The word socialism
first appeared in 1827. Robert Owen defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. Karl Marx took a
similar line, and extended the idea of common ownership to the national economy.
At least at that time, socialism and communism were virtually synonymous, especially in terms
of their shared vision of the final goal. They both meant the common ownership
of the means of production, and the end of markets and competition.
This view persisted throughout the twentieth century, including within the UK Labour Party. George Bernard Shaw wrote with approval: “Socialists are trying to have the land and machinery ‘socialised,’ or made the property of the whole people”. In 1908 the Labour Party Conference passed a resolution, adopting the aim of “the socialization of the means of production, distribution and exchange to be controlled by a democratic state”. In 1924 Sidney Webb summarized his view of socialism as involving “(1) Collective Ownership; (2) Collective Regulation; (3) Collective Taxation; and (4) Collective Provision”.
Similar views were found among Labour
Prime Ministers. J. Ramsay MacDonald saw socialism as “a movement to supplant
Capitalism altogether, by organising communally the services which Capitalism
performs or ought to perform.” In 1937 Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of
capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of
life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words
of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital
together with a democratic form of government.”
In my book Is Socialism Feasible?I show the persistence of this view of socialism. I also discuss several attempts to change its meaning, including by Douglas Jay, Anthony Crosland, Deng Xiaoping and Tony Blair. Blair tried to shift the meaning to social-ism, by replacing the goal of common ownership by vaguely-specified “ethical values” and a recognition that individuals are socially interdependent. This attempt to revise the meaning has not made much of a mark.
Deng Xiaoping faced the
problem of persuading the Chinese Communist Party to support his enormously
successful market reforms. Deng declared:
“The essence of socialism is liberation and development of the productive forces, elimination of exploitation and polarization, and the ultimate achievement of prosperity for all … common prosperity is the essence of socialism.”
Note the subtle shift from property to prosperity. If that is socialism, then few people are not socialists.
But the original meaning endures. The Merriam-Webster
Dictionary defines socialism as “a system of society or group living in which
there is no private property” or “a system or condition of society in which the
means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” This is remarkably
similar to the original definitions of Owen and Marx.
moderates help Corbyn, and socialists help Trump
Among prominent living politicians today, including
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie
Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialism has retained its original meaning,
of widespread common ownership, or at least they have not renounced that original
At the same time, leading Labour Party moderates
who support a mixed economy continue to support “democratic socialism”. By
doing so they give succour to the full-blooded socialist left, who are much
closer to the enduring traditional view of socialism than the moderates themselves.
We can pretend that the word socialism has
shifted in meaning, but there is little evidence of a major and widely accepted
Moderate or otherwise, those using the “democratic
socialism” label help to sustain the mistaken idea that socialism (in its enduring
and prevalent sense) is compatible with democracy. History and theory both show
that a totalitarian concentration of political power flows inevitably from the unmitigated
concentration of economic power in the hands of the state that is associated
with large-scale socialism.
A similar problem exists in the US, particularly
after the recent election of a young group of socialists to congress, including
the impassioned and eloquent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Along with Sanders, they
are members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) within the US Democratic
The DSA argues for “a vision
of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and
market mechanisms”. They also argued that “widespread worker and public ownership will greatly lessen
the corrosive effect of capitalists [sic] markets on people’s lives”. While, unlike many other socialists, the
DSA notably accepts an enduring role for markets, its agoraphobic bias is
revealed by the failure to mention the corrosive effects of bureaucracy on
statements, leading DSA politicians seem to favour Nordic-style, welfare state
capitalism. But they have not made it clear that they support the large private
sectors and financial markets that are prominent in all the Nordic countries. Instead,
they go along with the abolition of capitalism. They distance themselves from
the Communist regimes of the past. But while the experiment with socialism in
Venezuela has led to a catastrophic human disaster, they
fail to come out in full condemnation of that regime.
Trump. Not only does he mobilise racist prejudices, he also uses their
self-declared socialism to describe
them as communist. Given that socialism and communism were (at
least originally) virtual synonyms, this ammunition is handed to Trump by his
most fervent opponents.
meaning of social democracy
When Social Democratic parties were first formed
in Europe in the nineteenth century, most were strongly influenced by Marxism.
They were fully socialist in its original sense.
Some separation of meaning between socialism and
social democracy occurred beforehand, but it was brought to a head by the onset
of the Cold War in 1948. Europe as a whole, and Germany in particular, were
divided between the Eastern and Western Blocs.
All socialist and communist parties had to
choose – the East, the West, or a plague
on both? With Moscow ties in many cases, almost all Communist parties chose the
East. Many moderate Socialist, Social-Democratic or Labour parties chose the West.
