Economic Theory

Socialism: Doomed before it begins

A few days ago, a YouGov survey asked people whether they thought that “a genuinely socialist government” would make Britain a better place, or a worse place to live. A solid relative majority, 43%, picked the former option. Only 36% believe that a Socialist People’s Republic of Great Britain would be a worse place than the Britain we currently live in. The remaining respondents are indifferent or “not sure”. Similar surveys have produced similar results before.

How can an idea that has been tried and tested so many times, and that has always ended in failure, still be so popular?

A big part of the reason has to be that socialists have long been very effective at distancing themselves from real-world examples of socialism in action. Mention the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, and inevitably, socialists will roll their eyes, and say: “Oh come on! Now you’re just being silly.” Holding the failure of such experiments against a self-described socialist is considered a rhetorical cheap shot, not an intellectually respectable argument. It is considered a lazy straw man, deployed by people who are still mentally stuck in the Cold War.

However, while socialists insist that ‘their’ brand of socialism is so fundamentally different from anything that has been tried in the past that it makes all comparisons meaningless, they usually struggle to explain what exactly they would do differently. The best they can do is become evasive, and talk about lofty ambitions rather than tangible institutional characteristics.

There is a reason for that. Go through the history of socialism, and you will notice a pattern: As long as socialist experiments go through their honeymoon period of initial success, nobody claims that they are not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: During that period, socialist intellectuals are enthusiastic about them, and dish out praise copiously. It is only when their failure becomes undeniable, when their international reputation hits rock bottom, and when endorsing them becomes really unhelpful from a PR perspective, that Western intellectuals disown that experiment. At that point, they suddenly discover that the experiment in question was never ‘really’ socialist to begin with.

It is not a straw man to hold the failure of socialism against self-described socialists. A straw man is a position that your opponent does not actually hold, but that you ascribe to them anyway, in order to score rhetorical points. Reminding someone of what they used to say (and are publicly on record saying), before it became inconvenient to say it, is emphatically not a straw man.

In our latest IEA video (see below), my colleague Madeline Grant and I talk about the enduring appeal of socialism, and about the rhetorical tricks that socialists use to distance themselves from real-world applications of their ideas.


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).

8 thoughts on “Socialism: Doomed before it begins”

  1. Posted 20/06/2017 at 11:14 | Permalink

    NHS, social housing, public services and education for all . All these and many more now accepted as standard by most, are based on socialist ideals paid for by all and not dependant on wealth. Now go away and count your money wherever you have squirrelled it so that you will feel better.

  2. Posted 20/06/2017 at 11:36 | Permalink

    Hi Kristian,

    I was talking about this very topic with a friend recently and I agree with what you have said. As an example, I mentioned the disaster going on in Venezuela compared to Chile to my friend. However, my friend mentioned the example of Bolivia and the economic success they have had with seemingly prudent socialist policies. What’s your view of Bolivia having had experience there? Is this an example of socialism working?



  3. Posted 21/06/2017 at 15:52 | Permalink

    Socialism is simply a term describing a mindset – ie when a state acts to the benefit of the most number of people, as opposed to Libertarianism where the state acts to maximise individual freedom. There are plenty of examples of stable socialist governments that are extremely successful. Take any Scandinavian country for example. It IS a strawman to point to failures of socialism as proof that socialism does not work, since those failures are self-evident and ignore that the nature of government, the general culture in the society in question, and the economic conditions that determine whether socialism “works” or not.

    Arguing as you do here, means defining the word “socialism” in terms as you see it. If an unsuccessful government describes itself as “socialist”, you then take that as evidence that socialism itself is unsuccessful. This is the logical equivalent of saying that if a car is driven badly, then cars must be bad.

