all efforts behind the realization of human felicity and the necessary alteration of culture.

This idea, when shaped as a political program, is called by a variety of names, among which are: socialism, collectivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, Fabianism, national socialism, and Communism. Or, it may not be given a generic name at all, but advanced or concealed under such vague terms as democracy or liberalism. Regardless of specific variations, there are essentially two roads to socialism, which is the generic name most commonly applied to the idea that has the world in its grip. Revolutionary and evolutionary socialism are the two approaches, and they form much of the organizational framework of The World in the Grip of an Idea.

Revolutionary Socialism

Revolutionary socialism had its foundations in the teachings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the nineteenth century. It came to power in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, led by V. I. Lenin and his cohorts and followers. The touchstone of revolutionary socialism is the violent overthrow of the existing government and system. Marx and Engels put it this way: “The immediate aim of the Communists is that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of the political power by the proletariat.”[1] Beyond this political revolution, Marx declared the purpose to be “the forceful overthrow of all existing social conditions.”[2] The ultimate aim was the transformation of man in a classless society, but “revolution” was a key idea in his ideology, and it distinguishes revolutionary socialism from evolutionary socialism.

The World in the Grip of an Idea gives in-depth treatment to revolutionary socialism in two countries: the Soviet Union and Germany. The Soviet Union was an obvious choice for at least two reasons. One, it was the first country to establish a totalitarian revolutionary socialist government. Communism came to power there first. Two, it became the center for the spread of Communism internationally. Germany was a less obvious choice but was chosen because Nazism was a different variety of revolutionary socialism, though it is not always discussed under that category. Nazism was shortlived, holding power for only 12 years, and its particular ideological mix of racism, nationalism, and socialism never spread elsewhere. But it was a dramatic case of revolutionary socialism whose totalitarian mode has stuck in the public mind.

Moreover, German Nazism made a major impact on the political power configuration in the world during and after World War II. The role of Nazism in World War II is highlighted in my book in a chapter entitled “A Socialist Conflagration.” The theme of the chapter is that World War II was at its heart a contest between two revolutionary socialist powers—the Soviet Union and Germany. It was a contest for dominance over the great Eurasian land mass at its center. The United States and Britain threw their weight on the side of the Soviet Union. The defeat of Nazi Germany wiped out what remained of the balance of power on the European continent. This set the stage for the Cold War, a long-term underlying struggle between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism.

The Evolutionary Road to Socialism

Socialists of the earlier nineteenth century either sought to build self-contained socialist communities or were revolutionaries. It was this latter that attracted Karl Marx and that eventuated in Soviet Communism, and its imitators. By the late nineteenth century, some socialists began to become enamored of the idea that socialism could be attained gradually by gaining influence and control over established governments. Theirs would be an evolutionary road to socialism that would not entail revolution, the violent seizure of power, or swift radical changes. It was more than a little influenced by biological evolutionary theories. Peaceful change could be wrought by democracy and labor unions, among other forces, many came to believe.

One of the early proponents of evolutionary socialism was Eduard Bernstein, a Marxist who saw a different road. He thought he saw signs of the peaceful movement toward socialism in developments in the latter part of the nineteenth century. He described them this way:


In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organizations. . . . Factory legislation, the democratising of local government. . . , the freeing of trade unions . . . from legal restrictions, the consideration of standard conditions of labour in the work undertaken by public authorities . . . are signs of the evolution.[3]

Evolutionary socialism—whether it is called democratic socialism, social democracy, gradualism, Fabianism, or whatever— is gradualist, statist, interventionist, and collectivist. Its advocates and followers believe that man and society can be improved and transformed by the astute application of government power. The usual result of taking this route to socialism has been the welfare state, but that was more consequence than original intent.

My book deals with evolutionary socialism in depth in three countries: England, Sweden, and the United States. The English experience best shows what happened to the original intent. The English socialists were bent on nationalizing all major industries, that is, taking them from their owners and bringing them under government control. The Fabian Society was the spearhead of socialism in England. It consisted initially of intellectuals, who issued tracts, penetrated existing organizations, and attempted to permeate them with socialist ideas. The instrument they finally used to achieve power was the Labour Party. This party finally came into power with an effective majority in the elections in 1945. They moved with haste to nationalize banking, power and light, transport, and iron and steel, and to assert a government role in all areas of the economy. Nationalization, which had never been tried on a large scale in an advanced industrial country before, was given a major trial in England.

The measures were such an abject failure and wrought misery, suffering, and oppression so clearly that other countries were disinclined to imitate England, and, despite the tenacious efforts of the Labourites, the nationalization was eventually abandoned there as well. The welfare measures which the English introduced, such as socialized medicine, had a much longer life.

Sweden, however, was the earliest and most thorough example of the welfare state. The Swedes never showed any great enthusiasm for confiscating or appropriating private property. Instead, they taxed away a large portion of the proceeds from land, labor, and capital to maintain an extensive welfare state.

Evolutionary socialism did not for long go by the name of socialism in the United States. Those who ran for office under that name were overwhelmingly rejected by American voters. On the other hand, socialist ideas made increasing gains in the twentieth century as the underlying premises of political programs, initiatives, and legislation. They entered American political life by way of a series of “four-year-plans,” variously called the Square Deal, New Freedom, New Deal, Fair Deal, and New Frontier. The programs were at first called progressive and then liberal and were usually advanced as alleged solutions for various pressing problems. The mode of this gradualist road to socialism in the United States was to centralize and concentrate power in the general government and to make all organizations and people within the country dependent upon government.

The Destructive Impact of Socialism

The World in the Grip of an Idea makes clear with much history and numerous examples the destructive impact of socialism on institutions, societies, and the lives of people. Soviet Communism was oppressive and tyrannical from the outset and became much more so under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s, and improved only marginally for the next three decades. Evolutionary socialism did not have so drastic an impact as Communism and Nazism, but it worked over the years to gain control of the material substance of the people under it, to undermine their beliefs, to take away much of their independence, and to impose systems that are spiritually, intellectually, politically, and economically bankrupt.

Even so, socialist premises were not usually challenged except by such organizations as the Foundation for Economic Education. Socialism spread around the world, especially in the middle fifty years of the twentieth century. World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, as already noted, provided the opportunity for the spread of Soviet Communism into eastern Europe. During the war, the Soviet Union forcibly annexed Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and a portion of Finland. By agreement with Hitler at the beginning of the war, they conquered and claimed part of Poland as well. During the closing year of World War II, as the Red Army moved westward into eastern Europe, the groundwork was laid for Communism in the countries there. In the mid and late 1940s Communist regimes were established in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and East Germany.

It was at this juncture, in the course of 1948, the Cold War began—an ideological and geo-political, occasionally military, struggle. The Soviet Union was fostering civil wars in Greece and Turkey, and bidding fair to come to power in Italy. The Soviet Union and the United States were the main belligerents in the Cold War, but the struggle encompassed much of the rest of the world at one time or another and in one way or another. It lasted from 1948 to 1989, or thereabouts. Ideologically, it was often described as a struggle between democracy and Communism. To describe it as a contest between democratic socialism and Communism is much more accurate. The prominent allies of the United States in this struggle were more or less openly socialist, and the United States had established a welfare state undergirded by socialist assumptions. Foreign aid became a major means for promoting and sustaining democratic socialism around the world.

The “Wave of the Future”?

The spread of Communism in power can be chronicled as Communist-controlled governments were established. The spread of Communism in eastern Europe has already been described, so we continue the chronicle elsewhere. In 1948, Communist rule was instituted in North Korea. In 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, inaugurating Communism in the most populous country in the world. In 1955, Communism was established in North Vietnam. In 1960, a Council of Revolution seized power in Algeria. In 1965, Cuba became officially a one-party (Communist) state, and South Yemen became a “People’s Democratic Republic” (Communist). Guyana became a Communist-dominated country in 1970, and Communist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. In 1971, Syria got a pro-Communist dictatorship. In 1972, a revolutionary socialist government was formed in Benin. Communist dictatorship was established in Ethiopia in 1974. In 1975, North Vietnamese Communist forces conquered South Vietnam; the Khmer Rouge imposed Communism on Cambodia; the Pathet Lao organized Communist rule in Laos, and a People’s Republic of Mozambique came to power in Africa. Communists came to power in Angola in 1977. Communist-bent Sandinistas took over the government in Nicaragua in 1979, and the Soviet Union sponsored a coup in Afghanistan and installed a Communist regime.

Thus, when The World in the Grip of an Idea went to press in 1979, there were many signs that Communism might indeed be “the wave of the future,” at least in industrially undeveloped countries. But the story of Communists progressively coming to power is only a part of the story of the spread of Communist influence and socialist ideas. Communist parties were long in operation either openly or clandestinely in most countries of the world. Many countries in which Communists have never come to power have been deeply infected by Communism. Communists have infiltrated labor unions, churches, colleges, and other organizations, and have spread disinformation in many non-Communist as well as Communist publications. In sum, Communist influence has been worldwide. More openly, democratic (or evolutionary) socialist ideas have gained influence, often dominant, in many countries of the world. If there was a country in the world in 1980 not under the influence or in the grip of socialist ideas, it escaped the attention of this writer. Nor has anyone suggested to me since the release of the book that such a country existed in 1980, or in the decades preceding that date.

