The recent film by Agnieszka Holland, Mr. Jones, portrays the Soviet Russians’ attempt in the 1930s — with the assistance of sympathetic Western journalists like Walter Duranty — to cover up the famine caused by collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine. The film is a heart-wrenching and damning account of the Soviet experiment — and of the dishonesty that enabled it.
And yet, 87 years after Gareth Jones showed the world the crimes of socialism, there are still Western enablers who engage in a different kind of coverup of the same facts. As a result, a growing number of young people consider themselves socialists, and socialist politicians have risen in prominence. One was almost nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States.
It is only thirty years since socialist regimes collapsed economically around the globe, leaving in their wake a death toll of tens of millions. We have seen the same pattern repeated in Venezuela in only the last twenty years. How do today’s defenders of socialism try to cover up this history and justify the ideology that supported such murderous regimes?Embed from Getty Images
One tactic that today’s socialists employ is to portray the lessons of history and world affairs as irrelevant to their cause. They claim that the Soviet Union, Communist China, Communist Cuba, and today’s regime in Venezuela are not real examples of socialism at all. Real socialism, you may have heard them say, has never been tried.
What makes people think this is true? What do they mean by “socialism” and is their view even plausible?
What is “socialism”?
Socialism, in a standard definition, means public ownership of the means of production, which implies the abolishing of private property and ending the capitalist system of free trade and free markets. This is often understood to mean state ownership of the means of production.
The economic failure, famine, and bloodshed suffered by each of these countries flowed directly from the same policies advocated by today’s socialists. Just as socialists demand, businesses were torn from the hands of their creators, those who both knew how to produce and who had a personal financial stake in improving their ability to produce. These businesses were then managed by bureaucrats who lacked both of these qualifications, and who also lacked the tool of the free market pricing system to calculate how much of which goods to produce. Production decisions were determined not with an eye to creating value above cost, but to the demands of arbitrary edicts from central planners. It is no accident that this system created shortages and starvation, and that regimes had to crush the resulting dissent to retain power.
Socialists try to insulate the system they advocate from this evidence of failure by using a talking point that (as we shall see) they have used since the beginning of their movement. They put a spin on the “public ownership of the means of production” definition. Real socialism, they say, doesn’t mean state control of the economy; it means control by “the people,” especially by the workers.Embed from Getty Images
For instance, Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and author of The Socialist Manifesto, claims that real socialism means “democratic” control of the workplace by worker collectives. He claims that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not a socialist society because it did not involve democratic control.1 Likewise, Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and author of Why You Should Be a Socialist, claims that, for similar reasons, none of the authoritarian socialist regimes of the twentieth century were socialist, and claims to “hate government and capitalism alike.”2 Richard Wolff, who has been described as “America’s most prominent Marxist economist,” agrees.3 He argues that the Soviet Union was really an example of “state capitalism”: while the nominally socialist party controlled the state, the state was “still capitalist in the employer-employee organization of its economy” because “a minority of persons . . . [the central planners] functioned as employers of an employee majority.”4
Using their definition of “socialism,” these thinkers would have us believe that since state control of the economy is not control by “the people,” no full-scale socialist political system has ever existed in history. If true, this would allow them to excuse their ideology from any responsibility for the murder and oppression of the brutal, allegedly “socialist” systems of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century. It also allows them to pose as the torchbearers of a noble ideal that has simply been corrupted by political operators of the past.
Is there any plausibility to the claim that “socialism” doesn’t really mean state control of the economy, but something else? Are today’s socialists really envisioning a wholly new system than what the revolutionaries of the past actually implemented? Or are they simply playing games with the word “socialism” to avoid the obvious facts?
Fantasy speculation about the role of the state
Not everyone proposing a novelty is indulging in fantasy. A newly envisioned invention, like an airplane, can be based on known facts about birds, kites, and gliders. But even then, experiments are needed to prove the efficacy of the idea. And if the proposal is, say, a perpetual motion machine, which has no experimental basis and goes against the laws of physics, the proposal is selling a fantasy.
Although the proposal that “real” socialism doesn’t require the use of state power might sound new or innovative to the uninitiated, a few questions and a little knowledge of history are sufficient to show it is just as much a fantasy as a perpetual motion machine.
But even if we could imagine that private property holders were simply persuaded to give up their holdings peacefully, the notion that the ideal socialist system would work without coercion or oppression is hard to imagine, if it is even coherently meaningful to begin with. Consider Richard Wolff’s explanation for how a system of worker co-ops would gradually wean itself from the need for a state:
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An economy based on worker co-ops would revolutionize the relationship between the state and the people. In their capacity as a self-employed collectivity, workers would occupy the spot traditionally held by the workplace in state-workplace relations and interactions. . . . The workers would collectively and democratically hold the purse strings to which the state would have to appeal. The state would thus depend on citizens and workers rather than the other way around. . . . The state would have fewer ways and means to impose its own momentum and goals upon citizens or workplaces. To that extent, the state’s “withering away” would become more immediately achievable than in any other variety of socialism known thus far.6
As I’ve argued elsewhere at greater length, the allegation that “democratic control” ensures freedom from coercion and oppression is an old fallacy that turns on an equivocation between a government with elected representatives and a society run by majority rule. The latter is what socialists advocate when they claim that factories should be run by workers, regardless of what the factory’s original creators have to say about it. This constitutes a direct violation of the rights of a minority of individuals. So if workers really do end up holding “the purse strings” of the factories and the power to make the state appeal to them, it makes little sense to say that the state would “wither away” as an entity independent of the workers.7 Rather, the workers would in effect be running a state.8
All of this means that Lenin and Stalin and the other founders of the brutal Marxist regimes justified their actions using the exact same fantasy as today’s socialists do. They promised that the system they advocated would eventually eliminate state oppression as well. We saw what it actually delivered.
