13 thoughts on “Has ‘real’ socialism never been tried?”

  1. Posted 17/02/2017 at 13:14 | Permalink

    The problem with this argument, Kristian, is that ‘That wasn’t real capitalism. Real capitalism has never been tried’ is EXACTLY what many advocates of free market capitalism do claim. At the very least they say ‘There might have been some real capitalism in the 19th century but all we’ve had in the last hundred years is state-capitalism.’ And state-capitalism, like state-socialism, is not the pure form and suffers from numerous distortions. Why, otherwise, are countries in the capitalist West not doing so well? Because of high taxes and state interventions, of course, which is evidence that they are not ‘really’ capitalist at all, but that most wicked (but useful) of chimera, ‘social democratic.’

    Advocates of both capitalism and socialism fall back on ideal-theory when challenged, and claim that real-world states are just shadows cast on the wall of the cave. Equally, if we do compare real-world capitalist and socialist societies, we fall foul of the fact that almost all are mixed economies and both sides claim credit for all the good that has come out of them (e.g. whether it was market forces or labour unions that drove up real wages or improved healthcare outcomes).

    So let’s be fair: free-marketeers – within the IEA as well as outside – are all too quick to decry countries such as the UK and the US as not really being ‘real’ free market/capitalist societies when the country being discussed is not performing well.

  2. Posted 17/02/2017 at 13:40 | Permalink

    Tom, yes, that tendency does exist among the more infantile libertarians.
    (-“That’s not a REAL free market! It’s rigged!”
    -“In what way is it rigged?”
    -“By… well, it’s just rigged.”
    -“By what?”
    -“By, er, regulation.”
    -“What regulation?”
    -“The, er, the regulation that rigs it.”)
    But how many are these? Is it more than 25 people in the whole country? Most of the time, when free-marketeers describe an economy as ‘not really free-market’, they CAN pinpoint SPECIFIC interventions that they oppose. And they also have some idea of the magnitude of the effect of that intervention. That’s one hell of a difference.

    2nd massive difference is that free-marketeers believe in a positive dose-response relationship. We believe that markets can work reasonably well even if they’re NOT perfectly free. The relevant question is not “Was the GDR economy 1000% pure undiluted socialism?” (no it wasn’t) or “Was the West German economy pure capitalism?” (clearly not), but “Was the GDR more socialist than the Federal Republic?” (absolutely yes). And the difference in outcomes was large enough.

  3. Posted 17/02/2017 at 15:21 | Permalink

    I agree with your second point. In comparing socialism and capitalism it is best to compare the real to the real, while it is perfectly acceptable to compare a real example with an ideal if one wants to suggest the real could be improved.

    On the first I’m not so sure. Firstly, there is a question of consistency: if you are arguing from ideal theory you have to allow your opponents to do so to. Secondly, I think many socialists DO have very specific reasons for why soviet of Maoist communism wasn’t socialism (and FWIW even I would have to say that the Khmer Rouge were not ‘real’ socialism, despite their adherence to that great man, Karl Marx-Lenin).

    I suspect that the Marxists you argue with are not at the thinking end of the spectrum, just as most of the (I suspect a lot more than 25) free-marketeers who might argue as you suggest are young men who have read a few articles on mises.org and think they have a grasp of political theory.

  4. Posted 19/02/2017 at 07:52 | Permalink
  5. Posted 19/02/2017 at 08:56 | Permalink

    ‘Socialism is popular in Britain. More popular than capitalism, at any rate. That was the result of a YouGov survey last year, in which 36% of respondents expressed a favourable view of socialism, while only 32% expressed an unfavourable one. Capitalism, meanwhile, is viewed unfavourably by 39% of respondents, while only 33% view it ‘

    ‘So what explains the enduring appeal of socialism? ‘

    I think this explains a lot

  6. Posted 21/02/2017 at 08:30 | Permalink

    Tom is right about a small number of libertarians. However, most supporters of a free market do, at least, discuss the interventions that they believe cause the problem and are able to deduce from their nature and the nature of economic systems and human nature why they cause a problem. “Real socialists” tend to talk as if they just want to go back to a group of mice and have another go because all the mice died when their first experiment was tried (something that would be predicted by people who do understand human nature).

  7. Posted 21/02/2017 at 08:32 | Permalink

    the other difference, I think, is that nobody reasonably denies the interventions in a free economy that are socialist (socialists champion them and have introduced them for a purpose – financial regulation or the NHS).

  8. Posted 23/02/2017 at 15:41 | Permalink
  9. Posted 23/02/2017 at 17:34 | Permalink

    The trouble with words is that they mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Two people could be talking about ‘socialism’ but each could be talking about different things. But is there really anyone, apart from the author of this article or others seeking strawmen to knock down, that really envisions ‘socialism’ as being organised through a series of endless referenda?

