More precisely, socialism is popular in the abstract. It is popular as a nebulous ideal. But nothing gets a socialist’s hackles up as much as the mention of an actual (historical or contemporary) example of socialism in action. Mention the Soviet Union, Mao’s China or Enver Hoxha’s Albania in the presence of a socialist, and you can expect hissy fits. It is like comparing government borrowing to household borrowing in the presence of a Keynesian.
But we should not let socialists get away so easily when they dismiss references to real-world examples of socialism as ‘straw men’. Most of those ‘straw men’ are not straw men at all. They are the has-been utopias of yesteryear, the models that Western socialists once used to endorse, and now no longer want to be reminded of. We currently see this happening with Venezuela, but Venezuela is only the latest link in a long chain. The habit of enthusiastically endorsing, and then retroactively disowning models of socialism has a long tradition on the left.
Even North Korea, one of the most atrocious regimes in the world, is not a complete exception to this.
Obviously, almost no socialist wants to be associated with North Korea today. While South Korea, the counterfactual, is a prosperous, liberal democracy, North Korea is a Stalinist basket case. The average South Korean is, according to one estimate, more than twenty times richer, and lives twelve years longer, than the average North Korean (not to mention significantly less likely to end up in a Gulag). If we think of the division of Korea as a natural experiment, it is fair to treat its outcome as conclusive.
But this wasn’t always so obvious. The North of Korea was originally more highly industrialised than the South, and until the mid-1970s, the North was actually richer than the South. Also, until the late 1980s, both Koreas were dictatorships.
As long as the jury was still out, the North Korean system did indeed have some relatively prominent Western admirers. One of them was the acclaimed Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, who, in 1965, published a paper entitled Korean Miracle, in which she described North Korea as a stunning success story. After reciting a long list of official production figures, Robinson claimed:
“All the economic miracles of the postwar world are put in the shade by these achievements”.
The country’s social achievements were, in her account, even more impressive:
“There is already universal education […] There are numerous nursery schools and creches, all without charge. There is a complete system of social security […] The medical service is free. […] Workers receive holidays with pay”.
Nor was North Korea a dictatorship – it just looked like one:
“The outward signs of a “cult” are very marked – photographs, street names, toddlers in the nursery singing hymns to the beloved leader. But Prime Minister Kim II Sung seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator”.
It is unsurprising, then, that South Korea must go to great lengths to stop people from emigrating to the North:
“[G]reat pains are taken to keep the Southerners in the dark. The demarcation line is manned exclusively by American troops […] with an empty stretch of territory behind. No Southern eye can be allowed a peep into the North”.
In the 1970s, Eldridge Cleaver, one of the leaders of the US Black Panther Party, travelled to North Korea several times. After a visit in 1970, he wrote:
“Here in Korea we have found a people who have laid the foundations of communism and who are now rushing […] to transform their society into an earthly paradise […]
No other people in the history of the world have been able to achieve such fantastic results in all areas of the economy at one time […]
The workers […] of the world have much to envy in the lives of the working people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
In 1975, Fred J. Carrier, a Professor of History at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, published his book North Korean Journey: The Revolution Against Colonialism, after several pilgrimages to the country. Like his fellow-pilgrims, Carrier saw a huge economic success story:
“[S]ocialist Korea is capable of producing its own heavy industry in whatever special fields it chooses. […] [T]he DPRK is exporting its machinery to many countries, including developed ones. Considering that at the time of liberation there was not a single machine-plant in the country […] the success of Korea in this regard is amazing. […]
The exhibit that we saw [at the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition] in Pyongyang, with products that are being sold to 70 or more countries, was representative of industrial capacity and technical skill that only a few dozen countries of the world could display”.
He was even more impressed by the social achievements:
“The child has a birthright to good nutrition, ten years or more of schooling, comprehensive medical […] care, and decent housing. As an adult he is guaranteed the right to work […], recreational and educational opportunities […] and continued medical care. Beyond the age of 60 […] his needs are met by the collective savings. For each Korean under socialism there is the promise of nearly total security”.
He ends with the prediction that South Koreans will eventually rise up to overthrow capitalism, and join their comrades in the North.
And in the early 1980s, Luise Rinser, a West German writer and the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 1984, travelled to North Korea several times. She described the country as a bucolic, egalitarian idyll, untainted by the corrupting influences of Western consumerism. Kim Il Sung, in her account, was not a dictator at all, but a benign father-like figure, who governed together with his people:
“It really is true, I experience it, that the president does not govern from his desk, he goes out to the people, giving and receiving advice at the grassroots. What is then worked out as an official plan in Pyongyang is the result of Kim Il Sung’s consultations with experts and workers. I can also see that his people love him, and not because they are instructed to.”
One can find the odd snippet of criticism in her book, but those are immediately relativised, for example by burying them under a standard anti-consumerist rant:
“The children here are being indoctrinated with socialist ideas. Well: Are our children not also being indoctrinated, with phrases like ‘progress’ and ‘consumption’ and ‘prosperity’ […]? Is that better than the ideology of Kim Il Sung, which is, at least, not only about material, but primarily about spiritual values?”
I could go on. Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that there was ever widespread support for the North Korean regime from Western leftists: there wasn’t. North Korea never attracted mass pilgrimages from Western intellectuals of the kind that the Soviet Union, China and Cuba once attracted. But at the same time, it is not particularly hard to find statements like the above.
It is absolutely fair to treat North Korea as an example of socialism, and to hold its outcomes against self-described socialists. Sure, this is not the kind of socialism that Western socialists aspire to. But then, socialism has a habit of not turning out the way its proponents hope.
A shorter version of this article was first published on CapX.