Socialism is having a moment in America. Everyone knows about Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the phenomenon goes much deeper. At the local level, self-identified socialists are running for office and winning, usually as Democrats, from Seattle and St. Louis to Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York. In many places across America, their electoral success is transforming what it means to be a Democrat. Meanwhile, the country’s most prominent socialist political organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, grew in membership ninefold from 2014 to 2019 and now has 50,000 members.
The danger, more immediate than it may appear, is that the socialist moment may become a sustained movement. For the past three years, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, where I work, has conducted a poll with YouGov to ascertain Americans’ preferred form of government. The results are alarming. In our 2018 poll, we found that more than half of Millennials say they would prefer to live in a socialist or Communist country. Only 40 percent want to live in a capitalist America. By partial way of explanation, more than a quarter of Millennials report receiving no education on the ideology of Marx and Lenin or the history of Communist regimes. They simply don’t know what socialism and Communism entail.
These numbers reflect only the views of a single generation, born from the 1980s to the early 2000s and raised at a time when the evils of socialism and Communism did not weigh as heavily on the public consciousness as they had during the Cold War. Yet Millennials now represent the largest generational cohort in the United States, and they will increasingly dominate the electorate. For still-younger generations, to whom that history is even more distant, the numbers will almost certainly be even more pronounced. The ramifications for America’s future politics are troubling.
Nothing other than a horrible failure of education can explain this trend. At every level, institutions of learning neglect to teach the innumerable benefits of free enterprise and the grave perils of collective control, if they teach the history of economics at all. Too many high schools teach their students to despise the market system that enriched America and much of the world. Too many colleges teach that collectivism is the only moral alternative to the market. No wonder rising generations pine for an ideology that has wrought poverty and despair everywhere it has been tried: They don’t know its long record as a gateway to totalitarian government.
Young Americans rightly fear tyranny, which is why they typically distance themselves from the label “Communist” and call themselves “democratic socialists.” But that distinction has little basis in reality. Self-described democratic socialists may think they are advocating Scandinavian policies — never mind that the Scandinavian countries in question self-identify as market economies and are properly understood as high-tax welfare states. If there is such a thing as democratic socialism, it means you vote once or twice before the socialists in power begin to erode the institutions of law and democratic representation as they suffocate enterprise and control the use of property. Democracy withers as socialism grows; they will not coexist for long. When the tipping point is reached, democracy quickly gives way to restrictions on freedom, and ultimately outright dictatorship.
Just look at the tragedy of modern Venezuela, where the election of “democratic socialist” Hugo Chávez set the country on a 20-year journey that has left in its wake murdered dissidents, crippling inflation and debt, famine, medicine shortages, and the theft of state and private assets on a staggering scale.
Such tragedies are the inevitable result of socialist government, not just in Venezuela but in each of the 40 or so nations that have actually tried it. Socialism inevitably leads toward national collapse. The ideology is predicated on the promise of equality of outcome, which makes for a dandy rhetorical flourish. American socialist (and failed presidential candidate) Eugene V. Debs promised a world where “no man will work to make a profit for another.” Even earlier, French socialist Jean Jaurès declared that socialism’s “aim . . . is to transform capitalist property into social property.” Marx and Engels predicted that such transformation would occur through a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and lead to a utopia in which government would no longer be needed and the state would “wither away.”
But in real life, almost immediately after seizing power in the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin realized that utopia was a very distant prospect. To make sense of the moment, he presented a unifying theory that brought Marx’s vision into the modern world. “In striving for socialism,” Lenin said in 1917, “we are convinced it will develop into Communism.” You might say that as Christians aspire to reach heaven, socialists work to achieve Communism.
And so Lenin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, trying to harness the forces of earthly power to bring about the Marxist dream of a perfect world. The result in dozens of national experiments since then has been totalitarian dictatorship, economic collapse, or both, at the cost of some 100 million lives. In Marxist-Leninist thought, this human cost was a price worth paying during the supposedly temporary “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Despite the stated goals of demagogues, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek foresaw in The Road to Serfdom that such a dictatorship would not be a temporary phase but the end result of socialism: “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.”
