Why Have There Been Authoritarian Socialist Countries But Not a Democratic Socialist One?

In Christianity and Socialism Both Inspired Murderous Governments and Tyrants. Should We Abandon Both?, we observed the flawed idea that authoritarian socialist nations like the Soviet Union started as democratic socialist societies. By recognizing that socialism since its inception has existed in different forms advocated by different people (bottom-up, democratic, peaceful vs. top-down, authoritarian, violent), just like Christianity and other religions past and present (peaceful missionary work, coexistence, and church-state separation vs. violent conquest, forced conversion, and authoritarian theocracy), and by looking at history, the slippery slope argument disintegrated.

The societal changes socialists push for have already been achieved, in ways large and small, without horrors all over the world, from worker cooperatives to systems of direct democracy to universal healthcare and education, public work programs guaranteeing jobs, and Universal Basic Income (see Why America Needs Socialism). These incredible reforms have occurred in democratic, free societies, with no signs of Stalinism on the horizon. The slippery slope fallacy is constantly applied to socialism and basically any progressive policy (remember, racial integration is communism), but it doesn’t have any more merit than when it is applied to Christianity [i.e. peaceful missionary work always leading to theocracy]. Those who insist that leaders and governments set out to implement these types of positive socialistic reforms but then everything slid into dictatorship and awfulness as a result basically have no understanding of history, they’re just completely divorced from historical knowledge. Generally, when you actually study how nations turned communist, you see that a Marxist group, party, or person already deeply authoritarian achieved power and then ruled, expectedly, in an authoritarian manner, implementing policies that sometimes resemble what modern socialists call for but often do not (for example, worker ownership of the workplace is incompatible with government ownership of the workplace; direct democratic decision-making is incompatible with authoritarian control; and so forth). It’s authoritarians who are most likely to use violence in the first place; anti-authoritarians generally try to find peaceful means of creating change, if possible. (Which can take much longer, requiring the built consensus of much of the citizenry. This is one reason authoritarian socialist countries exist but no true democratic socialist society. It’s quicker to just use force. The latter needs more time.)

Note that citations are provided in the original article. Now, all this was worth a bit more commentary. If you can show someone that, despite some socialistic reforms, there hasn’t been a democratic socialist (libertarian socialist, market socialist) nation yet in human history, only authoritarian socialist (communist) ones, that there was no devolution from one to the other, the next question is Why? Why has communism existed and succeeded, with State control of all workplaces, the abolition of the market, and totalitarianism, but not democratic socialism, where workers control their workplaces, the government offers universal healthcare, education, and jobs or income, and citizens enjoy participatory democracy?

The answer was touched upon at the end of the quote above. It’s about time and values. All this is a bit like asking why there hasn’t been a Mormon theocracy yet, or a nation with Mormonism as its official religion, or a country with a majority Mormon population (saying Tonga is majority LDS is a bit of a stretch). Mormonism, a sect of Christianity, began in the 1830s, at the same time socialism was born under Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and others (Marx was still a boy). There hasn’t been a nation with a (serious) majority Mormon citizenry because it hasn’t grown popular enough over the past 200 years. There has never been an LDS theocracy or an officially LDS nation because 1) the belief system has yet to become popular enough, or 2) there has been no group that has overthrown existing power structures through violence or been willing to use force and oppression after legitimately ascending to power. The same can be said of democratic socialism — neither option has occurred as of this moment. In contrast, number 2 was reached by authoritarian socialist leaders and groups, even if number 1 wasn’t beforehand. (Unlike Mormonism, traditional Christianity had both enough time and the right ideologues to achieve both high popularity in some places and to violently crush anyone who stood in its way in others. So did Islam.) This all makes a great deal of sense. As noted, if authoritarians are more likely to use violence, they have a fast-track to power. To the ability to swiftly enact societal transformations. And without the consensus of the population, they may have to rule with an iron fist to get everyone in line.

Radicals who are not authoritarian socialists, and are less likely to use force to get what they want (again, what they want is something rather different), have no such shortcut. The Frenchman Ernest Lesigne wrote in his 1887 poem “The Two Socialisms” that one socialism “has faith in a cataclysm,” whereas the other “knows that social progress will result from the free play of individual efforts.” Most democratic socialists have little interest in cataclysmic violent revolution; at most, only a great nonviolent national strike. Instead, they must educate the populace, change the minds of the majority. They must push for reforms. It takes far longer, but — not that democratic socialists desire this either — you won’t have to rule by terror when it’s all over. A slow, peaceful transition not only wins but requires the consent of the governed. And as mentioned in the beginning of the quote, this metamorphosis is underway. Places like Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Europe are moving away from free market capitalism and toward social democracy, which is a stepping stone to democratic socialism. America has drifted as well, though not as far. If a couple centuries is not enough, we’ll see where we’re at in 500 years or 1,000. There is no magic number, no predictable date of victory. Just because democratic socialism hasn’t happened yet does not mean it won’t, nor does this fact discredit the idea — Mormonism is not untrue or bad because it is not yet hugely popular, any more than embryonic Christianity in A.D. 100. Capitalism took a very long time to become the dominant world system, replacing feudalism. The full realization of the next stage will experience the same.

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