By Glenn Sacks
Spurred by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for the first time since the 1940s there is widespread debate in the United States about socialism, and conservatives are not happy about it. In a recent WND interview, for example, conservative performing artist Charlie Daniels warns of the appeal of socialism, blaming it on our "inadequate and left-leaning educational system" that does not properly inform young people.
I teach Economics and Social Studies in the Los Angeles Unified School System, and Daniels considers people like me to be part of the problem. In contrast to Daniels' view, I believe Americans have been taught to blame every economic disappointment in a socialist country on socialism, and to ignore capitalism's many failures.
For example, when Cubans seek to immigrate to the U.S., we've always been told it's because of Cuba's failed socialist economic system. At the same time, many of these same people decry the mass migration of people from Latin America. Yet, remarkably, they never seem to notice that the countries those masses are fleeing – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti and others – are capitalist countries.
Cubans' living standard is considerably below that of most Americans – I've traveled in Cuba and seen the shortages and rationing firsthand. But in the United Nations' 2015 Human Development Index, Cuba ranks fifth in Latin America, alongside Costa Rica, and 67th worldwide. Not great, but vastly better than capitalist El Salvador (116th in the world), Guatemala (128th), Honduras (133rd), Haiti (163rd) and most of the rest of Latin America. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba's life expectancy and infant mortality rates are similar to America's and among the best in Latin America.
Daniels, WND Managing Editor David Kupelian, and many others apply the "socialism fails" argument to the Venezuelan disaster, but Venezuela isn't socialist. Socialism means a planned economy geared to meeting human needs, not profits. Venezuela nationalized some industries and created social programs, and its demagogic leaders called this "socialism." (Similarly, what Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez favor is not socialism but increasing taxes and social services within the context of a free-market, profit-driven economy.)
Venezuela never came close to instituting a planned economy. Its economic collapse is due to mismanagement, falling oil prices, America's economic sanctions and Venezuela's businesses withdrawing investment and capital from a country with a hostile business climate.
Daniels contrasts "vibrant, bustling, fashionable" Cold War West Germany with the "dismal streets of East Germany." He exaggerates. By the late 1980s, East Germany had the ninth-highest GDP per capita in the world – though his general point is correct. What it ignores is context. While all of Germany suffered in World War II, Eastern Germany had been bombed back to the Stone Age and was then looted by the Soviets, stunting economic growth for over a decade. Their bureaucratic dictatorship did mismanage the economy, but their economic system was hardly a failure.
The same argument applies to most of Cold War Europe. Western living standards were higher – what's ignored is that Western Europe had been more prosperous than the East for centuries. Moreover, the East suffered considerably more damage in World War II.
China is also the subject of much confusion. Nobody can deny China's impressive economic development – their GDP is second only to America's. Compare China, which had a socialist revolution in 1949, and India, which became an independent country in 1947. Though their populations are almost identical, China's GDP is nearly five times that of India. China's industrial output rose by over 10 percent a year from 1950 to 1985. This would've been even higher without the horrendous chaos and destruction of Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, both of which were products of his megalomania and had nothing to do with socialism.
Since we can't credit socialism for China's economic success, many instead claim they're capitalist. It is certainly true that China, like many Third World countries, has invited in a large amount of foreign private capital to provide jobs. It also has a growing private sector. Yet China's banks and main industries, including most heavy industry, high-tech and defense, are still state-owned and deployed largely in a planned, socialistic manner. It was state-driven investment that allowed the Chinese economy to continue to grow remarkably during the Great Recession, even though most countries suffered large economic declines.
The central "socialism doesn't work" claim has long been based on the economic performance of the most prominent, advanced socialist country – the Soviet Union. The USSR certainly had many economic failures – its agriculture was a continual disappointment, it never produced quality consumer goods, and its labor discipline grew to be very lax. But Soviet socialism also had many economic successes. The standard U.S.-USSR comparison is apples to oranges, because the USSR started out vastly behind the United States.
British economist Angus Maddison estimates that in 1913 the U.S.' GDP per capita was the highest in the world at $5,301 (in 1990 dollars). That of the Russian Empire – the future USSR – was only $1,488 –17th in the world, well behind even Mexico. Sixty years later, the U.S. figure had risen to $16,689 and the USSR's to $6,059. The USSR had narrowed the gap considerably – a significant achievement considering the extremely different circumstances faced by each nation.
The U.S. entered World War I late, and lost only 115,000 men. By contrast, between WWI (1914-1918) and the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), Russia/USSR lost 10 million citizens. The country where socialism began was so poor, wrecked and starved that cannibalism was widespread.
During World War II, the USSR faced Nazi Germany's Operation Barbarossa – the largest military action in human history – and suffered a staggering 27 million deaths, 70 times America's WWII losses. The USSR lost one-third of its national wealth and ended the war with millions starving and 25 million homeless.
By contrast, the U.S. came out of WWII physically unscathed and in a position no nation ever had been in or ever will be in again – with 6 percent of the world's population and 50 percent of its GDP. To expect the USSR to catch up – all the while matching the U.S. in military spending and in aid to Cold War allies – was never realistic.
What the Soviet economy did achieve was still considerable:
- During the 1930s, the USSR industrialized faster than any nation in history. This remarkably rapid transition from an agricultural to an industrial society was accomplished despite Stalin's murderous, destructive purges and farm collectivization.
- The USSR inflicted over 80 percent of Germany's wartime casualties and was principally responsible for Nazi Germany's defeat.
- Despite the massive loss of the young men critical for industrialization and heavy industry, the USSR re-industrialized rapidly during the 1940s and 1950s, and retained robust economic growth rates into the 1960s. It is only then that the Soviet economy – under the weight of bureaucracy and mismanagement – began to slow down and eventually stagnate.
- Though the U.S. put a man on the moon first, the comprehensive list of Soviet space "firsts" is as impressive as America's.
- The USSR's large Muslim regions – as backward and medieval as neighboring Afghanistan until the Soviet era – saw tremendous progress in eliminating illiteracy, reducing infant mortality and improving living standards. Women came to make up half or more of the doctors, engineers and teachers in Soviet Central Asia.
Whereas Karl Marx and other socialists intended socialism to begin in the advanced nations, socialism has instead only been tried in impoverished, war-torn countries. Nonetheless, viewed in proper context, the conventional wisdom that capitalism works and socialism doesn't is false.
Glenn Sacks teaches Economics and Social Studies in Los Angeles Unified School District. His columns have appeared in many of America's largest publications.