That was then. Today, in America, for the first time in nearly a century, socialism is not a dirty word, or a shunned label, for many people. On the contrary. President Barack Obama, with a minimum of controversy, has reopened relations with the unabashedly socialist regime in Cuba, demanding almost no concessions in exchange for becoming the first U.S. president in 88 years to visit the island. (Indeed, on the eve of the president’s arrival, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Cuba—together with China—was committed to the “irreversibility of socialism.”)
“For older people, socialism is associated with communism and the Soviet Union and the Cold War,” says Michelle Diggles, a senior policy analyst at Third Way, a liberal D.C. think tank. “The oldest millennials were 8 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. They have never known a world where the Soviet Union exists. … The connotations associated with the word ‘socialism’ just don’t exist with millennials.”
Watching the false hope of socialism be resurrected amid ignorance of basic 20th century history is particularly distressing for me. I am a millennial American myself, but I am also head of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. I have dedicated my professional life to honoring the millions who paid with their lives so that totalitarian leaders could build their socialist “utopias.”
Many are still paying. Today, 20 percent of the world’s population continues to live under communist regimes, in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos and North Korea. These countries are some of the worst violators of human rights in history. China operates its own “gulag” system of labor camps for political prisoners. The Castros in Cuba—the Obama administration’s newest friends—routinely throw their opponents in prison, despite Raúl Castro’s misleading comments at his news conference with Obama on Monday. There remain more than 50 political prisoners in Cuba, which the Castro government denies.
Maybe we should have seen this loss of historical memory coming nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps we should have heard the alarm bells of a 2011 Newsweek survey that reported 73 percent of Americans “couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War” in response to a question taken from the official test for U.S. citizenship. Ignorance of socialism and America’s decadeslong struggle against it has become the norm, and the data suggest this norm will only harden as a generation of Americans pass away and national memory fades.
For a generation with no memory of bomb shelter drills or sledgehammers smashing the Berlin Wall to pieces, the sad reality of life under socialist rule has been forgotten, and the lessons of the Cold War have been relegated to the “ash heap of history” alongside communism. Instead, the concept of socialism has often been confused with liberalism. Socialism seems like a fine idea that means a more social equitable society for everyone—free health care and free education for starters. Socialism conjures the image of a place like Sweden and Denmark, which contrary to popular belief, are not socialist systems at all. In fact, Danish Prime Minster Lars Lokke Rasmussen responded to claims by Senator Bernie Sanders that the Scandinavian countries were socialist by saying: “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
Socialism is not roads, welfare, and free education. Socialism has always had a more ominous goal and shares close historical and ideological connections with more reviled terms: Marxism and communism. Karl Marx took socialism to what he viewed as its natural conclusion: The “abolition of private property.”
The process of transforming “capitalist property”—that is, something legitimately purchased, inherited or otherwise earned—into “social property” for everyone is when socialism becomes sinister. This promise of redistribution always involves winners and losers picked by the government. What if one has acquired capitalist property and does not wish it to become “social property?” Well, then the government might have to step in and take it.
The loss of private property—which ensures one’s independent livelihood—perforce erodes one’s ability to exercise free speech. What if the owner of some capitalist property taken by the government dares to protest its seizure? That sort of dissent must be stifled to maintain order, so free speech is replaced by government-sanctioned propaganda. Unpopular opinions are shamed, and those expressing them are barred from forums like colleges and universities.
How do we know? Because we’ve seen it happen time and again. Ninety-nine years ago the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia showed the danger of combining socialist ideas with totalitarian violence, which created modern totalitarian communism. It was Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin who expressed a sort of unifying theory, finally achieving Marx’s goals. “In striving for socialism,” Lenin said in 1917, “we are convinced it will develop into communism.” The result in more than 40 national experiments since then has been either totalitarian dictatorship or economic collapse, costing some 100 million lives before the communist experiment collapsed in Europe and the Soviet Union.
To be sure, not everyone in these societies was a loser, which gets at one of the great paradoxes of all socialist systems: the extreme inequality that allows a cabal of party members to control the political and economic power in a country to the exclusion of an overwhelming majority of the citizens. Only socialist countries have achieved the tragic distinction of launching rockets into outer space while millions of their citizens starve to death in famine. Now that’s inequality!
The Center for Global Policy at George Mason University has recorded an interesting historical development. Its Political Instability Task Force plotted a chart showing the percentage of countries in which mass killings were occurring from the end of World War II until the present day. For most of the second half of the 20th century, that percentage increased steadily. Then, in the early 1990s, a precipitous drop occurred, and in the 2010s we have seen the lowest percentage of countries on Earth with ongoing mass killings ever recorded. What happened in the early 1990s? The Cold War ended and millions were freed from behind communist walls and secret police holding cells. This was also when our millennial generation was born.
Indeed, there is very much a generation gap in today’s socialist resurgence. Nate Silver points out that while polling from May 2015 shows a plurality of voters under 30 supporting socialism, that figure drops to a mere 15 percent among those over 65. The reason for this is not difficult to see. It reflects a difference in personal experience.