The three stages of socialism: From Brave New World to ‘It wasn’t real socialism’

The Economist recently had a cover story on ‘Millennial socialism‘. It looked at the phenomenon of younger voters embracing socialism;

Some 51% of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, says Gallup. In the primaries in 2016 more young folk voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Almost a third of French voters under 24 in the presidential election in 2017 voted for the hard-left candidate. 

On the surface this is puzzling given socialism’s long history of utter failure everywhere it has been tried. But socialists have been very successful at distancing themselves from theses failures. If you ask a socialist “What about the Soviet Union?”, “What about Romania?”, or “What about Cuba?”, you will, generally, be told “They weren’t real socialism”. In a discussion with a socialist, I once ran through a long list of countries which, he said, “weren’t really socialist”. I asked my correspondent for an example that was. His answer; “The Paris Commune“. This lasted for about 10 weeks in 1871. Not an encouraging precedent.

They were ‘real socialism’ once

But, as Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs explains in his excellent new book Socialism: The failed idea that never dies, at one time socialists claimed all of these failures were ‘real socialism’. They only stopped being ‘real socialism’ when they collapsed. From the Soviet Union to Venezuela, Niemietz lays out the three stage pattern;

1. The honeymoon period. The first stage is a honeymoon period, during which the experiment has, or at least seems to have, some initial success in some areas. During this period, its international standing is relatively high. Even anti-socialists concede, grudgingly, that the country in question has something to show for it.

During the honeymoon period, very few dispute the experiment’s socialist character; almost nobody claims that the country is not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: during the honeymoon period, large numbers of Western intellectuals enthusiastically embrace the experiment. Self-declared socialists claim ownership of it, and parade it as an example of their ideas in action.

2. The excuses-and-whataboutery period. But the honeymoon period never lasts forever. The country’s luck either comes to an end, or its already existing failures become more widely known in the West. As a result, its international standing deteriorates. It ceases to be an example that socialists hold against their opponents, and becomes an example that their opponents hold against them.

During this period, Western intellectuals still support the experiment, but their tone becomes angry and defensive. The focus changes from the experiment’s supposed achievements to the supposed ulterior motives of its critics. There is a frantic search for excuses, with the blame usually placed on imaginary ‘saboteurs’ and unspecified attempts to ‘undermine’ it. There is plenty of whataboutery.

3. The not-real-socialism stage. Eventually, there always comes a point when the experiment has been widely discredited, and is seen as a failure by most of the general public. The experiment becomes a liability for the socialist cause, and an embarrassment for Western socialists.

This is the stage when intellectuals begin to dispute the experiment’s socialist credentials, and, crucially, they do so with retroactive effect. They argue that the country was never socialist in the first place, and that its leaders never even tried to implement socialism. This is the deeper meaning behind the old adage that ‘real’ socialism has never been tried: socialism gets retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’ whenever it fails. So it has never been tried, in the same way in which, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the government of Oceania has always been at war with East Asia. 

This is not a conscious process, let alone a purposefully orchestrated one. There is no equivalent of an industrial standards body, which awards a ‘real socialism’ certificate of authenticity, and then withdraws it again with retroactive effect. Socialists do not hold clandestine conferences in secret hideouts; they do not deliberately cover up their former support for the regime in question. They simply fall silent on the issue, and move on to the next cause.

At some point, the claim that the country in question was never ‘really’ socialist becomes the conventional wisdom. Since it is only the opponents of socialism who still refer to that example, while socialists themselves no longer do, it is easy to gain the impression that it must be a straw man argument.

The three stages of socialism in Venezuela

The most recent of Niemietz’s case studies is Venezuela. It is currently in a state of economic and social collapse. Now that it is collapsing and its people are fleeing in droves, it isn’t ‘real socialism’. But it wasn’t always that way.

Stage 1

In 2005, Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, told the World Economic Forum

[T]here is no doubt in my mind […] that it is necessary to transcend capitalism […] through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. […]

We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition […]

We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. 

The Soviet Union hadn’t been ‘real socialism’. Venezuela would be.

Chavez unleashed a barrage of government spending financed by historically high oil prices. He intervened heavily in the economy. Thus, even in 2007, when bumper oil revenues were filling the coffers of Venezuela’s government, the Guardian reported

Welcome to Venezuela, a booming economy with a difference. Food shortages are plaguing the country at the same time that oil revenues are driving a spending splurge […] Milk has all but vanished from shops. Distraught mothers ask how they are supposed to feed their infants. […] [E]ggs and sugar are also a memory. […] When supplies do arrive long queues form instantly. Purchases are rationed and hands are stamped to prevent cheating. The sight of a milk truck reportedly prompted a near-riot last week. Up to a quarter of staple food supplies have been disrupted. 

These were the good times. People were seduced. Here was ‘real socialism’ in opposition to capitalism. The same year that the Guardian was reporting on food shortages, Naomi Klein wrote that

The staunchest opponents of neoliberal economics in Latin America have been winning election after election. […] [C]itizens had renewed their faith in the power of democracy to improve their lives. […]

Latin America’s mass movements […] are learning how to build shock absorbers into their organizing models. […] [T]he progressive networks in Venezuela are […] highly decentralized, with power dispersed at the grassroots and community levels, through thousands of neighborhood councils and co-ops. […]

The new leaders in Latin America are also becoming better prepared for the kinds of shocks produced by volatile markets. […] Surrounded by turbulent financial waters, Latin America is creating a zone of relative economic calm and predictability, a feat presumed impossible in the globalization era.

