Sanders Camp Ignores Socialism's Total Failure

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Young Americans are flocking to the “socialist” banner that Bernie Sanders is waving. It sounds new and exciting, but it’s anything but new. It’s a tempting political vision that has been tried many times, in many ways, and in many places. The results make for a long litany of failure, most recently in Venezuela.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez came to power, proclaiming a vaguely defined “revolution” that was “anti-Yanqui,” pro-Cuba, and solicitous of the poor. Government intervention in the economy increased exponentially and spending on social programs multiplied, sustained by seemingly limitless oil revenues. Chavez won four national elections in a row. But shortages began to appear in basic commodities, and when oil prices fell under Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, the fatal flaw in “Chavismo” was starkly revealed.

Inflation zoomed past 1 million percent and the poverty rate past 80 percent. The majority of Venezuelans said they went to bed hungry. Electrical power is spotty, medicine is scarce, and this once-thriving Latin America nation has become a failed state. Some 15 percent of the population has fled the country, producing more refugees than Syria.  

That is only the most recent installment of the story a generation of young Americans need to hear. It’s a narrative that begins nearly two centuries ago.

The word “socialism” was coined in the 1820s by the followers of British and French visionaries, including Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, who set up experimental communes, mostly on American soil. They wanted to live lives of sharing and equality that they believed would be happier and more harmonious than what they had known. They hoped that their example would convince the rest of the world that they had discovered a better way. 

Some 40 to 50 such communes were established, and all collapsed. Their median lifespan: a mere two years. The cause of failure was documented in the surviving correspondence from the most celebrated socialist commune, New Harmony in Indiana. “The gardens and fields were almost entirely neglected,” wrote one participant. “There has been much irregularity of effort,” wrote another. A third reported: “Instead of striving who should do most, the most industry was manifested in accusing others of doing little.”

Despite such an unpromising start, socialism lived on thanks to the theoretical powers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They dismissed communal experiments as “utopian,” claiming to have discovered “scientific socialism,” a prophesy that inevitable revolution by the proletariat would turn entire societies to socialism.

Inspired by this vision, although not content to wait for the inevitable, Lenin seized power in Russia in 1917, launching the world’s next big attempt at socialism. Fourteen surrounding nations were absorbed into what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and eventually some 17 other countries came under Communist rule. This effort to impose socialism by force claimed tens of millions of lives, produced a police state epitomized by the “Gulag Archipelago,” and generated neither prosperity nor happiness.

Today, of the 32 nations that formed the “Communist bloc” during the Cold War, only six such regimes remain, and the largest, China, in reality practices a form of crony capitalism under authoritarian rule.

Socialists who rejected Lenin’s autocratic ways formulated the alternative of “democratic socialism.” They, too, aimed to abolish capitalism in favor of “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange,” as the British Labour Party’s charter put it. However, they wanted to do this peacefully, constitutionally, by winning elections and legislating change.

In the decades after World War II, such parties — variously called Socialist, Labor, or Social Democratic — won elections across western Europe and a few other places. Their experiences proved similar. They successfully strengthened social safety nets, introduced new business regulations, aided labor unions. But when they began to socialize the “means of production,” the results were alarming. Soon, they abandoned this project or were voted out. In the 1980s, only a year after the French Socialist Party took power, pledging a decisive “rupture” with capitalism, the party reversed course, its general secretary confessing the need “to bring about a real reconciliation between the left and the economy.” In short, these parties discovered they could reform capitalism by taxing away some of the wealth created in the private sector for public purposes. But they could not create socialism. 

Also during the postwar era, scores of new nations were born out of Europe’s former colonial empires. Encouraged by the United Nations and Western development experts, they almost all embraced “African socialism” or “Arab socialism” or some such. The way for poor countries to catch up, it was said, was forced-paced development through central “planning.” The government would enumerate the country’s basic needs — roads, electricity, potable water, etc. — and then requisition the necessary actions.

The result was a couple of decades of stunted growth until they and their Western advisers took note of the contrary experience of the so-called “Four Tigers” of East Asia — Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong — that were rapidly rising from poverty by encouraging private investment and producing goods for export. Emulating their example, the developing countries turned away from socialism, and since then global rates of poverty have fallen sharply.

In sum, over two centuries, socialism has been tried in every corner of the earth and in every variety that people could dream up, and it has never worked. Young people can argue that they weren’t taught this history, but what is Bernie’s excuse? Blinded by ideology, he finds things to laud in the most vicious socialist dictatorships – whether it is Fidel Castro’s literacy programs or the Soviet Union’s subway system. Young Democratic voters may yet join the legion of those who fall for the vague promises of socialism. But voters in states like Florida – where many actually lived under socialism – may yet teach Bernie an overdue history lesson.

Joshua Muravchik is author of "Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism," and was editorial consultant for the documentary series, "The Unauthorized History of Socialism."

Andrew Walworth is chief content officer for RealClearPolitics and executive producer of the documentary series, “The Unauthorized History of Socialism."

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