Economic Theory

“But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 2: Mao’s China and the GDR)

Between 3 – 8 July 2017, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute jointly held Freedom Week, a series of seminars aimed at students with an interest in classical liberalism, at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. The IEA’s Dr Kristian Niemietz gave a talk on the ongoing appeal of socialism. The article below is based on his presentation.


Continued from Part 1


Nowadays, holding the failures of the former Soviet Union against a self-described socialist is considered a cheap shot, not an intellectually respectable argument. The Soviet Union, we are told, was never really socialist, and it is a lazy straw man to pretend that it was.

This argument is a post-hoc fabrication. In the 1930s and beyond, plenty of prominent Western intellectuals idolised the Soviet Union. It was only when that system had been thoroughly discredited in the West that socialists suddenly decided that Soviet socialism was not ‘real’ socialism.

But from the end of the 1950s onwards, another socialist utopia took its place: Mao’s China. During the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Western intellectuals travelled to China in large numbers, and came back waxing lyrical about it.

Maria Macciocchi, an Italian journalist, and later an MP and an MEP, wrote:

“[A] people is marching with a light step and with fervour toward the future. This people may be the incarnation of the new civilization of the world. China has made an unprecedented leap into history”

Basil Davidson, a British historian, disputed the regime’s authoritarian character. He claimed that it was

“authoritarian only towards a minority – a minority who are not workers or peasants. […] China’s successes are being achieved […] by the voluntary and even enthusiastic effort of most of the people”

According to Hewlett Johnson, who would later become the Dean of Canterbury,

“All men – intellectuals, peasants, merchants – regard Mao as the symbol of their deliverance, the man who […] raised their burdens. The peasant looks at the land he tills: Mao’s gift. The factory worker thinks of a wage of 100 lb. rice instead of 10: Mao’s gift”.

And Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French philosopher, thought that

“life in China today is exceptionally pleasant. […] Plenty of fond dreams are authorized by the idea of a country […] where generals and statesmen are scholars and poets”.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, an American developmental psychologist, explained:

“To me China seemed a kind of benign monarchy ruled by an emperor priest who has won the complete devotion of his subjects. In short, a religious and highly moralistic society”.

This changed around the time of Mao’s death. Mainstream intellectuals fell silent on the issue, and Maoism quickly became a bit of a joke. It became associated with extreme sectarianism, with small groups splitting several ways over minute theoretical disputes. This is famously ridiculed in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, which plots the Judean People’s Front against the People’s Front of Judea. At that time, there were several dozen Maoist parties and groups in the UK. It was the same in West Germany, where, at some point, there were so many of those groups that the press eventually gave up on naming them individually, and just started referring to them as ‘the K-groups’ (‘K’ for ‘communist’, in the German spelling).

But it’s important to point out that this happened only because by that time, the mainstream intellectuals had already moved on to other causes. If all the respectable intellectuals move on, then of course, you’re only left with the fruitcakes and the crackpots. But until about the mid-1970s, Maoism was a mainstream cause. Plenty of Western intellectuals were genuinely convinced that Mao Tse-Tung was building a socialist utopia in China. As with the Soviet Union a few decades earlier, Maoism was real socialism – until it was not.

The Soviet Union and Mao’s China were the two big socialist experiments, widely admired across the Western world for a while. There were also a couple of more niche ones, which never attracted a huge amount of interest, but some of them still had their fair share of supporters.

The German Democratic Republic was one such example. The GDR never really attracted pilgrimages, unless you want to count Jeremy Corbyn’s motorcycle trip with Diane Abbott in the 1980s. But especially in the early days, there were sympathetic commentators.

John Green, a British journalist and filmmaker who was, I think, reporting from East Berlin for a while, said that

“Many of those who had occupied leading positions in Hitler’s Germany found little difficulty in slipping into similar positions in the new [Federal Republic] […] In the East it was those who had resisted fascism who formed the leadership”.

A delegation from the British Electrical Trades Union visited the GDR, and reported:

“the difference between East and West Germany is that […] in the Eastern part […] the government consists of those who had suffered under Nazism. In the Western part, the government is composed of those who were actually fascists”.

