A specter is haunting America — the specter of socialism.
We have gotten a nasty preview of it during the Coronavirus epidemic. We’ve experienced empty shelves, food shortages, limits on what you can buy, and also the attack on civil liberties, on freedom of assembly, on religious liberty, on privacy. So we’ve endured on a temporary basis what, under socialism, we are likely to endure on a permanent basis.
Yet socialism has somehow entered the mainstream of political debate. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, we have these strange socialist characters — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Bernie Sanders — and a whole political party that seems magnetically drawn toward the socialist camp. This development by itself is surpassingly strange, because socialism is arguably the most discredited idea since slavery.
Slavery lasted for centuries — even millennia — before it was recognized as a thoroughly wicked and tyrannical regime of human exploitation. Socialism, which dates back to 1917, when Lenin founded the world’s first socialist state, has had a much shorter shelf life. It, too, collapsed across the world because it was understood by the people who lived under it to be a form of slavery.
We see the connection between socialism and slavery in all the important works on socialism. Friedrich Hayek’s critique of socialism is appropriately titled The Road to Serfdom. George Orwell depicted the tyrannical dimension of socialism in his two immortal novels Animal Farm and 1984. Using both the techniques of fiction and nonfiction, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a series of works — The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — depicted Soviet socialism as a vast network of slave camps stretching from Europe to the farthest reaches of Asia.
Slavery in its classic form has been abolished worldwide, although enslavement in other forms — sex trafficking for instance—continues as a gruesome relic of this barbaric practice. Even so, no serious person today could advocate the return of slavery! How ridiculous it would be to hear someone say, “The failures of slavery were all failures of implementation. This time we’re really gonna make it work!”
Yet here we have socialism in America attempting a comeback, and on precisely those terms: This time we’re gonna get it right. Serious people advocate it; there is a sustained cultural push to apotheosize it; a major political party is pushing aggressively toward it. How is this possible? Apparently socialism means never having to say you’re sorry.
Socialism has proved to be a living hell pretty much everywhere it has been tried. It has been tried pretty much all over the world. Let’s not forget that within about a century since Marx wrote, and less than half a century since the Bolshevik Revolution, some 60 percent of the world’s people were living under governments that embraced some form of socialism. At once time, Josh Muravchik writes, “it was the most popular political idea ever invented, arguably the most popular idea of any kind about how life should be lived or society organized.”
The biggest socialist experiment was the Soviet bloc, an orbit of countries including the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and East Germany. Prior to the Soviet occupation of its eastern region, Germany tried its own distinct version of socialism, National Socialism or Nazism for short, for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. In Asia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea and China experimented with socialism. In South America, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela tried it. Most of Africa went socialist in the aftermath of colonialism: Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I count here 25 experiments in socialism, all ending in unmitigated disaster.
The worst forms of socialism proved not only totalitarian, but also murderous to an unprecedented degree. In the Soviet Union alone, socialist regimes killed some 20 million of their own citizens and enslaved tens of millions of others. The Chinese socialists, in the period known as Mao’s Cultural Revolution, killed another 20-25 million. The Nazis murdered in comparable numbers, including Jews and gypsies and other occupied peoples, Poles, Russians, Eastern Europeans and others. Orwell’s description from 1984 seems appropriate here: “A boot stamping on a human face.”
Socialists today disavow this historical record, insisting that these were authoritarian forms of socialism that they have no intention of copying. While socialism may have been the economic program of Communism and early Fascism, modern socialists seek to dispense with the tyranny and merely keep the economic program. Yet it’s worth stressing that socialism wasn’t merely a political failure; it was also an economic failure.
Orwell somehow missed this. Interestingly, neither of his two novels offers an economic critique of socialism. There is no economic problem in Animal Farm; the only problem is that the pigs seize power. In 1984, the ruling party creates poverty and scarcity to keep people in line. Great as he is, Orwell confines himself to a political critique; he exposes the totalitarian tendency of socialism. But he never shows how socialism creates this totalitarianism, and he leaves open the possibility of a more benign socialism that avoids it.
Yet in the real world, the political collapse of socialism was brought about by its economic failure. This was certainly true in the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev’s rescue efforts — glasnost and perestroika — failed spectacularly, first bringing down the Soviet empire, then the Communist ruling party, and finally the socialist system itself. China, too, abandoned socialism for its economic shortcomings. And look how poorly socialism is faring in Zimbabwe, Cuba and Venezuela today. So how can one adopt socialist ideas once again without considering the economic track record of socialist regimes?
