Society and Culture

“But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 3: Venezuela)

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 2


The socialism of the Soviet Union was REAL socialism, until it retroactively became un-real in the 1950s. The socialism of Mao’s China was REAL socialism, until it retroactively became un-real in the mid-1970s. For a more bespoke circle of fans, the socialism of the GDR was REAL socialism, until it retroactively became un-real once the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

And that was it, for a while. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, socialists stuck to the REAL-socialism-has-never-existed mantra. They had too. Their erstwhile utopias had all collapsed, and the few that limped on were thoroughly discredited. But in the mid-2000s, they discovered a new socialist utopia: Venezuela. Praising Chavismo – or ‘Socialism of the 21st Century’, as those in the know would call it – became extremely fashionable in Western countries.

Here’s a few examples. About five years ago, Owen Jones went on a pilgrimage to Venezuela, and came back saying that

“Venezuela is an inspiration to the world, it really does show that there is an alternative.”

And a bit later:

“Chávez […] is the first Venezuelan president to care about the poor. […] Under Chávez, the poor have become a political power that cannot be ignored […] [H]e has proved it is possible to […] [break] with neo-liberal dogma.”

Jones was particularly keen to emphasise that Chavismo was not just a huge success story in its own right, but a model that we should all learn from:

“It’s so important to me that we don’t look at Latin America as something that’s just happening elsewhere, but as something which gives us all hope”.

This was echoed by his then colleague Seumas Milne, who also went on a pilgrimage to Caracas:

 “Venezuela’s […] success in bringing resources under public control offer lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world. […] Venezuela and its Latin American allies have demonstrated that it’s no longer necessary to accept a failed economic model, as many social democrats in Europe still do”.

After Chávez’s re-election in 2012, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey, said:

“We welcome this […] clear endorsement of Hugo Chávez’s progressive social policies. Venezuela shows that governments that put the needs of ordinary working people first can expect strong support at the ballot box. […] Europe might want to learn the obvious lessons from Venezuela”

After Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Bill Hayes, said:

“Hugo Chávez helped to inspire a new socialism for the 21st century and provided the spark that lit up the whole South American continent”.

The General Secretary of UNISON, David Prentis, believed that:

“Hugo Chávez will be remembered for his continuous struggle to raise up the poor, his commitment to social justice and his dedication to fairness and equality”.

The General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, added:

“Hugo Chávez saw the implementation of an impressive and highly progressive programme, lifting millions out of poverty”.

Chavez’s biggest fan, of course, was Jeremy Corbyn. Around the same time, Corbyn said at a pro-Chavez rally in London:

“Chavez […] showed us that there is a different, and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism […] [I]n his death, we will march on, to that better, just, peaceful and hopeful world”

This was the peak of Venezuelamania. Hugo Chávez had, in one important sense, been extremely lucky. Literally from the moment he took office, oil prices were rising steadily, eventually reaching the highest levels ever recorded in history. Venezuela, a petrodollar economy, was awash with oil money, and Chávez couldn’t believe his luck. He spent every penny that came his way, and then some.

What can’t last, won’t last. When oil prices finally fell back to a level more in line with the historic norm, Venezuela’s economy imploded. The socialist miracle had been built on sand.

At that point, most left-wingers just stopped mentioning Venezuela altogether. The country just dropped off the map. One of the exceptions was Corbyn. Two years ago, Corbyn still said:

“When we celebrate – and it is a cause for celebration – the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all, its role in the whole world as a completely different place, then we do that because we recognise what they have achieved, and how they’re trying to achieve it”.

A few weeks later, Corbyn wrote, in an article for his own website:

“[H]istory is being played out to its fullest extent in Venezuela, where the Bolivarian revolution is in full swing and is providing inspiration across a whole continent. […] Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting […] Neo Liberal policies […]

Success for radical policies in Venezuela is being achieved by providing for the poorest, liberating resources, but above all by popular education and involvement. As with Cuba the threat to the USA by Venezuela is not military […] It is far more insidious, a threat by example of what social justice can achieve.”

A ‘threat by example’ it has indeed become, albeit not quite in the way Corbyn had meant it.

In the meantime, the situation has become so bad that even Corbyn no longer mentions Venezuela. The article I just mentioned has been deleted; I had to track it via the Wayback Machine, which is a digital archive that stores deleted internet content.

I told you about experiments in REAL socialism becoming retroactively un-real when they become an embarrassment for socialists. Think of a science fiction movie with multiple, parallel timelines, and people moving between them, like Terminator Genisys. That’s how socialism works. Whenever a country goes socialist, two parallel timelines are being created. On Timeline 1, it is REAL socialism. On Timeline 2, it is not REAL socialism. It looks like socialism, but it is really just state capitalism, or whatever. As long as the experiment seems to work, we are on Timeline 1. As soon as it fails, we all move collectively to Timeline 2, where the experiment in question was never socialist.

This is happening now, because of Venezuela’s collapse. We are currently in the process of moving from Timeline 1 to Timeline 2. We’re not there yet. We’re in a confusing interim stage between the timelines. Venezuela is no longer REAL socialism, but we are not yet at the stage where it was never socialist in the first place. But we’re getting there.

Take Noam Chomsky, the archetype of the Western intellectual (and in my view, a summary of everything that’s wrong with Western intellectuals). Eight years ago, Chomsky said:

“[W]hat’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created […] The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”.

