Last week, I argued that denying the disastrous consequences of socialism is the Left’s equivalent of Holocaust denial.
In response, I have been treated to many excellent examples of exactly the kind of denial I was talking about. Heck, the New York Times even obliged by publishing an op-ed on Saturday that hails the “moral authority” and “sense of humanity” of American socialists and communists.
These are the same communists who toed Stalin’s party line, which is made clear when the author (who grew up among socialists of the era) describes the shattering impact on them of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin. That they can be viewed as a positive contribution to American history, misguided idealists at the worst, is a measure of how deeply socialism denial is entrenched in this country.
So far, I have catalogued five major forms of socialism denial.
1) But Communists Oppose Fascism
How dare you say denying the evils of socialism is like denying the Holocaust? Don’t you know that Communists are the sworn enemies of fascism? It was the Soviet Union who really defeated Hitler, and the Soviets were the ones who liberated Auschwitz.
Notice something missing from this argument. Auschwitz was in German-occupied Poland. And who was the ally with whom Hitler divided up Poland? That’s right, it was the Soviet Union, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. I don’t think the old Soviets deserve any moral credit for helping defeat an evil regime when the Nazis were originally their allies who double-crossed them. And when the Soviets did “liberate” a country, they imposed the same evils as the Nazis did: mass deportations, torture, summary execution, suppression of free speech, and so on. One form of oppression was switched out for another.
Presenting socialists as the alternative to fascists is an old bit of Soviet propaganda dating back to the 1930s, when Communists and Nazis used to brawl against one another in the streets of Germany. Yes, they were bitter and deadly rivals, but only because they were competing over who got to wear the jackboots. This is the “Alien vs. Predator” of political contests: whoever wins, we lose.
The connection goes even deeper. The founder of fascism, Benito Mussolini, started out as a Communist and a leader of the Italian Socialist Party. When he turned against Communism, he set out to create a new ideology that retained a lot of the same features—particularly the ideas of total state control and rule by a party elite—but with a nationalist twist. The result was called “national socialism,” which the Germans abbreviated to “Nazi.” Far from socialism and fascism being ideological opposites, one was created out of the other.
But creating confusion about that issue, and presenting themselves as the only alternative to fascism, was a centerpiece of Soviet propaganda, and to this day American leftists buy it hook, line, and sinker.
Take just one example. The leftist folk-song guru and Communist fellow traveler Woody Guthrie used to carry a guitar with the label “ This Machine Kills Fascists” while he supported the war effort in World War II, and it’s a trope modern leftists still use. If you want to be really cloying and self-important, you can get a decal based on Guthrie’s that you can attach to your Macbook.
The people who use this don’t know the actual history behind it. Before he decided his guitar was a machine that killed fascists, Guthrie was using it to record anti-war songs. He only adopted a pro-war message in 1941 after Hitler invaded Russia and the Communists flipped their party line. So he was against fascism, but only if that was okay with Joseph Stalin.
Or consider today’s “antifacist” protesters, who dress all in black, embrace the use of violence and firebombs to shut down their political opponents, and generally look and act exactly like fascists.
Ideologically, socialism and fascism are not opposites. Historically, the conflict between them has been a rivalry between two different enemies of liberty, which is now being repeated—whether as tragedy or farce depends on how you look at it—in the campus clashes between “alt-right” and “antifa” brawlers.
This is another socialism denial trope borrowed from Soviet propaganda, but this time it’s Brezhnev-era propaganda. Whataboutism was a term coined to describe a common Soviet debating tactic. When confronted with the evils of their own regime, they would deflect the question by pointing out a real or imagined evil in the West, usually beginning with “But what about….”
Whataboutism is still alive and quite well. You say that socialism leads to poverty and mass starvation? Well, what about the plight of the poor and hungry under capitalism? You say socialist countries tend to crack down on dissent, attack peaceful protesters, and jail opposition leaders—as they are currently doing in Venezuela? But what about police shootings and “mass incarceration” in America? (The Black Lives Matter movement is a giant instrument of Whataboutism.) Socialist countries have killed millions of people? Well, what about all of America’s “imperialist” warmongering, huh? What about that?
Logically, Whataboutism is a version of the Tu Quoque fallacy. Rather than answering an accusation about your own side’s wrongdoing, you deflect it by pointing to somebody else’s real or imagined wrongdoing. But that’s not an answer or an excuse.
When it comes to socialism denial, the most relevant observation is that the evils the Left attributes to capitalism, which are supposed to create a moral equivalence between capitalism and socialism, aren’t even on the same order of magnitude, and are often in the opposite direction.
That nostalgic piece in the New York Times, for example, refers unironically to American socialists being motivated by “an urgent sense of social injustice”—a sense so urgent it somehow never applied to, say, the liquidation of the kulaks.
Above all, consider the socialists’ vaunted concern for poverty. Yet socialism has a record of making rich countries poor, while capitalism has a record of making poor countries rich. The most relevant example today would be Venezuela, which was until fairly recently the wealthiest country in South America. Under the rule of socialists, it has become one of the poorest, despite large reserves of oil. Meanwhile, Chile has gone from being one of the poorest countries in South America a few decades ago to becoming one of the wealthiest, thanks to its embrace of free markets. I should also note that while Venezuela has fallen into dictatorship under socialism, Chile moved away from it under capitalism. It’s almost like there’s a connection between those two issues.
This is an experiment that has been repeated over and over again: West Berlin versus East Berlin, Hong Kong versus mainland China (before the mainland went semi-capitalist, too). Or look at India after 1991, when it rejected Soviet-inspired socialist economics and finally achieved economic takeoff.
Capitalism has produced so much prosperity that the Left had to flip over to environmentalism so they could portray “too much” prosperity as a problem. There’s just no comparison between the two systems.
You’ll notice that so far I’ve used mostly repressive regimes like the Soviets as my examples—partly because so many socialist countries end up as dictatorships, and partly because the American Left is still waxing nostalgic about them. But surely not all socialist regimes are so deadly and oppressive. That leads us to the most common form of socialism denial today.
3) But Denmark
If you say that socialism is disastrous, you’ll be treated to rejoinders like this.
A moment of silence, please, for the victims of Denmark’s national health service. pic.twitter.com/GMOeWSqcgt
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) April 26, 2017
Tell people they’re ignoring the disastrous global history of socialism, and they will refute you by…ignoring the disastrous global history of socialism and looking only at a handful of innocuous Scandinavian countries where things kind of turned out okay.
Well, what else are they going to do? They can’t pick Soviet socialism, because that collapsed. They can’t pick socialism in Southern European countries like Greece, because that led to a massive financial crisis. They can’t pick socialism in India because the Indians themselves rejected it. Ditto for China. And so on for Cuba, North Korea, Ethiopia, and hey, did I mention Venezuela? Because people are starving there right now, which might be a little more relevant to our discussion than Denmark’s medical system.
Notice, though, that socialism deniers have to pick only one part of these Scandinavian economies—usually health care—that they can portray as socialist. I’m actually grateful to Dave Weigel for making the mistake of choosing Denmark as his example. Surely he must remember that this was the example Bernie Sanders chose when we wanted to make the case for socialism in America—and that Denmark’s prime minister responded by insisting, somewhat indignantly, that Denmark is not socialist.
Specifically, he was adamant about the fact that Denmark has a “market economy.” Why would he want to make sure the rest of the world knows this? Because the absence of markets makes a country a really bad place to do business and crashes the economy.
The Scandinavian countries have elements of socialism, but they are not fully socialist. They are market economies with welfare states, which is a step short of socialism. While they are known for having generous welfare states, they also started out as particularly wealthy, industrious, educated, and orderly societies. So at most they prove that if you already have a highly developed country, you can survive comparatively small doses of socialism.
Even then, Scandinavian welfare states have their fundamental discontents. Living life on the dole might be appealing to a society’s least ambitious members, but for its smartest, most talented, and most ambitious members, it’s a stifling dead end. So Scandinavian countries have long experienced a brain drain, as their most talented young people take off for more capitalist places like Britain or America where they have the chance to make something of themselves. So Scandinavia is another one of these leftist paradises that people are strangely eager to leave.
The fact that the defenders of socialism have to fall back on a handful of standby examples in Scandinavia is just another testament to the fact that socialism has failed everywhere else. Since everybody is supposed to love science so much these days, let’s put it this way. This is like a scientist who thoroughly tests his hypothesis and sees it refuted 95 times out of 100. So he ignores those 95 data points and publishes only the five that seem to be consistent with his hypothesis. In science, this is called “cherry picking,” and you’re not supposed to do it. You shouldn’t do it in political economy, either.
4) Literacy in Cuba
If the fallacy in the previous form of socialism denial is to cherry-pick only the best, most palatable “socialist” countries, then this fallacy is to cherry pick the way you measure the “success” of socialism. The canonical example is the high rate of literacy in Cuba—which sounds great, so long as you forget that this is a country that imprisons librarians. Or maybe you never knew that Cuba arrests people for owning unapproved books and brutally tortures dissidents, because you’re surrounded by socialism deniers.
As usual, this has its roots in old Communist propaganda. The Cuban government’s whole approach has been to target a very few narrow statistics, like literacy and infant mortality, and do whatever it takes to make sure those statistics look good, no matter the other costs. The regime doesn’t have to ensure the actual well-being of its citizens. Actual people can be so desperate to escape that they’re risking their lives on makeshift rafts. But as long as a couple of statistics look good, it’s a workers’ paradise.
This is one of the cruelest, most callous forms of socialism denial, because it depends on people’s willingness to turn a blind eye to very real suffering and privation. It asks you to stare at columns of statistics and view them as more important than the lives of real human beings. It offers you the pretense of being especially educated and thoughtful, while requiring you to be totally credulous and look only at the facts an oppressive regime wants you to see.
5) No True Socialist
Some don’t want to have to defend impoverished and oppressive regimes like Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, and who can blame them? But rather than ask how socialism could go so bad in those countries, they insist that these are not “really” socialist. They may look socialist and act socialist and call themselves socialist, but it’s all an illusion.
That this is an evasion, a form of willful denial, can be seen in the fact that countries tend to slide pretty quickly from being “real” socialism to suddenly not being “real” socialism the moment they do something that is embarrassing to the cause. A few years ago, a lot of people, from Sanders on down, were hailing Venezuela as a great example of the achievements of socialism. Now that the Maduro regime is shooting protesters, suddenly it’s not real socialism.
This is a perfect adaptation of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It goes something like this. A tartan-clad man claims, “No Scotsman would put sugar on his porridge.” His companion objects, “But my uncle Hamish puts sugar on his porridge.” The reply: “Aye, then he must be no true Scotsman.” No matter how many counter-examples you can come up with, they will be dismissed as “no true Scotsman.”
If you’ve ever had something like this happen to you, then you are prepared for arguing with socialists, because no matter how many examples you can come up with for the failures of socialism, somehow none of them are ever “real” socialism.
This is circular reasoning. Socialism declares that its goals are freedom, prosperity, and total equality. If, in practice, it actually results in oppression, poverty, and special privileges for the party elites, then it must not be “real” socialism. By that standard, socialism can never fail, because if it fails, it is by definition not really socialism. This No True Socialist argument is denial in its purest form: the belief that the unpleasant real-world results of your theory won’t exist if you just define them out of existence.
What the Left is trying to define out of existence is a second Holocaust: decades of gulags, killing fields, torture, repression, and poverty inflicted on hundreds of million of people. And it’s an evil that continues claiming victims today, in part because socialism denial has seeped so deeply into our culture. It’s time to stop tolerating it, in the same way we don’t tolerate Holocaust denial, and for the same reason: to make sure it won’t happen here.
Follow Robert on Twitter.