The Hunger for a Bold Socialism

The political preferences of two college professors, writing in a prominent leftist journal, are informed by the belief that “making people’s lives materially better isn’t enough.”

Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

“Socialism is having a moment in the sun,” claims a new article in the leftist magazine Jacobin. “It’s a chance to push a bold, transformative vision of what a society for the many rather than the few can look like.”

The article’s authors, the college professors Mathieu Desan and Michael A. McCarthy, are sympathetic to the Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s expressed beliefs that “health care is a human right,” that “every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade-school education,” and that “no person should be homeless if we have public structures or public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life.”

However, they write, while those reforms “are crucial to countering the misery we face under capitalism,” her rhetoric “runs the risk of equating socialism with welfare liberalism or social democracy. But these things are not the same.” The authors worry that “as socialists run for office or consider endorsing progressives … the vision of socialism risks being watered down or even falling from view.” They want real socialism.

They add, “Even in the Nordic countries, where high levels of state ownership are combined with political democracy and a high standard of living, socialism is a long ways off. Making people’s lives materially better isn’t enough. Neither is it enough to install union representation for workers. These changes would be welcome, but socialism moves well beyond them.” In their view, this is “a time to be bold.”

Of course, bold socialists intent on destroying rather than reforming capitalism have brought about some rather unpleasant historical outcomes.

Lest anyone imagine that the authors are unaware, they include words nodding to potential pitfalls. Here is that unintentionally extraordinary passage: “Socialists don’t just want to replace private ownership with state ownership,” Desan and McCarthy argue. “In the same way we don’t believe that capitalists should be able to have disproportionate control over economic resources, we don’t think unaccountable state officials and bureaucrats should have the power to control investment and production through ‘socialism from above.’ In some cases, like the former Soviet Union,” they add, “the failings of such a system are nearly as deep as those of capitalism itself.”

Set aside the fact that no socialist revolutionaries ever started out intending to be commanded and controlled by unaccountable bureaucrats—a fairly ordinary failure of late-socialist thinking—and focus on the claim that Soviet failings were nearly as deep as capitalism’s failings.

(See update below.)

Ponder what it means for that final clause to be written by two college professors and published in a leading intellectual journal of socialism—consider what they characterize as just barely preferable to what we’ve got.

As the Soviet Union began, a famine in 1921 and 1922 killed perhaps 5 million people. At the time, the United States Congress appropriated $20 million from America’s capitalist economy to help feed emaciated Russians, sparing countless more from literal starvation.

A decade later, Communist economic planners triggered another epidemic of mass starvation as they forced peasant farmers off their land.

“At the height of the crisis,” Anne Applebaum recounted, “teams of policemen and local Party activists, motivated by hunger, fear, and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible … At the same time, a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape. The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food.”

Yet another Soviet famine began in 1947. The Cambridge Journal of Economics published an analysis of the human devastation that it wrought. The University of Amsterdam economist Michael Ellman explained:

The best estimate that can currently be given of the number of excess deaths is the range 1 to 1.5 million … During the famine, surplus stocks in the hands of the state seem to have been sufficient to have fed all those who died of starvation. The famine was a FAD2 (preventable food availability decline) famine, which occurred because a drought caused a bad harvest and hence reduced food availability, but, had the priorities of the government been different, there might have been no famine (or a much smaller one) despite the drought.

For perspective, one tally of all the Americans who died in combat from the Revolutionary War to the most recent skirmish in the War on Terror, including all those killed in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, comes to 666,441 lives, with another 673,929 military personnel dying in those wars outside of combat. So that’s 1.35 million total deaths due to war over 242 years of American history.

The Soviet Union, by contrast, saw perhaps 11 million civilians starve to death in its first decadeswith millions more malnourished—under the economic system the Jacobin authors would have us regard as slightly better than ours. And that’s to say nothing of the additional million people that Joseph Stalin executed around the same time for political crimes; or the execution of arguably “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century.”

Other countries also experimented with “socialism from above,” the economic system whose failures the professors judged to be not quite as bad as capitalism.

“Mao Zedong had vowed to build a communist paradise in China through sheer revolutionary zeal, collectivising farmland and creating massive communes at astonishing speed,” The Guardian recounts. “In 1958 he sought to go further, launching the Great Leap Forward.” Ensuing famine killed 15 million to 45 million Chinese people:

In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people—a third of the inhabitants—die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village’s 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane.

Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.

Here is one account of how the Cambodian people fared under the same economic system:

In proportion to its population, Cambodia underwent a human catastrophe unparalleled in this century. Out of a 1970 population of probably near 7,100,000 Cambodia probably lost slightly less than 4,000,000 people to war, rebellion, man-made famine, genocide, politicide, and mass murder. The vast majority, almost 3,300,000 men, women, and children (including 35,000 foreigners), were murdered within the years 1970 to 1980 by successive governments and guerrilla groups. Most of these, likely near 2,400,000 total, were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge.

Now, it isn’t as if the professors are urging readers to replicate the regimes of Soviet Russia or Maoist China or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, they’re making the case that “socialism from above” should be avoided.

Still, their inability to discern that the broadly capitalist countries of the 20th century operated under an economic system that was vastly superior to the one used in the Soviet Union rather undercuts their credibility as they urge readers to risk all in a revolution against the system they’ve got.

And while they may be narrowly correct when they write that “the spectacular rehabilitation of socialism as a legitimate position within American politics, particularly among young people, is one of the most significant developments for the socialist movement in decades,” that rehabilitation is mostly grounded in a mix of ignorance of 20th-century history every bit as myopic as far-right Holocaust deniers and the incorrect impression that, say, Denmark is a socialist country.

Ilya Somin is correct: “Our comparative neglect of communist crimes has serious costs.”

The authors hope that today’s merely Democratic progressive reformers “pave the way for more radical demands.” They believe such reforms “can do more than just improve people’s lives—they can lead to revolution.” If they get their way––if there is a socialist revolution in 10 or 20 years––one wonders how many Americans could starve without the professors concluding that they made a tragic mistake.

For now, their posture suggests a catchy counterargument for a market-oriented system with better checks on rent seeking and a strong safety net: “Capitalism: Making people’s lives materially better is enough.”

UPDATE: The managing editor of Jacobin sent along the following note:

Mathieu and Mike did not feel that their phrasing in their paragraph critiquing the Soviet Union fully reflected their analysis of the Soviet Union, so we have updated the paragraph that you picked up on in your post and added a correction at the bottom. The correction reads as follows:

Update: A previous phrase in this piece read: “In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are nearly as deep as those of capitalism itself.” It has been changed to “In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of such a system are as clear as those of capitalism itself” to better reflect the views of the authors.

The authors’ intention was to point out the failure of authoritarian collectivism to meet the democratic standard of socialism, not to imply a preference for the Soviet Union. As the rest of the essay makes clear, the authors view democracy as essential to any socialism worthy of the name, and as democratic socialists we condemn all economic and social systems that disempower the vast majority of workers. We regret that our original formulation may have contributed to a misunderstanding of our position.

Thanks to the authors and Jacobin for their attention to that passage.