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.