Scholar Muravchik charts his rightward path

“Socialism was the faith in which I was raised,” Joshua Muravchik he writes in his book “Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism.”
Photo courtesy of Josh Muravchik

U.S. foreign policy may hold the key to peace in the 21st century, says a local scholar.

“The United States must have an internationalist foreign policy. It must be very engaged in the world because by doing that we can shape events rather than react to them,” says Joshua Muravchik, whose “Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism-Revised Edition” (Encounter Books) is slated to be published this month.

“A very energetic global policy by the United States” can help to keep at bay “growing aggressive powers like Russia and China, to a lesser degree Iran,” he says.

The last century provided two models for American foreign policy. The first half of the 1900s was a time of American disengagement from the world. First came World War I, into which America was drawn.

After that war, the U.S. returned to a policy of isolationism, under the banner of the “America First” slogan.

“The results were disastrous,” says Muravchik, 71. “We wanted to be uninvolved until Pearl Harbor and the Japanese started dropping bombs on our heads.”

But the second half of that century provided a more positive model in dealing with the Soviet Union and its allies.

Our Cold War strategy “was the most brilliant example of statecraft by any country in all of history,” Muravchik, a Wheaton resident, notes. “We defeated the Soviet Union without having to fight a war by being so involved around the world.”

An activist America can help keep the peace in this century. But if this country decides instead on a short-sighted America First approach, “then I think all hell will break loose in five years or 10 or 20, and it will quickly reach our own doorstep,” he says.

While those two former communist nations Russia and China — our Cold War rivals — still pose a danger internationally, a non-revolutionary variant is growing popular in this country, he says. The ascent of socialists in the Democratic Party may kill its chances of regaining the White House next year.

“I think advocating socialism will make it extremely difficult for the Democrats to win in 2020,” he says.

“Trump senses this and is already campaigning on the theme that America will never be socialist. He would like nothing better than for the Democrats to walk into the trap and leave themselves open to the accusation that they are the party of socialism.”

While socialism may be advancing in parts of the Democratic Party, in Israel, the epitome of socialist thought, the kibbutzim —the collective farms so much a part of the fabric of the country — are in decline.

Conventional wisdom has it that the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977, ending almost 30 years of Labor Party rule, doomed the kibbutzim. In “Heaven on Earth,” the author agrees that Begin’s rule ended the system of “subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts” granted to these communities. Begin also was hostile to the communities, calling them “millionaires with swimming pools”

But even without Begin, the author believes that the kibbutzim would have gone into decline. When he interviewed kibbutz members, they told him that the system of collective life on the kibbutz had always been uncomfortable for them, but they had continued to live in these communities because they felt they were doing something important.

“What enabled the kibbutzim to survive for a while was the cause of redeeming the Jewish people,” he believes. “Kibbutzniks were devoted to the idea of recreating the Jewish state. So, they were willing to endure living in an uncomfortable way in order to be part of this great effort.

“But once Israel was established firmly on its feet and had endured the 1967 and ’73 wars and became relatively secure, then the children and grandchildren of the pioneers looked around and decided that they didn’t want to live that way anymore.”

Like the kibbutzim, Muravchik has undergone a transformation in his thinking beyond the usual liberal-youth-becomes-middle aged-conservative pattern.

“Socialism was the faith in which I was raised,” he writes in his book. “It was my father’s faith and his father’s before him.” His father, Emanuel Muravchik, was a leading American Jewish socialist, a union organizer and head of the Jewish Labor Committee.

For some time, Joshua Muravchik followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League.

But in the 1960s, Muravchik, who has written 11 books and many newspaper and magazine articles, began “to be repelled by the dominant leftists of my generation.” They were adherents of what was called the New Left, he continues, which was embodied in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and other groups that were “nihilistic, pro-communist, even though they weren’t traditional communists, and seemed to blindly hate America and to blindly idolize all kinds of foreign tyrannical regimes and movements.”

Even though he was “devotedly a leftist, a socialist,” he found himself arguing more with people to his political left than with those to his right.

Those ideological debates had an impact on him, Muravchik believes, and led him increasingly to look more critically at his own leftist beliefs.

In 1972, he led a delegation of Young Socialists on a trip to Israel.

The socialist Labor Party had ruled Israel for 25 years and yet the Israeli economy was not socialist but mixed. “I thought if a socialist party rules a country for 25 years and still doesn’t create pure socialism as we imagined it,” the author says, “then what we imagined must be an illusion, that democratic socialism was never going to happen.”

As the years went by, Muravchik — whose positions have included resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and fellow at the George W. Bush Institute — became more conservative, coming to believe in the importance of creating, rather than just distributing, wealth. This intellectual journey took many years, and his positions are still evolving.

The scholar’s movement from a believer in socialism to capitalism was mirrored by a similar passage from nominal to synagogue-going Jew.

He had believed that socialism would create a better world. “Working for this noble goal was my identity,” he says. “When I ceased to believe in socialism, I naturally asked, ‘Who am I?’ And the obvious answer seemed to me that I was a Jew ― of course, also an American, a husband, father, son, brother.”

So, some 30 years ago, he began to attend synagogue services, despite the fact that he had never been a student at Hebrew school and not become bar mitzvah.

At first, he felt uncomfortable not knowing much about Judaism or its rituals. Along the way, he joined Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring.

He says, “I still regret my Judaic ignorance, but after 30 years I’m pretty comfortable in shul now.”

Joshua Muravchik will discuss his book, “Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall and Afterlife of Socialism,” April 24 at 4 The Institute of World Politics, 1521 16th St. NW. Register

Aaron Leibel is Washington-area writer.

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