The resurgence of self-described “democratic socialists” in the last few years leaves me somewhat puzzled. It’s not like we don’t have a pretty solid track record on socialism—and one that was foreseen by Eugene Richter well before the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia. What gives?
In his 2019 book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs explains a three-act “people’s romance,” to borrow Daniel Klein’s phrase. The first act, shortly after the Revolution, is the “honeymoon.” Defenders of the noble experiment tweak the skeptical neoliberal naysayers by pointing to apparent short-run successes. They say things like “the naysayers said socialism can’t work, but [insert name of latest socialist darling here] proves otherwise!” They proclaim, as the journalist Lincoln Steffens did upon seeing the Soviet economy in operation, “I have seen the future, and it works!”
Except that it doesn’t. As time goes on, socialism’s internal contradictions begin to overtake the short-run gains. This leads to act two, the “excuses-and-whatabouttery” phase. Here we learn that collectivized agriculture or “land reform” would have worked had the weather cooperated. Or we learn that it wasn’t socialism that failed; rather, oil prices plunged. Or we learn that socialism might have its problems but capitalism isn’t perfect, either.
Finally, Niemietz notes, we end up at the end of the history of socialist apologetics in act three: the “not-real-socialism” phase. Here we learn that “socialism hasn’t failed; socialism hasn’t been tried.” Early enthusiasm for the regime’s experiment as proof that socialism could work ends up in the memory hole, and apologists for socialism claim that the USSR, China, Cambodia, and other places weren’t “real socialism” even though a lot of those same apologists were claiming that these societies were proof that socialism could work, at least during the honeymoon phase. As he writes on page 63:
“…Western cheerleaders flocked to the Soviet Union in their thousands, and returned full of praise. At that time, the claim that Stalinism did not constitute ‘real’ socialism would have seemed outlandish.”
Stalinism didn’t become “not real socialism” until its failures became too obvious to ignore. In any event, it wasn’t like the defenders of the regime didn’t know what was going on. Niemietz quotes The Jungle author Upton Sinclair on p. 79: “There has never been in human history a great social change without killing.” He quotes Jean-Paul Sartre on p. 108:
“A revolutionary regime must get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it and I see no other means for this than death; it is always possible to get out of a prison; the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn’t kill enough people.”
This looks like evidence for Bryan Caplan’s thesis that communism was “born bad” in his foreword to a new edition of Pictures of the Socialistic Future: As Caplan puts it, totalitarianism was part of the early communists’ starry-eyed idealism. Apparently, mass murder was a feature rather than a bug.
Niemietz goes through several examples and shows how the pattern repeated itself time and again in the USSR, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Why, in spite of overwhelming evidence, do people cling to a socialist vision? Niemietz puts it this way on p. xiv:
“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.”
Feelings can be deceptive, however, and good intentions do not readily translate into good outcomes. Socialism, as Niemietz explains, has failed repeatedly. It never dies—but it should.
This article is based on my review of Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, which appeared in the Cato Institute’s magazine Regulation.
Reprinted from Forbes.com