WINNER: TOP 25 LIBERTARIAN DOCUMENTARIES
A documentary chronicle of the rise and fall of socialism: from its utopian beginnings, through its bloody and totalitarian peak of power, to its sudden collapse. [ Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism credits: Dir: Brittany Huckabee/ 168 min/ Documentary/ Anti-socialism]
Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism is a remarkably comprehensive and entertaining telling of the history of socialism, full of little-known details and compelling character sketches of historical key players. It is no dry exposition, but a story of human drama touching every corner of the globe, and intelligently structured to give a clear step-by-step sense of the order of events from the rise of socialism as a utopian ideal to the sudden fall of socialism as a disastrous and bloody experiment, and of the causal linkages. An outstanding primer not just in the history of socialism but in the fallibility of human nature and the arrogance of centralized planning, this documentary (and its companion book) would make ideal educational material for a high school or college classroom.
The three episodes are chronological, covering material as follows:
Part I: The Rise
A successful British industrialist, Robert Owen, invents the idea of an egalitarian society intended to reshape the human character; his followers call it “socialism.” He attempts to demonstrate the concept by establishing a socialist city in 1827 in the US, “New Harmony,” Indiana. The town fails after two years, as the more productive members leave. But Owen still likes his ideas, so he returns to England and founds a movement to spread them. A young radical from Germany, Friedrich Engels, meets Owen and joins the movement. Engels comes to the attention of fellow socialist writer Karl Marx and together they publish “The Communist Manifesto,” which argues that socialism is not simply a political philosophy but inescapable prophesy and the logical culmination of history. The book captures and ignites the imagination of intellectuals.
By the end of the 1800s it’s clear that the prophesy is false. The poor are not rising up to overthrow capitalism but instead becoming middle-class, because the Industrial Revolution has resulted in sharply rising living standards. Nonetheless, socialism still appeals to intellectuals. Two intellectuals — Eduard Bernstein and Vladimir Lenin — decide that it can be established without a working class revolution via different methods. Bernstein advocates gradualism toward a socialist world via the democratic process, an idea that eventually takes hold in the West. Lenin advocates violent revolution to establish socialism through the efforts of full-time revolutionaries. Lenin gets his chance when a weak civil government comes to power in Russia.
Meanwhile in the US, the socialist movement is philosophically split between those who believe socialist objectives can be reached more effectively via strong unions, and those who want pure socialism established through a Socialist Party. In the end, it is the union path that the US takes.
Part II: Revolutions
National socialism (Nazism, Fascism) rises in Germany and Italy. Like Lenin’s socialism, it is revolution in the name of the people, but with a nationalistic twist. This variant is short-lived, as it is defeated in WWII.
Meanwhile socialism spreads to China under Mao Zedong. He promises life-long economic security in exchange for total submission. He forces the population into large communes, dictating the minutiae of what is produced and how, resulting in unprecedented economic failure. Tens of millions die of starvation. In post-WWII England, democratic socialism takes hold with the election of Clement Attlee. Common ownership of property, to be achieved gradually, becomes the official policy of the Labour Party, and that policy is initiated with large-scale nationalizations. In Israel, socialist communes are founded by Holocaust survivors. Commune members dominate the country’s politics and lead it Left. A young African college student, Julius Nyerere, is introduced to socialist ideas while being educated in Europe. He returns to Tanzania and starts a political party to combine socialist ideas with traditional African village life.
But these attempts at centralized planning are starting to fail. By 1971, production is stagnating in the UK while powerful unions demand higher wages regardless. Strikes are rampant and disrupt every aspect of ordinary life, even emergency services. In Israel, kibbutzim are becoming less communal as people want to own their own clothes, have private access to food, and take care of their own children. In Tanzania, idealistic socialist Nyerere has openly turned dictator, and following a Maoist path is forcing the population into village communes at gunpoint.
Part III: The Collapse
The fall of socialism begins in the late 1970s, as its global failure is starting to be known and leadership around the world goes through a sea-change away from it. In China, following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping comes to power. He is less ideological than Mao and simply wants economic progress. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher is privatizing state industries and rolling back socialism in every respect. In the US, the country turns Right with the election of Ronald Reagan. In Poland, workers go on strike and establish a powerful trade union – Solidarity. In Russia, a reformer named Mikhail Gorbachev is appointed General Secretary.
Deng Xiaoping orders that all communes be privatized, and introduces other pro-market reforms. GDP growth spikes to 10% annually. But the political system of communism remains, and an attempt at democratization – Tiananmen Square – ends with brutality and death. In Russia, Gorbachev takes a different route, by introducing democratic reforms and truth-telling about the past but leaving in place central control of the economy. A coup is attempted, but fails. Elections are held in Poland, and Solidarity wins in a landslide. The Soviet Union breaks up as its component countries rebel.
The democratically-elected Left in Europe shifts right, rebranding itself and evolving into a new model, “social democracy,” with market economies and social safety nets. But socialism as originally conceived – strong central control and planning as a path to economic progress and a reshaping of the human character – is now thoroughly disgraced and intellectually dead.