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Zitelmann: Socialism always fails, yet somehow never loses its appeal

By Dr. Rainer Zitelmann


In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the German philosopher Hegel observed: “But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” It could well be that Hegel’s verdict is too harsh. Nevertheless, it does seem that a majority of people are unable to abstract and draw general conclusions from historical experience. Despite the numerous examples of capitalist economic policies leading to greater prosperity and the failure of every single variant of socialism that has ever been tested under real-world conditions, many people still seem incapable of learning the most obvious lessons.


Over the past hundred years there have been more than two dozen attempts to build a socialist society. It has been tried in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Albania, Poland, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, North Korea, Hungary, China, East Germany, Cuba, Tanzania, Benin, Laos, Algeria, South Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among others. All of these attempts have ended in varying degrees of failure. How can an idea, which has failed so many times, in so many different variants and so many radically different settings, still be so popular? This is the central question asked by Kristian Niemietz in this extremely important book Socialism. The Failed Idea That Never Dies. Niemietz, who works at the London Institute for Economic Affairs, manages to provide an answer to his question in just one sentence: It is because socialists have successfully managed to distance themselves from all of those examples. As soon as you confront a socialist with examples of failed experiments, they always offer the following response: “These examples don’t prove anything at all! In fact, none of these are true socialist models.”


Praising Stalin and Mao


Intellectuals never fail to lavish praise on any new socialist experiment, as demonstrated by their fervent responses to the rise of socialism in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Venezuela. Even mass murderers such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were enthusiastically celebrated by leading intellectuals of their time. These intellectuals were not outsiders or extremists, but renowned writers and scholars. Even the concentration camps in the Soviet Union, the Gulags, were admired: They were presented as places of rehabilitation, not punishment, where inmates were given a chance to engage in useful activities, while reflecting upon their mistakes.” A then well-known American writer explained: “The labor camps have won high reputation throughout the Soviet Union as places where tens of thousands of men have been reclaimed.”


Even journalists and intellectuals who didn’t completely turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes found arguments to justify what was happening: “But – to put it brutally – you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialization as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack.” These sentences were written by the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, who was head of the newspaper’s office in the Russian capital from 1922 to 1936.


Some socialist intellectuals did criticize the Soviet Union. But for many, their antipathy was the result of using utopian standards as a yardstick for judging real world systems – utopian fantasies that no system in the world would have been able to live up to.


Many Western intellectuals were enthusiastic in their support for Mao Zedong and his cultural revolution, despite 45 million lives being lost during socialism’s greatest experiment – the Great Leap Forward – at the end of the 1950s alone. After Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies liberated hundreds of millions of Chinese from bitter poverty, these same intellectuals were nowhere near as enthusiastic about China as they had been in Mao’s day. “Just as ironically, the enthusiasm of Western intellectuals for China began to fade when the most murderous period was over”, reports Niemietz. Western intellectuals had lavishly heaped praise on China when millions of Chinese people were starving or worked to death in forced labor camps. But when a program of relative liberalization lifted millions of people out of poverty, those intellectuals were conspicuous by their silence. Market-based reform programs, no matter how successful, will never inspire pilgrimages. Even the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia found admirers among Western intellectuals, as Niemietz demonstrates in two chapters of his book. And that’s not to mention Cuba and Che Guevara, who became a pop icon in the West.


It is always the same story


In his thorough historical analysis, Niemietz shows every socialist experiment to date has gone through three phases: During the first phase, the honeymoon period, intellectuals around the world are enthusiastic about the system and praise it to the heavens. This enthusiasm is always followed by a second phase, disillusionment. During this phase, intellectuals still defend the system and its “achievements,” but withdraw their uncritical support and begin to admit deficiencies, although these are often presented as the result of capitalist saboteurs, foreign forces or boycotts by U.S. imperialists. Finally, the third phase sees intellectuals deny that it was ever truly a form of socialism, the not-real-socialism stage. This is the stage at which intellectuals line up to state that the country in question – for example the Soviet Union, China or Venezuela – was never really a socialist country.


Nowadays, Western socialists do not even attempt to oppose real-world capitalism with historical examples of socialism. Instead, they put forward arguments based on the vague utopia of a ‘just’ society. Sometimes, they cite ‘Nordic socialism’ – i.e. the variant of socialism that emerged in countries like Sweden – as an example, although they completely forget that the Nordic countries, having learned from their failed socialist experiments of the 1970s, have long since abandoned the socialist path and today – despite having higher taxes – are no less capitalist than, for example, the United States.



Rainer Zitelmann is author of the book The Power of Capitalism.