It is amazing sometimes how really short humanity’s historical memory can be. Listening to some in American academia and on social media, you would think that socialism was a bright, new, and shiny idea never tried before that promises a beautiful future of peace, love, and bountifulness for all. It is as if a hundred years of socialism-in-practice in a large number of countries around the world had never happened.
If the reality of actual socialism in the 20th century is brought up, many “progressives” and “democratic” socialists respond by insisting that none of these historical episodes were instances of “real” socialism. It was just that the wrong people had been in charge, or it had not been implemented in the right way, or political circumstances had prevented it from getting a “fair chance” of successfully working, or it is all lies or exaggerations about the supposed “bad” or harsh” experiences under these socialist regimes. You cannot blame socialism for there having been a Lenin, or a Stalin, or a Chairman Mao, or a Fidel Castro, or a Kim Il-Sung, or a Pol Pot, or a Hugo Chavez, or . . .
Tyranny, terror, mass murder, and economic stagnation, along with political plunder and privilege for the few at the top of socialist government hierarchies were not indicative of what socialism could be. Just give it one more chance. And, then, another chance, and another.
Soviet Statistical Lies Too Often Taken at Face Value in the West
These attitudes are really nothing new. Throughout the 20th century there were apologists aplenty making excuses, and accepting at face value whatever propaganda was spewed out by the mouthpieces for the socialist regime in Soviet Russia. They closed their eyes to any facts or evidence about what was going there. Those who found ways to escape from the prison camp known as the U.S.S.R. and who told about what life was actually like in the workers’ paradise were ignored or ridiculed as people with anti-Soviet axes to grind. Why else would they have left their wonderful Soviet motherland?
Another version of this blindness was the acceptance of Soviet economic statistics at face value by many reputed Soviet experts in the West, including the “professional” analysts inside the intelligence services of countries like the United States. Both before and after the Second World War, a majority of these scholars and analysts took for granted the official statistics and related data released by the Soviet government about how wonderful and successful the Soviet centrally planned economy was. Soviet propaganda heralded the planning successes of the Soviet Union becoming an industrial country in the 1930s with the introduction of five-year central plans, including the forced collectivization of farming. Then in the years following the Second World War, Soviet state planning agencies produced massive amounts of statistical data showing that in the postwar period all was well and vibrant on the road to socialist prosperity.
Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev proudly announced in 1961 that in twenty years; that is, by the 1980s, the Soviet people would be living in the long-promised and awaited future of a post-scarcity communism. The noted American economist and later Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), had even suggested in his widely used economics textbook, in the editions published in 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1980s, that it was very possible that by the early 21st century, Soviet Gross Domestic Product would overtake American GDP. Soviet socialism will have shown its economic superiority over American capitalism.
Soviet Socialism Realistically Shown by Western Correspondents in Moscow
There were notorious apologists and propagandists for the Soviet Union during the period between the two World Wars among the Western press corps stationed in Moscow. The most scandalous of them was The New York Times correspondent, Walter Duranty (1884-1957), who even received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverup reporting of the famine in the early 1930s during Stalin’s forced collectivization of the land that caused the deaths of upwards of 12 million men, women and children.
But there were solid Western truth tellers who did their reporting stints in the Soviet Union during this time; once they were home from their tour in Moscow and were free of the Soviet censors who restricted what they could send out of the country to their newspaper editors in the West, they told the reality of things in great detail. Two of the best of them, in my opinion, were William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) in his books, Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History (1931), Russia’s Iron Age (1934) and Collectivism: A False Utopia (1937), and Eugene Lyons (1898-1985), in his writings, Moscow Carousel (1935) and Assignment in Utopia (1937).
It particularly became the case of revealing uncensored accounts of real life under Soviet socialism in the 1970s and 1980s. No candy-coated dry statistical data here. In the standard reporting style, the correspondents explained the logic of the planned society by telling unending tales about the absurdities of how central direction of an economy actually worked from the perspective of ordinary people going through their everyday lives. As well as about the oppressions, arrests, and torture of any and all suspected of “anti-Soviet” thoughts and actions.
Again, in my view, among the most informative accounts may be found in Hedrick Smith, The Russians (1976), Robert G. Kaiser, Russia: The People and the Power (1976), David K. Shipler, Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams (1983), Michael Binyon, Life in Russia (1983), Kevin Klose, Russia and the Russians: Inside the Closed Society (1984), David Willis, Klass: How Russians Really Live (1985), David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1993), and Scott Shane, Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union (1994).
The Absurdities and Corruptions of Socialist Central Planning
In state enterprises, there was the meeting of manufacturing goals by producing components parts or finished products that met quantity and tonnage quotas under “the plan” that were unusable in size, shape or functionality, but which fulfilled the targets of output insisted upon by the central planners in Moscow. There were the consumer goods that were shoddy in quality, badly worked, and mismatched in quantities with those actually wanted by Soviet consumers in terms of styles, features, or dimensions. As long as production and output targets were met, at least on paper, it did not matter how stagnant, poor and frustrated were the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens, just so the middle level Communist Party authorities throughout the country and the central planning officials in Moscow could assure those above them in the higher echelons of Soviet power that all was going according to plan.
It did not matter how economically inefficient, wasteful, and misallocated material, machinery and men may have been from a hypothetical centrally planned coordination perspective. If the quantities and types of inputs that were assigned to each production plant and factory by the planning agencies were found too little or too much to fulfill the output planning quotas, the plant production managers always had at their disposal a fix-it man on staff who bartered or bribed for needed inputs at other factories to meet the monthly production targets with surplus inputs at their disposal as means of paying for them. Not that this informal and illegal factor and resource market had anything to do with real cost-efficiencies or productivities. It all was just a matter of having what you minimally needed to make sure you met the plan target for that month.
If that did not always work out, well, fudging the figures passed on to central planning bean counters higher up just needed to be done in the right way so that nobody noticed; and if it was caught by someone further up the Party and planning hierarchy, gifts and favors could be supplied to just the right person to assure that “juggling the books” remained safe “between friends.” Prices assigned to goods were meaningless, having been fixed by the planning agencies years, if not decades before, with no relevance or reality to actual supplies and demands. Endless lines for needed goods solved the rationing problems of Soviet society. For worthless goods, well, they could just sit on the shelves of unvisited government retail stores manned by government employees who could care less, as long as they got their pay and could “disappear” from work for hours to go about doing their own shopping for what they needed to get; hence, the popular Soviet phrase, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”