At its Bad Godesberg Congress in 1959, the
German Social Democratic Party (SPD) made fundamental changes to its aims. It
dropped its opposition to capitalism, and it abandoned the Marxist analysis of
class struggle. The
“The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”
The crucial point here is that the
SPD moved from (temporary or permanent) toleration
of markets and competition, to accepting
markets and competition as desirable, alongside strong public enterprise
and state regulation where necessary.
This explicit and fundamental change in
aims in the world’s largest and most influential Social Democratic Party led to
a separation of meanings of the terms social
democracy and socialism. But it
must be acknowledged that strong residues of old-style thinking persisted, in
the SPD and in social-democratic parties in other countries.
There is a simple test to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat, according to currently prevalent meanings of those
To be a social democrat it is not enough to accept
markets and a mixed economy, as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Democratic
Socialists of America have done. After all, a mixed economy could be accepted
as a temporary staging post in the transition to full-blooded socialism, as Vladimir
Lenin did with his New Economic Policy in 1921.
A modern social democrat must go further. He
or she must make a clear and positive case why markets, competition and a private
sector are more than a temporary expedient. It
must be argued that these things are indispensable, both for economic efficiency
and the preservation of freedom. This is the acid test. The SPD in 1959 understood
this point and it passed the test.
As far as I am aware, neither Corbyn, McDonnell, Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez have made such a positive case for a permanent private sector. If I am right, then they are socialists, not social democrats. Despite their protestations, they are closer to traditional communism than to modern social democracy, as practiced in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. I would be delighted if they can prove me wrong.
Large-scale socialism is outdated, extreme and
demonstrably incompatible with democracy. At least if these declared socialists
want to win parliamentary majorities and form governments, then they have to
change their terminology, and dispose with outdated and unfeasible ideas.
But while Nordic social democracy remains remarkably successful (as I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible?) the social-democratic brand throughout Europe has declined in electoral support. Although re-naming is necessary, much more than renaming is required. The abandonment of the socialist label is but a first step. But that is another story.
17 July 2019
Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The
Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).
Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism,
Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).
Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).
Democratic Socialists of America (1995) ‘Where We Stand: Building the Next Left’, DSA: Democratic Socialists of America. https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand.
Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium
Jay, Douglas (1937) The
Socialist Case, 1st edn. (London: Faber and Faber).
Stiglitz is wrong.
The persistent vagueness and misuse of such words sows confusion. In fact, socialism
has an enduring meaning that is virtually identical to that of communism. In
this blog I explain why.
The origins of the words socialism and communism
The word socialism appeared in November 1827 in
the Co-operative Magazine, published by
followers of Robert Owen, where a writer referred to “Communionists or
Socialists”. It was used in the Poor
Man’s Guardian in 1833 and moved into more frequent usage thereafter. As J.
F. C. Harrison noted: “By 1840 socialism was virtually synonymous with Owenism”.
For Owen and his
followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired
the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish or
competitive individualism. Communal property was seen as its defining institutional
foundation. As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be
attained’ in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to
secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public
In 1840 in Paris,
the word communiste appeared in an
article by Étienne Cabet and in a pamphlet by Théodore Dezamy and Jean-Jacques
Pillot. Influenced by Owen, Cabet was a Christian advocate of utopian communist
letter of introduction from Owen, John Goodwyn Barmby went to Paris in 1840 to
meet the advocates of le communisme. On
his return, Barmby founded the London Communist Propaganda Society in 1841 and established
the Communist Chronicle newspaper. Despite
his close working links with the Owenites, Barmby criticised socialism because “it
wants religious faith, it is too commercial, too full of the spirit of this
world, and therefore is rightly damned”. Communism for him was less
materialistic and more divine.
investment of these idiosyncratic spiritual connotations, Barmby imported the
word communism into English. It
spread in the UK and the US, where the term socialist
was already prominent. The word Kommunist
had appeared in German by 1842, when Marx noted its usage.
1843 Engels reported to the Owenite journal The
New Moral World that there were “more than half a million Communists in
France” and that “Communist associations” and individuals describing themselves
as communists were plentiful in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere.
Engels addressed his Owenite readers as “English socialists” and saw them as
having very similar aims to the Continental communists.
the second (1849) and later editions of his Principles
of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill noted another early difference of
meaning between socialism and communism. For followers of Saint-Simon
or of Fourier in France, communism meant
“the entire abolition of private property”, whereas socialism was “any system which requires that the land and the
instruments of production should be property, not of individuals, but of
communities or associations, or of the government.” Unlike communism, this meaning of socialism
would allow for individual ownership of personal possessions. Hence Mill
described Owenism as communism, because
it upheld the abolition of all private property. But this particular
distinction in meaning between the two words was forgotten after the Owenite and
other utopian experiments faltered.
more influentially, the 1848 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary defined socialism
as a “social state in which there is a community of property among all the
citizens”, and defined communism as “a
new French word, nearly synonymous with … socialism”.
both socialism and communism referred to the abolition of
(most or all) private property and the establishment of common ownership of the
means of production. Henceforth the two terms became entwined within Marxism, there
to perform an entirely different dance of meaning.
