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News 19 March 2020, at 13:14

Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies

Marime Font

The psychology of success and wealth, the power of capitalism.

Why have socialist ideas become so attractive again, despite the fact that, without exception, every socialist experiment over the past 100 years has ended in dismal failure? In this interview, Kristian Niemietz, author of Socialism. The Failed Idea That Never Dies and Head of Political Economy at the Institute for Economic Affairs London, has the answers.

More Than Two Dozen Failed Experiments

Rainer Zitelmann: In your book, you write that socialism has always failed. Looking back through human history, are there really no examples of socialist systems that have actually worked?

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Niemietz: No. Over the past hundred years, there have been more than two dozen attempts to build a socialist society. It has been tried in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Albania, Poland, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, North Korea, Hungary, China, East Germany, Cuba, Tanzania, Laos, South Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among others—not counting the very short-lived ones. All of these attempts have ended in varying degrees of failure.


Zitelmann: How can an idea that has failed so many times, in so many different variants and in so many radically different settings, still be so popular? After all, one of the remaining candidates for the presidential nomination in the United States is a self-avowed socialist.
Niemietz: Indeed, and organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have been experiencing a huge influx of new members—predominantly young people—over the past five years or so. The organization has not just become much larger, but also much younger: the median age among its members has dropped from 68 years to 33 years. Socialism has become a young people’s movement. Socialism has become hip and trendy.

Socialists have successfully managed to distance themselves from all real-world examples of failed socialist experiments. Whenever you confront socialists with any such example, they always offer the following response: “These examples don’t prove anything at all! None of these models were ever truly socialist. This is a straw man. You just don’t understand socialism.”

Zitelmann: And isn’t it interesting that you only ever hear such pronouncements once a socialist experiment has quite obviously failed? In the early days of any new socialist experiment, it is enthusiastically greeted by huge numbers of intellectuals.

Niemietz: Precisely. This has happened many times. The most recent example is Venezuela, which, just a few years ago, was being hailed by leading intellectuals and left-wing politicians as a model for “Socialism of the 21st Century.” One leading left-wing intellectual, the Princeton Professor Cornell West, proclaimed: “I love that Hugo Chávez has made poverty a major priority. I wish America would make poverty a priority.” And the high-profile journalist Barbara Walters enthused: “He cares very much about poverty, he is a socialist. What he’s trying to do for all of Latin America, they have been trying to do for years, eliminate poverty. But he is not the crazy man we’ve heard… This is a very intelligent man.” From Noam Chomsky to Naomi Klein—all the fashionable intellectuals were at it.

Now that the failure of Venezuela’s socialist experiment is obvious to all and sundry, left-wing intellectuals scramble for excuses, coming up with extremely convoluted ways of claiming that what we saw in Venezuela was never “really” socialism at all.

Zitelmann: You also write that even mass murderers such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were enthusiastically celebrated by leading intellectuals of their time. How widespread was this admiration for dictators like Mao and Stalin among intellectuals?

Niemietz: It was very widespread. There were literally thousands of Westerners who travelled to those places and returned full of praise. Most of them did not leave written testimonies, but you can still easily find hundreds of quotes from Western intellectuals who extolled Stalin und Mao. More importantly, the people who did so were not outsiders. We are not talking about the members of some obscure fringe party. We are talking about well-established mainstream intellectuals, including some of the most renowned writers and scholars of the time.

They were convinced that they saw a better society in the making. Even the concentration camps in the Soviet Union and China, the Gulags and Laogai, were admired: they were presented as places of rehabilitation, not punishment, where inmates were given a chance to engage in useful activities, while reflecting upon their mistakes. Even journalists and intellectuals who didn’t completely turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes found arguments to justify what was happening: “But—to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialization as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack.” Those were the famous words of Walter Duranty, who was the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent from 1922 to 1936.

When The Experiment Fails: ‘That Was Never True Socialism’

Zitelmann: You say that every socialist experiment to date has gone through three phases. What are these three phases?

Niemietz: During the first phase, the honeymoon period, intellectuals around the world are enthusiastic about the system and praise it to the heavens. This enthusiasm is always followed by a second phase, the “excuses-and-whataboutery period,” which sets in when the system’s failings become more widely known. During this phase, intellectuals still uphold the system, but their tone becomes angry and defensive, probably because they are suffering from cognitive dissonance. They grudgingly admit some of the system’s deficiencies, but try to blame them on capitalist saboteurs, foreign forces or boycotts by U.S. imperialists. Or they try to relativize those failings by talking about unrelated bad things happening elsewhere: “What about…?”

Finally, the third phase sees intellectuals deny that it was ever truly a form of socialism, the “not-real-socialism” stage. This is the stage at which intellectuals claim that the country in question—for example the Soviet Union, Maoist China, or now also Venezuela—was never “really” a socialist country.

Zitelmann: People who call themselves socialists today usually acknowledge the fact that socialist experiments have failed in the past. But do they also draw the right lessons from these failures?

Niemietz: Absolutely not. Socialists who criticize Stalinism and other forms of real-world, historical socialism always fail to analyze the economic reasons for the failure of these systems. Their analyses attack the paucity of democratic rights and freedoms in these systems, but the alternatives they formulate are based on a vague vision of all-encompassing “democratization of the economy” or “worker control.” But these are exactly the same principles that initially underpinned the failed socialist systems in the Soviet Union and other countries. When contemporary socialists talk about a non-autocratic, non-authoritarian, participatory and humanitarian version of socialism, they are not being as original as they think they are. That was always the idea. This is what socialists have always said. It is not for a lack of trying that it has never turned out that way.

Socialist projects do not start out with totalitarian aspirations—they just end up that way. Lenin’s 1917 manifesto “The State and Revolution” does not at all read like a blueprint for a totalitarian society. It reads like a blueprint for, to use the currently fashionable term, “democratic socialism.” Socialism is always democratic and emancipatory in its aspirations, but oppressive and authoritarian in its actual practice.

Zitelmann: In your book you do not mention “democratic socialism.” Yet these are precisely the models socialists like Bernie Sanders highlight, for example when he references Sweden.

Niemietz: Sanders has long been oscillating rhetorically between “democratic socialism” and “social democracy.” This is not a difference in degree. It is a fundamental difference and you cannot have it both ways.

“Democratic socialism” is just socialism, with a meaningless, but nice-sounding modifier attached. “Social democracy,” on the other hand, is a capitalist market economy with high taxes, generously funded public services and a generous welfare state. That is how you could describe Scandinavia, or indeed most of Western Europe, today.

There was indeed a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when Sweden was moving dangerously close to “democratic” socialism. For Sweden, this was a period of relative economic decline, which culminated in the crisis of the early 1990s. That model was abandoned for good reason. Sweden is now, once again, a relatively liberal market economy, albeit with a heavy tax burden. In terms of their overall score on the various Economic Freedom indices, they are not that far behind the U.S.

There are people who confuse “democratic socialism” with “social democracy.” These are usually the same people who would, erroneously, claim that the system of the Soviet Union was “not socialism, but communism”.

Nonetheless, the return of socialism as a mass movement is not the result of such semantic confusions. The more articulate and outspoken figures within the new socialist movement are very clear about what they mean by “socialism,” and that is definitely not “being a bit more like Sweden or Denmark.” Some of them specifically define their idea of socialism in contrast to, and in opposition to, Nordic-style social democracy, because they want nothing to do with the latter. To them, “socialism” means public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. And at least on that—I agree with them.

Rainer Zitelmann 
Leadership Strategy 
FORBES.COM

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