What with the collapse into stinking rubble of the Soviet style socialist economies and societies back in ’89 to ’91 there’s not been a great deal that supporters of socialist ideals can point to as successes of such ideals. No one’s (sorry, we can find apologists for absolutely anything, so very few) pointing to North Korea as the blueprint for a desirable society and while Cuba has its praise singers no, "Sure, they’ve no freedom and nothing to eat but they do have free health care!", is not taken as a valid argument in adult company.
So large scale, countrywide, imposition of said socialist principles is something that’s been tried and no, it doesn’t work. But what about the small scale? Might it be possible to reorder society from the bottom up? Looking at the Israeli kibbutz movement, it would seem not:
Today, of the 273 kibbutzim in Israel, only about 60 still operate on a truly communal basis, in which all members are paid the same basic sum whatever their work, with services provided by the collective. Most of the rest have introduced reforms in response to what the Kibbutz movement calls "a severe socio-economic crisis [that] threatened the future of numerous kibbutzim – they owed huge debts to the banks and thousands of young people were leaving the communities. The kibbutzim were in danger of falling apart." The principal reforms were to introduce differential wages and privatise some of the services……..But the "earthquake" was the introduction of differential wages. It turned the kibbutz philosophy on its head. "The jobs we once thought were the elite jobs – physical work in the fields and orchards – turned out to pay the least," recalls Ney. Managers were paid more than labourers, and productivity was rewarded.
It’s worth reading the whole piece. Without a price system no one knew what was the most productive use of labour: without a price system there was no rationing of resources. Now there is a place where properly communal living is possible, where Marx’s from according to ability and to according to need works: the family. But even there it’s tightly constrained as anyone who has cousins knows: as Haldane pointed out, the sacrifices we’d be willing to make for two brothers would require 8 cousins to extract from us.
Now this sort of communal living, if it won’t work with an all volunteer starting population, with people entirely raised within this egalitarian ethos, won’t work even when motivated by the building of a new country and new way of life, well, I think we can say that it’s been tried in the circumstances most favourable to its success and that failure shows the failure of the basic idea, not of the particular circumstances. We’re just not going to make this egalitarian communalism work with human beings at any scale larger than the family.
We should be careful of the baby/bathwater problem though. One of the historical strands that makes up British socialism is the success of various communal and community movements: the mutuals, friendly societies, co-ops (and Co-Ops), those things which so enriched life in this country. That people will group together to achieve a certain task, voluntarily collectivise some part of life is just fine: it’s when all of life is so organised that it seems to go wrong.
But then voluntary collectivisation of some part of life is hardly an exclusively socialist notion, we could use Burke’s "little platoons" as an equally apt description of such actions.
But it does seem that we’ve tested this radical egalitarianism, at the micro scale and the macro, community and nation, both forced and voluntary, and it just doesn’t seem to work. So sorry to those who still believe in it all but socialism is dead: get over it.