Has ‘real’ socialism never been tried?
Yes, I know: It all depends on how you frame the question. But “Do you have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of socialism and capitalism?” does not strike me as a manipulative way of framing it. Besides, if more than a third of the population expressed a favourable view of, say, the flu virus, we would question their sense of judgement, regardless of how exactly the question is worded.
So what explains the enduring appeal of socialism? Part of the story is that socialism’s proponents have always been very effective at distancing themselves from real-world examples whenever they have ended in tears (as they invariably do). ‘North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela? The Soviet Union, Mao’s China, the Khmer Rouge? Nothing to do with me, mate: That wasn’t real socialism. Real socialism has never been tried.’
This would not work the other way round. When confronted with (actual or imaginary) downsides of the market economy, its supporters would never get away with a response like ‘That wasn’t real capitalism. Real capitalism has never been tried’.
But what, then, is the difference between real and ‘unreal’ socialism? What is it about, say, North Korea’s socialism that puts it into the ‘unreal’ category, and what would the North Korean government have to do in order to earn that elusive Real Socialism blue tick verification mark (which, remember, has never been awarded)?
When pushed, socialists usually struggle to give an answer. This is because most of the time, the not-real-socialism meme is a post-hoc rationalisation. Every socialist experiment has, at some point, been waxed lyrical about by Western intellectuals, including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. It was only when their horrors could no longer be denied even with the best will in the world that the blue tick was withdrawn retroactively.
And yet, there are exceptions to this, such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). They are not, and as far as I know, never were, apologists of Soviet-style socialism, which they describe as ‘state capitalism’. They are among the few socialists who have at least some idea of what they mean by ‘real’ socialism. They use that term to describe a hypothetical system in which working-class people own and control the economy’s productive resources directly, not via the state; a system in which public ownership is not mediated through a government bureaucracy.
I have no idea how this should work in practice, but I suppose we could imagine some combination of public ownership with Swiss-style multi-level direct democracy. Even then, though, at least one massive problem remains:
You can define an economic system by its institutional characteristics (e.g. public ownership), and perhaps by its aspiration (e.g. widespread prosperity, giving ordinary workers control over economic decisions). But you cannot sensibly define a system by the extent to which it is successful in meeting those aspirations. Whether a system actually achieves what its proponents want it to achieve is a question which must be testable and falsifiable. Otherwise, I could define a capitalist economy as ‘an economy based on individual property rights and voluntary exchange, in which everybody is fabulously rich’. Whenever an actual economy that is based on individual property rights and voluntary exchange then fails to make everybody fabulously rich, I could proclaim that that economy is not ‘really’ capitalist. Real capitalism has never been tried. And No True Scotsman would do such a thing.
‘Empowering the workers’ is an aspiration, not an institutional design feature of a system. More, it is an extraordinarily lofty aspiration, and so far, nobody has worked out how to do it. Politicians of all parties constantly talk about ‘empowering ordinary people’. Every NHS reform is supposed to be somehow about ‘empowering patients’, every educational reform about ‘empowering parents’, every electoral reform about ‘empowering voters’. We are surrounded by people who promise to ‘empower’ us in one way or another, and yet somehow, most of us don’t feel all that ‘empowered’. The EU referendum was supposed to be ‘empowering’, and look at where that got us. Plenty of Remainers now feel that an illegitimate result (‘won on the basis of lies; unscrupulous populists duping low-information voters’) is being forced upon them. Plenty of Leavers now feel that sneering elites are secretly plotting to overturn their decision (‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE!’). The ‘true’ socialists’ claim that their system is one which ‘empowers the workers’ is not that special. Everybody claims that. And nobody is particularly good at it.
But never mind. What would a combination of socialism with direct democracy look like? Let’s put it that way: the homeland of direct democracy, Switzerland, is already experiencing something of a referendum inflation, even with the current, relatively limited scope of the sphere of collective decision-making. Last year, a resident of the Canton of Zurich could have voted in 13 referenda at the federal level, 8 at the cantonal level, and God knows how many at the municipal level. It works, though. Voter turnout at Swiss referenda rarely falls below 40%.
Now let’s imagine that Switzerland turned socialist, and expanded its model of direct democracy to the newly socialised sectors. This would mean referenda on the production of razors, carpets, gloves, ink cartridges, curtains, hair straighteners, kettles, toasters, microwaves, baking trays, washing-up liquid, tiles, hand blenders, pizzas, and many, many other things. You would need literally thousands of referenda to organise an economy in this way.
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.
But such efficiency arguments aside, ‘real socialism’ would also be a recipe for permanent social conflict and resentment. Are you a ‘Remoaner’, still bitter about not getting your way in the EU referendum? Wait until beer production is socialised, and you find yourself on the losing side of a referendum about discontinuing the brewing of your favourite beer brand.
- ‘20 Years After: The Fall and Rise of Socialism in East Germany’, Economic Affairs
- ‘An alternative history: what ‘democratic socialism’ would have looked like’
- ‘Cuba after Castro: Democratisation as the next stage of the revolution? Not happening, Comrade Jones’