“Socialism is back in fashion”, proclaimed The Economist earlier this year. An ideology which had seemed as dead as the dodo three decades ago was, the magazine warned, “storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in Western societies”.
The Economist was evidently worried by this – unsurprising for a magazine once derided by Lenin as a “journal which speaks for British millionaires”. But the magazine’s staffers aren’t the only ones nervously looking on at politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kristian Niemietz is too, and he tells us why in his new book, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies.
Head of political economy at the free market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), Niemietz argues that socialism has returned to haunt the political establishment because its doctrines are “strangely impervious to refutation by real-world experience”. Socialists are able to dismiss each of their failed experiments as not ‘real’ socialism, a claim which is always made retrospectively (during the honeymoon period of a revolution almost no one says this).
Niemietz writes that “Contemporary socialists define ‘real’ socialism in terms of the outcomes they would like to see, rather than the institutional setup which is supposed to produce those outcomes”.
For example, socialists celebrate equality yet distance themselves from the army of bureaucrats and secret police required to enforce it. So-called libertarian communists are effectively longing for a dish of fried snowballs. And democratic socialism – “the democratisation of every aspect of society”, as prominent Left-wing columnist Owen Jones has defined it – would in practice be ruled by fanatics with too much time on their hands; typically the over-zealous and the under-sexed.
Socialism as a term is frustratingly imprecise. Tony Blair and George Orwell have at one time or another defined themselves as socialists, as have Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.
The difficulty Niemietz faces in defining socialism is largely a result of the word being used as both a synonym for communism and a woolly affectation, an appellation which signals that one cares about worthy causes. Niemietz see socialism as in the ascendance. “Socialism is popular in the UK,” he writes, “and not just among students”. Yet it feels more like communism that Niemietz is railing against.
On the hard-Left, socialism denotes the transition period in which the state grows ever-larger before ‘withering away’ under full communism.1 In contrast, the variant of socialism which has gained popularity in Britain and the United States in recent times is more plausibly a left-wing strand of social democracy.
This is where Niemietz’s argument – as well as that made by The Economist – breaks down somewhat. It is social democracy that is gaining in popularity, not socialism in any meaningful sense.
Widespread support in Britain for public ownership of the utilities, for example, is not necessarily synonymous with support for socialism. Some of this is nostalgia for the post-war world, whereas some of it is an expression of nationalism: just a few years ago UKIP supporters were found to be among the keenest to re-nationalise things.
Moreover, that majorities appear to favour rent controls and an interventionist government is unsurprising considering the sorry state of the housing market and the precarious nature of so much contemporary work.
Hyperventilating about the ‘return of socialism’ seems especially overdone when Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to conceal what he really thinks behind a tepid social democratic agenda (see Labour’s 2017 manifesto). Yet because there is no firewall on the Left between its democratic and totalitarian wings – Jeremy Corbyn has surrounded himself with communists such as Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne – many of Niemietz’s broadsides still hit their targets.
Niemietz’s book could in fact have been titled ‘Useful Idiots’, for much of it recounts the pilgrimages made to the socialist world over the years by the credulous. At one time even North Korea had its western seekers, as did Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. As Niemietz recounts, everyone from the Webbs to Susan Sontag to Owen Jones has gone on one of these socialist excursions.
Academics in particular seem drawn to the vicarious thrill of violent revolutions. On a pilgrimage to North Korea in 1964, the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson gushed that “all the economic miracles of the postwar world are put in the shade by [North Korea’s] achievements”. These achievements were attributed to Kim Il Sung, who “seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator”.
According to Niemietz, socialist fellow-travelling is a three-stage process. The initial revolutionary euphoria gives way to disillusionment. Whataboutery usually kicks in at this point, and an imaginary army of wreckers and saboteurs are summoned and subsequently blamed for socialism’s failures.
Later on, the pilgrims will pronounce that it does not matter because the experiment was ‘not real socialism’. And they will get away with it. “After Venezuela fell off a cliff,” Niemietz writes, “some of Britain’s most eager Chavistas went on to become some of the most senior political figures in the country”.
There is something horribly sordid about revolutionary tourism. I am reminded of a remark by the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez about Cuba. A personal friend of Fidel Castro, Garcia Marquez told The New York Times that he personally could never live under the Cuban communist system. “I would miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world.” Yet for Cubans, such privations were apparently acceptable.
This willingness to subject other people to grotesque historical experiments represents the apogee of political selfishness. Niemietz is right to focus on it and he is clear that it is not only the Left that projects its fantasies onto foreign lands. There were plenty on the Right who were willing to defend General Pinochet’s murderous regime in Chile on the basis of that country’s supposed ‘economic miracle’. Proponents of the Iraq war similarly believed that hundreds of thousands of lives were expendable in the name of bringing democracy and a market economy to the Middle East.
There are of course material reasons for socialism’s apparent return. Its critique of contemporary capitalism can sound appealing. The thirty-year free market settlement is in a state of morbid decay: work is precarious, towns are hollowed out and homes are both cramped and exorbitantly expensive.
Meritocracy, the ideological foundation of the free market, is mostly deployed nowadays as a post-hoc rationalisation by those who have done well. The myth of the poor and struggling as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” – per Steinbeck – has about as much utility in 2019 as a chocolate teapot.
But the utopianism of the extremes is partly motivated by what Hannah Arendt identified as the urge to locate “a suicidal escape from… reality”. Freedom is a double-edged sword after all: it leaves a person responsible for their own decisions, at least to some extent. This can generate an existential crisis which, as Albert Camus warned, can prompt a frantic search for an escape hatch, either through suicide or submersion into a cause which purports to swap the ambiguity of liberalism for human perfection.
There is also little to lose in swearing allegiance to exotic-sounding causes, especially when they are being tested on somebody else. “If a false belief is emotionally satisfying, and if there is no cost associated with holding it,” Niemietz writes, “we would expect it to be widely held”.
As such, while orthodox religion is in retreat, the allure of creeds which purport to explain everything persists. In this sense, socialism has become a romantic rather than a material ideology. The ‘scientific’ conception of Marxism has been replaced by what Friedrich Nietzsche depicts as a degenerated form of Christianity. Jeremy Corbyn is a contemporary socialist messiah: his vocabulary is an assortment of uplifting truisms and platitudes: peace not war, equality, the common good, the 99%.
Corbynism has also created meaning. Oscar Wilde famously said that the trouble with socialism was it took up too many evenings. Yet for some this is the attraction. Go to any gathering of British socialists today and you will be told by an erstwhile comrade that Corbyn has given them a ‘reason to get up in the morning’: socialism as a movement lends purpose to otherwise dull lives.
Social democrats must try to gain a better understanding of socialism so that they can more effectively purge communists from their ranks. This book is a lucid articulation of why a firewall between the democratic and the totalitarian Left is necessary. The fact that many on the Left will refuse to read it – because it was written by a pro-free market author – highlights the extent to which contemporary socialism at times resembles a hive-minded surrogate religion.