In 1953, when an anti-regime uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks, the MP for Merthyr Tydfil, Stephen Davies, said that

“Nazis and agent provocateurs from the West Zone of Berlin have been bribed […] to join in and help create disturbances in the Eastern Zone”

This latter statement also gives an indication of how socialism turns authoritarian, and how its supporters then make excuses for it. In the socialist mindset, as long as a socialist experiment is considered ‘real’ socialism, it could not possibly be unpopular, and it could not possibly produce bad outcomes such as shortages. These things are not supposed to happen. So when they do happen, there must be some external force to blame. Saboteurs. Counterrevolutionaries. Speculators. Hoarders. Foreign spies. Nazis from West Berlin. The CIA. The Mossad. It doesn’t matter who, but the fault could never possibly lie with the experiment itself.

But anyway, this is all ancient history now. Let’s move on to the big socialist experiment of our time: Venezuela.


Continue to Part 3

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).

3 thoughts on ““But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 2: Mao’s China and the GDR)”

  1. Posted 29/07/2017 at 00:28 | Permalink

    Even if we got people to admit that past socialism was real socialism a similar line of thinking is equally dangerous: “They did it wrong and corrupted it, we’ll do it right next time.” Alternatively it could just be reduced to a matter of semantics. There’s a never ending string of people willing to put a new label on egalitarian collectivised systems that don’t provide individual incentives. If they admit socialism doesn’t work they’ll just say “Ok let’s try participism (the label they came up with at occupy wall street) instead.”

    Ideally we could find a way of putting the idea down for good. But that probably requires more theoretical support and more systematic empirical support than historical anecdotes can provide.

    The point you are trying to make is a very difficult one to prove or refute, at least the way the article goes about it. I would not be surprised if socialism became the new intellectual fad several times, but I doubt they’d have thorough surveys of everyone who called themselves an intellectual on what their opinion of the Soviet Union or Maoist China to conclusively say that it is the new thing to praise. Also it’s easy to cherry pick quotes, which presents problems even if the narrative you present is an accurate representation of what happened. As you may have noticed from part 1 the first thing someone did was name the first people criticizing the soviet union from the left they could think of or google to say your article was bad.

    The existence of that sort of counter claim means that a socialist will never see this as a reason to question their ideas because the other option results in less cognitive dissonance.

  2. Posted 03/08/2017 at 16:29 | Permalink

    The first comment here is pretty succinct so I will simply add that I agree with the essay so far. Leftists will never admit they’re wrong about anything and “real socialism” is their holy grail. So it simply must have been sabotaged each and every time. It can’t be that “some animals are more equal” than others.

  3. Posted 04/08/2017 at 12:55 | Permalink

    It’s very simple – socialists have got an incorrect model of human nature. Some things are hard-wired, and some learnt. Take the most difficult aspect preventing self-control – the Fight-or-Flee Anger & Threat mechanism. According to Neurologists, there 3 possible triggers hardwired – Myself, My Family or My Tribe, in that order of precedence. We learn how to identify the triggers by the experiences we’ve met since birth. So they may, or may not, depend on people’s race, clothing, language, body-language, etc.. The triggers may be difficult to identify. Our speed of reaction may be over-sensitive (too impulsive), or far too slow (can’t be bothered).
    Bearing this in mind, it’s obvious that at a national level humans are not even aware of how badly some folk feel they’re being treated, let alone sympathetic.

    The truth is that humans aren’t very good at sharing their own things with others – apart from trusted close friends and family. If the things belong to everybody, people don’t bother to put them right e.g. clearing litter off public flower beds. No, they’ll write a letter or make a phonecall of complaint to the public authority.

    This, in turn, makes governments authoritarian. So we need ways for the population to get their frustrations aired and dealt with.
    I’m not convinced that the UK’s method of government works terribly well. It’s 30 years since Margaret Thatcher was complaining that people expect too much, and don’t do enough for themselves. Things have only got worse since then.

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