Socialism Succeeds by Failing

Mr. Levite is a computer salesman and a free-lance writer, residing in Dallas, Texas.

There has never been any shortage of proof—both theoretical and empirical—that socialism is a practical failure. Or, to put it another way, it has proven itself to be an economically inefficient system. Yet in spite of its major flaws, socialism continues to attract and often hold many of the best minds.

In our effort to understand this phenomenon, it seems to me that we have also erred, in that we have always analyzed socialism using an assumption that we never questioned because its truth seemed so obvious. This proposition is that socialists define economic “success” the same way we do, as a condition of greater general prosperity—in short, increased living standards for most people, compared with alternative economic systems. As I will show, however, this is a false assumption, and the misplaced emphasis it causes on our part accounts, in large measure, for our failure to understand why socialism keeps thriving in theory despite performing so poorly in practice.

Our first clue should come from the history of socialism and communism, a history permeated with examples of fervent disciples living austere, spartan lives. Almost invariably, the more wholeheartedly a socialist or communist believes in his credo, the more ascetic an existence he maintains. This point is all too often overlooked as we allow our attention to be diverted by the many well-known examples of wealthy or cultured socialists who do not eschew their hedonistic surroundings. We should instead focus on those who are the most loyal to both the letter and the spirit of socialism—namely, those who shun material wealth even though it would be available to them with a little effort. And it is here that we find the essence of the socialist creed.

Any biography of Karl Marx will note that he lived in self-imposed poverty, even though he could have used his educational credentials to obtain well-paying work.[1] His friend, Engels, similarly wrote with great admiration of the ascetic renunciation that he (Engels) believed was necessary for revolution, stating that workers “must deny themselves even the smallest enjoyment” in order to steel themselves for the class struggle.[2] Bruce Mazlish, in his appropriately titled The Revolutionary Ascetic, quoted Gorky describing Lenin as a puritan who had “renounced all the joys of earth . . .”[3] Mao Tse-tung, who like Engels had a wealthy father, lived his life in much the same way; stories of his economic self-abnegation abound.[4] Fidel Castro, another scion of wealthy parents, lives quite frugally and, like Mao, prefers to dress in plain army fatigues, a sharp contrast with the sartorial habits of genuine working people whenever they can afford more expressive apparel.

With this evidence, let us construct an imaginary Socratic dialogue that will illustrate the point I have in mind.

“You socialists assume, I take it, that people like Marx, Mao, and Castro are ‘men of good will’?”

“Of course.”

“Which means that they wish only good for others ?”


“So if anything bad happened to them, they would not want anything similar to happen to others, especially the poor?”


“And if they believed something to be good or beneficial, they would want that also for others, particularly the poor?”


“So if such a socialist leader were blessed with good health all his life, he would want the masses to enjoy the same advantage?”


“Now, do the socialist leaders who believe in this doctrine the most completely, like Mao Tse- tung, tend to live ascetically or in self-imposed poverty?”

“Most of them, without a doubt, particularly those whose faith in socialism has not become corrupted by greed or pragmatism, like that of the current Soviet and Chinese leaders.”

“Yes. Now mustn’t we assume that the ‘purest’ of the socialists, like Mao, lived ascetically because they believed it to be good and proper to do so? Obviously, since they are men of good will, they would not have lived this way had they believed it to be morally objectionable, but only if they thought it was right.”

“So it would seem.”

“And we have already agreed that whatever they deem good for themselves, they also wish for others?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Then since they deem poverty good and affluence bad for themselves, they must also consider poverty good and affluence bad for others, especially the poor, with whom they so strongly identify. And they must therefore want the poverty of the poor to be continued, not eliminated.”

      From here on it should be understandable why socialism continues to attract followers despite its economic failures whenever tried. It was never intended to “work,” as we understand the term. If it did “work,” using our own definition, prosperity would soon emerge, which is the last thing that the most passionate of the socialists want. How could they want for others what they believe is morally objectionable for themselves? Abundance, for them, means not only that materialism will erode ideological zealousness, but also that enjoyment of life will manifest itself, which for them is an undesired goal. Nothing can make an ascetic feel lonelier and more betrayed than the sight of multitudes busying themselves with the pursuit of life’s pleasures. And even those so cialists who decline the spartan life still hold such serf-sacrifice to be a fine ideal even if they cannot bring themselves to practice it. So they can never truly accept prosperity for what it is. They hate capitalism not for its failures but precisely for its successes, because it engenders markedly higher living standards for the majority.

Not surprisingly, then, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, we learn that the concept of socialism was not a product of proletarians, but of the children of wealth and of the bourgeois intelligentsia.[5] Working people cannot be so easily convinced to give up their quest for a more comfortable life, not having been jaded by a superfluity of comforts. As rare as a snowball in Tahiti is the poor person who wants to remain poor. Such notions, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively the property of those who disdain wealth, due perhaps to guilt. “Imagine no possessions,” said Beatle John Lennon in his song “Imagine.” It is no coincidence that this was not one of the songs he wrote when he was poor, struggling to earn a living playing rock and roll in gritty nightclubs—he wrote it after having amassed great wealth. Anyone wanting to imagine something truly fantastic should try to conceive of poor people giving up their dreams of having more possessions.

The Power of the State

Socialism’s most extreme form, communism, absolutely depends on making the poor abandon their materialistic dreams. This explains why communism proposes to give such awesome power to the state. No other institution, and no amount of propaganda, could induce the masses to abjure wanting to enjoy life. Only the state has the naked power needed to enforce asceticism. A future condition of abundance is promised only because it is counterproductive to advertise what people don’t want, and much more practical to promise something they do want.

Can generations of “re-education” ever make the common people renounce their urge to enjoy life and its material benefits? Form-nately, no. In December 1986, many thousands of students in China demonstrated for democratic reforms, complementing the millions of their brethren who wanted and finally received greater economic freedoms in the post-Mao era. These youngsters had never seen capitalism nor known anything but the Marxist dogma they had been exclusively taught; they were all born after the Communists took power in China. Yet their profoundly human strivings to live freer and fuller lives could not long be suppressed. No amount of propagandizing could ever make them or any other mass of people stop wanting to be human. And in this we can rejoice, for true hope comes from this simple observation.

We must not, however, conclude that socialists will see in this evidence proof of the error of their dictum that people can be taught to seek monastic, self-sacrificing existences. Facts cannot make the socialists stop wanting a spartan world, and, as I have shown, trying to convince them that capitalism produces high living standards is largely useless, especially if they already believe it. Even the best salesperson would have a hard time trying to sell something the customer does not want at all.

We will be able to convert the most zealous of the socialists only by convincing them that enjoyment of life is not wicked. Our occasional successes in converting socialists to capitalism with economic facts should not obscure the larger truth that those who take socialism truly to heart cannot be swayed by statistics on higher living standards under capitalism if they seek ascetic conformity instead. This is why no number of economic failures, no matter how high, ever demoralizes socialism’s most devoted partisans. If anything, such debacles only strengthen their convictions. This is not to say that we should abandon our factual approach to promoting free enterprise; far from it. But we must temper it with the knowledge that only those who have no objection to enjoying life will find capitalism appealing. There are those who have such objections, and so our first goal must be to overcome them before moving on to economic or political theory and practice. []

1.   Thomas Sowell, Marxism (New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1985), p. 174.

2.   Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1940), p. 210.

3.   Bruce Mazlish, The Revolutionary Ascetic (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1976), p. 152.

4.   Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), pp. 68-72.

5.   Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), p. 121.