Economic Theory

Motion: “This House believes that the Hammer and Sickle should be considered a hate symbol”

On 04 December 2017, the University College London (UCL) Debating Society organised a debate with the above title. The IEA’s Kristian Niemietz was one of the panelists. The article below is based on his remarks.


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.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's 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).

15 thoughts on “Motion: “This House believes that the Hammer and Sickle should be considered a hate symbol””

  1. Posted 05/12/2017 at 16:05 | Permalink

    Coming from someone who likes to create safe areas in which to preach is quack quack economics,Who mutes and blocks people this hypocritical fool should be taken with a large pinch of salt ,His economic ideology as failed as predicted and now he spends his time instead of trying to solve the problems of his ideology attacking other ideology’s .So another bad analysis ie Stalin attacked the under performing because that is the mindset of the socialist,coming from those who attack the disabled weak(ill) and unemployed for the downfall of his ideology????? . He’s entitled to his opinions but by god show some humility and at least dedicate your life to rectifying the faults in you’re own ideology(ps which is also killing people)

  2. Posted 06/12/2017 at 09:41 | Permalink

    If I had been at your university that stained glass window would no longer be there 😀

  3. Posted 06/12/2017 at 10:34 | Permalink

    Thank you Mr. Mawer for your succinct and vivid epitome in support of Dr. Niemietz ‘s thesis.

  4. Posted 07/12/2017 at 12:25 | Permalink

    I don’t mute “people” in general. I specifically muted YOU. And there’s a good reason for that, which I told you before.
    Literally everyone in the world, who has a political opinion on anything, believes that they are the reasonable one who is just stating the facts, while their opponents are biased and ideological. There are about 7.5bn people in the world. Every single one of them believes that.
    Therefore, replying to everything I tweet with “You’re ideological. You’re ideological. You’re ideological. You’re ideological. You’re ideological” is not as clever as you think it is.
    And that’s why you’re muted. Bye.

  5. Posted 07/12/2017 at 13:31 | Permalink

    If the Hammer and Sickle is now to be a hate symbol, along with the Union Jack and the Cross of St George, then why not the flags of say Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine (all sponsors of terrorist activity against us) or even the Stars and Stripes (take your pick as to who they sponsor and for what reasons)?

  6. Posted 07/12/2017 at 13:38 | Permalink

    Excellent article, I have long despised the narrow-mindedness of socialists who delight in screaming ‘fascist’ at those of other political persuasions whilst engaging exactly the same activities as the Nazi Brown shirts did in the 1930s and 1940s.

    I particularly enjoyed your put down of the Numpty ‘Paul Mawer’

  7. Posted 07/12/2017 at 14:42 | Permalink

    I’ve long argued the same.

    Nazism killed around 16 million in the last century, whereas Communism killed around 100 million.

    The only point where we differ is in your insinuation that ‘far right’ symbology is deemed unacceptable. By ‘far right’ I assume you are referring to Nazism – or National Socialism, to give it its proper title.

    With its tenets of ‘pure’ ideology, mindless group think, blind loyalty to a personality cult leadership and above all a collective that subsumes the individual, Nazism/ Fascism was and remains an extreme left wing ideology. Its modus operandi is currently enjoying a resurgence with the absurdly named Antifa and the naked anti-semitism of Corbyn’s Labour Party.

    The question should therefore be: Why are the symbols for international socialism still acceptable when the symbols of national socialism are not?

  8. Posted 07/12/2017 at 15:34 | Permalink

    The true wisdom should be that fascism was, in principle, a noble idea, which has just been perverted in practice. According to this real wisdom, it would be unfair to blame the idea of fascism for the atrocities committed in its name, and therefore, to associate its symbols with them.

    Anyway, the swastika is not a symbol of fascism. It is an ancient religious symbol. When my Indian girl friend’s son got married, there were swastikas everywhere, but there were no fascists.

  9. Posted 07/12/2017 at 20:07 | Permalink

    DrNoddy yoy have kind of missed the point “If the Hammer and Sickle is now to be a hate symbol” its not a hate symbol it has always been a hate symbol that has been given a pass. The article states none should be banned, but there is absouble standard where i could walk down the street calling friends comrades and having a hammer and sickle jacket and hat no one would bat an eye lid. Do that in a shirt with a swastika you could see yourself beaten up within an hour. It gets a pass because of the intellectually bankrupt argument that real socilaism/communism hasnt happened ergo its still okay. And it has a lighter affect of allowong people to claim its moral and right when its quite abhorrent how anyone under that aystem ends up living.

  10. Posted 08/12/2017 at 10:30 | Permalink

    Fascism is a left wing ideology not a right wing one. The fasces were a symbol of Mussolini’s fascists, a left wing regime. A symbol of an authoritarian regime dating back to Roman times. Very good article BTW.

  11. Posted 08/12/2017 at 14:05 | Permalink

    And the result of the debate was?

  12. Posted 08/12/2017 at 14:49 | Permalink

    Excellent article. Interesting point about ‘it wasn’t real socialism’ always being retroactive after the experiment has collapsed. Even where I live in a pretty conservative corner of the South West of England the local council managed to blow over £500k on an ANPR car park scheme that they were informed from the outset would not work. They persisted and have wasted a lot of money converting the car parks back to traditional machine/warden policed. This, and other incidents makes me incredibly sceptical of the state doing anything better and more efficiently than the private sector that is kept innovative through competition.

  13. Posted 09/12/2017 at 11:34 | Permalink

    Brilliant piece of writing! Kristian Niemietz is clearly a talented communicator and I look forward to reading his book. I have often tried to make the same point to acquaintances in the past, but have always felt I have failed to quite get the point across, which is frustrating. I will keep this as something to forward to those thinking about voting for Corbyn’s at the next election.

  14. Posted 17/12/2019 at 11:27 | Permalink

    With 40 million people dead because of communism, and people in concentration camps in China today, I find it pretty crazy that people can argue it is NOT a hate symbol.

  15. Posted 20/11/2020 at 18:07 | Permalink

    Capitalism’s lack of regulation, companies’ lack of social and environmental responsibility, and capitalism’s inherent social darwinism are comunism’s best friends.

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