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Rise of the Jacobins: America’s Socialists Want Your Help

Revolutions are common. Good revolutions, well, not so much. Indeed, the American Revolution was one of the few that yielded a generally free society based on the rule of law and democratic governance. Only a few years later came the French Revolution. Many Americans initially looked with favor at the overthrow of a genuinely despotic monarchy, in contrast to the more constrained British system. The increasingly bloody toll as contending factions struggled for power, however, turned even former fans hostile.

Violence reached its crescendo under the Jacobins, who began as members of the Jacobin Club, initially known as Society of the Friends of the Constitution. With Maximilien Robespierre at their head, the Jacobins created the Committee of Public Safety and Committee of General Security and instituted the infamous Reign of Terror. Heads rolled—literally, as the guillotine was put to prodigious use. By one count 17,000 people were beheaded before the Jacobins lost power a little more than a year later. Then Robespierre and other leading Jacobins suffered the same fate, being dispatched from this world by what revolutionaries termed the people’s avenger.

Although discredited in France, the Jacobins were admired elsewhere as history passed by. The Bolsheviks looked to the Jacobins as models, for example, despite seeing the French Revolution as a bourgeois affair. The lack of sentimentality and determination to eradicate enemies appealed to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin & Co. Leon Trotsky contemplated trying Tsar Nicolas as the French Revolutionaries did Louis XVI. The Soviets even erected statues to Robespierre and his confederates.

The Jacobins really were surprisingly gutless when it came to murdering their political enemies and anybody else who fell afoul of their judgment. It was the Bolsheviks, particularly with Joseph Stalin at the head, who put real terror into “Reign of Terror.” RJ Rummel, author of Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, reported on life under the infamous Man of Steel: “[M]urder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the ‘enemies of the people’ they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering ‘plots.’ They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their loved ones.”

Alas, the murderous excesses of the Reign of Terror ruined the Jacobins’ reputation in America. In the US early supporters of the French Revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, were derided as Jacobins. And it wasn’t just conservatives who used Jacobins to discredit their opponents. In 1964 Sen. Barry Goldwater and his supporters were tagged “Cactus Jacobins.” Jacobin became a term of derision, used to paint someone as an ideological extremist, even a violent radical, certainly someone with no legitimate place in American politics.

Until recently, at least. A decade ago a young Bhaskar Sunkara launched Jacobin, a website, publication and foundation. They continue and he wants your support. It’s that time of the year, of course.

Sunkara appealed for funds: “It’s the best time to be a socialist in the United States since the 1970s. The bad news is that it’s still not a very good time to be a socialist in the United States.” When he talked about socialism, he meant, well, socialism. Not the pantywaist, liberal-faux, pretend-revolutionary silliness espoused by posturing progressives, and not even the Bernie Sanders approach. How revolutionary can a millionaire with three homes, who secretly loves capitalism since it provides the cash that he wants to redistribute to his political supporters, be?

It’s possible that Bernie once was a real socialist. In 1988 he had nice words for the Soviet Union: “The revolution there is far deeper and more profound than I understood it to be. It really is a revolution in terms of values.” Eight years before he was an elector for the Socialist Workers Party. Of course, it’s hard to follow all the twists and turns in commie politics, but the SWP was Trotskyite. That meant it nominally followed Leon Trotsky.

He was a critic of Joseph Stalin, which made him look quite harmless, like a typically disheveled, and distracted academic with few skills other than theorizing about how many revolutionaries could dance on a pinhead while singing the Internationale. In fact, Trotsky did not just dabble in violence. He commanded the Red Army—as the People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs—during the Russian civil war and later crushed the Kronstadt rebellion, in which sailors and others demanded freedom and elections. He was a serious thug, theorist, butcher, politician, and terrorist rolled into one.

Bernie may be an obnoxious sanctimonious hypocrite—shouldn’t he give away at least one of his homes?—but he’s no Leon Trotsky. Nor any kind of real socialist.

But it seems that Sunkara is. Indeed, he admitted a fascination with Trotsky and defended the murder of the royal Romanoff children by the Bolsheviks. Sunkara also knows the only way to make a socialist America is to seize power and steal everyone’s property. Though he doesn’t put it quite that way. When Jacobin was created, he wrote, “Our contributors didn’t always agree, but they shared a desire to win a tiny, fragmented left back to fundamentals: a class-based analysis of the world that knew (if not exactly how) that the Left’s task was to rebuild working-class organizations capable of capturing and transforming state power.”

