Socialism: The failed idea that never dies


Socialism: The failed idea that never dies

To mark the publication of his new book “Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies”, Dr Kristian Niemietz examines the ongoing support for socialism in the UK, despite the overwhelming evidence discrediting its viability.

Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies Socialism is popular in the UK – not just among students, but also among people in their 30s and 40s. This is confirmed by survey after survey. Surveys also show that support for socialism in general terms is matched by support for a broad range of individual policies that could reasonably be described as socialist.

Curiously, support for socialism in the abstract is not matched by positive perceptions of any actual example, contemporary or historical, of a socialist system in action. People with a rose-tinted view of, for example, the former Warsaw Pact countries, of Maoist China, of North Vietnam or North Korea are a small minority in Britain today.

Socialists have successfully distanced themselves from the over two dozen failed attempts to build a socialist society. Their claim that these systems were never ‘really’ socialist, but represented a distortion of the socialist ideal, has become conventional wisdom. Today, holding the failures of, for example, the former Soviet Union against a contemporary socialist is considered crass and boorish. Yet while socialists distance themselves from contemporary and historical examples of socialism, they usually struggle to explain what exactly they would do differently. Socialists tend to escape into abstraction and talk about lofty aspirations rather than tangible institutional characteristics. Those aspirations (for example, ‘democratising the economy’), however, are nothing new. They are the same aspirations that motivated earlier socialist projects.

Socialism has never fulfilled those aspirations, but this is not for a lack of trying. The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals. It is only after the event (i.e. once they have become an embarrassment for the socialist cause) that their version of socialism is retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’.

This pattern started in the 1930s, when thousands of Western intellectuals went on political pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. Even though the atrocities of that regime were widely known – or at least knowable – in the West, the Soviet Union was widely held up to be a worker-run grassroots democracy in the making. When ‘Stalin-mania’ later fell out of fashion, most of Stalin’s Western admirers did not officially renounce their position, but simply fell silent on the issue.

In the 1960s, the same thing happened again, except that this time, Cuba, North Vietnam, and above all, Maoist China, became the utopias du jour. Echoing the earlier wave of pilgrimages to the Soviet Union, Western intellectuals flocked to these places in large numbers and returned full of praise. The new utopias were presented as an alternative to Western capitalism on the one hand, but also to the dis-credited socialism of the Soviet Union and its allies on the other hand.

The ‘this-time-is-completely-different’ is not remotely new: since the 1960s, Western intellectuals have explicitly defined all new socialist experiments in opposition to earlier, failed attempts. When Cuba, Vietnam and Maoist China fell out of fashion in the 1970s, Albania and Cambodia took their place. The scale of the pilgrimages was tiny this time, but the basic pattern was the same: Western admirers claimed that while earlier socialist experiments had been corrupted, this time, a genuine workers’ and peasants’ democracy would emerge. Due to their extreme isolationism, these countries were not tainted by associations with discredited versions of socialism.

The two most obvious natural experiments of socialism are the splitting of Korea and Germany into a socialist and a broadly capitalist part. It is clear today that these experiments have produced conclusive results – but this was not always so clear, and, as long as the jury was out, plenty of Western intellectuals sympathised with the socialist rather than the capitalist parts of these countries.

The most recent example of the above-described pattern – enthusiastic endorsement, followed by retroactive disowning – is Venezuela. ‘Venezuela-mania’ started around 2005, and once again the central claim was that this time would be completely different: ‘21st century socialism’ would be a democratic bottom-up socialism, which had nothing in common with the authoritarian top-down socialism of yesteryear. Venezuela soon found itself swamped by Western pilgrims. With Venezuela’s descent into economic chaos, political unrest and authoritarianism, Venezuela-mania began to fade not long after Chávez’s death. After a period of silence, Western socialists began to explicitly dispute the socialist credentials of Chavismo. Venezuela is joining a long list of countries that were never ‘really’ socialist.

Despite its long list of failures, socialism remains far more popular than capitalism. The research of Jonathan Haidt, which shows that most political and moral reasoning is about finding post-hoc justifications for an initial intuitive judgement, goes a long way towards explaining why this is the case.

The case for capitalism is counterintuitive: to most of us, capitalism simply feels wrong. Socialism, in contrast, chimes with our moral intuitions. Socialism simply feels right. Being a socialist is a ‘default opinion’, which comes easily and naturally to us.

Appreciating the benefits of a market economy, in contrast, takes some intellectual self-discipline. Even prominent free-market intellectuals, such as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, did not start their careers as free marketeers.

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    Dr Kristian Niemietz
    Dr Kristian Niemietz is the Head of Health and Welfare at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a Research Fellow at the Age Endeavour Fellowship (AEF).
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