WHEN a visitor to the Soviet Union returned to his home country, he declared: ‘I have seen the future, and it works’. While this sounds as though it could have come from the numerous British socialists who made the pilgrimage to the USSR during the 1930s, it was in fact uttered by an American investigative journalist called Lincoln Steffens. He made the remark in 1919, after returning from Petrograd. According to his biography, Steffens was put up in a heated palace with servants, from which he ventured, stepping over emaciated corpses in the streets, to observe the starving local inhabitants at work in a communist society. Of this, he wrote: ‘Soviet Russia was a revolutionary government with an evolutionary plan‘ and that the dreadful conditions were ‘a temporary condition of evil, which is made tolerable by hope and a plan’. Meanwhile the Red Terror was in full swing. Steffens had willingly mistaken a ‘boot stamping on a human face for ever’ for a future that works.
Steffens was one of the first of a series of famous pilgrims to the USSR who came back and published adulatory prose. The fashion for doing this peaked in the 1930s, at about the same time as the Ukrainian Famine and purges that almost cost the USSR the war in 1941.
Then the praise stopped. There were numerous reasons for this, but by the 1970s at the very latest, no one held up the USSR as a model state. It did not help that the USSR sent in tanks against civilians in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and invaded Afghanistan. The Gulag system was exposed, as was the use of psychiatric hospitals against dissidents. This progressively tarnished the true believers’ utopian image of the USSR. For some the excuses ran out and a growing band of ideological fellow-travellers stated that what was going on in the USSR was ‘not real socialism’. The false messiah was denied by its disciples many more than three times. Others just quit communism altogether and began to lead normal lives.
We see the same process now in Venezuela. The ideological successors to Steffens went on what can only be described as a holiday to this balmy South American country and proclaimed it a paradise. The adulation peaked in 2012 when members of the UK’s Left were observers in a presidential election. Nowadays, socialists will deny Venezuela was socialist, or will grudgingly acknowledge problems but blame others in the country as well. They will also deflect criticism using Soviet-style whataboutery. A classic example here is when Owen Jones was challenged on live television to apologise for his past praise of this dying country. Jones could not change the subject to Saudi Arabia fast enough, but he did this after stating that talking about Venezuela was ‘important’.
Some will blame USA sanctions or the collapse in the price of oil, or both, as the true cause of the disaster.
What may astonish the reader is that between the disasters of the USSR and Venezuela, a slew of socialist countries have been a destination for pilgrimages by Western writers, academics, and intellectuals, and that their adulation has been almost identical to that directed at the USSR and Venezuela. In fact there is a three-stage cycle to commentary by socialists on any country that puts Marx’s ideas into practice: honeymoon, excuses and finally denial.
And it is this process that Dr Kristian Niemietz has documented in his new book. For those, especially on the Left, who are always demanding evidence, this text is heavily annotated and has numerous examples. The Acrobat version has hyperlinks. There is no room for ideologically-motivated scepticism in the face of the facts presented. This is a book no confirmed socialist dares read as it will strongly challenge their beliefs and leave them ideologically homeless if they are really honest with themselves. It also explains the mental reasoning used by socialists to deny reality every time their chosen ideology fails disastrously.
Politically-motivated writers have visited China, Cuba, Albania, North Korea, Cambodia and East Germany and have returned to regale their readership with a vision of either a perfect society, or a society progressing in that direction. Yes, dear Reader, people have come back to these shores and others and tried to convince us that the Cambodian Way is the one we should all follow, that only in Albania will be found the truth of human existence, and that North Korea is and always has been better than its southern neighbour. They make excuses for the loss of freedom and the punishments for activity which in the West would not be criminal, such as disagreeing with the government. They portray the concentration camps as benign centres for social re-education.
Niemietz also examines socialism itself and shows that, despite the disasters in implementation, the ideology itself remains popular as an abstract. There has been a culture of resentment towards the successful merchant dating back centuries almost everywhere, and it is this that Marx was able to tap into. Collectivism might actually be a result of human evolution more than ideology as hunter-gatherers had to co-operate to succeed, and this sentiment persists even as we have left hunting and gathering behind. He also demonstrates that members of collectives are quite insular and do see themselves in opposition even to other collectives and even the state that supports them when such collectives are asked to contribute to society at large. He also shows that there is a persistent hole where ideas about collectivist business practices should be.
What strikes me about the extracts Niemietz has selected to illustrate his point is how spiritual the socialist commentators are. A little girl smiles at one of these pilgrims in the street, and he immediately attributes it to socialism and the leadership. Another leaves an interview with Pol Pot in a state of euphoria, only to be mysteriously murdered in his guest house hours later. The description of these travellers as pilgrims is quite apt. The book is well-paced and entertaining despite focusing on politics and economics.
Niemietz has done his research and has made a convincing argument that there is a consistency over how the Left portray socialist regimes through all their phases from initial takeover to final disaster. There is an epilogue where Niemietz imagines an alternative East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, whose remaining population votes against reunification and carries on with state socialism. It does not end well.
The book is cheaper than a night out at the cinema and is probably more entertaining than much you could see on the big screen. If you have spent your cinema money and more on a snazzy internet device, you may download the book free. That’s the kind of choice you get only under capitalism. Enjoy.