It’s a familiar scene. A socialist and a critic of socialism are engaged in heated debate. The critic invariably raises what the socialist considers a hackneyed and lazy objection: “Well what about what happened in the Soviet Union? Or in Maoist China? Those were socialist states. Are you really endorsing such systems? Don’t they prove that socialism doesn’t work?”
The socialist scoffs, shakes his head dismissively, and rehearses his own correspondingly hackneyed reply:
No. Those weren’t really socialist states. They were socialist in name only. In fact, they were just co-opted by corrupt forces from within or compromised by destabilizing environmental and/or economic conditions, or pre-empted by reactionary forces from without… or some combination of the three.
What happens next is usually that the debate descends into irreconcilable disagreements about what really happened in Russia in the 1920s, empirical claims and counter-claims that are virtually impossible to verify on the spot one way or the other, and, eventually, the debate ends at an impasse. Both parties return to their ideological priors and walk away convinced that their own position has not been refuted and that the opponent’s position remains thoroughly provisional and unconvincing.
I’ve observed this socialist rebuttal countless times (a few examples here, here and here), and I find it exasperating. I know the dynamic intimately because I myself used to be the socialist in the debate. When an opponent would raise several historical cases of nominally socialist states, I would cleave to the above line of resistance: those were all botched attempts, imperfect revolutions that went off the rails for whatever incidental reason. In the end, those regimes all ended up as totalitarian dictatorships in one form or another, presiding over, at best, a stagnating economy. But socialism, my socialism, was deeply democratic, deeply anti-authoritarian, and deeply committed to economic advancement. And so no matter how many such historical cases were brought before me, I knew I could always ultimately deflect them by retreating to the safe haven of the ideal definition.
I find it exasperating because I can see now, having since become entirely convinced of socialism’s untenability, how and why I could have blissfully persisted in the above mode of thinking and “arguing.” And, more importantly, I can see how and why the standard arguments against socialism were so thoroughly unconvincing to me.
Most socialists are characteristically inconsistent, even hypocritical, in the standards they implicitly deploy.
The problem is that more often than not, those thoroughly unconvincing arguments are the ones that continue to be made against socialism. My intention in this article is to present a form of argument that is much more difficult for the socialist to evade in the above manner. It takes its cue from the work of political theorist Jason Brennan in his wonderful little book Why not Capitalism? It involves a shift of focus from the content of the arguments themselves to the argumentative standards that underpin them.
What I will try to demonstrate is that most socialists are characteristically inconsistent, even hypocritical, in the standards they implicitly deploy. If they are to be consistent, they will have to admit that socialism comes out in a relatively unfavorable light vis-à-vis other modes of economic and political organization. What’s more, when they apply to socialism the basic epistemic standards they would characteristically accept and demand in any other intellectual context, they should quickly find that socialism is a very shaky proposition, indeed.
What Doesn’t Work, Why It Doesn’t Work, and Why That’s Important
In the current milieu of public intellectuals, the most conspicuous opponent of revolutionary socialism is without question Professor Jordan B. Peterson who has made no secret of his disdain for Marxism and its ideological progeny. I don’t deny that Peterson is an impressive figure and that some of his criticisms of modern left-wing ideology (particularly its more radical identitarian incarnations) hit their mark. However, there are certain lines of argument that Peterson revisits again and again in his public lectures that, I’m afraid to say, have little chance of swaying any socialists who might happen to be listening in.
What I hear isn’t a knockdown argument, but rather, a question-begging and bad-faith piece of rhetoric.
One such line of argument is the following: When a Marxist or a socialist who is confronted with the humanitarian record of the Soviet Union says, “Well, that wasn’t real socialism,” what they’re really saying is, “Well, if I had been in charge instead of Stalin, then I would have ushered in the socialist utopia because I truly know what socialism is and how it should be implemented.”
When I hear this, I don’t listen as someone who is already convinced of the errors of socialism. Instead, I try to imagine myself again as that earnest young socialist. And what I hear isn’t a knockdown argument, but rather, a question-begging and bad-faith piece of rhetoric.
I think to myself:
Well, that’s a terrible argument, because the whole point is that socialism precludes there even being a Stalin in the first place! I wouldn’t want to be “in charge” of the revolution instead of Stalin or Mao or whoever. And no socialist worthy of the attribution would! The whole point is that no one person should be in charge, as all political and economic decision-making is to be devolved to the majoritarian verdict of the proletariat, to the workers who democratically control all industries. Any representatives who preside over centralized councils are to be held immediately accountable to their industrial constituents. So no. When I say, "That wasn’t real socialism," I’m not saying I would want to be a benign Stalin. I’m saying the very fact that there was a Stalin in the first place is sufficient proof that it wasn’t real socialism!
This rebuttal is the one that will occur almost immediately to any earnest socialist. Peterson’s strategy, entertaining as it is for those of us already convinced of socialism’s failures, is highly unlikely to succeed in actually changing anyone’s mind.
And this is not trivial. Peterson is, with good reason, considered an otherwise formidable intellectual opponent. If revolutionary socialists then see that a man alleged to be one of their most capable public critics ultimately relies on such an unconvincing line of argument, they are even more liable to come away thinking their ideology is on very firm ground, indeed. After all, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, they will reason that if their ideology can withstand the critical onslaught of a man alleged to be one of their most forceful critics, then they can be all the more confident that their worldview remains in good intellectual standing.
Socialism retains a righteous cache that makes it an enticing proposition for each new generation of political idealists. If we are to unfasten socialists from their faith in the inevitable historical march towards socialism, we need to do much better than accuse them of wanting to be benign Stalins.
This Stands a Better Chance of Working, and Why
Let’s return to the socialist rebuttal I sketched out in the opening paragraph. The core of this rebuttal is the claim that none of the historical cases brought against the socialist as alleged counterexamples are in fact instantiations of socialism, but rather are all abortive attempts at its realization in the real world. The key to making a compelling case against the socialist is to step back from the empirical debate and turn attention instead to the argumentative standards implicit in the socialist’s initial response—and to turn them against him.
A good way to do so is to mimic the socialist’s own strategy and home in on the response. Consider the following reply:
Ok, I’m willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that all historical cases of in-name-only socialist or communist states—among them, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, East Germany, North Korea, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, Cambodia, and Ethiopia, to name just a few—were not, in substance, socialist states. At best, they were flawed and failed attempts to implement socialism. Fine.
Now consider the following list of countries: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, Ireland, Chile, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands (all of these are countries taken from the top 20 most economically free countries according to the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom—the United States, incidentally, coming in at 18, behind several of the much-vaunted Scandinavian “socialistic” states). All of these countries certainly manifest their own internal flaws and failures which socialists are only too happy to publicize and criticize and then lay at the feet of capitalism or the nebulous “neoliberalism.”
But I would maintain (not unreasonably) that none of these countries is really capitalist in the ideal sense. In fact, they’re all some admixture of state intervention and imperfectly liberal markets. Now if that’s true, then I, too, should be entitled to dismiss out of hand any and all criticisms coming my way based on the empirical track record of any of the aforementioned “capitalist” states. I am just as entitled, by the socialist’s own argumentative standards, to insist that these are not really capitalist countries. And so, capitalism is no more “debunked” by these in-name-only cases than socialism is by its own list of in-name-only cases.
Most socialists would, of course, be unimpressed by this response at first pass. The problem is that it’s not clear how they can consistently reject this line of argument without simultaneously undermining their own original rebuttal. They might say, for example: “Well, yes, none of those countries is completely capitalist, but they do manifest some elements of capitalism. And whatever sub-optimal outcomes there are can be attributed to those capitalist elements.”
But the problem with that response is that it’s not clear why I can’t make the corresponding case against the list of in-name-only socialist states. The socialist might insist that those countries manifested absolutely no elements of socialism. But it’s a highly implausible line to take, if only in light of the fact that in several (most?) of those historical cases, many principled socialists readily sang the praises of elements of those socialist states, especially in their early stages. Venezuela is the most recent case in point. To double down and insist that they never manifested any socialist characteristics whatsoever would require an extreme form of retrospective doublethink or willful historical blindness.
We can both go down that road, but the price the socialist must pay for doing so is that their own case will appear just as unconvincing.
They might try to evade this charge by trying another tack, insisting that even if there were socialistic elements, the bad results can reasonably be attributed to the non-socialistic elements. But then that opens the door to my saying, conversely, that the bad results of in-name-only capitalist societies can be attributed to the non-capitalistic elements. We can both go down that road, but the price the socialist must pay for doing so is that their own case will appear just as unconvincing as they see the corresponding capitalist case to be. Both will smack of special-pleading to any impartial observer, and rightly so.
Ideal, Real, and Standards of Evidence
Is there another line that the socialist can take? As far as I can tell, the only alternative is to retreat to the high ground of “ideal” socialism. The socialist might grant that, yes, the historical cases manifested some elements of socialism. However, they were not fully socialist. Full socialism would be purely democratic, manifest no elements of dictatorship or centralized force, and would be economically dynamic. This kind of society, in which each person participates in the democratic control of the economy, would be highly desirable. It is, to the socialist’s mind, clearly superior to capitalism.
To compare ideal socialism with real capitalism is to unjustifiably tip the scales in favor of socialism.