He would, no doubt, like to do good once in a position to send forth lefties determined to eradicate capitalism, essentially political locusts empowered to consume Americans’ wealth. Wrote Sunkara: “Our ideas were marginal, but they captivated us: the dream of a society without exploitation or oppression, without unnecessary suffering, where every person could reach their potential. A world with our animal problems solved, so we could start dealing with our human ones.” Sounds pretty good. But what does any of that have to do with socialism?

Sunkara tried to explain: “We publish pieces that reveal the truth about capitalism: a system based on exploitation and the degradation of the human spirit. Most of our daily online posts don’t seem to go deeper than that. But we also have a vision of a world after capitalism, one built from wealth and abundance around us. We want to radically extend democracy into spheres liberalism has always shied away from—the social and economic realm—and challenge private property in order to foster the type of collectivism that can truly create conditions for individual flourishing.”

He concluded: “Socialism is the name of our desire, but it may not be what the movements that will one day transform the world will use. In the meantime, we hope we can continue to play a role keeping alive the dream of liberty, equality, and solidarity.”

The idea that socialism, other than various forms of voluntary communities in which people choose material privation and seek agreed equality, is the answer to anything runs against human experience. Noteworthy is how little support worldwide there is for the ideology a century and a half after Karl Marx publicized his version of utopia.

That is certainly the case in America. Admitted Sunkara: “We have no illusions about how marginal we still are. Going from a few hundred to 62,000 subscribers in a decade is a nice story, but it only matters if our political mission is advancing.” And it isn’t, if we are talking about real socialism, as opposed to redistributionism, which is more a political strategy than ideological movement.

Nor is serious socialism viable elsewhere in the world. The Soviet Union, its Eastern European satellites, the People’s Republic of China, and a handful of other nations—Cuba, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia—implemented economic variants which included substantial state ownership of the means of production. And the result was consistent. Catastrophic. Disastrous. Horrendous. And worse.

Indeed, all these states engaged in mass repression. Several conducted mass murder. Many carelessly, inadvertently, or callously killed prodigiously while seeking to create a new man and society. The total number of dead runs in the tens of millions, though we will never have an accurate count. Rummel figured about 109 million killed. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression estimated between 85 and 100 million dead. The numbers boggle the mind.

No doubt, Sunkara would respond that he does not advocate such a system, though over the years more than a few lefties have shown disturbing fondness for the guys with the guns, including in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Some still do

The only way to impose real socialism, in the end, is by force. Both the Soviet and Chinese communists won power by promising land to the peasants. Only when in power did the newly empowered socialists unveil their true intentions and seize farmers’ lands. Agricultural collectivization and state industrialization in both the USSR and PRC brought extraordinary hardship, including mass starvation, killing tens of millions. This was socialism, real socialism, and its “beneficiaries” paid a very high price.

Even the socialist grandees in these regimes had little idea of the economic world around them. Among the most famous “aha” moments came when Boris Yeltsin, then a former Soviet Politburo member, visited a Houston supermarket in September 1989. Wrote Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Hill, Yeltsin “visits a small town in Texas and makes an unscheduled stop in a grocery store. It’s the kind of store where all Americans regularly shop to find everything they could want to satisfy a hunger or household need. What Yeltsin found would not surprise us, but it amazed him. The local Texas newspaper recounted how Yeltsin ‘marvel[ed]’ at the produce, the fresh fish, and the checkout counter. ‘Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,’ remarked Russia’s future leader.” Such were the consequences of real socialism.

All of this forced most of the hardcore “socialist” regimes to turn toward capitalism. Most dramatic was the experience of the PRC. Ethnic Chinese, among the most entrepreneurial of people around the globe, proved equally adept economically at home when Deng Xiaoping dismantled the lunatic, murderous, inefficient, and impoverishing Maoist state. Without subsidies previously received from the Soviet Union, Cuba’s Castro regime suffered an economic crisis and was forced to abandon its socialist quest. It allowed development of private businesses. At the start such enterprises were to be family owned and staffed, but entrepreneurs joked with me about the many “cousins” they hired, a polite lie ignored by the authorities. Even North Korea has loosened state controls, though Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un recently reversed course, perhaps fearing the politically corrosive impact of South Korean culture on his rule.

