If you were a teenager or a young adult in the 1980s, you probably had an idea of how bleak things were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, even if you had never been there yourself. The scenes from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and everything that followed from it, would have made a lasting impression on you. But if you were a teenager or a young adult in the late 1990s, let alone in the 2000s or in this decade, you will have no such memories. And you are unlikely to have learned much about it at school, because, according to proponents of this explanation, the educational establishment is heavily biased towards the left, and has no interest in telling young people about the failures of socialism.
There is no hard evidence either way on this, so I won’t pretend to have anything other than informed speculation to offer. But I believe that this account of the rise of Millennial Socialism is wrong, and that lecturing Millennials about the Stasi or Ceaușescu is actively counterproductive.
I can see why the above-mentioned commentators have reached that conclusion. Firstly, while “Millennial Socialism” is not limited to literal Millennials, approval for socialism really is a generational phenomenon. Among people under the age of 50, those who have a positive view of socialism outnumber those who have a negative view of it at a ratio of 2:1. Among people over the age of 65, meanwhile, anti-socialists outnumber socialists in a ratio of 3:2. So the cliché that Millennials (and younger members of Generation X) love socialism, while Baby Boomers are sceptical of it, is broadly correct. This means that those who have clear memories of the Cold War are much more likely to reject socialism than those who have only hazy memories, or none at all.
Secondly, surveys also show considerable knowledge gaps when it comes to socialism/communism, especially when compared to other totalitarian regimes and ideologies. About 9 out of 10 young people associate the name “Adolf Hitler” with crimes against humanity, which shows that when it comes to fascism/Nazism, the education system is doing its job. However, only 3 out of 5 young people have such associations with the name “Josef Stalin”. For Lenin, the corresponding figure is 1 in 3, for Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, it is 1 in 5, and for Trotsky and Che Guevara, it is just 1 in 7.
And thirdly, surveys also show that the teaching profession really does overwhelmingly lean to the Left, especially in secondary education. “Left”, of course, does not have to mean that they sympathise with the Bolsheviks; it may just mean that they want the state to spend more money on Sure Start centres and social housing. However, while it is perfectly possible to be firmly on the social democratic Left, whilst also being passionately anti-communist, people who fit that description (e.g. James Bloodworth, Nick Cohen) tend to be quite isolated on the Left. A lot of people on the moderate Left seem to see the socialist Left more or less in the way I see disciples of Ayn Rand, or of Murray Rothbard: I don’t sympathise with them, but I can’t get actively mad at them either.
So what’s wrong with the “Millennial Ignorance” explanation?
Firstly, in order to establish such a connection, it is not enough to show that on average, Millennials know relatively little about socialism. You would have to show there is a negative correlation between knowledge and approval. You would have to show that those who know more (less) about socialism are more (less) likely to reject it. And I’m prepared to bet that that is not the case.
My impression is that those who self-identify as socialists (or at least the more active and committed ones among them) are, in fact, quite well-informed about actually existing socialism. Sure, their knowledge is usually extremely selective. They know enough about it to be able to distance themselves from it. They would say that the Soviet Union did X and Y, that Marx and Engels never advocated X and Y, and that therefore, the Soviet Union cannot have been socialist.
That logic is absolutely abysmal. It is dire. It is far worse than just not knowing much about socialism. But I guarantee you that the people who make that case are not among the 49% of young people who say that they have never heard of Lenin. You will not convince a single one of them by banging on about the Kulaks.
Secondly, let’s not forget that there were popular socialist youth movements during the Cold War as well. Ask anyone who went to university in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and they will tell you about how fashionable it was to idolise Maoist China and/or North Vietnam. Curiously, one of the epicentres of that student protest movement was the Free University of Berlin, which was located within walking distance of the (outer) Berlin Wall. Good luck trying to blame that on a lack of knowledge of the Cold War!
Those people lived at the very forefront of the Cold War, and they knew exactly what was going on on the other side of the Wall. They just did not see that as relevant, because they thought that “their” kind of socialism would be incomparably different. A decade later, so did the next wave of socialists, who thought that the socialist utopia would be built in places like Nicaragua.
Knowing about the realities of the Eastern Bloc was by no means an inoculation against socialism. By the time the Cold War got serious, Western socialists had already successfully distanced themselves from the Eastern Bloc, and moved on to other causes.
Thirdly, we don’t need active memories of the Cold War, or teachers informing us accurately about it, because we also have contemporary examples of socialist failure. Over the past six years, we have seen yet another socialist experiment unravel, this time in Venezuela. It has not made the slightest dent in the popularity of socialism.
Yes, Venezuela is far away. But there has been ample coverage of the subject in much of the Western media. You can’t tell me that there is a single socialism-sympathiser in Britain who is not aware of what is happening in Venezuela.
But awareness is not enough. Socialists have, once again, managed to convince themselves – and, it seems, everyone else – that the collapse of socialism in Venezuela has nothing to do with them.
And that is the crux of the matter. As long as socialists are so successful at evading responsibility for the failure of their ideas, greater knowledge of those failures will not halt the socialist tide. Unfortunately, this means that critics of socialism have a much harder task on hand. We are not merely up against ignorance. We are up against systematic misinformation, and faulty logic.
And these are much, much tougher opponents.