Two years later, Noam Chomsky, once an apologist for Pol Pot’s genocidal Camobodian communists, wrote

[W]hat’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created […] The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact.

When Chavez died in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn, now the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, said

‘Chávez […] showed us that there is a different, and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism […] [I]n his death, we will march on, to that better, just, peaceful and hopeful world’.

Stage 2

But the economic good times did not last. The oil price fell from its peak back to the level it was at when Chavez took office. The economy crashed. People protested. The government of Chavez’ anointed successor, Nicholas Maduro, cracked down. We were now in Niemietz’s stage two.

As the protests of ordinary Venezuelans were met with government violence, Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the D.C. based Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote

Venezuela’s poor have not joined the right-wing opposition protests […] it’s not just the poor who are abstaining – in Caracas, it’s almost everyone outside of a few rich areas […] where small groups of protesters engage in nightly battles with security forces, throwing rocks and firebombs […]

I came away skeptical of the narrative […] that increasing shortages of basic foods and consumer goods are a serious motivation for the protests. […]

The class nature of this fight has always been stark and inescapable […] Walking past the crowd that showed up for […] the anniversary of Chávez’s death, it was a sea of working-class Venezuelans […] What a contrast to the disgruntled masses of Los Palos Grandes, with $40,000 Grand Cherokee Jeeps bearing the slogan of the moment: SOS VENEZUELA.

Writing for Jacobin magazine, George Ciccariello-Maher asserted that

[T]hose seeking to restore the feudal privileges of the deposed Venezuelan ancien régime have attempted to harness largely middle-class student protests to depose the Maduro government […] Well-heeled domestic elites (whose English shows no trace of an accent) have taken to Twitter and the international media […] [T]he reactionary opposition takes to the streets, fueled by a racial and class hatred.

True, he admitted, the government was brutal, but, he argued,

If we are against unnecessary brutality, there is nevertheless a radically democratic form of brutality that we cannot disavow entirely. This is the same brutality that ‘dragged the Bourbons off the throne’ […] This was not brutality for brutality’s sake […] It is instead a strange paradox: egalitarian brutality, the radically democratic dictatorship of the wretched of the earth. Those smeared today […] are in fact the most direct and organic expression of the wretched of the Venezuelan earth.

The logic was that, if the socialist government was of and for ‘the people’, those protesting against it could not be of and for ‘the people’. Those who know their history will recognize in the words of Weisbrot, Ciccariello-Maher, and others, echoes of the slanders against the East Germans (1953), Hungarians (1956), Czechs (1968), or Poles (1980), who rose up against their socialist governments.

Others refused to see any culpability for socialism in this latest economic failure. Despite the long standing economic problems in Venezuela, when they became acute enough to inspire this wave of protests, supporters in the west sought to blame ‘saboteurs’. Peter Bolton, a Research Fellow at the D.C. based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, wrote

[B]usiness sectors friendly to the opposition are waging an aggressive and protracted campaign of economic sabotage to deliberately stir up social unrest to destabilize and discredit the governing Chavista bloc […] [T]hese hostile sectors have been engaging in acts such as hoarding and price speculation and have purposely generated scarcity in pursuit of calculated chaos. […]

Problems inevitably arise because this elite already holds the reins and can aggressively resist a recalibration of economic and social power. In 1998, the highly corrupt business class controlled almost every economic structure imaginable […] [T]heir ability to throw a wrench in the government’s efforts for reform has been formidable. […]

By creating […] scarcity, the elite were essentially trying to starve the public into rejecting the revolution, a tactic influenced by the United States’ economic blockade against Cuba.

Stage 3

Soon, we were entering Niemietz’s third stage. According to Eva Maria in Jacobin, Venezuela’s problems were down the country not being socialist enough

[S]ocialism did not cause the crisis, but the opposite: the popular measures enacted during the most prosperous years of the revolution were never socialist, but rather attempts to fix capitalism […] From the beginning, long-established local capitalists worked with the new bureaucracy to take advantage of the system. […] This situation, when combined with […] right-wing tactics to sabotage any progressive measures, gave rise to a crisis […] [H]esitance to go all the way against capitalism as a system has stalled the process […] [U]nless a system takes the levers of power away from capitalists and puts in the hands of workers, gains will always be rolled back.

In the same magazine, Ciccariello-Maher made the same argument

There is no coherent understanding of revolution that doesn’t involve defeating our enemies as we build the new society. […] We cannot defeat such dangers without weapons […]

No one would claim that the Venezuelan masses are in power today, but the past twenty years have seen them come closer than ever before. Their enemies and ours are in the streets, burning and looting in the name of their own class superiority […]

The only path forward is to deepen and radicalize the Bolivarian process […] The only way out of the Venezuelan crisis today lies decisively to the Left: […] in the construction of a real socialist alternative.

As Niemietz notes, with Venezuela we are currently transitioning from stage 2 to stage 3. The comments on a recent Minn Post article on Venezuela are replete with assertions that the country never had ‘real socialism’. Noam Chomsky now writes

I never described Chávez’s state capitalist government as ‘socialist’ or even hinted at such an absurdity. It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained […] Capitalists were free to undermine the economy in all sorts of ways, like massive export of capital.

A little over a decade on from his ringing endorsement and that of Naomi Klein and others, Venezuela is another one off from which we can learn nothing. The theory of socialism sails on, untainted by the failure of yet another experiment. They say that love means never having to say you’re sorry. Socialism, apparently, means the same.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.