29 October 2020

What really sets ‘hip’ socialists apart from the crank left?


Do you know who Owen Jones is? You probably find this question bemusing. Jones is the UK’s bestselling political writer, he has a million Twitter followers, and he is almost constantly on TV. If you live in Britain, and you take at least some interest in current affairs, it is impossible not to know who he is (more’s the pity).

But do you know who Charlie Kimber is? You probably don’t have the slightest clue. He is the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), author of several books and has been politically active since the 1970s.

Similarly, you almost certainly know who Grace Blakeley is – but I bet you have never heard of Hannah Sell, who is the General Secretary of the Socialist Party (SP), author of the book Socialism in the 21st Century, and politically active since the late 1980s.

You obviously know who Ash Sarkar is – but you have never heard of Robert Griffiths, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), author of several books, politically active since the early 1970s.

Why do some socialists quickly become household names, while others remain obscure fringe figures despite decades of activism? The naïve reply would be “Because the former stand for a more modern, less dogmatic version of socialism”, but that would be a fundamental misunderstanding.

The difference between fashionable and unfashionable socialists is not a difference of ideology. It is a difference in style, and PR savvy. Fashionable socialists have a much higher level of self-awareness. They know how to talk to “normal” people. They know, for example, that if you overuse Marxist jargon, you just come across as a crank. That is why Grace Blakeley talks about how society is split into “those who live off work, and those who live off wealth”, rather than “the proletariat and the bourgeoisie”.

Crucially, fashionable socialists also know when to stop. They know when a cause is lost, and when it is best to drop it. Owen Jones realised at some point in 2014 that it was time to shut up about his former hobbyhorse, Venezuela. The SWP, the SP and the CPB, in contrast, cannot even bring themselves to shut about the Russian Revolution.

With that in mind: I was surprised when the socialist magazine Jacobin recently crossed that invisible dividing line between the trendy left and the crank left, by publishing an article defending the German Democratic RepublicJacobin is normally very much part of the trendy ‘Millennial Socialism’ crowd, representing the cool, hip kind of socialism. And yet, here they were, defending the Berlin Wall, 31 years after its fall:

“How to stabilize and consolidate the new socialist order while losing hundreds of thousands of able-bodied workers every year? […] The Wall was ugly, menacing, and, for many citizens, no doubt heartbreaking. But the economic and geopolitical stability it ensured also gave the GDR the chance to build a society that was broadly characterized by modest prosperity and social equality between classes and genders.”

The author, Loren Balhorn, sees the GDR as a noble endeavour with some minor downsides. He does not approve of the GDR’s repressive features, but sees them as the result of special conditions. And he sees German reunification as a big mistake.

His reasoning is a bit unconventional. For example, Balhorn laments that eastern Germany is still lagging behind western Germany in many ways. This is true – but it is an odd criticism for a socialist to make. The East-West gap is, of course, a legacy of the system which Balhorn defends. So he is effectively blaming capitalism for not cleaning up the mess left behind by socialism quickly enough.

Even then, it does not stack up. Just after reunification, East German GDP per capita stood at just over one third of the West German level. It now stands at about 70% of the West German level (a moving target, of course). So yes, that still leaves a gap. But then, there is some regional inequality everywhere, and why should Germany be the only exception to this? Germany’s East-West gap is smaller than Italy’s North-South gap, or the gap between London and the south-east and the north of England, or Wales. Yet we do not usually conclude that the UK is a “failure”, and that the north of England or Wales would be better off as Socialist People’s Republics.

Balhorn also claims that “across the former Eastern Bloc, […] life expectancy declined by several years”after 1990. This is, to put it politely, not the whole story. The bigger picture is this: until the late 1960s, life expectancy was about the same on both sides of the Iron Curtain. From then on, however, life expectancy stagnated in Eastern Europe, and continued to grow in Western Europe, so that by 1990, a gap of more than five years had opened up.

From then on, we no longer see a common trend in Eastern Europe, but a huge divergence. Life expectancy drops in some countries, and takes a long time to recover again, while in other countries, we only see a brief dip, followed by steep increases.

So is Balhorn at least partially right? Not quite, because the former group consists of those countries that never fully shook off the bad habits of the Soviet era (namely Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus), while the latter group consists of those countries that moved furthest and fastest towards Western-style systems (namely the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic states). The opposite of what Balhorn implies.

Why does Balhorn do this to himself? Defending the GDR is not just a lost cause, but also a completely unnecessary one. For years, the fall of the Berlin Wall was considered the final defeat of the socialist cause. We now know that it was anything but. Over the past five years or so, socialism has made an unlikely comeback as a youth movement, and a hipster fashion statement. Socialists have successfully dissociated themselves from regimes like the East German one. So why would he needlessly tear open this old wound again?

The reason, I suspect, is that Balhorn knows a lot more about the GDR than your average hipster socialist. The typical Jacobin reader would say that the GDR regime was a fraud, that they never had anything to do with socialism, and that that is all there is to know about it.

Balhorn knows that this is not true. He knows that the GDR really did start as an idealistic project (if backed by Soviet tanks), and that the aspirations of its founders were not that different from the aspirations of today’s socialists. He knows that as a socialist, he cannot honestly claim that what happened in the GDR has nothing to do with him. He knows that the GDR regime acted the way it did for a reason, and that while he can criticise some of their actions, he cannot entirely disown them.

And he is right about that. But he would be better off not knowing these things, because for a socialist, not knowing them is a prerequisite for fame and popularity. Knowing them, in contrast, leads to the oblivion and obscurity of the crank left.

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Kristian Niemietz is head of Political Economy at the Institute for Economic Affairs.