The University of Toronto has three registered socialist-affiliated student organizations: International Socialists, Socialist Action, and the NDP Socialist Caucus. Their professed political programs are to be expected. Undergirded by a desire to construct a social movement and inculcate a revolutionary spirit, these groups’ enunciated goals include the abolition of capitalism, an emphasis on socioeconomic class inequities, the centrality of labour’s role in their endeavors, and international solidarity with the oppressed.
According to Oxford University’s Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, “The fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society.” Infused with notions of global solidarity and cooperation, the essence of socialist thought is a critique of capitalism, privilege, ownership of capital, and the concentration of power among the wealthy. Since its modern inception in the early 19th century, socialism has appeared in many different incarnations. While Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism is in vogue, Cuban Castroism, Chinese Maoism, Soviet Stalinism, Venezuelan Chavismo, and Cambodian Communism each represent unique strands within a family of ideas under the umbrella of socialism.
What is unsettling, then, among the platforms of the university’s socialist student groups is their alacrity in disavowing themselves from socialism’s worst offenders, whilst simultaneously reflecting the intellectual foundations of these specific cases. Despite couching their rhetoric upon the analogous tenets of class consciousness, worker solidarity, social engineering, and, most importantly, a centralized economy, the ideology carries a great degree of appeal within university circles.
This, I believe, stems from two possible scenarios: either a lack of awareness about the history of twentieth century socialism, or a disingenuous attempt to obscure any accurate manifestations of the ideology’s ills. Tracing socialism’s contemporary history can demonstrate exactly why it has failed.
The consolidation of socialism within Russia, following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution — under Lenin, who was subsequently succeeded by Stalin — provides a telling example of the implementation of such ideas. Stalin’s initiatives included simultaneously collectivizing agricultural landholdings while eliminating class distinctions among the propertied, relatively affluent peasantry, or kulaks. This ‘classicide’ resulted in the deaths of over 3 million kulaks.
[pullquote-default]Tracing socialism’s contemporary history can demonstrate exactly why it has failed.[/pullquote-default]
Moreover, according to the eminent historian Timothy Snyder, instituting grain requisitioning and sealing the borders of Ukraine produced the artificial “silent genocide” — known as the Holodomor — that claimed roughly 3.3 million lives. To compound the Soviets’ reputation, from 1931 to 1957, two million prisoners from the USSR passed through the Gulag system in Vorkuta alone — nearly three million died in gulags. The Communist Party purged its three million member party in ‘The Great Purge’ of the 1930s, and approximately one third were killed.
As per The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terrorism, and Repression complied by European scholars in 1997 and translated to English in 1999, as well as The Gulag Archipelago, the sum total casualty rate of the Soviet experiment was 20 million lives.
Under Mao, China was even deadlier. As Niall Ferguson reiterated in Kissinger: The Idealist, “Mao alone, as Frank Dikötter has shown, accounted for tens of millions [of deaths]: 2 million between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million by the end of the 1950s, a staggering 45 million in the man-made famine known as the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution.” The Hong Kong-based historian, Dikötter, describes Mao as overseeing “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.”
Maoism blended the distrust of urban industrialization — a potential source of bourgeois elitism — and the conviction that revolution should gestate among the rural peasantry, “who would later join with their proletariat comrades in the cities to form classless paradises.”
There are many cases that echo the failures of socialism defined by collectivization, classlessness, social engineering, and the centrally planned economy. In North Korea, the Kim dynasty adopted collectivization and implemented other socialist policies that have resulted in the starvation deaths of up to three million people. In Cambodia, between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge, a communist paramilitary group, perpetrated a genocide killing up to two million.
[pullquote-default]There are many cases that echo the failures of socialism defined by collectivization, classlessness, social engineering, and the centrally planned economy.[/pullquote-default]
More geographically proximate cases include Chavez’s Venezuela and Castro’s Cuba. In Venezuela, ‘chavismo’ exemplified “other revolutionary authoritarian Marxist ideologies”, repackaging the concepts of socialism, revolution, and the global left. Under the auspices of Chavez, Venezuela experienced mass food shortages, rolling electrical blackouts, skyrocketing inflation — exceeding 700 per cent — a shrinking economy, and nationalization that spelled national disaster.
