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Meet the New Socialism, Same as the Old

We are being pushed to take a bow for a new revolution. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and cadres of journalists and theoreticians have made it their mission to revive the case for socialism.

But didn’t the case for socialism die with the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s? Not according to the new socialists. The socialism they champion is supposedly new and improved. This time, they say, the socialism they champion is democratic.

When advocates of a political ideology that has so far led to the deaths of tens of millions of people claim that this time it will be different, there’s a heavy burden of proof for thinking they are not advocates of more slaughter. I don’t think the burden can be discharged. In the end, democratic socialism is only superficially different from the socialism that was pushed, bloodily, on its twentieth-century victims.

The meaning of “democratic socialism”

What is democratic socialism, and how is it supposed to be any different?

When asked by Stephen Colbert about what she means by “democratic socialism,” Ocasio-Cortez answered: “what that means to me is health care as a human right. It means that every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade school education if they so choose it.”1 In a recent prominent campaign speech, Bernie Sanders gives a similar list of policies and concludes, “in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”2

Bear in mind the mechanism by which both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders would implement these “economic rights.” “Medicare for all” would abolish private insurance, giving government de facto control of the health care industry.3 Sanders’s “College for All” program would push even private colleges to accept more federal funds, hastening the day when the distinction between private and public colleges would come to nothing.4 The new socialist politicians really do advocate state ownership of some of the “commanding heights” of the modern economy.5

The new socialist politicians really do advocate state ownership of some of the “commanding heights” of the modern economy.
Why think that increasing state control of the economy is “democratic”? Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and publisher of Jacobin magazine, claims in a recent book that “democratic socialism” is a redundancy: socialism, he thinks, simply extends the concept of democracy from the political to the economic realm. In the more consistent socialist vision he advocates, all firms should be owned by the state and controlled by workers, who would all receive a share of their firm’s profits and elect members of a worker’s council and a managing director to run the company. Unemployed workers would be supported by state welfare programs. Such a system would be “the world’s first truly democratic society.”6 The “economic rights” advocated by the new socialist politicians would clearly push us in the direction of realizing this “ideal.”

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In advancing this point, Sunkara makes explicit what the politicians often do not: that real democratic socialism goes well beyond the Scandinavian “social democracies.” Though these systems offer significant welfare payments, they have lately been moving to privatize more state-controlled industries.7 Both Sunkara and the politicians want to push in the direction of greater state control.

“Democracy” disambiguated

What will prevent the democratic socialism that Sunkara advocates from exhibiting the authoritarian tyranny of Soviet-style socialism? The answer typically given is that the state ownership will be subject to “democratic control.”

This answer relies on a confusion about the meaning of “democracy.”

Voting is an important safeguard of individual rights, but only in the context of the rule of law, when rights cannot be voted away by the majority.
“Democracy” originally meant the system of unlimited majority rule, as in ancient Athens, in which every citizen would vote on important decisions governing the city. This is the system that voted to execute Socrates, the kind of tyranny of the majority which the U.S. Constitution was designed to safeguard against. Why is anyone fooled into thinking that socialism will be any better just because it involves tyranny of the many rather than tyranny of the few?

Through various linguistic twists and turns, in modern usage “democracy” has come to mean a political system involving elections while offering some protections for individual rights. This gives the term a more positive connotation. But this redefinition stems from the confusion that the right to vote is the hallmark of a free society. Voting is an important safeguard of individual rights insofar as it serves as a check against a tyrannical government. But it can do this job only in the context of the rule of law, only when laws protecting individual rights cannot be voted away by the majority.8

Revealingly, Sunkara admits that the “democracy” he advocates amounts to unlimited majority rule, when he criticizes the American Founding Fathers for having intentionally subverted democracy. He cites a passage from James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, in which Madison bemoans democracies for generating “turbulence and contention” that negate the individual’s right to property.9 Madison recommends a republican form of government rather than one that allows a majority faction to violate the rights of the minority. Sunkara opposes Madison’s republican constitution in favor of this majority factionalism.

