My Socialist Past

AmericanThinker | Jeffrey Folks | March 15, 2009

“Socialism, a luxury of the wealthy. To the poor, a suicidal creed …” –David Hare

Anyone who has lived inside the demoralized, unproductive, gray prison of a communist state, as I did in the mid-1980s, knows to what depths of impoverishment the egalitarian fantasies of socialism inevitably lead. They lead to decades of frustrated poverty and lifetimes of untreated illness culminating in early death. I remember the columns of death notices for men and women in their forties and fifties that appeared in the local newspaper. Gradually I learned to associate those death notices with the lack of fresh foodstuffs, the travesty of state health care, and the pervasive demoralization of an enslaved population drowning itself in cheap alcohol and cigarettes.

Gradually I came to understand that the condition of life under communism, so filled with repression, suspicion, and hopelessness, dragged one down into an early grave. Gradually I saw that within the communist state everyone-everyone except the leadership of course-subsists in a cage of gnawing bitterness and permanent defeatism.

Unnumbered lives were sacrificed on the ungodly altar of communism in the last century, not only in my temporary abode of Yugoslavia but throughout eastern Europe, Russia, and much of Asia, Africa, and South America, and now the American Left wishes to revive this monstrous ideology on our own shores. Every totalitarian regime begins with the same heartfelt promises of justice and equality, just those promises of fairness that Barack Obama has made the fixation of his political career. What tyrant, one might ask, has not risen to power on promises of benevolent change?

Soon, however, those who come to power, even with good intentions, discover that for all men to be made equal, some men must be made poor, and most men will not agree to be made poor in the absence of force. So force must be applied, assets must be seized, censorship must be imposed, dissidents must be jailed, enemies must be destroyed. Men must be made equal by any means necessary, and soon enough those means include intimidation, imprisonment, and execution.

Again and again, the handsome smile of the reformer is twisted into the callous sneer of the tyrant. Those who present themselves as saviors are always the most dangerous, for unlike the one true savior, who rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, they must work their will on the things of this world, and one cannot remake the world without the application of force.

At the heart of the ideal of fairness, in the peculiar ideological sense in which the term has come to be used, is the fundamental mistake that all workers — not just all workers, but all human beings, including those who simply choose not to work — should be equally rewarded, regardless of effort and ability. It is a problem that was noted as early as the mid-18th century, even before the French Revolution transformed that unfortunate nation into a bloody shrine to godless egalitarianism.


Under socialism, those who are lazy and unproductive, or not productive at all, or even blatantly destructive, get a free ride; those who are skillful and enterprising are punished. When ambitious workers attempt to get ahead on the basis of their abilities, as inevitably they do, they are harassed, beaten, imprisoned, and executed. The longer that ambition is repressed, the less productive the overall economy becomes. At that point, the wrath of the state is unleashed on all workers, not just on the more able.

Socialism always stifles talent and ambition, and the more it does so, the more squalid things get. It is no accident that socialism always fails. It fails because of its fundamental assumption that self-interest can be suppressed in human relations. Socialism fails every time because of the arrogant lie upon which it rests. In the depths of his black heart, perhaps even Stalin suspected that Marxist economics was a lie, but he was willing to remove twelve million souls from his worker’s paradise to suppress that doubt.

The reality is that it is free market capitalism that has been responsible for the explosive increases is wealth and productivity in America during the past two hundred years. It is only the public’s impatience, its intolerance of normal business cycles to say nothing of its inability to comprehend and prepare for severe economic dislocations, that makes it hard to see that today. This explosive growth could never be achieved in a society of utopian social planners because the goals of socialist planners do not correspond with the actual motives of human beings in the real world.

Those who lack the virtues of perseverance, thrift, judgment, and restraint may appear within the world fantasized by the Left to be the equal of those who possess these virtues, but it is only within the illusory world of the abstract idealist that one can so utterly disregard essential human motives and demands. In the actual world the consequence of this repudiation is the demise of civilization, if by civilization we mean a society with the entrepreneurial freedom and productivity to extend a life of health, comfort, and plenty to most of its citizens.

Anyone who does not understand what this means has failed to study the history of the past century, especially those horrific decades of political oppression and moral collapse resulting from centralized government planning and control in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. There is nothing subjective about this notion of decline. The symptoms of this demise of civilization are all easily measured and acutely felt: they include a shrinking food supply, a decline in the quality and availability of housing, a reduction of educational standards, an attenuation of essential public services, a diminishment of private property rights, and, ultimately, a decreased life expectancy.

