Opposing economic exploitation doesn’t mean supporting authoritarianism…

by Nathan J. Robinson
It’s incredibly easy to be both in favor of socialism and against the crimes committed by 20th century communist regimes. All it takes is a consistent, principled opposition to authoritarianism. I don’t like it when bosses mistreat and abuse their workers. And I don’t like it when governments mistreat and abuse their people. A system in which people must work for low wages, struggling to afford housing, healthcare, and education, is abhorrent and should be gotten rid of. A system in which people must either work or be sent to forced reeducation camps is even more abhorrent. We can dream of a world that has neither gulags nor indentured servitude, and I am such a romantic idealist that I believe such a world might even be possible…


Stephens also suggests that saying communism remains a sound theory or has “never been tried” amounts to an apology for dictatorships. I think here he misunderstands what the actual argument is, at least in its more sensible version. When anyone points me to the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba and says “Well, there’s your socialism,” my answer isn’t “well, they didn’t try hard enough.” It’s that these regimes bear absolutely no relationship to the principle for which I am fighting. They weren’t egalitarian in any sense; they were dictatorships. Thus to say “Well, look what a disaster an egalitarian society is” is to mistake the nature of the Soviet Union. The history of these states shows what is wrong with authoritarian societies, in which people are not equal, and shows the fallacy of thinking you can achieve egalitarian ends through authoritarian means. This is precisely what George Orwell was trying to demonstrate, though almost everybody seems to have missed his point. Orwell was a committed socialist, but he knew that socialism was about giving workers ownership over the means of production, which they don’t have if they’re being told what to produce at gunpoint. Animal Farm is not about the dangers of socialism, it’s about the dangers of using revolutions to justify totalitarianism.

The history of the Soviet Union doesn’t really tell us much about “communism,” if communism is a stateless society where people share everything equally: it was a society dominated by the state, in which power was distributed according to a strict hierarchy. When Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman visited the Soviet Union, they were horrified by the scale of the repression. “Liberty is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development,” Lenin told them. Goldman concluded that “it would be fantastic to consider it in any sense Communistic.” (Her pamphlet “There Is No Communism In Russia” argues that if the Soviet Union was to be called communist, the word must have no meaning.) Bertrand Russell visited Lenin and was disturbed by his lack of commitment to liberty. Russell left disillusioned, “not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.” Lenin himself acknowledged that he was implementing a form of “state capitalism.”


The most objectionable part of Stephens’ case is his suggestion that criticism of Wall Street is a step down the road to the Gulag, and that “progressive social commitments” necessarily lead to “economic catastrophe.” Gulags only become possible if you have an ideology, like Leninism, that justifies Gulags. If you are a leftist like Bertrand Russell, who visited Lenin and was disturbed by his lack of interest in liberty, then the conclusion is not that you should stop trying to make the economy more fair, it’s that you shouldn’t ever be willing to make millions of people miserable in the name of pursuing an ideal. Ideals are still good, but there need to be strict limits on what acts those ideals can justify. Just as “liberté, égalité, fraternité” did not become invalid aspirations when Robespierre started cutting off heads, and the Vietnam War didn’t discredit the idea of representative democracy, communist atrocities are a warning against committing atrocities in pursuit of fairness, not against fairness.