A Loosened Grip

Since that time, however, the idea has loosened its grip. The election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 signaled not only the loosening of the hold of the idea on Americans but also the widespread appeal of a countervision to that of socialism. Much the same could be said for the significance of Margaret Thatcher’s becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 and became the first president to serve two full terms since Eisenhower in the 1950s. Mrs. Thatcher held the post of Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Their elections and tenure signified the considerable impact of conservative ideas on Anglo-American politics. More certainly than that, however, it was an augury of the declining appeal of the socialist idea or vision.

The most dramatic ideological development since 1980 has been the dissolution and disappearance of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was, after all, the centerpiece of Communism from its inception. It was the land, and Moscow was the city, to which admirers and supplicants came from around the world to study and learn about “the wave of the future.” The vision of Communism and its propaganda spread from the Soviet center around the world, provoking revolts, succoring imitative political parties, and breeding apologists for the Communist motherland. Many, many socialists in other lands never became Communists, or, if so, only briefly, but they still pinned much of their socialist faith on its purest exemplar, the Soviet Union. The unraveling of the Soviet Empire would surely be the precursor of the decline and demise of Communism, if not the socialist idea itself. Or, so it seemed.

At any rate, the Soviet Empire began to unravel in 1989. The unraveling took place first on the periphery. In March, the Red Army completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. In August, the Baltic countries (absorbed into the Soviet Union during World War II)—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—demanded independence from the Soviet Union. In October, Hungary assumed independence from the Soviet Union. East Germans poured through Hungary into West Germany without interference. In November, the Berlin Wall crumbled as people tore it apart with no opposition from the authorities. In December, the long-time Communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, was deposed and killed. The glue was giving way at the edges of the Empire.

The Gorbachev Years

Although the beginning strokes of the unraveling of the Soviet Union caught almost everyone by surprise, in retrospect we can see that events and developments were preparing the way for a change. Mikhail Gorbachev became the dictatorial head of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was 54 years old, the youngest man to come to this position since Joseph Stalin, and the first born since the Bolshevik Revolution, He tended to adjust to changes rather than dominate them by his will. At first, he continued the war in Afghanistan but eventually withdrew. Confronted by the rearming of the United States led by Ronald Reagan, he must have soon realized that the Soviet Union did not have the means to keep pace. Indeed, Gorbachev did initiate some changes which may have prepared the way for the unraveling. One was called perestroika, meaning to restructure or make structural changes in the Soviet Union. The main restructuring occurred in the government itself, which no longer supported without resistance the programs advanced by the party bosses. Glasnost was another idea advanced by Gorbachev: it means openness, or, perhaps, frankness. In practice, it involved the removal of censorship, the freeing of religious observance, the opening of the Soviet Union to outside observers and the publishing of information about other lands and peoples in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union did not long survive perestroika and glasnost. It survived even more briefly the unwillingness of Gorbachev to use major force to maintain the Empire. The events of 1989 had not brought major reprisals from Moscow. In eastern Europe, the Soviet satellite countries began to operate independently in 1989-1990, forming their own governments, some non-Communist, and all reformed with greater freedoms. But what was much more striking in 1990, the Soviet Union itself split into its constituent parts. As a historian has said, “By the end of the year, all 15 of the constituent union republics had declared their sovereignty. . . . As the world watched, Gorbachev seemed destined to lose the contest with the powerful centrifugal forces tearing the mighty Soviet Union apart as the decade of the 1990s opened.”[4]

In early 1991, Gorbachev continued to try to keep the Soviet Union intact by some sort of federal union. Instead of succeeding in this, in August, he was confronted with a coup whose leaders took him prisoner and demanded a return to the old Communist system. Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Republic, stood firm against the leaders of the coup; the rebellion dissolved and the leaders were imprisoned. Gorbachev resigned as Communist Party leader and in short order the Communist Party lost its preferred position. The Soviet Union continued to deteriorate, as republic after republic reaffirmed or declared its independence. “Gorbachev’s efforts to reconstitute the state in one form or another . . . all proved futile in face of the republics’ irrepressible nationalism and irresistible determination to seek their own paths to the future. By year’s end Gorbachev had become a superfluous president of a vanishing country. . . .”[5] The Soviet Union was no more. A vast Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin remained—still the largest country in the world—but many lands that had been part of the Soviet Union, such as the Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldavia, Armenia, and others, were now following an independent course.

