Just three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialist political activism has undergone a remarkable rehabilitation. Survey data show the label’s growing popularity among college students, while Karl Marx holds the title of the most frequently assigned author from the philosophical canon in American university classrooms. Far from bearing the stigma one might reasonably expect to accompany a movement that killed 100 million people in the 20th century, socialist ideology retains a position of high esteem in elite academic, journalistic, and intellectual circles.
One recurring source of the problem is the intentional cultivation of a definitional fluidity that operates at the convenience of socialism’s adherents. Modern politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez euphemize the term by prefixing it with the label “democratic” (it strains credulity to imagine that fascism, for example, would ever be afforded similar leeway in rebranding itself). Meanwhile, failing socialist experiments such as the Maduro regime in Venezuela — extolled among leftist intellectuals as a modern socialist success story only a few years ago — are brushed aside with the familiar refrain that they never achieved “real socialism.” The practical result of these ubiquitous word games is a political climate in which socialists never quite reckon with their own track record.
In The Case against Socialism, Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) sets out to critique the resurgent fashionability of socialist philosophy and, in so doing, hold it to historical account. Written in a conversational style, the book is organized into six thematic investigations. He begins with the Venezuelan fiasco, then turns to modern progressive themes such as the alarmism over inequality presented in Thomas Piketty’s work, which he correctly dubs “a misdirection campaign” serving as an umbrella justification for far-left policies.
Paul dissects the confused attempts to rebrand the Scandinavian welfare state as “democratic socialism” by pointing to the unambiguous retreat of Scandinavian countries from their fiscally unsustainable and stagnating mid-20th-century government bloat. He then surveys historical atrocities carried out under socialist governments, assesses the promises and claims of socialist activists against evidence, and concludes with a discussion of modern expressions of socialism in American politics, such as the proposed Green New Deal.
The product is an interesting and readable, if sometimes polemical, case that the reader will find informative in the context of conversations about socialist thought. Though comprehensive in scope, the narrative occasionally strays into tangential asides that deploy the term “socialist” loosely as a descriptor of the political Left in general and that draw from sources of uneven quality. In a few places, Paul attempts to direct his broadside against socialism at current instances of congressional overreach, such as the investigation of tech-corporation speech policies in the Trump-era Twitterverse and the rise of the surveillance state. While this latter example was an undeniable and defining feature of the 20th-century Soviet regime and its many copycats, its present-day creep into American society owes at least as much to the domestic effects of foreign interventions embraced by the political Right, as was recently documented by economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall in their 2018 study Tyranny Comes Home.
Nevertheless, Paul offers necessary and biting criticism of socialists’ evasion of their own destructive history, and particularly its human toll. The book’s most poignant stories are a series of personal testimonies from the victims of socialist regimes. Paul presents the firsthand account of Ming Wang, a friend and fellow ophthalmologist who lived through the terror of the Maoist Red Guard as it ransacked his mother’s university and forced him to abandon his studies in order to avoid detention in one of the notorious reeducation camps.
We also learn the story of Chen Dake, today an accomplished Antarctic explorer, who found his scientific training disrupted for three years after the Maoists seized him from his family and sent him off to forced labor in the rice fields. In another case, Paul relates an account of a Cuban refugee who experienced forcible resettlement, rationing, and starvation under the Castro regime. His story is anonymized out of concern for members of his family still living under the Cuban state, where retaliation for frowned-upon political speech remains a daily reality.
In an age in which professors and journalists put great stock in “lived narratives,” such firsthand accounts of socialism’s brutality are often strangely omitted from portrayals on the left. And Paul takes note of it, calling out instances from living memory. Before Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela turned visibly tyrannical, its economy attracted high praise from leftist academics such as Joseph Stiglitz. Bernie Sanders is repeatedly on record extolling the illusory benefits of the Castros’ health-care system.
It’s a tradition, Paul notes, that has long afflicted the Left. Apologizing for tyrants and tin-pot dictators is a long-running pattern among Western socialist intellectuals, dating back to the 1930s paeans to Stalin that British playwright George Bernard Shaw and economists Sidney and Beatrice Webb penned before the full extent of his genocidal acts was understood. The formula is always the same: initial praise for a socialist revolutionary as he takes power, followed by a quiet retreat once he predictably descends into repression and brings his country to ruin.
The tendency to obscure the connections between intellectual socialism and now-disfavored political manifestations of it is no accident. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Chávez all professed explicit philosophical adherence to Marxist doctrine, and they all employed the tools of their states to aggressively proselytize the same socialist intellectual traditions that many of today’s academic practitioners on the far left continue to preach. The stigma that these figures deservedly acquired is a specious reason to exclude them from what “real socialism” entails.
Modern-day Marxists will bristle with some cause at Paul’s section tying socialism to its national-socialist, or Nazi, iteration. At points Paul’s case here is both overstated and underdeveloped. He relies heavily on the late George Watson’s heterodox historical reinterpretation of Hitler as a thinker in the socialist tradition. Some of Paul’s accompanying analysis elides the internal complexities of Third Reich politics, particularly the purge of the Nazi party’s Strasserist left wing in 1934. He also relies on testimony of questionable veracity from Hermann Rauschning, a displaced and disillusioned Nazi politician who claimed that Hitler maintained a private intellectual affinity for Karl Marx. Rauschning’s tell-all book-in-exile, Hitler Speaks (1940), was promoted by Allied governments as part of the war effort but almost certainly exaggerates his level of contact with its titular figure.
At the same time, however, Paul is on to a point that is too easily cast aside in unsophisticated depictions of Nazism as a wholly right-wing, or even capitalist, political phenomenon. Far from being a capitalist, Hitler looked down upon the merchant-driven commercialism of Britain in particular with disdain. His internal economic policy, as George Orwell put it, “has a good deal in common with a Socialist state.” A socialist himself, Orwell nonetheless offered this trenchant indictment in 1941:
The State, which is simply the Nazi Party, is in control of everything. It controls investment, raw materials, rates of interest, working hours, wages. The factory owner still owns his factory, but he is for practical purposes reduced to the status of a manager. Everyone is in effect a State employee, though the salaries vary very greatly.
This observation, which Paul refers to, complicates the simplistic left–right dichotomy of modern political rhetoric about the Nazi horrors. Orwell, writing from the left, anticipates the deeper theoretical framework offered in the postwar period by Friedrich Hayek, wherein state control of the economy, whether rightward or leftward in disposition, is the defining characteristic of a socialist system.
This framework helps to explain the trajectory of interwar German intellectual elites such as Werner Sombart, who seamlessly went from being a leading Marxist theorist at the turn of the 20th century (and was even praised as such by Friedrich Engels) to being a leading philosopher-polemicist for national socialism in the Nazi era. The free-market economist Ludwig von Mises zeroed in on an explanation for this pattern after the war: Nazism was best understood as a rightward extension of Hegelian philosophy, just as Marxism is its better-known leftward offspring. Both derivatives were disposed to economic management and control in the service of the state — and both relied on delusions of historical inevitability.
However one might assess the other results of his legislative career, Senator Paul has proven a persistent critic of socialist thought, and this book is an earnest plea to take seriously the threat it presents. It is directed toward consumers of conservative political commentary, but its warning is sincerely offered as well to those elsewhere on the spectrum. One only hopes that sensible voices outside conservative circles respond to that sincerity by subjecting today’s socialist movements to the historical scrutiny that their many adherents are all too eager to evade.
This article appears as “Reckoning with Socialism” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.