Society and Culture

Socialism: future or failure?


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On 30 September, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Taxpayers’ Alliance organised a balloon debate entitled Socialism: Future or failure? at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, as part of their ThinkTent fringe event series. One of the panellists was the IEA’s Dr Kristian Niemietz. The article below is based on his opening remarks.

 

There can be no doubt that socialism has made a massive comeback. Socialism is hugely popular in Britain, especially with the Millennial generation, but also beyond. “Millennial Socialism” is a thing. It is not just a social media hype. It is real, and it is borne out by plenty of surveys and focus group studies.

But what exactly is “Millennial Socialism”?

In a nutshell, what has happened over the past five years or so is a rebranding – as opposed to a reinvention – of socialism. It is not that anyone has come up with a brilliant new theory of socialism. There is no Millennial Karl Marx. There is no Millennial Friedrich Engels. It’s the same old socialism. What has changed is its image.

When I get off the train, I often see someone from the Socialist Workers Party, who sells their paper, the Socialist Worker. He is a scruffy, bearded fellow with greasy hair, not particularly trust-inspiring. I say he “sells” the Socialist Worker. I’ve never seen him sell a single copy. He doesn’t sell anything, he just stands there and shouts.

For a long time, people like him used to be the public face of socialism. A couple of years ago, if you had asked random members of the public to describe their idea of a stereotypical socialist, I think most people would have described someone quite like him.

If you asked the same question today, however, you would get a very different answer. Today, people would be much more likely to describe a trendy hipster, sitting in a trendy craft beer pub in Hackney or Islington. And that, at its heart, is what Millennial Socialism really is: it is the hipsterisation of socialism. Socialism used to be considered a bit stuffy, and a bit weird. It is now considered sassy and cool.

But in terms of substance, nothing has changed. If you put the Socialist Worker salesman and the trendy hipster socialist on a panel – what would they disagree on? The answer is: nothing. Certainly nothing major.

Sure, they would differ hugely in style. The Socialist Worker salesman would sound more dogmatic, because he would use more conventional Marxist rhetoric. He would be more earnest and dour; he would hate the idea that socialism is now supposed to be hip and fun. And, yes, he would still have some attachment to the former Eastern Bloc and/or some other socialist regime, which the hipster socialist would not have.

But that’s a distinction without a difference. In practice, this doesn’t really matter. This year, there has been a flurry of books by people who claim to have reinvented socialism in some way, books with titles such as Fully Automated Luxury Communism, The Socialist Manifesto, The People’s Republic of Walmart, and so on. I’ve read some of those books, and they all have one thing in common:

On the one hand, the authors are all very keen to distance themselves from earlier versions of socialism. They insist that “their” version of socialism will be nothing like any of those failed models of the past.

But at the same time, they all struggle to explain what exactly they would do differently. They can’t say “Here’s how the old socialism worked, here’s how my new socialism would work, and here are the differences between them”. Not one of them is able to do that.

Instead, they all escape into abstraction, soundbites, and platitudes. They all just reiterate what the original intentions of socialism were, as if that somehow guaranteed a different outcome. This is why their disavowal of earlier forms of socialism counts for nothing. It is just rhetoric.

And what is telling is that as soon as those authors get a little bit more specific, they usually just reinvent the Soviet Union, or Venezuela, or some other failed model of socialism again.

And yet – it clearly is working for them so far. That is why I think the title of this event, Socialism: Future or Failure?, is a false dichotomy. Because it could very well be both of those.

 

Suggestions for further reading:

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).


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