At a university debating society event, 2013
“The reason why previous, nominally socialist projects failed…”
Owen paused for a moment, for effect, his gaze wandering from the seats on the left to the seats on the right. The audience was eating out of his hand.
“…was that their leaders tried to impose it in a top-down way. Socialism doesn’t work that way. It cannot be imposed by diktat. It can only be built from the bottom up. It must come from the grassroots. It must be rooted in working-class communities.
“And that’s precisely what is happening in Venezuela right now. That’s what’s so exciting about it. They are building an entirely new, and completely different form of socialism, which has nothing in common with the perversions of Stalinism or Maoism. Venezuela shows that there is an alternative. And this is something that should give us all hope. Thank you.”
As he sat down, the room broke into a roaring applause. Owen noticed that the opposing speaker, a liberal economist, looked uncomfortable. He had just realised that he was going to lose this motion. Badly.
His speech was decent enough. But he delivered it with all the enthusiasm of a man who knew that almost everyone in the audience had already made up their minds, and that there was nothing he could say that would make the slightest bit of difference. He might as well have read out a page from the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. And he sounded a bit as if he were doing just that.
“We have 103 votes for the motion, 9 votes against the motion, and 6 abstentions. I can therefore announce: this House believes that Venezuelan socialism is the future.”
Owen smiled, pleased with himself. He stayed for a few drinks at the student bar, and then went home. It was his third evening in a row that he spent debating, and he could feel the exhaustion. He sat down at the kitchen table, and tried to read today’s edition of the Guardian, but he soon dozed off.
He was awoken by the sound of a chair being moved. When Owen opened his eyes, he noticed that he was no longer alone in the kitchen. Someone else was sitting at the table, opposite him. His heart skipped a beat. Owen was suddenly wide awake.
The stranger did not look threatening. Maybe he would have, fifty years earlier. But he was now a nonagenarian. He was tall, slim, white-haired, and wore old-fashioned rimmed spectacles. There was something faintly aristocratic about his appearance.
“You debated well today. Congratulations”, the old man said.
“Who… are you?”, Owen asked, his voice quavering.
“Ask me who I was”, the stranger replied.
Owen could not quite place his accent. He sounded vaguely German, except, not quite – something was just a little bit off. Was it Swiss-German, maybe? Austrian German? Dutch? Danish?
“How did you get in here?”, Owen asked. “I could swear I that I locked the door. And none of the windows are open.”
“I also used to take part in university debates when I was younger”, the intruder explained, ignoring Owen’s question. “Including quite a few on socialism.”
“That must have been… a very different kind of socialism”, Owen replied, wondering whether he should call the police.
The intruder laughed. “Oh yes. Of course. It’s always ‘a very different kind of socialism’. It always is. Until it’s not.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“It will make sense.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Me? Nothing. I’m just setting the stage.”
“What stage? For whom?”
“You will have three visitors tonight. Each of them is going to show you something.”
“I don’t want any visitors. I’m tired. I want to go to bed. And I must now ask you to leave. There’s the…”
He turned around and pointed at the door.
When he turned back again, the old burglar was gone. The chair was empty.
Am I losing my mind?, Owen asked himself. Did I really just imagine an entire dialogue with a… ghost?
I should have stayed away from that cheap, nasty Pinot Grigio from the student bar. And above all – I really need to get some sleep. My mind is playing tricks on me.
He got ready for bed, and within a few minutes, he was fast asleep.
Stave 2: The Ghost of Socialism Past
Until he was rudely awoken. Somebody was playing music. In his kitchen!
Owen jumped out of bed. He grabbed a tennis racket, and tiptoed towards the kitchen. As he got closer, he noticed that he recognised the music. It was the Soviet national anthem.
He peeked through the crack of the door. He saw a man with a large, dark moustache, wearing a uniform. The man was looking at him. He smiled, and waved.
“Privyet, Tovarish Owen! Come een, come een!”, he said, in a thick Russian accent.
Confused, Owen entered the kitchen. “Who are you?”, he asked.
“I am the Ghost of Socialism Past. Come, let me show you something.”
He lifted his cape, which suddenly seemed implausibly large, and wrapped it around Owen.
Owen pulled the cape away. Baffled, he realised that they were no longer in the kitchen. They were in a large hall full of people.
“I know this place!”, Owen said. He had been here just a few hours earlier. It was the place of the debating society event. It just seemed… different. More austere. Simpler.
“Excuse me”, Owen said to one of the students. “Which event is this?”
The student did not react.
“These are but shadows of things that have been,” said the ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
Owen felt dizzy. He sat down.
He looked around, and noticed that almost all students were white, and male. They were very formally dressed, and they all had short, cropped hair. He overheard a conversation:
“Did you hear what Chamberlain was getting up to in Munich?”
“I did. And I don’t think it’s going to work. Hitler is playing him.”
Owen realised that he was in 1938.
People took their seats, and the room fell silent. The event was about to start. The president of the debating society explained the formalities. The title of the motion was “This house believes Soviet socialism is the future.”
“What silly motion is that?”, Owen asked. “The Soviet Union was not socialist. Stalinism was a perversion of socialism.”
“Is not way they see it”, the ghost retorted. “Look.”
He pointed at the row behind him, where one student was holding a Soviet flag. Several of them wore pins with a hammer-and-sickle sign.
The president introduced the speakers, and Owen recognised one of them. It was the old man who had sat in his kitchen earlier this evening. Except, he wasn’t old now. He was in his thirties.
The debate started with a proponent of the motion, who started by reading out a list of impressive-sounding Soviet production statistics. He went on to talk about the political system of the Soviet Union, which he described as an authentic, worker-run grassroots democracy, in which all power was derived from local workers’ assemblies – the Soviets. The president rang a bell, which meant that the speaker’s time was almost up. He concluded:
“I know that my opponent will mischaracterise the Soviet Union as a ‘dictatorship’. What nonsense. It is not, and it could not be. Socialism doesn’t work that way. It cannot be imposed by diktat. It can only be built from the bottom up. It must come from the grassroots. It must be rooted in working-class communities.
“And that’s precisely what is happening in the Soviet Union right now. That’s what’s so exciting about it. They are building an entirely new, and completely different form of society. The Soviet Union shows that there is an alternative. And this is something that should give us all hope. Thank you.”
The room broke into roaring applause. It was clear that the speaker was going to win the motion.
Owen wriggled about uncomfortably on his seat.
“What is the matter?” asked the spirit.
“Nothing,” said Owen. “Nothing. It’s just that…”
The ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another socialism!”
To be continued…
Kristian Niemietz is the author of “Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies”.