“But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 1: the USSR)
Socialism is a lot like the bad guy in a low-budget horror movie, who, especially towards the end of the movie, just stubbornly refuses to die. He gets shot, he gets stabbed, he gets thrown out of a window, he gets run over by a car – but every time you think he could not possibly have survived this, he gets up again. And is as lethal as ever.
Socialism is like that. It used to be a common assumption that the history of socialism essentially ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that no political idea could possibly survive such a crushing defeat. Far from it: in 1998, Venezuela elected a socialist president, giving socialism yet another try, and Western intellectuals went crazy about it. Now that experiment is collapsing, too. One final We-told-you-so-you-fools, you would think. Again: far from it.
Just the other week, a poll came out, asking people whether they thought that ‘a genuinely socialist government’ would make the UK ‘a better place to live’ or ‘a worse place to live’. 43% chose the former, a solid relative majority, given that 21% replied ‘not sure’ or ‘neither’. A year before, a relative majority said they had ‘a favourable view’ of socialism, and ‘an unfavourable view’ of capitalism. Socialism is extremely popular in Britain.
How can an ideology that has failed so badly every single time still be so popular?
Part of the reason has to be that socialists have been very good at distancing themselves from real-world examples of their ideas in action. Mention the Soviet Union, or Mao’s China, or any other historical or contemporary example of socialism in the presence of a socialist, and they will invariably roll their eyes, and say “Oh, come on. Now you’re just being silly.”
Noam Chomsky once described the idea “that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and moulded further by Stalin […] has some relation to socialism” as a “fantasy”. Owen Jones recently wrote that “A socialist society […] doesn’t exist yet, but one day it must.” Stephen Resnick, a professor of – oddly enough – economics, said: “We can’t concede the end of communism. Communism hasn’t been tried on a society-wide basis.”
The claim here is that previous so-called examples of socialism had little, or nothing, to do with socialism. They were just dictatorships, which used the label ‘socialism’ to cover their lust for power. They were, at best, a perverted version of socialism, which tells us nothing about the real thing.
This claim would be slightly more credible if it had been made more consistently over time. But it hasn’t. Quite the opposite. What happens is this: Socialist experiments have often gone through brief honeymoon periods, during which they seemed to be doing rather well, or at least in some areas. During those periods, their international standing is relatively high, and even critics concede, grudgingly, that they must be doing something right.
During those periods, socialists never claim that the experiment in question does not represent ‘real’ socialism. During those periods, they want to take the credit for the experiment’s achievements. They want to claim it as ‘theirs’. It is only when these experiments start to fall apart, or rather, when their failures can no longer be denied, and when their international standing collapses, that socialists disown them, and retroactively so.
I’ll go through a few historical examples.
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union went through a period of rapid industrialisation, and rose to the status of a global superpower. Even critics of socialism conceded that the Soviet Union was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
During the ‘30s, the USSR was widely admired by Western intellectuals. Hundreds of academics, journalists, artists etc travelled there and came back full of enthusiasm, convinced that they had seen the future. For example, Joseph Freeman, an American writer, said after his pilgrimage:
“[F]or the first time I saw the greatest of human dreams assuming the shape of reality. Men, women and children were uniting their efforts into a gigantic stream of energy directed toward […] creating what was healthy and good for all”.
Alexander Wicksteed, an English writer, said
“[F]or the first time in history the common man feels that the country belongs to him and not the privileged class that are his masters. […] [T]he Marxian ideal of a classless society […] has been realized”.
This is a very typical statement from that period. A common theme among these pilgrims was that even though the Soviet Union may look like a dictatorship from the outside, behind the scenes, it was actually a grassroots democracy, run by the workers, for the workers. Corliss Lamont, an American philosopher, visited a building site, and reported:
“Those workers up there, carelessly dressed, coatless and collarless […] those workers, and men like them are running the new Russia”.
And Sidney Webb claimed that the Soviet system allowed
“…the widest possible participation of the whole adult population in the public business, which includes the planned control of the whole social environment […] Power does actually emanate from the people, as Lenin insisted”.
Webb was particularly adamant to refute the idea that Stalin was a dictator. He wrote that Stalin
“…is merely the General Secretary of the Communist party […] His orders are not law […] They are not enforced by the police or the law courts. […] Nor are the decisions of “Comrade Stalin” his own autocratic commands. He is not that sort of man”.
Some of the pilgrims even waxed lyrical about the Gulags and Soviet prisons. Mary Callcott Stevenson, an American author, said that the inmates she saw were
“…talking and laughing as they worked, evidently enjoying themselves. This was the first glimpse of the informal atmosphere that prevailed throughout […] It was difficult to believe that this was indeed a prison”.
And George Bernard Shaw, the Irish-British playwright, said that the main problems the Gulags had was that their inmates refused to leave after their release. Because it was such fun to be there.
This is, of course, a selection of quotes. Not all Stalin admirers were quite so starry-eyed. Others did acknowledge some of the regime’s atrocities, but argued that, on balance, it was a price worth paying. But the point remains that the Soviet Union was widely admired by Western intellectuals throughout the 1930s and beyond. The idea that Soviet socialism was not ‘real’ socialism is a post-hoc fabrication. In Stalin’s days, nobody would have made such a claim.
Ironically, this enthusiasm for Soviet socialism only really ended after Stalin’s death, when the worst excesses were over. By the 1950s, former Stalin enthusiasts had fallen silent. From then on, Soviet socialism was increasingly presented as a perverted version of socialism.
But it did not take long until Western intellectuals discovered a new utopia: Mao’s China.
Continue to Part 2