In the Cuban context, Castro’s recent death — which inspired much equivocation on the part of socialists — masked his troublesome reign. Purging political opponents from the government, silencing media outlets, expropriation of all private property, launching political crackdowns, and perpetuating Cuba’s one-party political system all illustrate the severity of such shortcomings.
A comparative analysis between East and West Germany provides perhaps the best example of the vicissitudes of socialist policy. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, GDP per capita in West Germany was more than double that of East Germany; their life satisfaction was higher, and unemployment was lower. More than 10 per cent of East Germans emigrated following the unification of Germany.
Our study could extend to India, Chile, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and some countries in Africa. Yet, what should be abundantly clear is the convergence between U of T socialist groups and the aforementioned case studies in terms of their ideological underpinnings. Both campus groups and the historical experiments that have so tragically failed are grounded in revolutionary change, collectivization, classless societies, and centralized economies, which represent undercurrents beneath the unifying wave of socialism.
One caveat is in order. The West, loosely defined by varying degrees of market-oriented economies, was embroiled in many acrimonious chapters throughout the Cold War. Under the leadership of the US, coup attempts in Cuba, Chile, Iran and foreign intervention in Grenada, Vietnam, and Cambodia, among others, represent the darker side of the Western Bloc’s involvement throughout the Cold War. Complicating such matters include the legacy of race relations, the Red Scare, and the growing bifurcation of society along socioeconomic lines.
[pullquote-default]What should be abundantly clear is the convergence between U of T socialist groups and the aforementioned case studies in terms of their ideological underpinnings.[/pullquote-default]
Nonetheless, the absence of gulags, mass starvation, one-party states, cults-of-personality, and large-scale expropriation of private property — and in turn, the erosion of freedom of mobility and freedom of expression, to name a few civil rights — reaffirm the superiority of market-based economic policies and their efficacy in distilling prosperity to broader society, beyond any socialist ideological incarnation.
Only democratic socialism — which neither Toronto’s International Socialist or Socialist Action groups subscribe to — acknowledges the advantages of a market-oriented framework, and advocates for greater government intervention in easing society’s ills.
Mindful of such considerations, it is essential to review the development of many of these case studies following their transition away from socialism. China, which under Deng Xiaoping began a reformist agenda in the late 1970s, which included the decollectivization of agriculture, foreign direct investment (FDI), an increase in entrepreneurship, and the removal of price controls. These policies have helped lift 800 million people out of poverty.
Following independence in 1947, India, under the tutelage of Nehru, initially embraced socialist-inspired economic models. Declining growth rates and per capita income, food shortages, and the devaluation of currency are few of the problems wrought by such policies. India’s economy liberalized in the 1990s, espousing more market-oriented strategies. Between 1994 and 2012, according to the World Bank, 133 million Indians were lifted from abject poverty.
Similar success stories include East Germany, which eventually converged with West Germany’s standard of living, along with Estonia, Chile, and South Korea. Cases like these, which highlight global trends of decreasing poverty, and a rising standard of living all substantiate positions held by the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Economic Forum — that free trade, economic liberalization, and reducing trade barriers “is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health, and restoring the environment.”
Apologists like Noam Chomsky and others will never be convinced. This reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the shortcomings of socialism, and embodies the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy, where their reasoning is unfalsifiable due to the lack of purity of criticisms. As U of T’s student groups attest, Stalinism, Maoism, or socialism’s other failed experiments neither represent nor reflect ‘true’ socialism.
The popularity of such groups on campus shows an alarming trend. Apart from iterations of socialism claiming more lives than fascism, it would be ostensibly inappropriate for universities to offer corresponding student groups. There would be outrage, protests, and wholesale condemnation — justifiably so. We are left, then, with an unsatisfying question: why has such a historically invalidated philosophy flourished and accrued social capital?
Ari Blaff is a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs.