There probably isn’t a single socialist in this country who’s attempted to explain their beliefs to a friend, family member, or acquaintance, and not had the experience of that person leaning back with the self-satisfied smirk of a chess player who’s just achieved a particularly artful checkmate and saying “but what about Venezuela?” This is an argument that gets made all the time, and I’ve run into it more than once. “Well, that hopey-changey stuff sounds nice in theory,” they’ll say. “But any time your ideology is actually implemented, there are apocalyptic visions of bread lines and hyperinflated currency.”
Venezuela is the currently in-vogue example for the supposed inevitable failure of socialism, but there were others before it — the Soviet Union being chief among them, and one which is still brought up frequently even thirty years after Gorby finally put the Soviet state out of its misery. I think these examples are worth engaging with, since the “socialism in practice is always bad!” argument is one of the go-to justifications for disliking socialism. So, let’s have a look at some of these supposed examples of socialism’s inherent unworkability, and see if they actually prove anything of the sort.
First, it’s important to nail a dictionary definition down — it’s important to be crystal clear about what socialism is so we can be clear about what it isn’t. Wikipedia, that old fountain of knowledge, will tell you that “Socialism is a political, social and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprises.” What does this mean, exactly? Under capitalism, the economy is managed by those who privately own the businesses — the CEOs, the venture capitalists, the corporate board members. These small groups make the decisions, they decide what is made and how much of it and for whom. Under socialism, the economy would be controlled by society at large: private ownership would be done away with, and workers would control the business at which they work, doing so democratically and with an eye for what benefits people rather than profit. If we don’t want a despot at the helm of our political system, handing down dictates and ruling with absolute power, why are bosses and corporate executives granted absolute power within the workplace? You don’t get to vote for your boss, and you don’t get to democratically decide about what your company does in the way that you (theoretically) get to democratically decide what your government does. So, why not apply democracy to the economy? Socialists say that that’s exactly what we ought to do: allow workers — society at large — to control production, rather than the small minority of the owning class.
“But wait!” you might say. “I’ve never heard Bernie Sanders go around saying that we need to socialize the means of production! And where’s all that worker self-management you’re talking about? Under that definition, nothing and nobody is socialist!” Firstly, on the Bernie Sanders point (the same goes for AOC and other member’s of America’s insurgent democratic socialist movement), the fact that the policies Bernie is most remembered for advocating — Medicare for All, free college, a Green New Deal, etc. — not being strictly socialist doesn’t mean that he himself isn’t one. Since the beginning of the socialist movement, countless socialist leaders (particularly the ones who favored democratic reform over sudden revolution) have fought for programs that would materially improve people’s lives, saving the change to an entirely new system for a later date when people’s basic needs are met — after all, workers can’t manage the economy if they’re dying because they can’t afford healthcare or being threatened by climate disaster. (Bernie’s platform also included more overtly socialist policies that weren’t talked about as much, such as his proposal to mandate the transfer of corporations’ stocks to their employees until the worker held a controlling share). “But,” you may also ask. “Under that definition, has there ever been an actually socialist state? Are you not just making an artificially narrow definition to exclude governments you don’t like?” There have been states that were socialist under this definition, but they’re not the ones that people hear about: rojava, a breakaway state in northern Syria (which I have written about previously for Pulse), largely models its economy on worker cooperatives. Evo Morales’s socialist government in Bolivia slashed poverty in half and achieved near universal literacy before it was overthrown last November in a US-backed coup. Likewise, Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende socialized large swaths of the economy and turned ownership over to the workers before he too was overthrown in a US-backed coup. So yes, there are plenty of examples–they just either aren’t discussed, or happened to be overthrown in coups supported by a certain global superpower. But what about Venezuela?
The basic thrust of the Venezuela argument is this: the socialist government of Nicholas Maduro rules over the Venezuelan people in dictatorial fashion, ruining the economy with his socialist policies and forcing people to bring wheelbarrows full of hyperinflated currency to wait in line for food. It’s indisputable that the Venezuelan economy is in a sorry state, but what often goes totally unassessed is the role which the US play in that economic devastation: if the largest power in the region was waging economic warfare against your country, manipulating embargoes and sanctions to cause as many economic problems as possible, would your country be in a great place? Additionally, in keeping with how centuries of economic imperialism have forced Latin American countries to focus excessively on exports, the Venezuelan economy is largely dependent on the prices it can fetch for exporting its vast oil reserves. With the downturn in global oil prices in recent years, the Venezuelan economy, based on a single commodity, has suffered extensively. But putting both of those things aside, what exactly are the socialist policies that Maduro implemented that devastated the economy? If you asked a person who used the what-about-Venezuela defense, I don’t think they could tell you. That’s because not only did socialist policies have nothing to do with Venezuela’s crisis, but Maduro’s government itself has nothing to do with socialism. Maduro never made any attempt to socialize the economy, preferring to maintain the endless cycle of status quo corruption and allow his crony to profit off of it. Maduro’s government never attempted a single socialist policy, which is why no anti-socialist can point to a single concrete thing that demonstrates a causal link between socialism and the Venezuelan crisis. Venezuelan government officials drive around in expensive cars while people starve, and even surprised a Wall Street Journal reporter with how they don’t even pretend to believe in socialism now that they’re in power. Furthermore, the percentage of Venezuela’s economy that is privately owned actually increased in recent years, meaning that Venezuela didn’t go from capitalist to socialist but rather from capitalist to… even more capitalist. So what does the unfortunate state of Venezuela tell us about the workability of socialism? Exactly nothing. What does it tell us? That corruption, colonialist single-commodity export regimes, and US economic warfare are all bad.