The democratic threat to freedom

Sunkara and other democratic socialists will likely respond that in the system they advocate, they would still insist on protection of basic “human rights,” just not property rights. But can these rights be separated? Ayn Rand argued otherwise. As a refugee from Soviet communism herself, Rand was a direct witness to the manner in which the abrogation of property rights violated basic individual freedoms:

Socialism is merely democratic absolute monarchy — that is, a system of absolutism without a fixed head, open to seizure of power by all comers, by any ruthless climber, opportunist, adventurer, demagogue or thug.

When you consider socialism, do not fool yourself about its nature. Remember that there is no such dichotomy as “human rights” versus “property rights.” No human rights can exist without property rights. Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life. To deny property rights means to turn men into property owned by the state. Whoever claims the “right” to “redistribute” the wealth produced by others is claiming the “right” to treat human beings as chattel.10

To understand this point, consider the freedom of speech. Does a man have this freedom if he cannot own pen and paper, or a press, or a computer? If individuals must first secure the permission of the relevant council of writers or publishers before they can use these “means of production,” how can they be free to speak? A permission is not a right.

A system in which one’s peers vote to decide how much property one can keep is not a system in which one’s life is one’s own.
Democratic socialists might respond that it’s only big firms that would need to be democratically governed; private individuals could still own their pens and paper. But how big can an individual’s operation become before it is taken over by the state? Presumably, that question would itself be left up to majority vote. A system in which one’s peers vote to decide how much property one can keep (and how effective one’s speech can be) is not a system of inalienable rights or a system in which one’s life is one’s own.

In actual historical practice, every major socialist system that began with voting by councils eventually transitioned to more authoritarian central control. Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto itself gives ample evidence of this. The bulk of the book is devoted to a history of failed socialist movements around the world. Sunkara celebrates the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871. Though he neglects to mention how the Paris Commune went as far as to impose censorship and execute dissidents, he does speak favorably of how Marx thought it didn’t go far enough to seize control. We hear of how the moderate Social Democratic Party rose to power in Germany by having members of the rival (but formerly allied) Spartacus League murdered. We hear of how life during the Russian civil war was too chaotic for worker councils to retain control of factories, so central planning was necessary. We hear of how when peasants clung to their grain and kept prices low, Stalin collectivized their farms without the benefit of putting it to a vote, causing millions to starve. We of course hear of the bloody Stalinist purges of fellow communists and of the murderous chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.11

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Leave aside times of war: even during peacetime, governing an entire complex society by direct majority rule is difficult if not impossible. Political power has to be invested in representatives and centralized authorities. When a government’s purpose is not to protect the rights of each individual, but to implement the undefinable “will of the people,” factions within the government invariably struggle with each other for the title of representatives of the people. As Ayn Rand puts it, “Since the concept [of “the public interest”] is so conveniently undefinable, its use rests only on any given gang’s ability to proclaim that ‘The public, c’est moi’ — and to maintain the claim at the point of a gun.”12

 

The inherent brutality of collectivism

As the history of strife among socialist activists and the bloody party purges in Russia and China demonstrate, history’s socialist movements were unable to govern themselves peacefully. Why think that the winners of internal socialist turf wars who then wrest control over a society of those who disagree with them would not treat dissidents even more brutally?

Consider the kind of revolution Sunkara himself calls for. He maintains that “lawbreaking and sabotage . . . [are] hallmarks of any worthwhile labor militancy,” and urges today’s socialists to create “pressure” for change through “street protests and strike actions” that “force businesses to make concessions to reformers once they are elected.”13

Why, when socialists endorse the same collectivist ideas that have always led to tyranny, should we listen?
Sunkara more generally urges today’s socialists to shy away from mere political reform and to instead push for widespread class struggle. Indeed, he celebrates Bernie Sanders’s campaign precisely because he sees his rhetoric about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent as inciting just such class conflict. But when someone proposes political change through the clash of rival collectives, why should it be a surprise if individuals are trampled upon in the process? Though Sunkara insists that he abhors the crimes of the socialist movements of the past, he resists any effort to see how these crimes were justified by the very collectivist ideology he endorses.