Rarely in history is there is a chance to actually compare social systems to see which one works better. One might compare the Plantagenet kings of England with the Tang Dynasty in China, but even if we line up the dates we are talking about two completely different societies: different people, different culture. Consequently, England’s superiority and China’s inferiority — or the other way round — can hardly be attributed to their rival systems of government, since so many other factors could be involved.
In the case of socialism, however, we have two perfect test cases: North and South Korea, and East and West Germany. The perfection of these examples comes from the fact that we are dealing with the same people, same background, same culture, merely two rival economic systems. North Korea is socialist; South Korea capitalist. East Germany was socialist; West Germany capitalist.
When the results came in, they were decisive. At reunification the per capita gross domestic product in socialist East Germany was just about one third of the capitalist West German level, with other measures of economic performance displaying a similar chasm. Even the poorest part of West Germany, Schleswig-Holstein, was two and a half times as wealthy as the richest East German region, Saxony. To this day, the eastern part of Germany gets nearly 15 percent of its gross domestic product in net transfers from the western part of Germany.
The Korean example is even more telling, in part because the separation of the two societies has lasted longer and continues to this day. South Korea now is more than 20 times richer than North Korea, a difference manifested in virtually all indicators of human welfare. South Koreans are obviously freer than North Koreans but they also seem happier than North Koreans; have you ever seen a North Korean smile? South Koreans are also taller, healthier and live about 12 years longer than North Koreans. Every year many thousands of North Koreans risk their lives seeking to escape to South Korea.
I grew up under Indian socialism — which was democratic socialism — and experienced its two signature institutions. The first was everyday corruption; literally nothing could be done without paying some petty bureaucrat under the table. The second was the ration card, which specified the paltry ration of sugar or cooking oil that a family was permitted to purchase each month.
During this era, India was widely known as the begging bowl of the world. Americans told their children, “Eat your food because there are millions of starving people in India.” Gandhi spoke wistfully about “wiping a tear of every Indian face.” A whole generation of young Indians in the 1960s and 1970s saw no future for themselves and fled to sea, like my brother, or to Dubai to do manual labor, like some of my cousins, or to Australia, Canada and America, like me.
Today’s young Indians plan no such mass exit, because there are now opportunities for them at home. Now I go back to India and see Indian families who used to endure the sweltering summer heat and go to the sea to wash their clothes now enjoy the full benefits of modern technology, including air conditioning and washing machines. India is doing measurably better, and now there is a large and newly-prosperous middle class. Even the country’s global reputation has changed. Today Americans tell their children, “Study hard because there are millions of Indians waiting to take your jobs.”
How did the change come about? It came about through economic liberalization, otherwise known as free market capitalism. And how did India decide to move in that direction? It was not inspired by the Indians reading Adam Smith. Rather, Indians looked across the Chinese border and saw that millions of once-impoverished peasants now lived in clean homes and nice apartments. The Chinese now shopped in well-stocked grocery stores. They drove new cars.
There was no question how the Chinese did it. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Under Mao, factories were nationalized and the land of the peasants was expropriated. Mao targeted traders and businessmen — the “bourgeoisie” — attempting in his own words to “destroy the property owning class by killing at least one landlord in every village via public execution.” Mao’s Great Leap Forward, announced in 1958, accelerated the collectivization of farms; in fact, all private farming was banned. The result was the greatest man-made famine in history.
Then, in 1966, Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, an attempt to erase all remaining capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. The Communist Red Guard enforced a purge of all dissidents. Mao issued his famous book of quotations, The Little Red Book, that became a central part of the curriculum of every school. Chinese citizens were expected to have a copy of Mao’s writings with them at all times. Even so, Maoist socialism represented a disastrous alloy of deprivation, starvation and tyranny.
The change came in the late 1970s, when the Chinese, under Deng Xiaopping, abandoned the socialism of Mao for its own brand of capitalism. In doing so the Chinese inaugurated a new experiment in social organization. Call it totalitarian capitalism. The Chinese did not relinquish their Communist dictatorship; rather, they married dictatorial political control to free market liberalization. Some say it was an awkward marriage, yet in economic terms, it worked.
