And yet, by the time I attended my first lectures there in 2001, the legacy of socialism had been completely wiped out. Just twelve years earlier, Marxism-Leninism would have been the dominant, overarching theme, permeating every lecture and every tutorial. By the time I got there, it had disappeared without a trace.
Sure, the physical reminders of that period where still everywhere, on campus and all around it. There were murals and stained-glass windows in the famous “Socialist Realism” style; for example, I must have spent hundreds of hours under Comrade Lenin’s watchful eye. Just outside of the Economics Department stood two larger-than-life bronze figures of Marx and Engels, and the abandoned parliamentary building of the former GDR (which has since been demolished) was just a few steps further. Streets, bridges and public squares between campus buildings were named after figures and motives from the socialist pantheon. Soviet-type architecture was dominant, and, back then, still largely unchanged. In parts, the university and its surroundings felt like a GDR museum. A time traveller from two decades earlier would not immediately have noticed a difference.
But what the university utterly lacked was an institutional memory of socialism. Socialism was not treated like a defeated enemy, or like a past mistake that still had to be analysed and understood. It was treated with complete indifference, as if it had ended not 12 years ago, but 1,200 years ago. There were no lectures on the errors of Marxist economics. There were no tutorials on the deficiencies of planned economies. There were just lots of old relics that everyone ignored. When the early Christians conquered a pagan temple, they would usually destroy the old icons, and furiously denounce the old faith as sinful and heretical. My university, in contrast, felt more like an abandoned temple of a bygone and forgotten faith, where the old icons were still in place because nobody bothered to clear them out, and where nobody bothered to explain what exactly had been wrong with the old faith.
Until about five years ago, this was the dominant attitude towards socialism – and the fact that it prevailed even in this former temple of Marxism-Leninism shows you just how dominant it was. Socialism was seen as a thing of the past. It wasn’t relevant anymore. It wasn’t worth engaging with.
When socialism started to make an unlikely comeback in the guise of a youth movement a few years ago, I was disheartened, but not exactly surprised, to see that supporters of the market economy were not very good at responding to it. They no longer knew how to do that. For too long, they had assumed that the battle against socialism had been won, and that the case against socialism was “just obvious”. But then it turned out that to a lot of young people, it is not “obvious” at all, and that the seemingly “obvious” case against socialism can be amazingly hard to explain.
Today, 49% of US Millennials have a favourable opinion of socialism. Yes, some of that is a linguistic confusion. But that is by no means the whole story. Replace “socialism” with the less ambiguous terms “communism” or “Marxism”, and support drops by 13 or 14 percentage points – but we are still talking about more than one in three members of the Millennial generation. That is a very high proportion, if you bear in mind that lots of people are generally apolitical, and tend to answer such questions with “Don’t know” or “Neutral”.
Nor is it true that Americans are generally confused about what “socialism” means. When presented with various competing definitions, a relative majority (albeit a small one) pick the correct one: “When the government owns all property and controls nearly 100% of the national economy and makes all important decisions about prices, wages, and job placements, as in the Soviet Union”. Only 29% pick the option which really describes social democracy, namely “a free market economy with private property, but one where the government provides ample social welfare benefits, as in many Scandinavian and Western European countries.”
This is one of the big ideological battles of our time, and if supporters of the market economy do not engage in it, we will lose it.
Which is why I am pleased to see that free-marketeers have begun to take the issue seriously once again. The California-based Independent Institute has just published an annotated reading list, compiled by Senior Fellow Dr Williamson Evers, entitled “Best Books on the Folly of Socialism – What everyone should know about the practical and moral failures of the socialist project”. It aims to put together “the most insightful critiques of socialism ever written”, and in view, it has achieved that.
No, this is not simply a confirmation-bias-fest for people who already hate socialism, and who want to be told how right they were all along. Even though all entries have a socialism-angle of some sort, the list is still thematically very broad, and covers a lot of ground. Some publications concentrate on specific country case studies, such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, the Polish People’s Republic or Cuba. Others are more overarching, covering issues such as socialist economics, or the relationship between socialism and civil liberties. Some publications focus on specific historic events or periods (such as Stalin’s purges, the Soviet famine, or the early years just after the October Revolution), or specific aspects of socialist societies (such as the prison system, or the process of central planning). Others are much more theoretical, directly tackling key Marxist concepts, as raised by either Marx himself, or by more contemporary Marxist thinkers. Yet others look at the interaction between Marxist theory and socialist reality, tackling the myth that socialist regimes just “misunderstood” or “perverted” Marx’s supposedly pure and noble ideas. Some entries are hard work, and demand a high level of prior knowledge. Others are more accessible, or even light-hearted. The list covers a publication period of almost 130 years. The oldest book on the list was first published in 1891, when Friedrich Engels was still alive, and Lenin was still a young student radical. The newest ones were only published last year, and can thus incorporate the more recent socialist revival. Most focus on socialism proper, but a few look at collectivist ideologies more generally.
Is anything missing from the list? There is a heavy bias towards classical liberal thinkers, which is fine, but socialism has its left-wing critics as well. I would have included Geoffrey Hodgson’s “Is Socialism Feasible?” (2019), which is a critique of socialism written from a social democratic, left-liberal perspective.
I would also have included Paul Hollander’s classic “Political Pilgrims” (1981), which is about a rather different aspect, namely, the reception of socialist systems by Western intellectuals. Hollander documents how plenty of prominent Western intellectuals used to be full of praise for the most atrocious socialist regimes, especially Stalin’s and Mao’s, when these were in their prime.
And I would have tried to take on some of the protagonists of “Millennial Socialism”, who, after all, have published a flurry of best-selling books since the end of 2018. There is no single publication which does that (yet), but there are several papers and articles which do, and which I would have pulled together in one place.
On the whole, though, this is an immensely useful resource, and the colleagues at the Independent Institute are to be commended for it. As they put it: “anyone who carefully studies even a handful of these books will gain a stronger understanding of socialism than is possessed by the vast majority of socialists.”