Why should we believe socialists today who also claim that their proposals to nationalize industries will take us further from and not closer to the specter of the Soviet catastrophe? They offer no better evidence than hucksters who sell perpetual motion machines. In fact what they’re doing is much worse, both because they actively evade the evidence, and because what they sell isn’t just dysfunctional — it’s deadly.
The real meaning of socialism
Socialism means public ownership of the means of production. But to understand what this means in practical reality — and why it cannot mean what the socialists propose — we must appreciate what “public ownership” actually refers to.
There is no magical entity called “the public.” A society is composed of individual human beings. In reality, the only mechanism by which the actions of an entire society can be coordinated is by means of a government. And so the only way for anything resembling “the public” to systematically deprive capitalists of private property and to abolish capitalist free trade is for the state to do it. Every socialist acknowledges this, whether they advocate violent revolution to establish a collectivist state or a majority vote to establish the same.
It is no surprise that socialism evades facts about the nature of the political system it works to achieve. The whole idea that animates the drive for socialism, the idea that human life would be improved by eliminating capitalism, is itself founded on similar evasions of basic facts.
I believe that those who are willing to study the facts carefully will realize that the entire edifice of socialist thought evades everything we know about human social and economic life. It evades that the root of production is the individual human mind, not the labor of brute muscle or blind “economic forces.” It evades that capitalists add value to workers’ labors by conceiving of new goods and services and coordinating the capital, labor, and marketing necessary to produce them. It evades that individuals have free will and can accept the opportunities capitalists offer, or not (whether the invitation to work with them, or to consume their products). And, as a consequence, it evades that the violent expropriation of private property and vestment of it in the state cannot create a peaceful and prosperous society.
- Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 17, 26, 81.
- Nathan Robinson, Why You Should Be a Socialist (New York: All Points Books, 2019), 111, 151.
- Adam Davidson, “It Is Safe to Resume Ignoring the Prophets of Doom . . . Right?,” New York Times, February 1, 2012.
- Richard D. Wolff, Understanding Socialism (New York: Democracy at Work, 2019), 61, 66, 84.
- Sunkara, Socialist Manifesto, 170. I discuss this aspect of Sunkara’s work and the inherent brutality of collectivism in my essay “Meet the New Socialism, Same as the Old,” New Ideal, September 2, 2019.
- Wolff, Understanding Socialism, 119.
- Note that Wolff is now saying that the state should only wither away to an extent, allowing that it may still have functions to perform in his society. On his website, he answers a question about this, saying “other functions of states — for example, to adjudicate disputes, make laws and rules, etc. might well remain if and to the extent that what Marx called classless societies (communist) wanted them.”
- Wolff says very little in his book, and nothing that I can find in any of his other published writings, about how any remaining state would function. This is symptomatic of the overall problem with socialist proposals, that they are floating abstractions unmoored in reality. But even if we give the devil his due and entertain different ways of interpreting his proposal, I can’t imagine the coherent possibility of an actual state that is non-oppressive but which maintains a socialist system. If the system he envisions has no power to compel anything, not even the punishment of lawbreakers, it would not be a state: a state has a monopoly on force. If the system he envisions can punish lawbreakers, but can’t compel firms to pay the money he mentions or to maintain their collective ownership, it’s not a socialist state. (In such case workers could vote to re-establish private ownership of the firm.) But if the system could compel payment and compel maintenance of collective ownership, it could still shut down non-compliant firms, and the prospect of state oppression re-emerges.
- Richard Wolff, “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way,” Guardian, June 24, 2012.
- Jill Bamburg, “Mondragon through a Critical Lens.” Medium, October 3, 2017. The earliest utopian socialist experiments were in a way the most perfect, because they involved mostly isolated communities that could not depend on substantial trade with capitalist concerns. Robert Owens meticulously planned his collective farm in New Harmony, Indiana, but the people who came to live there in 1825 did not know how to plant or maintain sufficient crops. While they were happy to take goods from the village store, not enough were willing to work. The colony survived for the few years it did because Owen subsidized it using his profits from his East Coast manufacturing concern. See Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism (New York: Encounter Books, 2019), 36–41.
- The idea that economic calculation is impossible under pure socialism is the most devastating objection to the ideology. See especially Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981), Part II, Chapter 6.
- Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Part III, Chapter 2. See also in Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker (ed.) (New York: Norton, 1978), 683.
- Engels’s assumptions already seem wildly at odds with reality, both because they assume that it’s incontrovertible that capitalism really exploits workers, and because many functions of the state are not related to maintaining anything resembling worker exploitation, e.g., use of the police power to arrest murderers. Engels gives no argument for why abolishing private property would eliminate the possibility of crimes of passion between lovers, acts of criminal insanity, or any number of other violent acts. Are we to think that these are “really” stealth cases of class exploitation, or that the coercive apparatus that will work to prevent or punish such acts will not “really” be a state? Engels’s arbitrary assumptions seem to require still further arbitrary definitions. To avoid such troubling questions, Engels invokes an overtly mystical-sounding story about how disagreement among and irrationalities between individuals will magically dissolve as society plans and acts with one collectively determined mind. This becomes the basis for the “New Soviet man” that the Russians thought they could socially engineer to instinctively act on the basis of “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.”
- Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917), Chapter 1, Part 4.
- See Geroid Tanquary Robinson, “Stalin’s Vision of Utopia: The Future Communist Society,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, January 27, 1955, 11–21.