Socialism is cool again, thanks not least to septuagenarian Sen. Bernie Sanders and millennial Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC). Socialism has been cool before, of course, notably during the Great Depression and what became known as the Sixties, the era of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, hippies and the (old) New Left.
As a reporter for my high school newspaper in the later period, I interviewed Earl Browder, who had been general secretary of the Communist Party USA during the 1930s. He coined the slogan: “Communism is 20th century Americanism.”
I read a fair amount about socialism back then and, on my application to a reasonably prestigious college, I named Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, as someone I admired. Had I chosen William F. Buckley instead I suspect I’d have wound up at a lesser institution.
The summer preceding my freshman year — exactly 50 years ago, I’m afraid — I went to the Soviet Union on a study program. Like Mr. Sanders, I was impressed by Moscow’s subways (he called them “absolutely beautiful, including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful”) and by the “palaces of culture” and the theaters where, he enthused, “the highest price of a ticket that you could get was the equivalent of $1.50!”
I decided to major in Russian and, a couple of years later, won a place on the only undergraduate exchange program between the United States and the U.S.S.R. A little learning can be dangerous. I soon comprehended what Mr. Sanders never has: Communism is toxic to freedom and prosperity.
Yes, theater tickets were cheap but, like other luxuries and even many necessities, such goods were obtainable only po blatu — through political power, wielded exclusively by the nomenkatura, the communist elite.
Soviet communism, also called “scientific socialism,” was a failure, as were the various forms of “utopian socialism” that preceded it. Perhaps you’re thinking that there are other socialist models. I thought so, too. Then, in the early 1980s, I moved to Africa as a correspondent for The New York Times.
Advised by Western academics and “development experts” at the U.N., virtually every African government in the post-colonial era chose “the socialist path to development.” The problem with that, as the Ghanaian-born scholar George Ayittey noted in a presentation at the Heritage Foundation last week: “Nowhere in Africa was the socialist experiment successful.”
In Latin America, too, socialism has led to dismal outcomes. Venezuela is only the most egregious example.
In a speech last month, Kim Jong-un said it was North Korea’s “historic task” to “accomplish the cause of socialism.” If so, his regime has a way to go.
China’s “socialist market economy” creates wealth, though without liberty and basic human rights. The state’s repression of dissidents and minorities — e.g. Uighurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong and Christians — is severe. But at least there’s income equality, right? No, according to the International Monetary Fund, China is “one of the world’s most unequal countries.”
What about Scandinavia? Four years ago, responding to Mr. Sanders’ claims, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told students at Harvard’s Kennedy School: “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish.”
Back to me: Disenchanted with both communism and socialism, I began reading up on capitalism. I came to understand that, unlike socialism, capitalism wasn’t invented. It arose spontaneously.
Initially, a “capitalist” was someone in possession of funds or property — not someone who believed in a specific system of economic organization. Adam Smith, often called “the father of capitalism,” never used that term. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” published in 1776, was more descriptive than prescriptive. He observed the positive results produced by free markets, incentives, enlightened self-interest and voluntary divisions of labor.
A century later, Karl Marx wrote about the “bourgeoisie” whom, he predicted, would inevitably be overthrown by the global proletariat, the “workers of the world” united.
Though intended as a pejorative, “capitalism” came to be embraced by proponents of entrepreneurship, and opponents of collectivized and command economies.
Despite the starkly contrasting track records of capitalism and socialism, the next Democratic candidate for president could be a self-declared socialist.
Teen Vogue, formerly an adolescent fashion magazine, now apparently an ideological journal of the left, tells its readers: “To conservatives’ dismay, the modern idea of socialism … has become increasingly popular among young people in the past several years, following Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders’ underdog run for president and the authoritarian creep of the ultra-capitalist, anti-socialist Trump regime.”
You may be unsurprised to learn that Teen Vogue has been careless in its research. According to Gallup, about 51 percent of young people view socialism positively “the same as in 2010.” What has changed are their views of capitalism, which have undergone “a marked shift since 2010, when 68 percent viewed it positively.” Only 45 percent do so today.
Most responsible for that, I suspect, are America’s universities which, since the Sixties, have been increasingly occupied and ruled by socialists of various stripes. Mr. Sanders and AOC may be among the beneficiaries. If so, the rest of us, those who have managed to learn a thing or two over the years, will be the losers.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.