All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1995

Disaster in Red: The Failure and Collapse of Socialism

We Still Need Books on the Failures of Collectivism

What? Yet another book on the evils of socialism! Give me a break. There are already far too many of them; and they are unnecessary especially since the breakup of the Berlin Wall, and the move toward private enterprise in Eastern Europe, China, and, seemingly, everywhere else as well.

If this is your attitude, you are sadly mistaken. True, the forces of collectivism have been reeling of late, but there is still a need for this book, and for any other that tells the socialist story of broken promises, abject failure, economic disarray, and massive killings.

Purely on a practical level, this is a very welcome compilation. While economic collectivism has been renounced in many countries, there are several remaining which still suffer under its painful yoke: North Korea and Cuba come all too readily to mind. If the only function of Disaster in Red is to help relieve the misery of the peoples in these lands, it will have been well worth it. Further, while the nations of Eastern Europe have undergone drastic changes, these have not all been in the direction of the free market, limited government system. They are still wallowing almost directionless, and could do with a crash course based on the readings of this book.

Centralized economic planning is no monopoly of present and formerly communist nations. There is also our home-grown variety right here in the United States of America, where leftist messages emanate from the pulpits of many mainstream religions, from the classrooms of many highly respected universities, from the editorial and even news pages of many mainstream publications, and from politicians. We, too, need to be told again and again, in carefully crafted prose, just why it is that free markets are morally and pragmatically preferable to central commands from economic dictators.

But there are more than pragmatic political reasons for bringing out a book. There is also the little matter of the search for the truth, and the pleasure of intense study.

All this and more are afforded us by Disaster in Red. It is a compilation of 35 essays which have previously appeared in the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education, The Freeman. It is a pleasure to have them accessible within the covers of a single volume.

The author list includes several leaders who have long been in the forefront of the intellectual and moral fight against economic oppression (Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Hans Sennholz, Clarence Carson, Sven Rydenfelt), several who are just making national reputations for themselves (Tom DiLorenzo, Gary Anderson, Morgan Reynolds, Yuri Maltsev, E.C. Pasour, James Bovard) and several very promising newcomers (Peter Boettke, David Prychitko, Steven Mosher): a very nice balance.

Section I is devoted to the basic economic fallacies of socialism. Mises starts off by reminding us of the benefits of capitalism (mass production, consumer sovereignty, how in a few short decades our living standards improved from agrarian mercantilistic pre-industrialism to the benefits of a modern economy). Along the way we learn of how the market disrupts caste systems, of the importance of prices, economic calculation, and incentives. Sennholz bats in the clean-up position, offering a blueprint for transforming an economy from command to peaceful cooperation.

In Section II the relationship between socialism and the arts, religion, labor unions, and pollution is explored. Consider the last of the four chapters in this section, the one by Thomas DiLorenzo. We hear so much in the news media about how “capitalist greed” is the cause of environmental degradation, it will come with some surprise (not, of course, to readers of The Freeman) to learn that things are worse, far worse, in the countries behind the former Iron Curtain.

The longest section in the book (III) offers a careful consideration of the tragic Russian experience with socialism. This is quite proper, as the Communists held the longest sway in this country, and, with the possible exception of China, did the most damage to the human race. Hans Sennholz provides great insight into the meaning of “economic growth” in the Soviet Union. This serves as an intellectual antidote to economists such as Paul Samuelson, who for years, before the facts became so clear that even they could no longer ignore them, contended that the U.S.S.R. was growing faster than the United States, and would soon catch up. Yuri Maltsev provides an insider’s perspective on socialism as it was practiced in Russia, Peter Boettke gives evidence showing that even the communists knew their system didn’t work, and Gary Anderson interprets the Soviet system along mercantilistic lines.

Finally, Section IV is given over to the Eastern European, Chinese, and Third World experiences with the philosophy of the “Evil Empire.” From China to Cambodia, from Tanzania to Hungary, from Poland to Vietnam to Yugoslavia, the point is the same. A system which ignores private property rights, human rights and economic incentives, which denigrates prices, markets and profits, which prohibits individual initiative, cannot work anywhere on the globe.

Last but not least, Richard Ebeling must be singled out for the initiative in bringing us this collection, and for his stirring introduction—showing how truly inhumane was this experiment in utopianism. This alone is worth the price of admission.

Throughout the twentieth century, Mises and Hayek held a long-running intellectual battle with Oskar Lange and F. M. Taylor and others over the viability of central planning. At one point in the hostilities it was widely believed that the socialist side had “won.” Whereupon the men of the left promised to build a bust of Mises, and exhibit it prominently in the main hall of the socialist planning bureau, as a testimony to the help that Mises had conferred on socialism, by trying (albeit failing) to show them the error of their ways.

It would be difficult at the time of this writing (summer 1995) to find virtually anyone in the free world who would now maintain such a position. To a great degree, this was due, one, to the internal contradictions of Communism itself, and, two, to the publications of courageous economists, many of whose writings can be found in between the covers of this book.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to translate Disaster in Red into the languages of those who still suffer under the yoke of Communism, and then to drop thousands of copies all throughout their countrysides. A good reason for not doing this is that the human race is so given to enthusiasms of this sort that perhaps we need a real live example of Communism in action for all to see—so that we are never tempted down this path again. But this would be cruel and unusual punishment for those who still suffer. Say I, translate and distribute! []

Professor Block teaches economics at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts.

  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.