There was quite a bit of buzz last week about a survey undertaken for the (propertarian) Centre for Independent Studies, the results of which were summarized (reasonably accurately) as Millennials and socialism: Australian youth are lurching to the left. The key finding
Nearly two-thirds of the group view socialism in a favorable light, with similar number believing that capitalism has failed and more government intervention is warranted. Furthermore, Millennials contend that the government has cut its spending on social services such as education and health – something our polling shows they strongly believe should be reversed.
The authors of the report, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs don’t present any arguments against government intervention in the economy or increased spending on health and education. Rather their case is “Stalin was a socialist, Stalin was bad, therefore socialism is bad”.
That’s not surprising coming from the CIS, but I was disappointed to see the normally sensible Bernard Keane pull the same trick in a Crikey piece The 10 truths the left can never admit. Like Switzer and Jacobs, Keane states that “Socialism has been tried and, no, it didn’t work”, defending this claim with reference to the Soviet Union and (another favorite punching bag in exercises of this kind) Venezuela*.
Both Switzer & Jacobs and Keane are engaged in a bait and switch here. In ordinary usage, “socialism” means something like “social democracy with a spine”, as I’ve argued here**. That’s primarily due to the fact that any serious social democratic policy is invariably labelled as “socialist” by the political right. In ordinary usage, the term associated with Stalin and Mao is “communist”, and if Switzer & Jacobs wanted to find out how millennials felt about communism they should have asked them.
Switzer & Jacobs know this, which is why they ask about social services spending and not about, say, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But, when they want to attack socialism, they adopt the Stalinist line in which the Soviet Union represents (or did when it existed) “actually existing socialism”.
This won’t work any more. Switzer & Jacobs effectively acknowledge as much, noting that most young people haven’t even heard of Stalin and Mao, unlike Hitler. It’s about as useful as attacking Christianity by talking about the Thirty Years War.
As a talking point/cheap shot, this kind of thing is probably going to be with us for a while. Since Bernard Keane’s analysis of the failure of neoliberalism is pretty much spot-on, I don’t imagine his views on socialism are actually all that much different from mine. Making up lists with titles like “truths the left can never admit” is a recipe for cheap shots, but it’s not very useful.
In addition to word games, arguments of this kind often involve a slippery slope argument of the kind put forward by Hayek in 1944 when he argued that the policies of the British Labour Party constituted a “Road to Serfdom” leading inevitably to communist dictatorship. The fact that he was proved wrong by events (and that he himself ended up backing the brutal Chilean dictatorship) hasn’t stopped him being treated as a prophet by many on the right.
* I won’t discuss Venezuela in detail. But despite the rhetoric of the Chavez-Maduro government, it’s no more socialist than lots of other places. There’s no real central planning and nothing like comprehensive nationalization. As Forbes magazine (not a friendly source) points out, Venezuela’s problems are typical of developing countries subject to the “resource curse“.
** The headline didn’t get my point quite right, but it’s one of the great traditions of the press that sub-editors and not authors get to write the headlines.