Chomsky now says:

“I never described Chavez’s state capitalist government as ‘socialist’ or even hinted at such an absurdity. It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained […] Capitalists were free to undermine the economy in all sorts of ways, like massive export of capital.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. This is REAL socialism, becoming retroactively un-real. This is the movement from Timeline 1 to Timeline 2. This is the withdrawal of the certificate of authenticity, but with retroactive effect. It’s not that a revolution has been ‘betrayed’. It’s not that a country is socialist in the beginning, and then moves away from REAL socialism. No: once we’ve arrived on Timeline 2, the country was never socialist in the first place. On Timeline 2, calling it ‘socialist’ is a straw man, a stick which neoliberals like me use to beat the noble ideal of socialism.

Thus, the two Chosmky quotes are not in conflict. It’s just that the first quote is from Timeline 1, and the second one from Timeline 2. Likewise, there’s nothing dodgy about Corbyn et al deleting their old pro-Venezuela articles. Rather, these articles belong to Timeline 1, which we’re leaving behind. We’re moving to a timeline where Venezuela was never socialist, so they cannot have written those articles. This is the equivalent of the Arnold-vs-Arnold fight scene in Terminator Genisys, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger fights against his younger self, the Schwarzenegger of the 1980s. Young Arnold has just moved between timelines, and landed on the timeline of Old Arnold – and they can’t both be there.

That’s the deeper meaning behind the old adage that REAL socialism has never been tried. Of course it hasn’t. And it never will. Because every socialist experiment eventually collapses, and every socialist experiments becomes retroactively un-real as soon as it does.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and 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).

6 thoughts on ““But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 3: Venezuela)”

  1. Posted 06/08/2017 at 03:08 | Permalink

    Brilliant analysis. I remember working with a guy in the late 60’s who was a Trotskyist and he kept telling me that USSR was not socialist but state capitalist. Your analysis helps me clear my thoughts on this and I cannot agree more with what you say.

  2. Posted 07/08/2017 at 07:55 | Permalink
  3. Posted 17/01/2020 at 07:00 | Permalink

    Outstanding. I lived in the Socialist Republic of Romania (1970-1989) and lived the full horror of socialism. Of course, promoters of criminal socialism on Facebook tell me that was Communism (which was never implemented anywhere) and the new darling “democratic” socialism as in Sweden is THE THING. All bullshit.

  4. Posted 13/04/2020 at 11:56 | Permalink

    Quite a pointless article with (I doubt innocent) ignorant and selective recollection of history. Rather than taking ‘successes’ of what is undoubtedly socialist policies, notably ALL industrialised, first-world nations, you make quite a fallacious argument. Historically, Soviet Union as well as China “leaders” have used the popular appeal and luster of socialism to come into power by riding the popular wave, then destroyed all those socialist institutions and gains of socialism and ended up in totalitarian governments (dictatorships), which completely contradicts socialism: “that production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”. You say there are 2 timelines. This is nonsense. Soviet Union as well as China (and many other cases in the 3rd world) used ‘socialism’ as their party line, with (what seems apparent now) no intention to implement it, as these individuals were ‘arrivalists’ (you might want to check how the “great” Socialist of France, Francois Mitterand, never was a socialist in the first place but just chose it to succeed politically).
    If in fact your argumentation was correct and the “package is what it says it is”, you don’t need to go beyond Germany of the 20s-40s and say “look where [Nationalist] Socialism (Nazi) will gets you to”.
    In fact your article seems to validate history: (i) one group/side have chosen ‘socialism’ for the luster and moral values that are assigned to a “community having a say on how a country is run, economically and politically” – one might want to consider the ‘democratic’ aspect of this? – even though they had no intention to implement it; (ii) the other group/side taking the totalitarian, dictatorial aspect of the these so-called ‘socialist’ groups, to espouse the murderous aspect that ‘socialism’ would lead to.
    This article proves that you are not capable of listening to what is being said and are bent upon rehashing the decade- or century-long “arguments” of group (ii).

  5. Posted 21/07/2020 at 21:19 | Permalink

    The argument set forth above (Cheenu) insists that the totalitarian realities that evolve in socialist countries use the socialist ideal to gain power and then betray them. OK. But how is it that this pattern seems to work out again and again and again, most predictably? One might expect to see it somewhere as an exceptional circumstance, but every time? The question is (and this is THE question, as far as I’m concerned) what makes socialist ideology and practice so obviously and predictably so vulnerable to these “distortions?” Perhaps it is something that is, itself, rooted in the idea itself. The article does a good job of outlining the fundamental intellectual dishonesty of socialist/communist advocates. There are still people around, for example, who put any reference to Communism is scare quotes, as if to say that it’s all a figment of a fevered, paranoid mindset. Tell that to the 100 million or so who died unnatural deaths for ideological purposes to sustain utopia.

  6. Posted 02/08/2020 at 16:26 | Permalink

    On Cheenu’s argument: you seem to be espousing the common, Rousseauean, idealistic view of socialists that all failed socialist countries simply contradict the intended fabric of socialism. This would have been like Samuel Langley claiming that his model of the aircraft shouldn’t have been abandoned because its failure contradicted its original, intended design. Big governments which can impose limitless taxes and regulations, and seize private property almost always become corrupt and dictatorial. It is called ‘human nature’ – something that shall always play a role in the mechanisms of government, because humans have always had a desire for power, which you can’t simply override and manipulate, as Marx argued.

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