But superior to which capitalism? This is where things become uncomfortable again for the socialist. He might say: “Well, just look around you! Look at the inequality and suffering that prevails in all these capitalist societies! Is it not self-evident that they are morally and economically inferior to socialism?”
Well, yes, certainly they are inferior to the socialist’s ideal description of happy workers effectively controlling the entire economy and ensuring that everyone gets an equitable share of resources and necessities… But is this the appropriate comparison? As Jason Brennan rightly points out in Why Not Capitalism?, this is not a particularly useful or informative comparison. Nor is it an intellectually honest one.
The relevant comparison is either: ideal socialism with ideal capitalism; or real socialism with real capitalism. To compare ideal socialism with real capitalism is to unjustifiably tip the scales in favor of socialism. Moreover, it invites the question as to why I cannot, by the same token, compare ideal capitalism with real socialism and conclude on that basis that capitalism is clearly the superior economic system tout court.
And it’s here that the socialist’s case begins to crumble under the weight of evidence.
I won’t take up the task of elaborating on the ideal vs. ideal comparison here. Jason Brennan has already done an excellent job of making the moral case against ideal socialism vis-à-vis ideal capitalism in the aforementioned book (I also lay out the economic and political case against something like ideal socialism in more detail here). I want to finish by considering the real vs. real comparison. Again, it’s important to emphasize that if the socialist is going to be reasonable and not resort to indefensible double standards, then they will have to opt for one comparison or the other and not vacillate between the two. And it’s here that the socialist’s case begins to crumble under the weight of evidence.
For the purposes of illustration, let’s return again to the capitalist analog of the original socialist rebuttal. A socialist comes to me and presents me with a list of capitalist societies in the real world, pointing to various morally or economically sub-optimal outcomes in these countries. I scoff and roll my eyes and insist that none of these are really capitalist countries, and so these problems can’t fairly be attributed to capitalism per se. The socialist pauses a moment, ponders, and finally asks:
Well, what would it take for you to actually change your mind? What would, in principle, count as evidence against capitalism? If I presented you with a hundred more cases of real-world attempts at capitalism in which the same kinds of problems and bad outcomes occurred, would you finally admit that capitalism just doesn’t work? Or would you simply repeat the same old refrain that none of those societies was really capitalist?
I take a moment and finally conclude that unless those real-world cases conformed with my conception of ideal capitalism and then manifested the bad outcomes, then capitalism would remain unchallenged in my eyes.
I venture that the socialist would find this kind of attitude highly anti-intellectual, dogmatic, and unscientific. And with good reason. Under those circumstances, capitalism would essentially become an unfalsifiable theory—an article of ideological faith impervious to evidence.
Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of attitude typically manifested by the socialist. But it’s even worse for the socialist. The reason for this is that if we stick to the real vs. real comparison and adhere to the same empirical standards across the board, the real-world cases of socialism invariably come out much worse. With respect to health outcomes, nutritional outcomes, human rights violations, child mortality rates, corruption, life expectancy, and GDP per capita in real terms, the track records of the imperfect, real-world versions of socialism pale in comparison to their real-world capitalist counterparts.
Since around 1800, in countries that have historically most closely approximated capitalist economies, real GDP per capita has increased by a factor of almost 30 (that’s 2,900 percent!). This is not to say that these are perfect societies — far from it. But by any reasonable measure, and certainly by historical standards, they have been an astonishing success. In the longest-standing real-world approximations to socialism, by stark contrast, the best-case scenarios have been economic stagnation, but more typically, economic ruin. Speaking comparatively, it is now the socialist who must bear the burden of proof and confront the question:
Given that real-world socialist countries consistently manifest worse humanitarian outcomes than real-world capitalist countries (imperfect as the latter are) and manifest the same pattern of failures in every case, what kind or amount of evidence would it take for you to finally give up your socialism?
Let me conclude by posing the challenge in a slightly different way: Is it really more plausible to maintain that the similar failures in every single real-world attempt at socialism were the results of different, incidental factors that derailed these socialist experiments time and time again? That each of these socialist movements and leaders, all of whom seemed so earnestly and genuinely committed to socialism from the outset, were derailed because those movements and leaders just couldn’t get it quite right each time for different reasons? Is it not a far more parsimonious and plausible explanation that the repeated pattern of relative economic failure, that same pattern of failure that manifested in widely varying sociocultural backdrops, was due to the inherent defects of socialism-in-the-real-world?
My guess is that if the roles were reversed, the socialist would conclude that the capitalist apologist was flouting basic intellectual standards in cleaving to their ideology despite the evidence. Unfortunately for the socialist, in the world of real-life, warts-and-all economic systems, it is socialism that collapses under that evidentiary and intellectual burden.