Led by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and controversial New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, socialism has become a key part of the 2020 election campaign. President Trump and conservatives are pounding on socialism’s failures — real and imagined — hoping the “socialist” label will be the Democrats’ electoral doom.
Democrats defend themselves by pointing to Northern Europe’s successful “socialist” countries. But this isn’t socialism — these are free-market, profit-driven economies with extensive social services funded by higher taxes. Socialism means replacing the market economy with a planned economy geared to meeting human needs, not profits.
While millions of Americans call themselves “socialists,” neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez nor anybody else is defending socialism as it has actually existed. Left and right, “socialist” or conservative, Americans agree that planned, socialist economies “don’t work” and “failed.” Yet looked at in proper context, socialism has not failed. The flawed but largely successful economic performance of the two major countries to attempt socialism — China and the Soviet Union — demonstrate this.
It is instructive to compare the world’s two largest countries, China, whose socialist revolution was in 1949, and India, which became independent in 1947. World Bank economic estimates for China begin in 1961, and from 1961 to 1988, the Chinese economy outgrew the Indian economy 21 times in 28 years. Most of the years China didn’t outgrow India were during the horrendous chaos and destruction of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, both of which were products of Mao’s brutal megalomania and had nothing to do with socialism.
Today, China’s GDP is nearly five times that of India, and second only to America.
Like India and many other third world countries, China has invited in a large amount of foreign private capital to help provide jobs and technology. China’s market reforms were largely introduced in the late 1980s, though some predated that. But while China’s private sector has grown substantially, China’s economy is not capitalist. Its banks and main industries, including most heavy industry, high-tech, and defense, are still state-owned and deployed largely in a planned, socialistic manner.
State-driven investment is the primary reason the Chinese economy continued to grow remarkably during the Great Recession, even though most countries suffered large economic declines. According to the World Bank, the world economy declined 2.3 percent in 2008-2009, and rose an average of only 1.3 percent from 2008 to 2017. By sharp contrast, China grew 9.5 percent in 2008-2009 and an average of 9 percent from 2008 to 2017.
The central “socialism doesn’t work” claim has long been the economic performance of the most prominent, advanced socialist country — the Soviet Union. This claim lacks context.
In 1913, the GDP per capita of the Russian Empire — the future Soviet Unnion — was only 28 percent of the US’ and behind even Mexico’s. Subsequently, between WWI (1914-1918) and the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), Russia lost 10 million citizens. The country was so poor, wrecked, and starved that cannibalism was prevalent. This was the starting point of Soviet socialism.
During World War II, the Soviet Union suffered 27 million deaths — nearly 70 times America’s losses. By contrast, the U.S. came out of WWII physically unscathed, with 6 percent of the world’s population and 50 percent of its GDP — a position no nation ever has been in or ever will be in again. Expecting the Soviet Union to somehow catch up — all while matching the U.S. in military spending and in aid to Cold War allies — was never realistic.
What the Soviet economy did achieve was still considerable:
- During the 1930s, the Soviet Union industrialized faster than any nation in history. This remarkable transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy was accomplished despite Stalin’s murderous, destructive purges and farm collectivization.
- The Soviet Union inflicted over 80 percent of Germany’s wartime casualties and was principally responsible for Nazi Germany’s defeat.
- Despite massive manpower losses, the Soviet Union re-industrialized rapidly and retained robust economic growth rates into the late 1960s.
As in China, the Soviet Union’s progress was severely hobbled by a repressive bureaucratic dictatorship that mismanaged the economy and frittered away the population’s once robust support for socialism. Soviet labor discipline grew very lax, consumer goods were shoddy, and agriculture was a long-running disappointment.
At the same time, the Soviet Union was drained of critical investment by the enormous pressure of the American economy and the arms race. These problems proved fatal.
Nonetheless, in 1928, the Soviet Union implemented the world’s first planned economy. For four decades, it was a success. It is only by ignoring all context that Americans have concluded socialism “doesn’t work.”
Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He traveled in nearly a dozen socialist countries during and after the Cold War.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.