No matter where or in what form it takes root, every socialist experiment struggles to overcome the stubborn realities of human nature and the limitations of central planning. The process of transforming “capitalist property” — that is, something legitimately purchased, inherited, or otherwise earned — into “social property” always involves winners and losers arbitrarily picked by government.
The dictatorship doesn’t stop there. The loss of private property — which ensures one’s independent livelihood — erodes one’s ability to exercise free speech. What if the owner of property taken by the government dares to protest its seizure and calls it theft? That sort of dissent must be stifled to maintain order, so free speech is replaced by government-sanctioned propaganda. Anti-government opinions are shamed, and those expressing them are barred from forums such as elected assemblies, church pulpits, media publications, and colleges and universities. As the cycle continues, the consequences only grow worse.
These tendencies transcend time and technology. Mao Zedong’s shaming of farmers, priests, and protective mothers in the village square during the Cultural Revolution has become current chairman Xi Jinping’s online social-credit system, which ranks citizens based on their loyalty to the state. This system, synced with facial-recognition cameras in nearly every public space, is part of what Xi calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Those deemed a bad socialist face everything from restrictions on employment and travel to detention in one of China’s growing number of “reeducation camps,” in which Marxist indoctrination, physical torture, forced abortion, and organ harvesting are conducted. The 21st-century Chinese Communist party has achieved a high-tech totalitarianism more total than anything George Orwell could have imagined.
Communist regimes not only wreck their own populations with socialist policies but also threaten their neighbors and the wider world. This was true when Lenin invaded Poland in 1919, almost immediately after securing power in Russia, and it is true today. The party of Mao is militarizing islands outside its borders and vying for superpower status. Cuba, still ruled by the Castro family, has turned Venezuela and Nicaragua into de facto client states, impoverishing both while spreading its socialist ideology. North Korea is more concentration camp than country as its ruler tries to hold the free world hostage with nuclear weapons. Even Russia, under the rule of Vladimir Putin, is desperately trying to rebuild its empire and regain the prestige that it once had. The destructive effects of what the Czech dissident poet Václav Havel called the “radiation of totalitarianism” are everywhere present in the former USSR.
The problem is that far too few young Americans are taught any of this. They think socialism is merely a question of better roads, free health care, and free college, when for millions of people around the world socialism is a matter of life and death.
It all comes down to education. Our organization already works with middle-school and high-school teachers and college professors in all 50 states, providing them with the resources and tools they need to teach the facts about socialism and Communism. We’re working to expand and scale these efforts to reach every student in America. State boards of education would do well to require schools to provide in-depth and accurate accounts of 20th-century history. So would institutions of higher learning.
Educational efforts could be centered around specific days of remembrance. In 2017, President Trump declared the first ever National Day for the Victims of Communism on November 7 — a day that we believe should be commemorated every year. We have already begun working with state lawmakers to make that dream a reality. Virginia was the first to adopt the day in 2018, and many other states are now following suit.
More broadly, we have no more powerful tool than human rights. The Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has called human rights a “powerful non-conventional weapon” against which the other side has no defense. Opponents of totalitarianism must demonstrate the connection between socialist ideals and the gulags of the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, the concentration camps of Xinjiang, the terrors of North Korea, the famine in Venezuela, and the countless other scenes of carnage that have arisen when a select few were empowered to force equality on the masses. To make this link is to disabuse young Americans of the belief that socialism means “justice.”
Our task is particularly urgent now. The current rage for socialism is not based on a discussion of facts and the historical record; it has been fostered by ignorance, misinformation, and emotion. For too many Americans, the memory of socialism’s failures either faded long ago or never existed in the first place. In turn, socialism has become a fad, a calling card for the young and progressive. We may laugh at self-proclaimed socialists’ tweets and angry stump speeches today, but the deceitful and envious arguments they contain still have the power to undermine our system of government and way of life. Venezuelans never imagined they were on the road to a Cuban-style regime when Chávez promised them the moon 20 years ago and won their votes. The calls for socialism in America demand a strong, serious, and sustained response from all who cherish our experiment in self-government.