Economic Theory

Why is socialism – literally – in Vogue?

Opinion pieces which tell us to stop obsessing over socialism’s past failures, and start to get excited about its future potential, have almost become a genre in its own right. Socialism is, literally, in Vogue.

For example, Bhaskhar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin magazine, recently wrote a New York Times article, in which he claimed that the next attempt to build a socialist society will be completely different:

“This time, people get to vote. Well, debate and deliberate and then vote – and have faith that people can organise together to chart new destinations for humanity. Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. […] [I]t seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives.”

Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, wrote in that magazine that socialism has not “failed”. It has just never been done properly:

“It’s incredibly easy to be both in favour of socialism and against the crimes committed by 20th century communist regimes. […]

When anyone points me to the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba and says “Well, there’s your socialism,” my answer […] [is] that these regimes bear absolutely no relationship to the principle for which I am fighting. […] The history of the Soviet Union doesn’t really tell us much about “communism” […]

I can draw distinctions between the positive and negative aspects of a political program. I like the bit about allowing workers to reap greater benefits from their labor. I don’t like the bit about putting dissidents in front of firing squads.”

Closer to home, Owen Jones wrote that Cuba’s current version of socialism was not “real” socialism – but that it could yet become the real thing:

“Socialism without democracy […] isn’t socialism. […] Socialism means socialising wealth and power […]

Cuba could democratise and grant political freedoms currently denied as well as defending […] the gains of the revolution. […] The only future for socialism […] is through democracy. That […] means organising a movement rooted in people’s communities and workplaces. It means arguing for a system that extends democracy to the workplace and the economy”.

And Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote an article with the self-explanatory title ‘It’s time to give socialism a try’:

“Not to be confused for a totalitarian nostalgist, I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.”

Despite differences in style and emphasis, articles in this genre share a number of common flaws.

First, as much as the authors insist that previous examples of socialism were not “really” socialist, none of them can tell us what exactly they would do differently. Rather than providing at least a rough outline of how “their” version of socialism would work in practice, the authors escape into abstraction, and talk about lofty aspirations rather than tangible institutional characteristics.

“Charting new destinations for humanity” and “democratising the economy” are nice buzzphrases, but what does this mean, in practice? How would “the people” manage “their” economy jointly? Would we all gather in Hyde Park, and debate how many toothbrushes and how many screwdrivers we should produce? How would we decide who gets what? How would we decide who does what? What if it turns out that we don’t actually agree on very much?

These are not some trivial technical details that we can just leave until after the revolution. These are the most basic, fundamental questions that a proponent of any economic system has to be able to answer. Almost three decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall – enough time, one should think, for “modern” socialists to come up with some ideas for a different kind of socialism. Yet here we are. After all those years, they have still not moved beyond the buzzword stage.

Secondly, the authors do not seem to realise that there is nothing remotely new about the lofty aspirations they talk about, and the buzzphrases they use. Giving “the people” democratic control over economic life has always been the aspiration, and the promise, of socialism. It is not that this has never occurred to the people who were involved in earlier socialist projects. On the contrary: that was always the idea. There was never a time when socialists started out with the express intention of creating stratified societies led by a technocratic elite. Socialism always turned out that way, but not because it was intended to be that way.

Socialists usually react with genuine irritation when a political opponent mentions an earlier, failed socialist project. They cannot see this is anything other than a straw man, and a cheap shot. As a result, they refuse to address the question why those attempts have turned out the way they did. According to contemporary socialists, previous socialist leaders simply did not really try, and that is all there is to know.

Thirdly, contemporary socialists completely fail to address the deficiencies of socialism in the economic sphere. They talk a lot about how their version of socialism would be democratic, participatory, non-authoritarian, nice and cuddly. Suppose they could prove Hayek wrong, and magically make that work. What then?

They would then be able to avoid the Gulags, the show trials and the secret police next time, which would obviously be an immeasurable improvement over the versions of socialism that existed in the past. But we would still be left with a dysfunctional economy.

Contemporary socialists seem to assume that a democratised version of socialism would not just be more humane, but also economically more productive and efficient: reform the political system, and the rest will somehow follow. There is no reason why it should. Democracy, civil liberties and human rights are all desirable in their own right, but they do not, in and of themselves, make countries any richer.

A version of East Germany without the Stasi, the Berlin Wall and the police brutality would have been a much better country than the one that actually existed. But even then: East Germany’s economic output per capita was only one third of the West German level. Democracy, on its own, would have done nothing to close that gap.

A version of North Korea without the secret police and the labour camps would be a much better country than the one that actually exists. But even then: the North-South gap in living standards is so vast that the average South Korean is 3–8cm taller than the average North Korean, and lives more than ten years longer. Democracy would not make North Koreans any taller, or likelier to reach old age.

Ultimately, the contemporary argument for socialism boils down to: “next time will be different, because we say so.”

After more than two dozen failed attempts, that is just not good enough.

A version of this article was previously published by Cap X. 


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and 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).

3 thoughts on “Why is socialism – literally – in Vogue?”

  1. Posted 18/07/2018 at 12:12 | Permalink

    An excellent piece. To target this red (literally red) herring about “democratic” control: socialism subjects individual and transactional decisions to state control; and even if this control were expressed by the vote of some assembly, it might not reflect the popular will. More importantly, even supposing such a decision was brought about through a mass, popular vote on every occasion, it would still be oppressive: the tyranny of the majority. You can see this in action in state schools: when spontaneously forming groups wish to pursue a sport, stage a play or engage in debate they are often prevented on grounds of “anti-elitism”. Socialism is merely the art of perverting the mechanisms of democracy against individual liberty, which means the “democracy” is nothing but a sham. This is the point with which to slam our “nouveaux pauvres”.

  2. Posted 18/07/2018 at 13:54 | Permalink

    ‘How would “the people” manage “their” economy jointly?’,you ask.

    Why the quotation marks around “the people” and “their”? The economy in aggregate belongs to the people in aggregate. It is the common wealth.

    To answer your question the political representatives of the people need first to hammer out a definition of terms – ‘ownership’, ‘property’, ‘real property’, ‘capital’. They need to look not to Marx but to Henry George. Parliament in the UK has recently re-defined the socially fundamental word ‘marriage’ (rather foolishly in my personal opinion but most others think differently). Economically fundamental words need similar treatment.

    For example: the term ‘landowner’ as currently understood is surely an oxymoron; again, ‘capital’ is wealth that can’t be consumed which is used to produce other wealth that can be consumed.

    Once these terms are defined and clarified then the political representatives aforementioned have a basis to decide what rightly belongs to the community and what to the individual economic acter. That allows it to set equitable taxes that recover the former in a way that doesn’t distort supply and demand. “Keep what you make and pay for what you take”. Once criteria for deciding who is the true owner of an asset or resource and what that ‘ownership’ means then the tired old see-saw with socialist at one end and financial capitalist at the other can be left to creak and squeak no more.

  3. Posted 27/08/2018 at 10:00 | Permalink

    Elections are handled solely by the media.

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