Outside of terror systems, what country has implemented anything close to true socialism? Certainly not the Scandinavian countries. They are highly redistributive but have the money to be so because their economic systems remain capitalist. Indeed, in certain ways they represent better market systems than the US, with less special interest regulation used to reward elites with access to political power. Across the world today systems sometimes called socialist are almost always social democracies, Berniesque systems of economic redistribution which rely upon capitalism to produce abundant resources to plunder.

Some non-communist systems made an effort to attain socialism. The post-World War II United Kingdom grabbed control of important industries but fell far short of creating a socialist paradise. In Latin American nations such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and most recently Venezuela, politicians seized major economic enterprises but again, the results were not recognizably socialist. Often the looting looked very similar to that of nominally right-wing systems, such as the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia under Suharto, and more. Moreover, the economic results were uniformly dreadful, probably the most important reason such systems did not spread far.

Imagine a “democratic” system of socialism in America, in which the means of production were taken over by the state—essentially, mass theft on an enormous scale. Implementation would not be pretty: many Americans would do all they could to avoid, evade, obstruct, and sabotage such a transfer. Nor would human nature be mocked. Russian and Chinese farmers already have shown that they work harder for themselves than for “the people,” meaning political overseers and commissars. The usual intellectual elites could wring their hands at the “greed” exhibited by people who should be motivated by “solidarity,” but sanctimony piled ever higher would only deepen the cynicism of most people, especially in the working class.

Lack of knowledge and perverse incentives would wreak havoc. Socialism could only work by modeling capitalist systems. How could socialists price anything and produce everything without markets? The notion that labor determines value would fail to sustain a functioning economic system since any calculation of value is inherently subjective. State monopolies rarely perform well, especially when manipulated for political purposes, as they always are. The highly subsidized state sector in China does little for socialism while wasting vast amounts of the people’s resources. The lack of competition, both from existing alternatives and new creations, would ensure inefficiency and waste.

Finally, socialism is most likely to produce what Sunkara blames on capitalism, a system “based on exploitation and the degradation of the human spirit.” Certainly, making economic gain the center of one’s life, contributing to a society that elevates materialism, greed, and envy, risks sacrificing vital aspects of the good life. But these vices have little to do with the nature of the economic system. Human nature transcends capitalism and socialism.

In any case, systems unable to satisfy material needs intensify the desire for a better life. People always queued for the barest human necessities in “people’s democracies.” And elites in socialist systems inevitably used their political power for economic gain. When I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I headed to the hard currency store for soda and snacks; the shelves groaned beneath pricey consumer goods, including fancy electronics, available only if you had Western cash to exchange for the foreign, blue and green won, rather than the local, red and pink won. In Cuba a colleague and I, visiting legally on a journalism trip, were tossed out of a similar shop after snapping pictures of what those with access to dollars or euros could buy, but which those with only Cuban pesos could not.

Moreover, when the state extends its control over economic resources, it inevitably limits other human activities. A market economy is but one part of a free society, which is filled with nonmarket institutions: families, clubs, churches, associations, friends, charities, and much more. A free economic system expands their opportunities and scope despite its imperfections.

In contrast, when politicians decide how to allocate resources, they have no objective standards. Experience demonstrates that those in disfavor, whether journalists, clerics, politicians, activists, or anyone else, inevitably come up short. It really doesn’t matter whether anyone intends socialism to act in this way. It will inevitably do so.

Thankfully, I believe Sunkara’s drive to impose socialism in the US is doomed. Young people may talk about socialism without any understanding of what it would really mean. Once they realized someone up the bureaucratic chain would decide what kind of smartphone they could buy and apps they could use—indeed, if they could do so at all—their enthusiasm for the concept would quickly cool.

Still, I hope he keeps Jacobin afloat. It is a serious venture with a serious mission that deals with serious ideas, in contrast to the mostly braindead officeholders in both the Democratic and Republican parties. While serving in the Stanford student senate when I was supposed to be studying law, a socialist coalition took. They were loopy lefties but recognized that America faced serious problems and advocated systemic reforms, in contrast to the squishy liberals who were, well, essentially useless for any and all purposes. America needs a serious debate over its future. I hope socialists—real socialists, like those affiliated with Jacobin—join in.