Socialism: the failed idea that never dies

Socialism is popular in the UK – not just among students, but also among people in their 30s and 40s. This is confirmed by survey after survey. Surveys also show that support for socialism in general terms is matched by support for a broad range of individual policies that could reasonably be described as socialist. Curiously, support for socialism in the abstract is not matched by positive perceptions of any actual example, contemporary or historical, of a socialist system in action. People with a rose-tinted view of, for example, the former Warsaw Pact countries, of Maoist China, of North Vietnam or North Korea are a small minority in Britain today. Socialists have successfully distanced themselves from the over two dozen failed attempts to build a socialist society. Their claim that these systems were never ‘really’ socialist, but represented a distortion of the socialist ideal, has become conventional wisdom.

Today, holding the failures of, for example, the former Soviet Union against a contemporary socialist is considered crass and boorish. Yet while socialists distance themselves from contemporary and historical examples of socialism, they usually struggle to explain what exactly they would do differently. Socialists tend to escape into abstraction, and talk about lofty aspirations rather than tangible institutional characteristics. Those aspirations (for example, ‘democratising the economy’), however, are nothing new. They are the same aspirations that motivated earlier socialist projects. Socialism has never fulfilled those aspirations, but this is not for a lack of trying. The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals.

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