It’s quite a big year for anniversaries, and today is one of the most sobering. Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union and three of its satellites invaded Czechoslovakia (as it then was – now Czechia and Slovakia) to put an end to its period of liberalisation, known as the Prague Spring.
Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček had promised “socialism with a human face.” His government ended media censorship, unleashing a stream of independent commentary and criticism, and made plans for liberalisation of the economy, better relations with the west and a transition to electoral democracy.
It all came to an end with the arrival of Soviet tanks. Dubček was coerced into recanting his heresies; in due course he was expelled from the Communist Party and replaced. But he had the last laugh, returning in triumph in 1989 to lead the Czechoslovak parliament after the fall of communism.
Fifty years on, we still debate socialism, and wonder whether such a thing as a humane, democratic socialism is desirable or even possible.
It was in relation to Dubček’s supporters that David Friedman remarked that “socialism” had “become a word with positive connotations and no content.” That’s now as apt as ever, at least as regards American politics, with a number of Democrat politicians proclaiming themselves “democratic socialists” – with very little evidence of having thought much about what that means.
Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Fernando Teson had a go at it last week. He distinguishes between democratic socialism – a system where economic activity is primarily state-owned and state-directed, but democratic freedoms are preserved – and social democracy, a primarily market-based system with state intervention to provide generous welfare support.
The latter, he argues, should not count as “socialism” at all:
I do not understand why social democrats would want to soil social democracy’s credentials by calling it socialism. To blend together Germany’s marvelous, thoroughly-capitalist productive machinery with the pallid efforts of the Maduros and Kirchners of this world to control their countries’ economies does a serious disservice to social democrats’ cause.
I think this is basically right; I think the debate would make more sense if we confined “socialism” to the traditional sense of collective ownership and central economic planning. But the general decay of political debate (especially in America) has become so pronounced that it’s not surprising that people are confused.
The right probably started the process, by labelling any move towards regulating business or providing social welfare as “socialism!” Once upon a time, they may have been quite genuine about this, trying to point out that these measures rested on socialist intellectual foundations and risked paving the way for full-blown socialism. (Whether or not that was correct is an interesting question, which will have to wait for another time.)
But bad faith quickly took over, and the charge of “socialism” was wielded indiscriminately. And on the other side, centre-left parties that had started out as socialist in the old-fashioned sense were abandoning those policies in favor of social democracy – but to preserve a show of continuity, they often kept up the rhetoric of socialism.
So, coming from a position further left, did Dubček in 1968. In his situation, to disclaim allegiance to socialism would have been dangerous in the extreme. Hence, “socialism with a human face.”
The reality, however, is that socialism in the traditional sense has never been successfully combined with democracy and civil liberties. Every serious move to collectivise the economy has undermined democracy; every move to liberalise an authoritarian state-run economy politically has ended (if it did not begin) with economic liberalisation as well.*
That doesn’t prove that no such combination is possible. But it constitutes weighty evidence, and should lead so-called “democratic socialists” to give some more serious thought to the practicality of what they propose.
Moreover, as Teson points out, even if we assume that democratic socialism is possible, it remains undesirable because it can’t deliver economic well-being. The record on that is abundantly clear. There are still a few real socialists who maintain that they can square the circle, but there are no real-world examples.
And I don’t think that most of those who call themselves “democratic socialists” have any particular illusions about that. Some may be arguing in bad faith, as Steven Horwitz argues, constantly moving the goalposts so that they can’t be pinned down on any particular interpretation of “socialism”.
But it strikes me that ignorance rather than deviousness is the more likely explanation. American politicians on either side know little about the rest of the world; there’s no reason they would know, for example, that Denmark has the most flexible labor market in Europe and a lower corporate tax rate than the US.
Ultimately, words can only mean what we want them to mean. If people keep using “socialism” to mean a system like that of Germany or Scandinavia (which may even have been what Dubček had in mind), then traditionalists like me will have to just learn to live with it.
Perhaps then we will be able to say, as Friedman did, “Socialism is dead. Long live socialism.”
* The converse is not true: some countries have liberalised economically without thereby introducing political freedom. But even so, the tendency is for the two to go together.