Germany’s socialist left is currently embroiled in a row over the correct stance on Venezuela. The conflict came to the fore at the February conference of Die Linke, the country’s main socialist party, when a group of Nicolás Maduro fans stormed the stage, chanting slogans and waving banners with pro-Venezuela messages.
Nicolás Maduro is the successor to Hugo Chávez, and has served as Venezuelan President since 2013. The legitimacy of his presidency has been in free fall in recent years, and many now call him a dictator. As Maduro’s popularity has waned, his tactics have become increasingly brutal. In 2018, a panel of legal experts convened by the Organization of American States recommended that the regime be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Many members of the Die Linke party establishment, however, still side with Maduro, whom they see as a comrade under siege. Others, especially in the party’s youth organisation, take the opposite view—which is why the February conference was contentious. One young member describes the party’s in-house Chavistas as “die-hard reactionaries, who have an antiquated understanding of socialism.”
This has been widely portrayed in the German media as a struggle between reformists and fundamentalists, with the battle lines running loosely along generational lines. In this version of events, the older crop of socialists tend to have a more rigid, dogmatic understanding of socialism, while the newer generation is more open-minded in its approach.
This coincides with the portrayal, and the self-perception, of “millennial socialist” movements across the Western world. A lot has been written recently about the resurgence of socialism among young voters. Socialist candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France have seen huge surges in popularity. And while the candidates themselves span the age spectrum, they all find their most enthusiastic support among young people.
This socialist revival is, of course, neither a homogenous movement, nor a fully worked-out policy program. But if there is a common thread, it is the belief that emerging forms of socialism could be completely different from anything that has flown under that ideological banner in the past. For these new socialists, socialism doesn’t necessarily mean a society run by large, hierarchical government bureaucracies. Nor does it mean a command-and-control economy, directed by a distant, technocratic elite. It means experimenting with new forms of social ownership and democratic decision-making, devolving power to the grassroots, and empowering ordinary working people.
Since earlier socialist projects didn’t develop in this way, modern socialists tend not to identify with them; and sometimes even reject the idea that these precursors were even “socialist” at all. If one had to summarise the public-facing posture of modern socialism in one sentence, it would be: “This time will be different.”
The problem is that it won’t be. Notwithstanding the often sympathetic media portrayal lavished on modern socialists, there’s little reason to believe that the governments they produce, if elected, will differ in basic structure from those of their ideological forebears.
Even in the above-cited example of Die Linke member attitudes toward Venezuela, I see little evidence that young socialists are taking any sort of radically new approach. They are simply too young to have any kind of strong, active memory of a time when Venezuela represented the great white hope of socialism. Chavez died in 2013, before many of today’s 20-somethings became politically active. They have not made the same emotional investments in personalities, parties, movements and whole nations as their older fellow travellers. As a witty headline writer put it in 2012, “To college freshmen, Kurt Cobain has always been dead.” Similarly, to today’s college freshmen, Venezuela has always been in crisis.
As it happens, I remember the beginnings of Venezuela-mania in the mid-2000s quite well. I was not a socialist, but I spent a lot of time arguing with socialists—because, well, I was a student in Berlin, and there was no one else to argue with. There was just the left, the far left, and the very far left.
On the one hand, there were (typically older) socialists who still felt varying degrees of attachment to the former German Democratic Republic (the GDR, i.e., East Germany) and its “big brother,” the Soviet Union. They did not want to reanimate the GDR, and they condemned the Stasi and the Berlin Wall. But they could not completely let the dream go.
On the other hand, there were (typically younger) socialists, who felt no such attachment. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a different kind of socialism—less rigid, less dogmatic, less ideological. They saw GDR nostalgists as die-hard reactionaries. And when they looked around the world for a place where socialism was evolving in a way that was new, exciting, flexible and democratic, that place turned out to be Venezuela.
This was not entirely an act of political self-delusion. When Chávez outlined his vision for a “Socialism of the 21st Century” at the 2005 World Social Forum, he defined it explicitly in opposition the socialism of the USSR. Soviet socialism, in Chávez’s words, was a “perversion.” This time would be different.
And notwithstanding the chaos and cruelty that has unfolded in Venezuela, Chávez and Maduro really did try to build something new. There were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the government heavily promoted the formation of worker co-operatives and various forms of social enterprises. We now know that nothing much would come out of those efforts, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
In the mid-2000s, things were looking up. Oil prices had more than quadrupled in real terms since Chavez first came to power in 1998. And as a result, the Venezuelan economy was booming, flooding the government with petrodollars. Chávez could afford to spend lavishly on social programs and public-sector projects. Western socialists finally had their proof-of-concept. Here was a country whose success seemed to prove that socialism could be economically viable, democratic and (for a time) respectful of human rights. And so it’s not surprising that many on the left built up a strong emotional attachment to Venezuela. There was even a fad for a political ideology known as Chavismo—a mash-up of socialism, populism, Latin American internationalism and recycled Bolivarianism.
Back then, it was the Chavistas who would look down on nostalgic comrades who still retained an attachment to earlier, discredited socialist projects. Now, suddenly, they find themselves in that same unfashionable role.
This has happened many times before, and is part of a predictable cycle. As I show in my new book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, socialist projects always go through honeymoon periods, during which they are enthusiastically endorsed by Western intellectuals. But since socialist policies generally lead to economic failure, and sometimes even political repression, those honeymoon periods typically don’t last for more than a decade. Then these foreign example fall out of fashion, and get retroactively reclassified as counterfeit socialism. The USSR, North Vietnam, Cuba and Maoist China all functioned as utopias du jour. In the 1970s, some Western intellectuals even pinned their hopes on more obscure areas of the world, such as Cambodia, Albania, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Nicaragua.
One common, backward-looking delusion in all of these cases: When explaining away the failures of the past, it was assumed that the hierarchical, stratified character of failed socialist projects had been a result of some deliberate political choice. Which is to say: It was believed that previous socialist experiments had failed because the leaders of these movements caused them to be centralized and autocratic as a matter of design—as opposed to a democratic socialist system based on mass participation and a radical decentralisation of power.
But the truth is that mass participation and radical democratization always had been idealized by socialists, including by socialist leaders who led successful national movements. But these dreams never survived, because it simply isn’t feasible to run a large society and a complex economy in this kind of participatory way. Democratic socialism works perfectly fine in small, self-selecting and homogenous high-trust communities with relatively simple economies, the prime example being the Israeli Kibbutz. But that model is not scalable (and hasn’t even aged particularly well in Israel itself). There is a reason that, even at the height of the Kibbutz movement, Kibbutzim never grew beyond a certain size. There seems to be an upper limit of around 1,500 people, and even that is rare: Most Kibbutzim have fewer than 500 members.
Regardless of what socialists say they want to build, socialism can only mean a society run by large, hierarchical government bureaucracies. It can only mean a command-and-control economy directed by a distant, technocratic elite. The reason it always turns out that way isn’t because revolutions are “betrayed” by selfish or undisciplined actors, but because no other path is possible. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself—which is why each cohort is sneered at by its younger counterparts.
At the Die Linke conference, it was a fight about Nicolás Maduro and the fate of Venezuela. A decade from now, the spectacle will be repeated—with different names and flags. When it comes to socialism, hope springs eternal, even as socialism’s victims inevitably fall into poverty.
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