Marxism, communism and socialism
and Engels often treated the terms socialism
and communism as interchangeable.
But occasionally they gave them different nuances. In 1845 they adopted
the new word communism as their label
for their movement: “Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to
adjust itself. We call communism the real
movement which abolishes the present state of things.” When they henceforth
started setting up political organizations they adopted and promoted the term communist rather than socialist. But their ultimate goals were
the same as most socialists at the time.
1888 Engels explained why he and Marx had chosen the word Communist for theirfamous
Manifesto of 1848. Engels claimed
that the word socialism was then too
‘respectable’ and too ‘middle class’. He wrote:
“Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. By ‘socialists’, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the various utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks … in both cases men outside the working-class movement … Whatever portion of the working class had … proclaimed the necessity of a total change, that portion then called itself communist. … Thus, socialism was, in 1847 a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement.”
Engels omitted to
note that the self-described communists
in the 1840s also had more than their fair share of middle-class devotees, quacks,
bizarre utopians and radical clerics.
It is possible
that Marx and Engels adopted the term communist
partly because it had become more popular in a Continental Europe on the
eve of the 1848 revolutions. While socialism
remained more widespread in Britain, the Owenite movement, with which it
was largely associated, had already passed its peak by 1847. While the younger
term communism had already attracted several
oddballs in the seven years of its use, socialism
had the additional negative legacy of numerous failed utopian experiments in
the 1820s and 1830s, in the UK and the US.
Instead of small-scale
utopian experiments, Marx and Engels favoured a global insurrectionary strategy.
As Engels observed in 1843, the French communists understood the need for “meeting
force by force … having at present no other means”. Marx and Engels chose the
word communism in the 1840s, not
because their goal was different from socialism, but partly because many
self-described communists in
Continental Europe promoted armed insurrection. The penultimate section of the Communist Manifesto attacks various
strands of socialism, not for their collectivist goals, but for their impractical
strategies and their failure to countenance the use of force. The final
paragraph of the whole work drives the point home: “The Communists … openly
declare that their ends can only be attained by the forceful overthrow of all
a few decades later, the word socialism was
again in the ascendant. In 1880 Engels published Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifiquein the French Revue
socialiste: notably he put socialisme
rather than communisme in the title.
By 1890 a number of parties describing themselves as socialist or
social-democratic had taken root in Germany, France and elsewhere. In 1895,
Engels wrote approvingly of “the one great international army of Socialists, marching
irresistibly on and growing daily in number”. The earlier emphasis on physical
force was also reduced: the possibility of achieving their goal by democratic
means, rather than by insurrection, seemed greater than before. One of the
major reasons for using the term communism
rather than socialism had disappeared.
William Morris was an artist, craftsman and writer, and one
of the first English intellectuals to embrace Marxism. Writing in a 1903 Fabian
Tract, he saw socialism and communism as virtual synonyms: “between
complete Socialism and Communism there is no difference whatever in my mind”.
They assert that the means of production and the resources of nature “should
not be owned in severalty, but by the whole community”.
used the term socialism or capitalism, their fundamental aim was
clear. In the Communist Manifesto,
Marx and Engels echoed Owen and called for the “abolition of private property.”
They proclaimed an economic order in which “capital is converted into common
property, into the property of all members of society.” Engels repeated in
1847: “The abolition of private ownership is the most succinct and
characteristic summary of the transformation of the entire social system … and
… is rightly put forward by the Communists are their main demand.” In 1850 Marx
and Engels again declared: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private
property, but to abolish it”.
This meant the
complete abolition of markets. They wanted an end to the “free selling and
buying” of commodities. As Marx wrote in 1875: “Within the cooperative society
based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not
exchange their products”. Engels argued in 1884 that “no society can
permanently retain the mastery of its own production … unless it abolishes
exchange between individuals.” The abolition of markets was seen as necessary
for social control.
national ownership, Marx and Engels went much further than Owen and most other
early socialists or communists. Marx and Engels welcomed efforts “to centralize
all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to
a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast
association of the whole nation”. Described as either communism
or socialism, this utopia of national
ownership and “social” control persisted in their writings.
