Socialism: It’s always the real thing. Until it’s not.
Part of the reason has to be that socialists have long been very good at distancing themselves from real-world examples of socialism. Mention the failure of the Soviet Union or a similar historical example, and self-described socialist will invariably answer something like: “But that wasn’t real socialism! That was a perverted version. Real socialism has never been tried.”
This claim would have more credibility if it had been applied more consistently over time. But it hard to find any example of a socialist experiment which has not, at some point, been lavishly praised by Western intellectuals. Socialist revolutions have often been followed by a brief honeymoon period, during which they had (or seemed to have) some initial success. At that stage, almost nobody claims that they are not really socialist. It is only once the failures have become obvious and undeniable that Western intellectuals disown the experiment, and when they do, they always disown it retroactively. They then claim that the country in question has never been socialist in in the first place.
In the 1930s, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, co-founders of the Fabian Society and the New Statesman magazine, travelled to the Soviet Union, and subsequently wrote several books and pamphlets marvelling at it. In ‘Is Soviet communism a new civilisation?’, they described Stalin’s empire as an earthly paradise, a society characterised by perfect harmony:
“[T]here is no longer any conflict of interests in production. Whether between enterprises or between grades or kinds of workers or producers, […] no person’s gain is rooted in another person’s loss. […] There is a universal and continuous incentive to every producer […] to improve his qualifications, and to render the utmost service […]
Hence the eager zeal and devotion of the “shock brigades” […] to do more work than is customary […] Hence the unpaid service of the “Saturdayers” […] who give up their free time to clearing off arrears in any enterprise that lags behind its programme. […] Each [enterprise] becomes eager to help every other enterprise”.
Alexander Wicksteed, a British writer who spent some time in Moscow, also argued:
“[F]or the first time in history the common man feels that the country belongs to him and not the privileged class that are his masters. […] [T]he Marxian ideal of a classless society […] has been realized to an extent that is wonderfully refreshing to any Englishman of democratic aspirations”.
Testimonies like these abound. It was only in the 1950s that Western intellectuals fell out of love with Soviet socialism. But a new utopia soon replaced it: Mao’s China. Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, an Italian journalist, and later an MP and an MEP, went on a pilgrimage there, and reported:
“[A] people is marching with a light step and with fervour toward the future. This people may be the incarnation of the new civilization of the world. China has made an unprecedented leap into history”.
Alberto Jacoviello, foreign affairs editor of the newspaper l’Unità, agreed:
“[T]he most striking observation is the absolute absence of […] alienation. […] And there […] is mass political passion such as I have not found in any other part of the world”.
Hewlett Johnson, an English priest of the Church of England, Dean of Manchester and later Dean of Canterbury, reported:
“It was not hard […] to understand the deep affection men feel for this man […] All men – intellectuals, peasants, merchants – regard Mao as the symbol of their deliverance, the man who […] raised their burdens. The peasant looks at the land he tills: Mao’s gift. The factory worker thinks of a wage of 100 lb. rice instead of 10: Mao’s gift”.
The same thing then happened all over again in Cuba, Albania, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique – name a socialist experiment, and I guarantee you that you can find prominent Western thinkers who have backed it enthusiastically at some point.
The latest example, of course, is Venezuela. Until about three years ago, when the country (which sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves) was benefitting from an oil price boom, Chavismo – or ‘Socialism of the 21st Century’, as those ‘in the know’ would call it – was all the rage (watch this video for some testimonies). In 2009, Noam Chomsky said:
“[W]hat’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created […] The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”.
In 2012, Owen Jones went on a pilgrimage to Venezuela, and reported:
“Venezuela is an inspiration to the world, it really does show that there is an alternative. I met so many people who told me how their lives had changed since the election of President Chávez.”
The General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Bill Hayes, claimed that “Hugo Chávez helped to inspire a new socialism for the 21st century”. And the General Secretary of UNISON, Dave Prentis, believes that:
“Hugo Chávez will be remembered for his continuous struggle to raise up the poor, his commitment to social justice and his dedication to fairness and equality”.
After Chávez’s re-election in 2012, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey, said:
“We welcome this result which is a clear endorsement of Hugo Chávez’s progressive social policies. Venezuela shows that governments that put the needs of ordinary working people first can expect strong support at the ballot box. […] Europe might want to learn the obvious lessons from Venezuela”.
In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn wrote:
“[H]istory is being played out to its fullest extent in Venezuela, where the Bolivarian revolution is in full swing and is providing inspiration across a whole continent. […] Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting […] Neo Liberal policies […]
Success for radical policies in Venezuela is being achieved by providing for the poorest, liberating resources, but above all by popular education and involvement. As with Cuba the threat to the USA by Venezuela is not military […] It is far more insidious, a threat by example of what social justice can achieve.”
The truth is that insofar as Venezuela’s initial successes were real, they were built on sand, or more precisely, on abnormally high oil prices. Since oil prices have returned to a more normal level, the Venezuelan economy has contracted by about a quarter. Shortages of basic goods, especially food and medicines, were already an issue even during the oil price peak, but they have become a lot more severe since then. Last year, three quarters of the population have lost weight due to food shortages – more than 8kg, on average.
As was the case with every previous socialist experiment, Western intellectuals and commentators are now not just U-turning, but rewriting history. Noam Chomsky now claims:
“I never described Chavez’s state capitalist government as ‘socialist’ […] It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained […] Capitalists were free to undermine the economy in all sorts of ways, like massive export of capital.”
So, once again, Venezuela was not ‘real’ socialism, ‘real’ socialism has never been tried, and all that. But what really happens is that whenever a experiment that self-described socialists have once endorsed as the real thing turned sour, they retroactively define it as ‘unreal’. Venezuela was only the most recent example. It will not be the last.
This article will appear in the forthcoming edition of EA Magazine.
 YouGov (2016a) Socialism and capitalism, Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/opi/surveys/results#/survey/94978480-d625-11e5-a405-005056900127/question/a3ee8500-d625-11e5-a405-005056900127/toplines
 Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice (1936) Is Soviet communism a new civilisation? Left Review pamphlet. London: Left Review. Available at http://webbs.library.lse.ac.uk/438/
 Hollander, P. (1990) Political pilgrims.Travels of Western intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Lanham: University Press of America, p. 115.
 Ibid. p. 278
 Ibid. p. 315
 Ibid. p. 328
 ‘Noam Chomsky Meets with Chavez in Venezuela’. Venezuela Analysis. 27 August 2009. Available at https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/4748
 Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (2012) Viva Venezuela! Magazine 2(2). Available at https://issuu.com/venezuelasolidaritycampaign/docs/viva_venezuela_volume_2_issue_2
 Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (2013) Viva Venezuela! Magazine 3(1)
 Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Venezuela’, 27 July 2015, available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20150727072253/http://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/venezuela/
 The Economist: ‘How Chavez and Maduro have impoverished Venezuela’. 6 April 2017.
 Stossel, J.: ‘Chomsky’s Venezuela lesson’, 31 May 2017, Available at https://www.creators.com/read/john-stossel/05/17/chomskys-venezuela-lesson