Socialism – the Failed Idea That Never Dies

You might think that a book about Socialism, the failed idea, would detail the catastrophic results that attempts to build Socialist societies have achieved in practice. You would be wrong. In Kristian Niemietz's new book these are taken as read. The horrors of Stalin's gulags and mass murders are all assumed, as are the mass starvation and purges of Mao's China. The utter failures of North Korea, Albania and the others, up to and including Venezuela, are treated as fact, which they are. The book concerns itself with quite another question. Why, given the overwhelming evidence of what Socialism has achieved, have Western academics sought to deny that any of these examples featured it?

That they have denied every single example as "not Socialism" emerges overwhelmingly from the quotes Kristian cites. That they originally said each one was Socialism is equally shown. The leaders who introduced it thought and said it was Socialism, too. The pattern is one of enthusiasm that a great new experiment in living is taking place. True Socialism is being tried, and a society will live in fairness and harmony, with production in the hands of the workers. Western left-wing intellectuals rave about the wonders it is achieving. Some of them go as pilgrims and return to laud it.

They begin to distance themselves when problems emerge, as they always do. They do not initially denounce it; they just stop talking about it. Only finally, years later, do they shrug it off, claiming it never was 'real' Socialism. So the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, etc., were not socialist, none of them. The question is why did they first accept that it was and praise it, only to retract when its results were evident?

Kristian posits an intriguing answer. He highlights the Gary Lineker fallacy. Lineker jokingly defined football as "a game in which 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and in the end, the Germans win." Fine, but what happens if a game takes place and the Germans don't win? Clearly, the game can't have been football, because Germans winning is part of its definition. The point is that the definition has included its outcome, not just its institutional characteristics (the rules of the game).

The left-wing intellectuals treat Socialism similarly, defining it by its outcome. If it doesn't succeed in bringing about the said fairness and harmony with production in the hands of the workers, then it can't have been Socialism. And out of the window goes the real world, the one we live in. If we were to say that Socialism seeks to achieve these goals, we'd be able to judge if it has ever succeeded to any degree. Because it never has, we'd be entitled to conclude that it doesn't work. Kristian says it's like performing a raindance. If it is done as an attempt to bring rain, we'd be able to judge how effective it was in practice. But if a raindance is defined as "a dance that brings rain," then any dance that didn't do that was clearly not a raindance.

Kristian asks why Socialism is so popular today, especially among young people. The obvious answer is that they lack experience of the world and are happy to dwell in a world of theory untempered by it. A less obvious answer, he tells us, is that socialism feels right. That stuff about equality and fairness appeals to our instincts. Capitalism, by contrast, feels wrong. It is a hard exercise to override those feelings and look at the facts of what each achieves in practice.

This suggests that much work is needed to put across that message, and we might start in academe.

Socialism — the Failed Idea That Never Dies is available to buy on Amazon, and can be found in pdf form on the Institute of Economic Affairs’ website.