The Common Threads of Socialism: Thoughts by Igor Shafarevich.

The Common Threads of Socialism: Thoughts by Igor Shafarevich.

Igor Shafarevich (1923-2017) was a gifted Russian mathematician and Soviet dissident. He associated with some notable "trouble makers" in the USSR, like novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. One of Shafarevich's students, Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro, revealed that the math savant "disliked the October" and had "negative feelings for Communism. Though he felt political heat, his prowess as a mathematician seems to have protected him from the full forces of Soviet repression.

In his work, The Socialist Phenomenon, Shafarevich analyzed the varieties of collectivist thought throughout time, amongst cultures, and across continents. This post extracts a portion of thought from his section on “The Contours of Socialism,” which addresses the commonalities of socialist thought across space and time.

August Glen-James, editor

As a positive statement about specific relationships between the sexes or between parents and children, it appears in several variants as the total obliteration of the family, communality of wives and the destruction of all ties between parent and child to the point where they may not even know each other. . . .

In the preceding sections of this book we have gathered together certain data in order to indicate when and in what forms socialism has appeared in human history . . . a dotted outline, a collection of disparate facts selected in a manner that makes possible a judgement about some general features of the entire phenomenon. Utilizing these facts, we can now approach the main subject of our investigation—socialism as a historical concept.

It is natural enough to begin with an attempt to formulate a definition of socialism, if not a formal definition then at least an explanation in general terms of the meaning that we attribute to this concept. . . . Now we must try to determine whether these phenomena possess sufficient unity to make it possible to look on them as a manifestation of the same general concept. . . . We being, therefore, with an enumeration of the basic principles manifested in the activities of socialist states and in the socialist ideologies described earlier. (emphasis added)

1. The Abolition of Private Property

The fundamental nature of this principle is emphasized, for instance, by Marx and Engels: “The theory of Communism may be summed up in a single sentence: ‘Abolition of private property,’” (Communist Manifesto).

This proposition, in its negative form, is inherent in all socialist doctrines without exception and is the basic feature of all socialist states. But in its positive form, as an assertion about the actual nature of property in a socialist society, it is less universal and appears in two distinct variants: the overwhelming majority of socialist doctrines proclaim the communality of property (implemented in more or less radical fashion), while socialist states (and some doctrines) are based on state property.

2. The Abolition of the Family

The majority of socialist doctrines proclaim the abolition of the family. In other doctrines, as well as in certain socialist states, this proposition is not proclaimed in such radical form, but the principle appears as a de-emphasis of the role of the family, the weakening of family ties, the abolition of certain functions of the family. Again, the negative form of the principle is more common. As a positive statement about specific relationships between the sexes or between parents and children, it appears in several variants as the total obliteration of the family, communality of wives and the destruction of all ties between parent and child to the point where they may not even know each other; as an impairment and a weakening of family ties; or as the transformation of the family into a unit of the bureaucratic state subjected to its goals and control.

3. The Abolition of Religion

It is especially easy for us to observe socialism’s hostility to religion, for this is inherent, with few exceptions, in all contemporary socialist states and doctrines. Only rarely is the abolition of religion legislated, as it was in Albania. But the actions of other socialist states leave no doubt that they are all governed by this very principle and that only external difficulties have prevented its complete implementation. This same principle has been repeatedly proclaimed in socialist doctrines, beginning with the end of the seventeenth century. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century doctrines are imbued with cold skeptical and ironic attitudes toward religion. If not consciously, then “objectively,” they prepared humanity for the convergence of socialist ideology and militant atheism that took place at the end of the seventeenth century and during the course of the eighteenth. The heretical movements of the Middle Ages were religious in character, but those in which socialist tendencies were especially pronounced were the ones that were irrevocably opposed to the actual religion professed by the majority at the time. Calls to assassinate the Pope and to annihilate all monks and priests run like a red thread through the history of these movements. Their hatred for the basic symbols of Christianity—the cross and the church—is very striking. We encounter the burning of crosses and the profanation of churches from the first centuries of Christianity right up to the present day.

Finally, in Plato’s socialist system, religion is conceived as an element in the state’s ideology. Its role amounts to education, the shaping of citizens’ opinions into the forms necessary to the state. To this end, new religious observances and myths were invented and the old ones abolished. It seems that in many of the states of the ancient Orient, official religion played an analogous role, its central function being the deification of the king, who was the personification of the all-powerful state.

4. Communality or Equality

This demand is encountered in almost all socialist doctrines. Its negative form is seen in the striving to destroy the hierarchy of the surrounding society and in calls “to humble the proud, the rich and the powerful,” to abolish privilege. This tendency frequently gives rise to hostility toward culture as a factor contributing to spiritual and intellectual inequality and, as a result, leads to a call for the destruction of culture itself. The first formulation of this view can be found in Plato, the most recent in contemporary leftist movements in the West which consider culture “individualistic,” “repressive,” “suffocating,” and call for “ideological guerrilla warfare against culture.”

It would seem that socialist ideology has the ability to stamp widely separated or even historically unlinked socialist currents with indelible and stereotyped markings [i.e., the four points above, editor]. It seems to us quite legitimate to conclude that socialism does exist as a unified historical phenomenon. Its basic principles have been indicated above. . . . But in European history, we cannot point to a single period when socialist teachings were not extant in one form or another. It seems that socialism is a constant factor in human history, at least in the period following the rise of the state. . . . The history of the socialist doctrines is no less thoroughly researched, as can be seen from the numerous “Histories of Socialist Ideas,” which usually begin with Plato. Koigen has even remarked ironically: “Socialism is as old as human society itself—but not older.”

It would seem that this should be taken as the starting point of any attempt to understand the essence of socialism. . . . It is necessary to reject the interpretation of socialism as a definite phase in the development of human society which is said to appear when conditions are ripe. On the contrary, any approach to socialism ought to be based on principles broad enough to be applicable to the Inca empire, to Plato’s philosophy and to the socialism of the twentieth century.