Competing Explanations for the Oppressive Nature of Socialism

Economist Bryan Caplan has an interesting post summarizing three competing explanation for the oppressive nature of socialist regimes:

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually-existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: Under socialism, “the worst get on top.” On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.

[Eugen] Richter’s novel [Pictures of the Socialist Future] advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: The movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarian. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves – depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters – so be it.

The three theories aren’t mutually exclusive. All of them may have some validity. Still, the evidence supports “born bad” much more than the others. Acton and Hayek’s theories both imply that there should be a significant time lag between the time when the socialists take power and the start of really serious oppression. Even if absolute power corrupts absolutely, it doesn’t do so immediately. Similarly, it takes time for the “idealistic founders” to be replaced by “brutal cynics.”

In actual fact, however, massive oppression usually begins almost immediately after socialist regimes take over. The Cheka (forerunner of the KGB), the Gulag system, and other major instruments of socialist oppression in the USSR were all established by the communists in 1918, just weeks or months after they seized power. During the same period, they also began their first and extremely brutal effort to collectivize agriculture – which ended up in the murder and starvation of millions of peasants. Unlike some of their other oppressive measures, collectivization (the early Bolshevik policy that cost the most lives) could not be rationalized as a mere response to the exigencies of the Russian Civil War; indeed, it actually impeded the Bolshevik war effort. All this was done by idealists like Lenin and Trotsky, not by their more “cynical” successors. Moreover, these idealists had not yet had much time to be corrupted by power. Richard Pipes’ book Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime has a thorough account of the massive oppression of the first years of communism in the USSR.

Russia was not an exception. The early years of socialism in China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and other countries were comparably brutal. Indeed, when the idealists were eventually replaced by “brutal cynics” less committed to their ideology, the amount of oppression often declined. Relative cynics like Brezhnev and Deng Xiaoping turned out to be a huge improvement over Lenin, Stalin, and Mao – the first and more idealistic generation of socialist leaders. The former “only” killed people by the tens of thousands instead of the tens of millions, and some of them (notably Deng) implemented market-based economic reforms that greatly eased the plight of the people.

Why does any of this matter today? After all, most full-blown socialist regimes have disappeared. And in any case, so long as we know that socialism leads to massive oppression, does it really matter why?

One reason why these competing theories matter is that we want to better understand the past. But a more pressing reason is that the debate over socialism isn’t over. Some still argue that the system could work if it were headed by more idealistic leaders or was more democratic. The validity of the “born bad” theory stands the idealism argument on its head. More idealistic leadership leads to more oppression in socialist regimes, not less. “Born bad” also weakens the democracy argument. If socialism inherently requires massive coercion and repression, any socialist system is unlikely to stay democratic for long.

UPDATE: To avoid confusion, I should emphasize that, as in all my posts on socialism, I use the term to mean government ownership and planning of all or most of the economy. So capitalist societies with a relatively large welfare state (e.g. – Sweden) are not relevant counterexamples.