Dr Kristian Niemietz is Head of Health and Welfare at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Was socialism a good idea in principle, which has just been corrupted in practice? Or is the idea inherently flawed?
It is an old debate, which has recently flared up again after Ash I’m-literally-a-communist Sarkar’s stunt on Good Morning Britain, and then kept going by her supporters at the Guardian, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. But it has a long history. It has even found its way into literature and popular culture.
The most famous expression of the ‘good idea, badly done’ argument is, of course, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Animal Farm is about a revolution that goes wrong – but it goes wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with socialism, and a lot with the personalities of the lead characters. A gang of thuggish pigs subvert the revolutionary ideals, and gradually turns into a new ruling class. The lesson? Just keep an eye on the pigs next time, and it will work.
In a completely different way, the ‘good idea, badly done’ notion is also expressed in the 2003 movie “Good Bye, Lenin!”. It tells the story of a woman from East Berlin who falls into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wakes up again almost a year later, thus missing all the crucial events. Her son Alex decides to keep her in the dark about what happened, fearing that his mother is not ready to cope with the shock.
So Alex creates a make-believe GDR for his mother. This involves filming his own videos, imitating the format of the – now defunct – news programme of the GDR for her.
It soon takes on a life of its own. Alex does not just reanimate the GDR. He changes it. He turns it into the kind of country that he would have wanted it to be.
It is remarkable how little Alex has to change in order to achieve this. The premise is that the GDR’s leaders have simply ‘forgotten’ about the socialist ideals that had once inspired them. They got bogged down in administrative detail, and lost sight of the big picture. The East German state, in this interpretation, is like Ebenezer Scrooge: not intrinsically bad, just in need of some soul-searching.
What about the classical liberal critique of socialism, which holds that the problem lies in socialism itself, not the specifics of implementation, or the character of its protagonists? This argument is much harder to convey in a work of fiction. But there have been attempts to do it, even though none of them has ever had any fame or commercial success.
The first attempt must have been Eugen Richter’s novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1893. It describes a socialist revolution, which starts with great enthusiasm, but quickly turns sour. Richter’s revolution is not ‘betrayed’ or ‘corrupted’. His socialist leaders are genuine idealists, who have no interest in power for its own sake.
But once the economy is no longer coordinated by market prices, it has to be coordinated by something else – and it quickly turns out that command and control is the only way. Since people do not behave in the way the socialist planners want them to behave, the state increasingly has to resort to force. And so those well-meaning idealists reluctantly end up leading an authoritarian police state.
Henry Hazlitt’s 1966 novel Time Will Run Back tackles the same issue from the reverse end. An ageing socialist dictator looks back upon his life with sadness. He governs a hellhole, and he knows it. He has failed. But he has no idea why. When he is incapacitated by a stroke, his son, a likable, naïve character who has no clue about politics, takes over. He initially tries to grant people greater freedom within the socialist system, but his attempts fail. He realises that he needs to go beyond. In the end, he ends up accidentally reintroducing capitalism.
My own paper, ‘The Mirage of Democratic Socialism: An Alternative History’, is a very minor addition to this fameless classical liberal literature. It is set in an alternative version of East Germany after 1990. German reunification never happened. What happens instead is a process of democratic renewal.
The old elites are replaced by committed idealists, who try their best to democratise the system from within. They convert state-owned enterprises into democratically run, self-managing worker cooperatives. They create lots of opportunities for public participation in political decision-making. Even the drafting of the Five-Year Plans is democratised. They genuinely try to shift power away from the state, and towards civil society.
It works for a short time. But eventually, the old contradictions of socialism reassert themselves. And the GDR gradually reverts to its bad old ways.
Obviously, this is all just fiction, not something that could happen in a Western country today. Or is it?