In Yugoslavia of the 1980s, as in eastern Europe generally since the Second World War, no one, except for those in political power, wished communism to continue in existence. In the communist state as I knew it, the masses led lives of quiescent desolation if not grinding poverty, while the leadership, those who had sworn to sacrifice all on the behalf of the people, thrived in gated enclaves. The masses frequented state-owned stores with their pitifully bare shelves, while the leadership gained admittance to the “diplomatic” shops, well-stocked with imported goods. The masses traveled precariously in crowded, stinking, sweaty red buses, while the leadership glided smoothly by in sleek black limos.

Day by day, month by month, the masses were informed that their lives were getting better and better, even as they were ground down by the poor nutrition, miserable health care, inadequate heat, and unclean water. Although few attempted to protest openly, everyone mocked the government in private. Everyone knew that life was not getting better and better. Everyone knew that the record harvests and astounding advances in living standards were a lie.

No one graced state television with his attention except when it turned from broadcasting political “news” to soccer matches, at which point a glimmer of life appeared in the faces of the masses. Even though, even after his death, one was prohibited by law from criticizing the great leader, no one volunteered to speak favorably of him. Occasionally, in spontaneous and uncontrollable moments, the anger and bitterness found vent, as when a young visitor to the American Center in Belgrade held up a page advertising a boom box in USA Today and asked, awe-struck and almost hysterically, “Is it true? Is the price true?” (“Yes, it is true,” I nodded.)

More often, the bitterness was drowned in the escapism of powerful alcoholic beverages made affordable to all.

As astounding as it may seem, given the history of Yugoslavia and of much worse, socialism remains the dream of the American Left, and it is exactly what we are getting with the Democrats now in control of the White House and Congress. In one form or another, we will have socialized medicine, with its callous specter of long waiting lists or outright denials for life-saving operations and drugs. In one form or another, we will see government control of the energy industry, and with it ever higher prices for fuel and electricity.


Socialism has had more than enough time to work, if ever it is to work. In those earlier, more genteel days of audacious hope, socialism failed at New Lanark, at Brook Farm, at Rugby, and in all of the Shaker communities in which it was attempted, and not merely for want of procreation. But these failed experiments were benign compared to what came later. When socialism failed, Owen, Ripley, Fourier, and Sister Ann Lee simply closed up shop and allowed everyone to leave.

When socialism failed under Hitler and Mussolini, under Lenin and Stalin, and under Mao and Pol Pot, no one was allowed to leave until everyone was beaten down or dead — the “boot crushing a human face, forever,” to cite Orwell’s memorable phrase — yet even in their final gasp of breath, these homicidal regimes insisted that they were still out to save the world. Or more precisely, that they were still out to save the poor and oppressed of the world from the capitalist class, which they were out to eradicate.


If the Democrats have their way, America will become the world’s largest socialist economy at the very moment when the rest of the world, even the welfare states of western Europe, have begun to repudiate socialism. Yet evidence of America’s mounting ideological capitulation is everywhere. Suspicion of our “giant corporations” is a frequent refrain of the political Left, as if giant government, which produces nothing and preys upon the earnings of the public, were not menacing in a way that healthy corporations never are.

Obama’s tirades against free enterprise, aimed one day at offending CEOs and another at whole industries or free market philosophies, witness to the true character of this president. His hostility to corporate profits, or profits earned as a result of any business or individual endeavor, reveals a warped sense of reality. Imprinted somewhere on his mind is the pernicious notion that no enterprise, no behavior, no expression unregulated by the state can be permitted to exist.


All socialist experiments, from the high-minded 19th-century utopianism of Robert Owen or Charles Fourier to the vicious authoritarian nightmare of Mao Tse-tung or Pol Pot, have been the product of middle- or upper-class fantasies, the underlying feature of which is the megalomaniac intention to “save” the working class from its own bad habits. Paul Johnson observed in his superb book, Intellectuals, that saving the working classes from themselves has been the ruinous ambition of middle- and upper-class intellectuals for over two hundred years, and the result has in every case been calamitous. For the poor, socialism is indeed “a ruinous creed.”

From the French Revolution to today’s Left Wing of the Democratic Party, the aim is government for the masses, not by them. The authoritarian and elitist leanings in the present administration are unmistakable evidence of this sad history of intellectual self-deception.

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