Phases of communism
In his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875,
Marx used the term communism to
describe his goal. He considered “the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged
after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” Eventually a new order
“In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, … when the all-around development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can society … inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”
Hence Marx considered
a “first phase” and then a “more advanced phase” of communism. Writing in his State and Revolution in August 1917,
Lenin referred to this passage from Marx’s Critique
of the Gotha Programme but introduced a different usage. He wanted to defend the planned Bolshevik seizure of power
against the criticism that Russia was insufficiently developed economically for
a radical Marxist revolution.
the Marxist dictionary and renamed Marx’s “first phase of communist society” as
socialism. Under this socialism the means of production would
be in public ownership but there would still be a struggle against bourgeois
ideas and material shortages. When that struggle was completed, and after the
subjugation of ‘capitalist habits’, full communism
would be established. “The whole of society will have become a single
office and a single factory with equality of labour and pay.”
In contrast, Marx
and Engels never distinguished the terms socialism
and communism in this way. For them, socialism and communism both meant the abolition of the private ownership of the
means of production. They wrote of lower and higher “phases” but did not use
different nouns to distinguish them.
International (also known as the Second International) was a global association
of socialist parties, formed in 1889. In 1919, Lenin and the Bolsheviks broke
from the Socialist International and formed the Communist International (also
known as the Third International). The difference between the Communist and
Socialist Internationals was not stated in terms of ultimate objectives.
Instead the Communist International was formed because several parties in the
Socialist International had supported their national governments in the First
World War. There was no declared amendment of final goals, although leaders of
the Second International were accused of de
facto abandoning socialism.
As I show in my
book Is Socialism Feasible? the original
meaning of socialism persisted even
in the relatively moderate UK Labour Party. It was endorsed by leading members such
as Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Clement Attlee and Aneurin
The failure of revisionism
the Second World War, there have been a number of attempts to change the meaning
of socialism, including by Tony Crosland and Tony Blair. But the resilience of
the original meaning is testified by the endurance of the UK Labour Party’s original
version of Clause Four from 1918 to 1995. This original version calls for complete
“common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and offers
no defence of markets or a private sector. Labour leader Jeremy
Corbyn is among those that would like to return to the 1918 formulation.
obfuscate the issues, but the undying commitment on the left to common
ownership and the left’s widespread agoraphobia (fear of markets) testify that socialism
has not changed much in meaning. Although some communists may differ from some socialists
in terms of strategy, in general there is little if any difference in terms of
contrast, the term social democracy
has successfully changed its meaning. It now contrasts with socialism, especially in terms of its
advocacy of a mixed, market economy. In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic
Party committed itself to a “social market economy”
involving “as much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”
This was very different from the enduring meanings of the words socialism and communism. Politicians like Sanders need to make clear where they
20 April 2019
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and Northampton MA: Edward Elgar), forthcoming.
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Marx, Karl (1973) The Revolutions
of 1848: Political Writings – Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Marx, Karl (1974) The
First International and After: Political Writings – Volume 3
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Dragstedt (ed.) (1976) Value: Studies by
Marx (London: New Park), pp. 195-229.
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Engels: 1843-1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).
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7th edn. (London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer).
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Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart).
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New View of Society and Other Writings, edited with an introduction by
Gregory Claeys (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).
But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.
Venezuela – “another world is possible”
But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.
So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.
The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.
Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.
Venezuela’s descent into hell
In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.
“There’s no food”
Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.
The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.
But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”
Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.
First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.
The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.
I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.
In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.
Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:
“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”
He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.
But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.
Over to the Corbynistas
Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.
Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP
On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.
Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.
The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.
Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians
Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.
George Bernard Shaw
In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.
In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.
Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.
Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.
“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”
Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.
Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”
In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.
Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.
As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.
But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.
In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.
But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.
The “human face” of Soviet Communism
E P Thompson
The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the
“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?
“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”
Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”
Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia
Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.
But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.
Conclusion: what can we learn?
The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.
Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.
Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.
Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.
Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.
14 August 2017
Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Barsky, Robert F. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Hollander, Paul (1998) Bernard Shaw: A Brief Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Jones, Bill (1977) The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).
Judt, Tony (2006) ‘Goodbye to All That?’ New York Review of Books, 21 September 2006.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1974) ‘My Correct Views on Everything: A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski”’, Socialist Register 11. See pp. 4-5. Available at http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5323/2224#.VXBUKrFwYy8.
Minney, Rubeigh J. (1969) The Bogus Image of Bernard Shaw (London: Frewin).
Robinson, Joan (1969) The Cultural Revolution in China (Harmondsworth: Penguin). See pp. 19, 35-36.
Robinson, Joan (1973) Economic Management in China 1972 (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute). See pp. 4, 13, 37.
Shaw, George Bernard (1934) Prefaces by Bernard Shaw (London: Odhams Press). See p. 341.
Thompson, Edward P. (1973) ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, Socialist Register 10. See p. 77, emphasis added. Accessible on http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5351#.VXBrZLFwYy8.
Turner, Marjorie S. (1989) Joan Robinson and the Americans (Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe). See p. 90.
Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1935) Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (London: Longmans Green).