Economic Theory

An alternative history: REAL socialism is being tried. A drama in 10 acts (Part 1)

“Socialism hasn’t ‘failed’ – it hasn’t been tried yet”: Surprise victory of new socialist party in East German election

The Guardian, 19 March 1990

East Berlin is a city in shellshock today. Bonn, meanwhile, is a city of headless chickens. Forget everything you thought you knew about current affairs: after yesterday’s surprise election result, all bets are off.

Yesterday, for the first time in its forty-year history, the German Democratic Republic did what democratic republics are supposed to do: hold a free and fair democratic election. Until last night’s exit poll, all pollsters and all pundits agreed on one thing: that the GDR’s first-ever democratic election would also be its last. Whatever government would emerge from it would immediately start working towards its own abolition. Within less than a year, a Reunification Treaty was supposed to be signed and ratified. East Germany was supposed to merge with the Federal Republic. The GDR – and with it, socialism itself – were supposed to be on their way out.

Yesterday’s election thwarted all those plans. The new party that emerged as last night’s surprise election winner is mostly an unknown quantity, but we do know one thing for sure: With them anywhere near the levers of power, there will be no German reunification, and no return to the market economy in East Germany. Socialism was supposed to be a dead man walking. Yesterday’s election result has given it a new lease of life.

Polls have been wrong before. Voters have had last-minute changes of hearts before. Undecided voters or unexpected patterns of turnout have dumbfounded experts before. But never before has a party that used to poll at less than a third of a percent end up securing one third of the votes. The polls were off by factor of over 100.

So who are the United Left (VL), the new socialist party that will now, in all likelihood, lead the next East German government?

The first thing to note about them is that they are not new. Most East Germans are familiar with them, and most of us have read about them too – just not under that name. They emerged out of the GDR’s democratic protest movement, which played such an important role in the lead up to the opening of the Berlin Wall four months ago. In hindsight, it is tempting to assume that the anti-regime protesters must all have been staunch anti-socialists, but nothing could be further from the truth. The protest movement has always contained groups that explicitly described themselves as democratic socialists. Their opposition to the rule of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) was, in no way, an opposition to socialism. Rather, they saw themselves as the torchbearers of ‘true’ socialism. They saw the SED leadership as sell-outs, who had betrayed the idea of socialism to further their own careers.

The VL is simply the party-political arm of this movement. Their aim was never to dismantle the GDR, but to democratise it from within. They want socialism – just not the hierarchical, Soviet-inspired socialism that the GDR currently has. Their idea of socialism is a socialism from below, a grassroots socialism, a socialism which empowers ordinary working people, not party apparatchiks or technocratic elites. It is a socialism with civil liberties, political rights and widespread democratic participation, a socialism which thoroughly democratises each and every aspect of life.

The young AV voter we spoke to at the polling station yesterday deserves to be quoted in full, because he no doubt spoke for many of his fellow countrymen:

“I was going to vote CDU or SPD, but then I thought, hang on – this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m not opposed to socialism. I’m opposed to Stalinism. I’m opposed to the SED. I’m opposed to the Stasi. I’m opposed to being told what to think, what to say, what to do. I’m sick to death of the arrogant, out-of-touch elite that is running this country. But that’s not socialism. That’s the opposite of socialism.

I want to live in a country where the economy exists to satisfy the needs of the people, not the other way round. That is socialism. Some say it has ‘failed’. It hasn’t. We’ve never had socialism here. It just hasn’t been tried.”

Indeed: Socialism, so defined, has never been tried. But it looks as though the GDR is about to try it now. We are witnessing the beginning of a remarkable experiment.


Continue to Part 2.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

9 thoughts on “An alternative history: REAL socialism is being tried. A drama in 10 acts (Part 1)”

  1. Posted 15/12/2017 at 14:19 | Permalink

    Boring, German problem, why should we be bothered about Angst, angst, Angst constantly replayed.
    You have been a menace and a disaster for the rest of Europe for the last 150 years.
    Go and commit suicide, please, quick, every last one of you.

  2. Posted 15/12/2017 at 18:08 | Permalink

    What an unconstructive comment that is, by Marianne above. For me, it would be intruiging to see how Kristian’s alternative history develops, and I want to know.

  3. Posted 15/12/2017 at 22:15 | Permalink

    “Socialism hasn’t ‘failed’ – it hasn’t been tried yet”

    been tried … failed at every turn even where virtually unlimited resources are available (see current day Venezuela for details). socialism is a mental disorder that really needs curing.

  4. Posted 16/12/2017 at 05:47 | Permalink

    Well done, Marianne. Succinctly put.

  5. Posted 16/12/2017 at 22:07 | Permalink

    Marianne, Ariadaeus –
    you think the last 150 years were bad?
    Those were the good years. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
    Dieses war der erste Streich,
    doch der zweite folgt sogleich.

  6. Posted 17/12/2017 at 08:47 | Permalink

    Socialism has been tried, it has been tested to destruction – that of the 100s of millions of people murdered by it. It is an ignorant ‘theory’ promoted by ignoramuses at the behest of psychopathic megalomaniacal monsters.

  7. Posted 17/12/2017 at 09:46 | Permalink

    Mr Niemietz,

    “you think the last 150 years were bad?
    Those were the good years. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

    Yes, we are all perfectly aware that our societies and cultures are being destroyed.
    Haven’t neoliberalism, globalisation and the EU been a riproaring societal success?
    For the people of Europe, I mean, not for those who have done very well out of it.

    The good people of the DDR would today perhaps be gazing with disbelief at what was
    going on west of the Wall and wanting it to be built even higher to keep them safe.
    That would be nothing to do with socialism or whatever system was operating in the East,
    simply a commonsense wish to keep their own socisty and culture.

    Shock, horror, yes, I am an anti-neoliberal, an anti-globalist and I wish for the destruction of the EU.
    Proudly so…..and I know that history will be on the side of people like me.

    Suerte, la vamos necesitar, todos y todas!

  8. Posted 17/12/2017 at 10:46 | Permalink

    When you read a comment that ends with ‘go and commit suicide’ you have to wonder at the mental health of such people. It’s revolting, vile, thoroughly evil to suggest such simply because you are frightened of being shown to be a fool.

    To have someone else agree with it! Cripes. For the rational mind it’s truly shocking. Socialism has not, and never will work. People like Marianne can’t seem to accept this and never learn.

  9. Posted 17/12/2017 at 12:17 | Permalink


    Your concern for my mental health is much appreciated but really not necessary.
    The comments I made and their context are comprehensible to others but are
    obviously beyond your rather limited and simplistic “reasoning” ability.

    What a happy state of self-delusion yours must be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *