Socialism and the Horrors of Communism

Published March 17, 2020

Bernie Sanders’ pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination continues to bring popular attention to socialism. Polls continue to reveal socialism’s considerable appeal to many Americans. Opponents of socialism often offer up the horrors of 20th Century Communism as a rebuttal. Is this history relevant today?

Received wisdom holds that young Americans know no history. So here’s the history lesson: communist regimes in the 20th Century produced over 100 million deaths, numerous famines, gulags, purges, and mass arrests. The Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain turned Eastern Europe into a virtual prison to keep citizens from fleeing.

Whether such brutality was an inevitable feature of communism is debatable. The Russian and Chinese revolutions occurred by force, not peaceful means. An international coalition, including the U.S., invaded the Soviet Union after World War I and helped foment civil war. External forces arguably pushed communist nations down a violent path.

Yet are Josef Stalin’s atrocities relevant for the Sanders campaign? I do not think so, and this strikes me as a poor rebuttal.
So why bring up this history? The answer lies, I think, in F.A. Hayek’s argument about “Why the Worst Get on Top” in The Road to Serfdom. Hayek was a distinguished economist (he won a Nobel Prize) who also had significant impact outside the academy. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was strongly influenced by Hayek’s writings, and George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Even socialist movements starting with a democratic tradition, Hayek argued, would be pushed to extremes. He had previously argued, along with Ludwig von Mises, that socialist economic planning would seriously founder. Socialists would need almost dictatorial powers to implement their economic plans. Once possessing such powers, leaders would face a choice “between disregard of ordinary morals and failure.”

If the initial socialist leaders would not use power to achieve their goals, they would lose out to less scrupulous rivals. As Hayek put it, “The old socialist parties are inhibited by their democratic ideals; they did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task.”

Furthermore, Hayek thought that socialism must inherently be nationalistic, especially in a wealthy country; otherwise all transfers would go to the world’s poor. Indeed, Mr. Sanders intends free college, Medicare for all, and government guaranteed employment for Americans. Group demarcation is significant: thanks to centuries of living in small groups, humans often accept that the ends justify the means when advancing our group’s interests.

History shows, however, that Hayek’s argument was not totally correct. Great Britain was basically socialist under the Labor Party between 1946 and 1979. Free elections continued though, and eventually Lady Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. France elected socialist Francios Mitterrand as President and Sweden serves as Mr. Sanders’ favorite example of socialism and neither descended into tyranny.

Liberalism distinguished European socialism from communism. As developed in England and exported to its American colonies, liberalism viewed individuals as the source of value in society. Previously people served kings and emperors; liberalism held that governments serve the people. Russia, China, and North Korea had no liberal tradition.

America’s democratic socialists, I think, accept that government exists to serve the people. They believe that Mr. Sanders’ economic programs would better enable all Americans to thrive, not just billionaires and millionaires. I strongly disagree with their economics, but accept their commitment to individuals as the standard of value, which implies that government cannot violate citizens’ fundamental rights.

I see Hayek’s tale as cautionary, not prophetic. Conservatives and libertarians who largely accept this story are deeply suspicious of the chain of events a socialist government would set in motion. We fear that when push comes to shove, democratic socialists will sacrifice individual rights.

Anecdotes like the following do not calm our fears. Philosopher Jason Brennan writes in Why Not Capitalism?: “A prominent Marxist philosopher was once asked how many people he would be willing to kill, during the Revolution, to bring about his favored goals. He responded, without blinking, ‘10%.'”