  10. Posted 23/02/2017 at 18:21 | Permalink

    Actually Stalin of all people described what socialism really was in 1906

    “There can be no doubt that future society will be built on an entirely different basis.
    page 336
    Future society will be socialist society. This means primarily, that there will be no classes in that society; there will be neither capitalists nor proletarians and, con sequently, there will be no exploitation. In that society there will be only workers engaged in collective labour.
    Future society will be socialist society. This means also that, with the abolition of exploitation commodity production and buying and selling will also be abolished and, therefore, there will be no room for buyers and sellers of labour power, for employers and employed — there will be only free workers.
    Future society will be socialist society. This means, lastly, that in that society the abolition of wage-labour will be accompanied by the complete abolition of the private ownership of the instruments and means of production; there will be neither poor proletarians nor rich capitalists — there will be only workers who collectively own all the land and minerals, all the forests, all the factories and mills, all the railways, etc.
    As you see, the main purpose of production in the future will be to satisfy the needs of society and not to produce goods for sale in order to increase the profits of the capitalists. Where there will be no room for commodity production, struggle for profits, etc.
    It is also clear that future production will be socialistically organised, highly developed production, which will take into account the needs of society and will produce as much as society needs. Here there will be no room whether for scattered production, competition, crises, or unemployment.
    Where there are no classes, where there are neither rich nor poor, there is no need for a state, there is no
    page 337
    need either for political power, which oppresses the poor and protects the rich. Consequently, in socialist society there will be no need for the existence of political power”


  11. Posted 23/02/2017 at 20:10 | Permalink
  12. Posted 24/02/2017 at 08:04 | Permalink

    Kristian. I take issue with your comment

    “And that is the real reason why ‘real socialism’ has never been tried: even if it could be done logistically (which I doubt), it would be an absolute pain in the neck. Voter turnout would soon drop to rock-bottom levels. The economic planning process would become dominated by vocal single-issue groups, not ‘ordinary workers’. Eventually, all the heavy lifting would have to be delegated to expert committees. At that point, ‘real’ socialism would become ‘unreal’ again.”

    I think this is a quite an absurd characterisation of socialist society and by “socialism” , I mean the same thing as that understood by the Socialist Party of Great Britain you refer to in your piece – namely, a non-market, non-statist system of society based on the common ownership of the means of wealth production in which goods are freely distributed and labour is performed on a purely voluntary , self determined basis. This has nothing in common with the state capitalism of the Soviet Union et al and saying is not at all to resort to the true Scotsman argument. The institutional characteristics of such a society are totally different

    My real bone of contention , however, is that you seem to portray socialist society as essentially being a centrally organised society in which all decisions affecting every aspect of production are made democratically by the entire population. Since this is logistically impossible you therefore conclude that “real socialism” is impossible.

    But your argument is quite false. Socialism, I would argue, would necessarily be a decentralised system of production in which the great bulk of decisions would be effectively communicated via a self regulating system of stock control using calculation in kind. In fact, this kind of production model already to an extent exists today under our very noses. A supermarket for example makes use of two systems of accounting – calculation in kind and monetary based accounting. In socialism we will completely dispense with the latter but continue to use the former

    Democratic decision-making will of course play a role in socialism and a much enlarged one by comparison with what is the case today but it will be nothing like the complete caricature that you present . I have expanded on this theme in an article I wrote some years ago which you might find of interest: https://libcom.org/files/CommonVoice3.pdf

  13. Posted 24/05/2018 at 15:41 | Permalink

    Of course you fail to mention the anarchist socialist experiments such as the Paris Commune, the Free Territory, Revolutionary Catalonia, or even contemporary examples like the Zapatistas or, arguably, Rojava.

    Also, this lacks any actual analysis of the structure of these systems of governance, and just takes them at their word for what they are. By this methodology, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a damning example of the inherent brutality of liberal democracy. Russia still had currency, private property, wage labor, and produced commodities to trade on a market for profit. The only real organizational difference they had from capitalist countries at the time was the relative state control over the means of production, hence the phrase “state capitalism” commonly being used to describe them.

    And even if the DRC were a liberal democracy, would its relative poverty be proof of the terrors of capitalism? Or a testimonial to the very specific material conditions of the area? Like being in a relatively poor area, ravaged by imperialism from the developed world and a couple civil wars? Throw in a couple world wars, and that’s exactly Russia’s situation right before they became the USSR, and they still became the second largest economy in the world and beat the first in the Space Race.

    Really, this whole article betrays a total ignorance of Marxism. Looking at countries that tried to “skip” the capitalist mode of production, and expecting Marxists to answer for it, as if Marx himself wasn’t saying more than fifty years before the USSR formed that a revolutionary proletariat was a by-product of the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and the building of the contradictions of capitalism. Marx specifically has a section in the Communist Manifesto, where he just dunks on what he calls the German “True” socialists for trying to lift the French socialist ideology wholesale, without accounting for the material conditions it arose in, and apply it to subvert the bourgeois revolution in Germany into a Socialist revolution, ending in splitting the lower classes and securing their defeat. He literally calls them agents of the feudal lords and petite-bourgeoisie.

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