Will socialism ever succeed?

Socialism is currently experiencing a renaissance: how is that possible?

In the USA, but also in Europe, young socialists are experiencing a boost. They are silent about the failure of socialism in Venezuela, the more they dream of a different economic model. There is a mental trick behind this.

Socialism, which has been declared dead, is more alive than it has been for a long time - at least among young people who have not witnessed its historical failure. Because socialism means justice, equality, solidarity, and who would want to object to it? According to a poll by the Gallup Institute, 51 percent of young Americans have a positive view of the term socialism, but only 45 percent see capitalism in a favorable light. Not only Bernie Sanders, but also other democratic applicants for the presidency are committed to the socialist order, to this idea of ​​a planned economy collectivism, which dates back to the 19th century.

In European countries too, socialism is experiencing a renaissance that is surprising to some. British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn proudly describes himself as a socialist. Last year, the 200th birthday of Karl Marx was enthusiastically celebrated in Germany, and a larger than life monument to the communist pioneer was erected in his native Trier. A referendum is currently being initiated in Berlin aimed at expropriating private real estate companies that own more than 3,000 apartments, and the chairman of the SPD youth organization, Kevin Kühnert, was already challenging who gave a person the right to allocate more than 20 apartments have.

The main argument

A few months ago I had a debate with Ulrike Herrmann, a well-known critic of capitalism in Germany. As expected, the audience in Tübingen was predominantly green and educated. My reference to the fact that all alternatives to capitalism had failed without exception in the past 100 years met with uncomprehending shaking of the head.

Critics of capitalism do not understand how someone can refer to historical experiences with socialist experiments, because, as they emphasize, nobody wants to establish a system like the one that prevailed in the Soviet Union and the GDR. All previous socialist experiments were in truth not socialism at all. Therefore, their failure should not be used as an argument.

The economist Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London asks in his recently published remarkable book «Socialism. The failed idea that never dies, "why socialism remains so attractive, even if more than two dozen experiments have failed. "This is because," according to the author, "the socialists have succeeded in distancing themselves from these examples."

In his historical analysis, Niemietz shows that so far every socialist experiment has gone through three phases: In a first phase, intellectuals worldwide are enthusiastic and extol the system. That was even true of mass murderers like Stalin or Mao. When Stalin died in 1953, Bertolt Brecht wrote: «The heartbeat of the oppressed from five continents, those who have already liberated themselves, and all those who are fighting for world peace must have stopped when they heard that Stalin is dead. He was them Embodiment of their hope. But the spiritual and material weapons that he made are there, and there is the lesson to make new ones. "

The three step

Brecht was not an outsider among intellectuals. Leading writers and thinkers fervently praised the Soviet dictator. The same was true of Mao Zedong and other communist rulers. The American sociologist Paul Hollander filled two books containing hundreds of pages of evidence.

The phase of enthusiasm, as Niemietz shows, is always followed by a second phase of disillusionment: the system and its "achievements" are still defended, but no longer uncritically supported. Deficiencies are admitted, but are often presented to the work of capitalist saboteurs, foreign forces or as a result of the boycott by "US imperialism".

Finally, the third phase follows, in which it is disputed that this was a form of socialism at all. Now it is said that the country in question - for example the Soviet Union, China or Venezuela - was in truth never socialist. However, this argument is seldom put forward in the first phase after the start of a new socialist experiment, but only after the failure of the socialist experiment on the prevailing view.

View: Venezuela

These three phases were most recently observed in Venezuela. In the first phase, after Hugo Chávez was elected President in 1999, there was great enthusiasm worldwide. Leading intellectuals and left-wing politicians praised Venezuela as an example of “socialism in the 21st century”, which sounded seductive because it allowed one to distance oneself from the sad failure of socialism in the 20th century.

After socialism collapsed in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries and the Chinese embarked on the path from socialism to capitalism, the left lacked the utopia they could dream of. North Korea and Cuba, the only remaining communist states, were not so well suited for this. Hugo Chavez filled this gap.

The left party's European policy spokesman in the German Bundestag enthused: "What Chávez does is also the way to solve the economic problems in Germany." The group leader of the Left, Sahra Wagenknecht, praised him as a “great president” who stood for the “struggle for justice and dignity” with all his life. Chavez has proven that “another economic model is possible”.

The trick is that real capitalism is not compared to the real historical experience of socialist experiments.

In August 2015, Jeremy Corbyn wrote: “The Bolivarian revolution is in full swing in Venezuela and is providing inspiration for an entire continent. . . Venezuela is in the process of seriously eradicating poverty by firmly rejecting the neoliberal policies of the international financial institutions. The success of a radical policy in Venezuela is achieved through support for the poorest, the freeing up of resources, but above all through the education and participation of the population. "

Venezuela as a model for America

In the USA, too, Chavez had many admirers among left-wing intellectuals. One of its most prominent figures, Tom Hayden, who died in 2016, said: "I predict that the name of Hugo Chávez will be revered by millions as time goes on." Another leading leftist, Princeton professor Cornell West, admitted: “I love that Hugo Chavez has made poverty a top priority. I wish America would make poverty a priority. "

And today? After the failure of the experiment in Venezuela, they were initially silent. Then it was said that the boycott of the USA was to blame, or it was declared that Maduro had unfortunately left Chavez the right way. Incidentally, this is the central argument again, Venezuela was not a socialist country at all and therefore the failure cannot be used as an argument against socialism.

The trick

The fiction remains that socialism is a good idea that so far has only been poorly executed. Incidentally, the majority of Germans even said this about National Socialism in the 1950s. The trick is that real capitalism is not compared with the real historical experience of socialist experiments, but with the vague utopia of a just, anti-capitalist society.

That is just as fair as if you weren't comparing your marriage to other marriages, but to romantic descriptions in penny novels from the train station bookstore. In comparison with idealized fantasies of a perfect world, even a system as successful as capitalism, which in the past few decades - especially in Asia - has lifted over a billion people out of abject poverty, must do poorly.

Rainer Zitelmann is a doctor of historian and sociologist. In 2018 his book “Capitalism is not the problem, but the solution” was published.