So the Indians decided to follow in the economic path the Chinese had marked out. Large parts of the Indian economy are still government regulated, but the trend for three decades now has been away from that, toward privatization, deregulation, economic liberalization. And India too has seen spectacular results. Technological capitalism has realized Gandhi’s dream of wiping millions of Indian tears. As for Indian socialism, the leftist writer Pankaj Mishra frets that it shows “no signs of revival.”
If socialism has produced a worldwide record of misery and tears, and if countries must flee socialism to experience prosperity, what then are American socialists up to? Why would they want to import misery and tears? They insist they are not doing this. In a sense, they disavow history, both the political and the economic legacy of all professed socialist regimes. They insist that everyone else got it wrong. They emphasize that at least some of those depressing examples, maybe all of them, were not “real socialism.”
How coherent is this idea of “real socialism”? If an economic idea fails once or twice or even three times, one can still insist it was a fine idea that was merely implemented poorly. But if an idea fails 25 times, all over the world, everywhere it has been tried, without even one counterexample of a socialist regime that works well, it strains credulity to insist that there is still some undiscovered form of socialism, heretofore unattempted, that will finally prove its viability. Yet another go at socialism now feels like Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth marriage, a triumph of hope over experience.
So why doesn’t the failed track record of socialist regimes deter the socialists of today? What keeps socialism alive for them? The answer is: the socialist dream! Yes, there is a socialist dream just as there is an American dream. And evidently the socialist dream is one that survives all empirical refutation. No purely empirical argument—and no set of economic arguments—is sufficient to send socialism to its grave.
This is why conservative and libertarian critiques of socialism have gotten nowhere. The conservatives and libertarians keep chanting, “Socialism doesn’t work,” and they produce charts and tables to prove it. The socialists glance over the charts and tables and then they clamor for more socialism. They don’t care about data because no amount of data can refute a dream. The socialist mantra is, “We don’t care if it hasn’t worked. We will figure out a way to make it work.” The critics are focused on yesterday, while the socialists are all about tomorrow. Owen Jones expresses this futuristic hope, “A socialist society…doesn’t exist yet, but one day it must.”
I’m reminded of the early scene in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the pilgrim, Christian, is warned by the Evangelist to pursue eternal life and “flee the wrath to come.” But how, Christian asks, do I do this? The evangelist points to a wide field. “Do you see yonder wicket gate?” No. “Do you see yonder shining light?” Christian looks hard; he can barely see it. He thinks he sees something. The evangelist is undeterred; he urges Christian to follow the light, and he will reach his desired destination.
When Christian’s wife and children discover that he is about to leave on a quest, having no idea when, if ever, he will return, they summon the neighbors and together the whole group rails against Christian, mocking and threatening him. They tell him he is a fool, and that he is neglecting his responsibilities and pursuing an illusion. But none of this deters Christian, who in Bunyan’s words, “put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal life!”
So it is with the socialists. They are on a grand quest, and they refuse to look back. The insist that they are the champions of a moral ideal. The only way to refute them is to refute their moral ideal, to expose their dream as a nightmare, to capsize their utopia. Normally people try to defeat utopia by showing it is a fantasy. But this is inadequate, because a fantasy continues to hold its appeal even when it is exposed as a fantasy. So we have to expose the socialist utopia not as an illusion but rather as a racket.
Sure, there is a socialist temptation, and this is the same temptation that some cult leaders and TV evangelists hold out to their gullible audience. They offer the temptation of paradise, freed from the normal drudgery and travails of life, with manna dropping into their laps from heaven. This is pretty much what the socialists promise, too. The main difference is that the televangelist promises these wonders in the next life; the socialist in this one. All you are expected to give up is your ownership of yourself, including your right to keep what is yours, your personal autonomy and dignity, and your independence of mind.
In both cases, the enterprise is driven by lust for money and lust for power, the libido dominandi that Augustine warns about. In principle, no less than in practice, socialism is the ideology of thieves and tyrants. As for the people who fall for the temptation, they are connivers attracted by the rip-off scheme. But they end up a suckers, because the scheme is not designed to benefit them. We cannot persuade the thieves and tyrants, but we should try to reach the conniving suckers, to show them a better way to get ahead, and we need an effective battle plan to finally and ultimately defeat the socialists.
This is adapted from the Preface to Dinesh D’Souza’s new book United States of Socialism, published by St. Martin’s Press.