Socialism is trendy again. The ideology is now the flavor of the month amongst anybody who is anybody. Journalists, academics, and “fresh” up-and-coming politicians are socialists by default. The British left-wing is lead by an October Revolution-approving Jeremy Corbyn. The American Democratic Party presidential primary candidates are battling to out-compete one another on who can give out the most free stuff.
It’s safe to say that socialism is no longer a dirty word.
Non-ironic socialists will claim this is overblown, that most of these public figures may not be dyed-in-the-wool worker revolutionaries. It is indeed farcical that social democrats point to Scandinavian welfare states and exclaim, “See? Socialism can work!” not mentioning that these countries rolled back their heavy statism decades ago, and that they still rank very highly on the Economic Freedom of the World index. It’s true that many of them merely don the moniker of socialism for trendy points, whilst not actually wanting us to seize the means of production. The Nordic model is capitalism with added free stuff.
Yet whether they’re hardline reds has never been the point. It’s the popular perception of socialism that counts.
There was a time soon after the Berlin Wall fell that the mainstream considered socialist ideas discredited, and even the more radical leftist intellectuals had disavowed the totalitarian Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Now the generational amnesia wiping from history the devastation of real-life socialist regimes has reached its fruition. The fact that Ash Sarkar can appear on national television and proclaim, “I am literally a communist,” and still be invited among polite company is evidence that we’re back to square one.
Some do remember, or have learned about it in a systematic, thoughtful way rather than through irresponsible hand-waving of ‘good in theory, bad in practice,’ or ‘not real socialism.’
One such person is Dr Kristian Niemietz, who through his work in Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, documents Western intellectuals’ relationship with real-life socialist regimes across time. Everyone ‘knows’ now that Pol Pot was a brutal dictator, but who remembers a time when eminent intellectual scholars such as Noam Chomsky downplayed the reports of executions?
Their progression comes in three stages, explains Dr Niemietz:
Stage 1: The regime’s honeymoon period where it appears things are going quite well. The intellectuals sing its praises from the rooftops. They go on pilgrimages and report back how this regime is showing the rest of the world a different way of doing things.
Stage 2: Things start to go wrong: Shortages, famines, human rights abuses, concentration camps, are either denied completely, downplayed (the Western capitalist media ‘exaggerates’ the numbers of executions) or claim it’s the result of foreign interference.
Stage 3: The regime completely collapses. The intellectuals claim they never said it was socialism and wonder why anybody would bring up this ridiculous strawman for cheap political points. Or they simply stay silent.
In the case of Venezuela, we’re seeing this exact pattern. Speaking specifically on the British left-wing, after initially praising them, and the full-extent of the regime’s folly is plain to see even to the most blind of advocates, they claim it wasn’t proper socialism anyway, and anything to the contrary is just a cheap right-wing smear.
Eight years ago, Chomsky said:
“[W]hat’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created […] The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”.
“I never described Chavez’s state capitalist government as ‘socialist’ or even hinted at such an absurdity. It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained […] Capitalists were free to undermine the economy in all sorts of ways, like massive export of capital.”
As the situation in Venezuela progresses, don’t let the socialist intellectuals get away with this sleight of hand. Point out that they’re doing exactly the same as all these other flip-floppers.
We should also not let them get away with ‘not real socialism.’ The only real workable definition of socialism is: A political-economic system where industry is collectively or state-owned. That happens to be the dictionary definition and has has been useful because it is outcome-free.
Socialist intellectuals like to add on to that definition outcome-dependent qualifiers that essentially mean no real-life example could possibly meet that definition. It’ll look like: ‘A classless, moneyless society where workers collectively own the means of production, and everyone is equal.’ The problem is all of these qualifiers are aspirations. Of course, those outcomes a society could try to aim for by introducing socialist policies, but they cannot be the definition of socialism.
They could go one step further and say that this the definition of socialism: ‘A system where everyone shares all resources fairly and equally, everything is perfect and everyone lives in absolute happiness.’ The Soviet Union was not perfect, and not everybody was happy, so the Soviet Union could not have been real socialism!
That’s exactly what socialist intellectuals are doing by pointing out that, in the Soviet Union, all workers didn’t have an equal share in the factories and, therefore, it wasn’t socialism in practice, and that it had not ‘been tried.’ Isn’t it simpler to assume, since every instance of a nominally-socialist regime has failed, that socialism hasn’t been achieved because it is impossible? It’s not a matter of not being tried, it’s because it is bad in theory as well as in practice.
The socialist intellectual thinks that ‘not real socialism’ relieves them from addressing the fact that every instance where their ideology has taken hold has come to failure: A 100% record. They’re wrong. At some point they will have to confront the practically devastating realities of their pet theory.
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