    One reason socialism is thought to be economically inefficient is because its services don’t face competition. But large corporations suffer those exact same inefficiencies and I have witnessed communist-like policies in free market businesses. For example, departments where bonus’s are paid based on how the department performs as a whole. All that happens is that everyone works to the lowest common denominator since there is no personal benefit to work any harder. It’s thought that such policies would mean a business would be destroyed on the sword of free market competition, but in reality it doesn’t happen.

    The corollary is government departments I have worked for that are incredibly efficient and give enormous value for money. It seems that the larger the organisation, the greater potential for inefficiency and waste, but on the other hand in some circumstances there is the economy of scale. It has nothing to do with whether the organisation is publicly or privately funded, it has everything to do with the management and culture of its constituents.

    The goal of socialism is to improve the situation of as many citizens as possible. How you get there is an open question. You could throw things open to competition, or you could get the state to run it. There are plenty of examples of successful socialist models, just as there are unsuccessful ones. It’s the drivers, not the car.

  4. Posted 23/06/2017 at 13:23 | Permalink


    Because Bolivians haven’t got to the collapse stage yet. According to the Washington post, the collapse of Commodity prices have only started relatively recently (2015) forcing the state to run big budget deficits and because the Bolivian government is quite corruptable.

  5. Posted 24/06/2017 at 14:41 | Permalink

    Shall we look not just at the education system, not just here in the United Kingdom, but throughout the democratic World. The right though have a major problem with the left. here in the UK we have just come through an election, when fortunately the hard left Labor Party failed. In the U.S were also fortunate with the President Trump victory, in that the left failed and will do little damage to the country and economy. The big similarity in both, or even all left wing movements, is their pride in lying to the electorate to further their ends. The young and the terminally stupid fall for these untruths and vote accordingly…Look at the politics of teachers, professors and lecturers; here is where so many of the problems lie. Draining the socialist swamp should begin in colleges, universities and high schools, by ridding them of the mouth breathing knuckle draggers supposedly educating our youth

  6. Posted 24/06/2017 at 15:45 | Permalink

    I would suppose by the conversation that one would perceive that Socialism as a whole is a failure.

    There is no doubt that a some forms / active socialism works, ussualy where a form of democracy is balanced in to the ideal.
    May I just pop in a couple of ideas? I am going to do so anyway LoL

    The issue that come to mind is whether you consider any viable difference between Socialism & Communism.

    The issue is often discussed from a very narrow point of view. My perspective is that without a deep understanding of the history of the subject discussed, (Socialism as opposed too or proposed to Communism) brings things and ideas to a very different point of view.

    Hence the replies form some of those who have input their personal view, which is valid to some extent.; However, it is a view and not necessarily the full story / truth. Hence the reason some people of either persuasion are able to bander and or debunk others points or indeed ideas, valid or indeed other wise.

    Where Socialism has been put into action (Usually by force) There is some positive outcomes, I would venture to say to some extent.

    It is when the Communist ideals get into the mix, I believe is where the deferential changes.

    … Socialism; Working – The people get a vote all pretty much all issues to do with their lives. Hence, even though some issues are disagreed with people, the majority wins and the others go about their business without to mush ado. They can get a chance to seek change for the future. (I state that this would be a possible the insight of Mr Carl Marx (Not Marx Brothers)

    … Communism; Little or no discussion or debate is tolerated. Speak out you can not just be imprisoned and forgotten along with the work that you may have achieved; Your family will disappear as well. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) – Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) – Georgy Malenkov (1902–1988) – Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) – Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) – Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) – Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985) -Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) – Gennady Yanayev (1937–2010)

    The problem is this; We as a nation really these days look at the history of events as research is a No No.

    We educated out Children very well however, we do not teach them to discover, study research or indeed find out what is behind the issues discussed and importance of doing so in this time in history.

  7. Posted 03/08/2017 at 23:50 | Permalink

    The only reason Scandinavian countries are relatively successful is that they also have capitalism. Pure socialism stabilised itself to inevitable failure.

  8. Posted 03/08/2017 at 23:51 | Permalink

    Cannabilised, not stabilised.

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