But what about the Soviet Union, that globe-embracing octopus of terrifying barracks communism? Didn’t they do socialism? To answer that question, it’s worth looking at how the Soviet economy was structured. It functioned basically as a centrally-planned or command economy, in which a state planning committee would decide how much of something should be made, how much it should cost, who should be sold it, and how much the people who produced it should be paid, etc. The state held complete ownership of everything, and the state managed production with essentially no democratic input from workers or anybody else. The state’s planning apparatchiks answered only to the totalitarian Party leadership, and decision making power was concentrated in a tiny minority. Sound familiar? Because that’s exactly how capitalism operates. Worker management is an essential characteristic of socialism, and it was as much lacking in the Soviet Union as it is in the present-day United States, if not more so. The only difference is that in the USSR the people who told you what to do say that they come from The Party, while in the US they say that they come from Corporate. The Soviet system was as much an economic dictatorship over workers as American capitalism is, or as pre-revolution Russian capitalism was. The Soviet Union simply took the same oppression and gave it a different tint. I’m no Trotskyist, but Trotskyists are largely correct when they refer to the Soviet system as State Capitalism — it retained all the oppression and exploitation of capitalism, gave no power to workers (an essential characteristic of real socialism), and simply replaced corporate coercion with state coercion. Meet the new boss, very much the same as the old boss. As a matter of fact, the existence of the Soviet state was fundamentally premised on the destruction of actual socialist institutions; upon gaining power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks moved to destroy the workers’ councils that had taken over control of factories during the revolution, and replace these democratic decision-making bodies with total state control–leaders and members of those councils were killed and imprisoned. The Soviet state actively fought against socialism, worker self-management, and economic democracy at every turn, and the totalitarian economic policy of the USSR owes much more to capitalism than socialism. The same goes for the regimes the USSR cultivated — China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. There are almost 400 Chinese billionaires! And what say do workers in Vietnam or Cuba have over their lives and livelihoods? Where is the economic democracy and redistribution of power that makes socialism what it is? Nowhere. Are any of these places examples of how socialism actually works? No — because none of them are socialist. This is simply a matter of whether or not a government meets the most basic tenets of an ideology, and invariably these tyrannical regimes never do.
So, why would governments do this? Why would they claim to be socialist when they actually weren’t? The answer to that question is ultimately all about power and how to achieve it. Socialism is, for millions of the worlds’ oppressed and exploited, a great and powerful hope — a visualization of a future in which there is equality and brotherhood among humankind and none of the exploitation or suffering that results from one person trying to get rich off of another’s poverty. There is a reason socialist movements gain traction in times of crisis or in places where exploitation and oppression are uniquely strong — it offers people a way out, a vision of the world as it could be. That’s why socialism was so popular among the working people of Tsarist Russia, who endured grinding poverty and near-feudal conditions every day of their lives. The same goes for the people of Venezuela, who have suffered centuries of economic imperialism and colonialist violence. Some morally bankrupt soul will realize the way that the winds are blowing, and capitalize off of people’s desire for change in order to amass power for themselves. In countries that are not the US, where people have not been taught to hate socialism, socialism is quite a popular idea, and so regimes seeking to gain power stand to benefit from associating themselves with that idea in order to further their attempts to get into power. Once they get that power, they don’t actually implement any of the things they promise to, and that’s the end of that. There was no worker control or economic democracy in the Soviet Union, or Venezuela, or China, or any of the other places that opponents of socialism like to cite, and so there was no socialism, only the usurpation of a popular idea to gain support for power-hungry autocrats.
This is not a problem that is unique to socialism; social change in general is an easy thing for opportunists to exploit for their benefit. The French Revolution spewed forth a Robespierre and a Napoleon; betrayers of the ideals of revolution if ever there were any. There is no such thing as a risk-free revolution, but it’s worth remembering the successes as well as the failures and usurpations.
One of the most impressive and heartening things about America’s resurgent socialist movement is how remarkably forward-thinking it is: focused on the future rather than on the past, of visualizing a different and better world rather than dwelling on past models. Supporters of American socialism want nothing to do with Venezuela or the USSR or anything similar, because, unlike those regimes, we actually believe in socialism. The USSR wasn’t socialist. Venezuela isn’t sociallist. These states don’t prove that worker ownership of the means of production will inherently lead to disaster–rather, they only prove that things like totalitarianism and corruption are bad (as if we didn’t know this already). People can put whatever labels they want on their horrific ideologies, but if those labels don’t even make sense on a surface level, then it ought to be recognized as the cheap hackery that it is. (After all, North Korea’s full name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but you don’t see people saying, “Oh, so you like democracy? Well what about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?” Everybody knows that North Korea isn’t a democracy even though they claim they are, and the same line of reasoning is easily applied to regimes that claim to be socialist for Machieavellian purposes while implementing zero socialist policies).
I think it’s time that the “what about Venezuela/USSR/other bad place” argument against socialism be put out to pasture. Those places have nothing at all to do with what we believe, and it’s time that people start talking about socialist ideals and policies instead of asking gotcha questions that aren’t even gotchas at all.