We should turn one last time to the observations of Ayn Rand, who worked to identify the underlying essence of the ideology that led to these crimes:

The essential characteristic of socialism is the denial of individual property rights; under socialism, the right to property . . . is vested in “society as a whole,” i.e., in the collective, with production and distribution controlled by the state, i.e., by the government.

Socialism may be established by force, as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — or by vote, as in Nazi (National Socialist) Germany. The degree of socialization may be total, as in Russia — or partial, as in England. Theoretically, the differences are superficial; practically, they are only a matter of time. The basic principle, in all cases, is the same.

The alleged goals of socialism were: the abolition of poverty, the achievement of general prosperity, progress, peace and human brotherhood. The results have been a terrifying failure — terrifying, that is, if one’s motive is men’s welfare.

Instead of prosperity, socialism has brought economic paralysis and/or collapse to every country that tried it. The degree of socialization has been the degree of disaster. The consequences have varied accordingly.14

Today’s “democratic socialists” say they want to avoid the terrifying failures of the last century. To evaluate their sincerity, consider their attitude toward the Chavista government in Venezuela, a regime that was originally democratically elected. Ocasio-Cortez refuses to denounce the current regime in Venezuela and said the situation there is “complex.” Sanders argued that the regime has now become undemocratic, but even still refuses to call President Maduro a dictator. And though Sunkara says much about the crimes of twentieth-century socialism, he simply ignores Venezuela, whose experiment with socialism Sunkara’s Jacobin defended for years, until only recently.15

Why, when socialists endorse the same collectivist ideas that have always led to tyranny, should we listen? In this latest socialist revolution, let’s not get fooled again.

Image: Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock

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Footnotes

  1. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, June 29, 2018.
  2. Speech at George Washington University, June 12, 2019.
  3. Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz, “Medicare for All Would Abolish Private Insurance. ‘There’s No Precedent in American History’,” New York Times, March 23, 2019.
  4. Tara Golshan, “Bernie Sanders’s Free College Proposal Just Got a Whole Lot Bigger,” Vox.com, June 23, 2019.
  5. In the early years of the Soviet Union, Lenin advocated state ownership of the “commanding heights” of the Russian economy; at the time heavy industry was crucial in Russia. Arguably as the American economy has moved from a manufacturing to a service economy, the “commanding heights” have changed as well. See Arnold Kling, “The New Commanding Heights,” Cato Institute, Summer 2011.
  6. Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in An Era of Extreme Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 26.
  7. Michael Munger, “Capitalism Saved Sweden,” American Institute for Economic Research, March 21, 2019.
  8. For more on the ambiguity of “democracy” and about the proper role of voting in a free society, see Gregory Salmieri, “On the Role of Voting in the American System of Government,” in Jonathan Hoenig (ed.),  A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand (Chicago: Capitalistpig Publications, 2018), 77–86 (republished as “Voting in the American System of Government,” New Ideal, January 7, 2019). I would argue that “democracy” isn’t a good word to describe a system of individual rights, even one that does use elections to select representatives: “democracy” literally translates as “rule of the people,” and in a system that protects individual freedom, no one rules anyone.
  9. James Madison, “The Same Subject Continued The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” The Federalist Papers (No. 10, November 23, 1787).
  10. Ayn Rand, “The Monument Builders,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York, Signet (Centennial Edition), 1964), 106.
  11. See especially Sunkara, Socialist Manifesto, 47, 79, 95–98, 102. Regarding the banning of Le Figaro and Le Gaulois, see John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 68. Regarding the arrest of priests, see 109–11.
  12. Rand, “The Monument Builders,” 91.
  13. Sunkara, 170, 219.
  14. Rand, “The Monument Builders,” 100–101.
  15. For examples of their earlier support of the Chavista regime, see George Ciccariello-Maher, “Venezuelan Jacobins,” Jacobin, March 2014, and “What You Need to Know about Venezuela,” Jacobin, March 2015. For their more recent view, which blames the collapse in Venezuela on Western imperialists, see Sean Bell, “Venezuela Was Supposed to Be Easy,” Jacobin, May 2019.

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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