I’d like to start with a clarification: I’m not a fan of the term ‘hate symbol’, because it makes it sound as if I wanted to criminalise something. I certainly don’t want to ban the hammer and sickle symbol, or any other far-left symbols. I’m a classical liberal. I’m opposed to banning stuff in general – I think we already ban too much – and I certainly don’t want the police to fine people for sporting a DIY tool and a farming tool. I don’t want to ban any political symbol. As far as I’m concerned, you should have the right to walk around in an SS uniform.
Nor am I personally bothered by the sight of socialist symbols. I went to university in East Berlin. My university still had a large stained-glass window with a portray of Lenin, and there were plenty of other socialist symbols in and around the university. I’m more than used to this.
But I guess the more fundamental question here is: Why the double standards? Far-right symbols are, rightly, considered beyond the pale, legal or not. Far-left symbols, in contrast, are considered cool, trendy and edgy. Why? What’s the difference?
The conventional wisdom is that socialism was, in principle, a noble idea, which has just been perverted in practice. According to the conventional wisdom, it would be unfair to blame the idea of socialism for the atrocities committed in its name, and therefore, to associate its symbols with them. The Soviet Union and other socialist countries were, in this view, never really socialist. Real socialism has never been tried.
This is nonsense.
There are reasons why socialism turned out the way it did. It was not a coincidence. It could not have turned out very differently.
Classical liberal critics of socialism have always predicted that socialism would lead to tyranny. They saw this coming right from the start. Socialism leads to an extreme concentration of power. In a capitalist economy, power is dispersed. Business owners, even large corporations, compete with each other. Competition limits their power. In a competitive setting, they cannot just do what they like, because people have alternatives. Their customers, their investors and their employees can go somewhere else. In a socialist economy, they can’t. There is nowhere else to go. The state is the only game in town.
More specifically: If you look at the atrocities committed by socialist regimes, you will find that these were rarely random atrocities. Socialist regimes did not just execute people on a whim. They did so in predictable ways. There was always some ideological reason. There was method to it.
Take the Soviet famine under Stalin in the 1930s, and the Chinese famine under Mao Tse-Tung in the 1960s. These were probably the two worst famines in human history. What caused them? They were a direct consequence of the forced collectivisation of agriculture. Collectivisation led to a huge drop in agricultural productivity, and completely disrupted the food supply. But it was a quintessentially socialist measure. Socialism means collectivising the means of production, and in a predominantly agrarian economy, the main means of production is, of course, farmland. So these collectivisations were not some aberration from ‘true’ socialism – they were true socialism. They were a feature, not a bug.
Or take Stalin’s Great Terror. Even Stalin, psychopath though he was, did not terrorise the population at random. He targeted people in sectors of the economy that were underperforming. Because that is the socialist mindset: Socialism can never fail, it can only be ‘undermined’, or ‘sabotaged’. That’s why, in every socialism system, you get witch hunts targeting imaginary wreckers and saboteurs. We can see this even in Venezuela, not nearly on the same scale as under Stalin, but on the same principle. Socialism turns more authoritarian as it fails. And it always fails. So it always turns authoritarian.
Or take that great symbol of socialist failure: the Berlin Wall. Again, the Berlin Wall was not some weird aberration from the noble ideal of socialism. It was absolutely necessary for the survival of socialism in the GDR.
Why was the Berlin Wall built? Because in the decade before it was built, more than 3m people had fled the GDR. That’s about 1/6 of the population. And these were predominantly highly skilled workers.
A brain drain on such a scale would have been a challenge for any kind of economy. But it is especially a challenge for a planned economy. You cannot plan an economy under those conditions. You cannot plan an economy when your factors of production move around all the time. In a planned economy, the 5-Year Plan allocates your labour to a specific workplace, and then you have to stay there. You cannot move around as you see fit, because if you do, you jumble the 5-Year Plan. That’s why the GDR and other socialist countries restricted freedom of movement internally. An emigration ban is a perfectly logical extension of that. But an emigration ban is pointless if you cannot enforce it. Therefore, the Wall and the shoot-to-kill order were perfectly consistent with a socialist economy.
Finally, a short remark on the claim that previous socialist experiments were not ‘really’ socialist. I don’t want to do too much self-promotion here (OK, that’s a lie: I do), but as it happens, I am currently writing a book on the history of this claim. What I’ve found is that this claim is only ever made retroactively, when a socialist experiment has already collapsed, or when it has been widely discredited, when it has become an embarrassment for socialists.
As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody ever claims that it is not really socialist. During those periods, they always have plenty of Western admirers. That was true of the Soviet Union, it was true of Maoist China, it was true of North Vietnam, and on a smaller scale, it was even true of North Korea. More recently, we have seen the same thing happening with Venezuela. Until about three or four years ago, it was extremely fashionable to be pro-Venezuela. All the trendy people, like Owen Jones, travelled there, and waxed lyrical about it. Now they’ve all fallen silent on this issue. This is what always happens when socialist experiments fail. Then, suddenly, Western leftists find out that it wasn’t real socialism, and that real socialism has never been tried.
It’s an excuse, albeit one with a long history. Real socialism has been tried. And what we have seen is as good as it gets. In practice, socialism is as bad as fascism. That is why there is no reason to treat far-left symbols any differently from far-right symbols.