Socialism: Trials and Errors

An ideology that promises more than it delivers

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It began as an outcry against "the dark satanic mills" of early capitalism, a shuddering reaction against the profound upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution, a reassertion of the Utopian dream of the heavenly kingdom on earth. It sprang from obscure clubs, from workers' associations, from garrets, libraries, bourgeois parlors and, occasionally, aristocratic salons. It was hounded, reviled, extolled. It became the most pervasive political ideology—or slogan—of the 20th century. Socialism.

Today it seems to have reached new heights of influence.

France nears the threshold of what Socialist Leader François Mitterrand calls "l'expérience socialiste"—and could cross it if the left wins this month's national elections. Italy faces the threat of the "historic compromise," which would bring Communists into government as partners of the long-ruling Christian Democrats. Socialist Mário Scares is Premier of Portugal, which until four years ago was a rightist dictatorship. Last year in Spain's first free national elections in more than four decades, the Socialist Workers Party of Felipe González emerged as the second most powerful political organization of the country's post-Franco era.

These dramatic developments in Western Europe are only the most recent examples of the global advances socialism has made in the decades following World War II. Today, self-proclaimed socialists of one variety or another rule 53 of the world's sovereign states, controlling 39% of its territory and 42% of its population. Such numbers alone can be misleading, for societies calling themselves socialist include Western-style democracies and repressive Communist dictatorships, constitutional republics and hereditary monarchies. Socialism is a flag of convenience that accommodates technocrats and market-minded economists, that allows fascist-type dictators or small-time Bonapartes to perpetuate themselves in power. It is politically chic to use the socialist label. Observes French Political Philosopher Raymond Aron: "In most countries, socialism carries the connotation that whatever is good is socialist, whatever is bad originates in capitalism." Adds Nobel-Prizewinning Economist Milton Friedman: "[For many], socialism implies egalitarianism and that people are living for society, while capitalism has been given the connotation of materialism, 'greedy,' 'selfish,' 'self-serving,' and so on."

What gives socialist rhetoric much of its current appeal is the economic battering the world's economy has taken in the 1970s. Against the backdrop of seemingly incurable inflation, unemployment, industrial stagnation and volatile currencies, a clarion for an economic restructuring sounds attractive. Socialist states have not solved—only hidden or ameliorated—these problems. Ironically, at the very moment of its spectacular advances, socialism faces profound new crises of its own. At the same time socialism has become a word appropriated by so many different champions and causes that it threatens to become meaningless, and a new effort is needed to sort it out.

There is no universal model of socialism, just as there is none of free-market capitalism. As Rome

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