More precisely, socialism is popular in the abstract. It is popular as a nebulous ideal. But nothing gets a socialist’s hackles up as much as the mention of an actual (historical or contemporary) example of socialism in action. Mention the Soviet Union, Mao’s China or Enver Hoxha’s Albania in the presence of a socialist, and you can expect hissy fits.
We let socialists off the hook too easily when they dismiss references to real-world examples of socialism as “straw men”. Most of those “straw men” are nothing of the sort. They are the has-been utopias of yesteryear, the models that Western socialists once used to endorse, and now no longer want to be reminded of. We see this happening with Venezuela, but Venezuela is only the latest link in a long chain. The habit of enthusiastically endorsing, and then retroactively disowning models of socialism has a long tradition on the Left.
Even North Korea, one of the most atrocious regimes in the world, is not a complete exception to this.
Obviously, almost no socialist wants to be associated with North Korea today. While South Korea, the counterfactual, is a prosperous, liberal democracy, North Korea is a Stalinist basket case. The average South Korean is, according to one estimate, more than 20 times richer, and lives 12 years longer, than the average North Korean (and is significantly less likely to end up in a Gulag). If we think of the division of Korea as a natural experiment, it is fair to treat its outcome as conclusive.
This wasn’t always so obvious. The North of Korea was originally more highly industrialised than the South, and until the mid-1970s, the North was actually richer than the South. Also, until the late 1980s, both Koreas were dictatorships.
But while the jury was still out, the North Korean system did indeed have some relatively prominent Western admirers. One of them was the acclaimed Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, who, in 1965, published a paper entitled Korean Miracle, in which she described North Korea as a stunning success story. After reciting a long list of official production figures, Robinson claimed:
“All the economic miracles of the postwar world are put in the shade by these achievements.”
The country’s social achievements were, in her account, even more impressive:
“There is already universal education […] There are numerous nursery schools and creches, all without charge. There is a complete system of social security […] The medical service is free. […] Workers receive holidays with pay.”
Nor was North Korea a dictatorship – it just looked like one:
“The outward signs of a ‘cult’ are very marked – photographs, street names, toddlers in the nursery singing hymns to the beloved leader. But Prime Minister Kim II Sung seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator.”
In the 1970s, Eldridge Cleaver, one of the leaders of the US Black Panther Party, travelled to North Korea several times. After a visit in 1970, he wrote:
“Here in Korea we have found a people who have laid the foundations of communism and who are now rushing […] to transform their society into an earthly paradise […]
No other people in the history of the world have been able to achieve such fantastic results in all areas of the economy at one time […]
The workers […] of the world have much to envy in the lives of the working people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
And in the early 1980s, Luise Rinser, a West German writer and the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 1984, travelled to North Korea several times. She described the country as a bucolic, egalitarian idyll, untainted by the corrupting influences of Western consumerism. Kim Il Sung, in her account, was not a dictator at all, but a benign father-like figure, who governed together with his people:
“It really is true, I experience it, that the president does not govern from his desk, he goes out to the people, giving and receiving advice at the grassroots. What is then worked out as an official plan in Pyongyang is the result of Kim Il Sung’s consultations with experts and workers. I can also see that his people love him, and not because they are instructed to.”
I could go on. Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that there was ever widespread support for the North Korean regime from Western leftists: there wasn’t. North Korea never attracted mass pilgrimages from Western intellectuals of the kind that the Soviet Union, China and Cuba once attracted. But at the same time, it is not particularly hard to find statements like the above.
It is absolutely fair to treat North Korea as an example of socialism, and to hold its outcomes against self-described socialists. Sure, this is not the kind of socialism that Western socialists aspire to. But then, socialism has a habit of not turning out the way its proponents hope.