Many symbolic changes were made in the wake of the official abandonment of Communism. Statues of Lenin that had dotted the land were removed. Lenin’s tomb ceased to be a shrine, and his remains were finally buried. Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again, by the will and vote of the inhabitants. Marx’s claim that “Religion is the opiate of the people” was obliterated or obscured where possible. By appearances, Communism had become the wave of the past in Russia.

While statues may be taken down, names changed, building space reassigned, and the physical relics from the past put away, ideas are not so readily discarded or displaced. They leave residues in the minds of people and practices in their ways that may continue after doctrines have been more or less publicly repudiated. I asked the question in 1989, when those events were only getting underway, what would happen “if Communism were to yield up the monopoly of power in those countries in which it now rules?” I see no reason now to alter significantly what I wrote then, which I now quote:

Would Communism simply wither away and disappear? That is not a very likely prospect. . . . It is unlikely not only because the immediate prospect is for some Communist rulers to cling to their hold on power for the foreseeable future but also because even if there were no longer rulers who claimed a monopoly of power by way of their position in the dominant Communist party there would still be a large residue of Marxism-Leninism around. Every country in the world is infected with at least the outcroppings of socialism of which Marxism was the most successful of the extremes.

For example, every government in the world today is making a greater or lesser effort to manage or control the economy over which it governs. . . . Most countries try to regulate and alter economic activity by their fiscal and monetary policies. . . . It is so widely accepted as to be virtually universal today that governments are responsible for the material well being of the populace that they govern. To that end, they are expected to manage and control the economy, tax and distribute wealth, and provide an assortment of welfare programs.[6]

As expected, some Communist rulers have clung to power, most notably in China, North Korea, Cuba, but elsewhere as well. Even in lands where Communists no longer formally rule, many bureaucrats and members of the privileged nomenklatura still hold office and wield power. Former Communists often hold high or top offices. The parties change names; those who govern do not profess Marxism-Leninism, but they were Communists, quite often, and are still imbued with the ideas which they held then to greater or lesser extent.

This is not said to underrate the great significance of the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and Union and the adoption of many freedoms of the West in these countries. Undoubtedly, too, the tenacious hold of the idea that has had the world in its grip has been loosened somewhat. Ideas are being widely questioned that were once treated as settled once and for all. Few would be so bold today as to declare that socialism is the wave of the future. It is rather to affirm that the world is still to greater or lesser extent in the grip of the idea which has held sway for much of this century.

In the United States, this is still the case. Ronald Reagan could talk the talk of individual liberty, free enterprise, and constitutional government, but without support he could not walk the walk. He championed the reduction of taxes, but he could not advocate the removal of the welfare state at its core. He started out pledging to abolish two departments; instead, he ended up adding a Department of Veterans Affairs. President Bush did not even keep his pledge of no new taxes, much less considering the restoration of constitutional government. The votes may be out there to shake the idea that has the world in its grip, but thus far politicians tend to waffle when confronted with tenacious defenders of the status quo. The Republicans who mustered majorities in both houses in 1994 may, with block grants and audacity, foist upon the states the responsibility for determining the fate of the idea that has the world in its grip. Then again, they may not.

The idea that has the world in its grip has great attraction for peoples around the world. The notion that government is responsible for the material and intellectual well-being of populaces has great appeal, especially when it is accompanied by actual payments and subsidies from government. Many people become dependent upon government handouts, and even those who are not particularly dependent may lose confidence in their ability to provide for themselves. These feelings, attitudes, and practices are residues from the better part of a century of socialism in its several varieties. They have produced vastly overgrown governments and the politicalization of life. Governments and politicians are the problem, not the solution.

Sturdy individuals, stable families, vital communities, limited government, and faith in a transcendent God who provides for us through the natural order and the bounties of nature—these alone can break the grip of the idea. It is now a cliché that socialism is a failure; it now is the fullness of time to act upon the insight that gave rise to its fall.

1.   Z. A. Jordan, ed., Karl Marx: Economy, Class and Society (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), pp. 126-27.

2.   Ibid., p. 292.

3.   Eugen Weber, ed., The Western Tradition (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1959), p. 292.

4.   Robert Sharlet, “The Union Republics of the U.S.S.R.,” The Americana Annual (1991), p. 44.

5.   Robert Sharlet, “The Second Soviet Revolution,” The Americana Annual (1992), p. 32.

6.   Clarence Carson, Basic Communism: Its Rise, Spread and Debacle in the 20th Century (Wadley, Ala.: American Textbook Committee, 1990), p. 481.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.