Where have all the Chavistas gone? Five years ago, every fashion-conscious Western radical was praising Venezuela to the skies. Sean Penn exulted in how Hugo Chávez "did incredible things for the 80 percent of the people that are very poor." Oliver Stone made an obsequious film about South American socialism, whose premiere in Venice was attended by the caudillo himself. Michael Moore hailed Chávez for eliminating 75 percent of extreme poverty. His Canadian equivalent, Naomi Klein, proudly declared her support for the beret-wearing strongman.
Suddenly, they have gone very quiet. In the UK, articles by prominent Leftists have started vanishing from the archive. The leader of Britain's Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was a passionate defender of Chávez, as were other senior figures in his party. "Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting neo-liberal policies," he wrote in a piece that has now disappeared from his website. "Conquering poverty?" Venezuela is in a state of unprecedented squalor: blackouts are frequent, food and medicines are running out and most state workers are on a two-day week.
Socialist selective amnesia is not new, of course: Rewriting the past was a characteristic of Soviet regimes, brilliantly dramatized in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." The reason Leftists make such frequent use of what Orwell called "the memory hole" is that their heroes keep failing them.
The pattern is always the same. Socialists take power somewhere. Comfortable, middle-class Western Leftists rhapsodize about their achievements. Then, the regime leads, as socialist regimes invariably lead, to poverty and tyranny. At which point, without a blush, Western Leftists say that it was never properly socialist, and move on to their next Third World pin-up.
First came the USSR. While Stalin was murdering millions in the 1930s through enforced collectivization, the New York Times's Walter Duranty was filing excited copy about the success of Soviet agrarian reforms. In Britain, the dotty socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, from their comfortable home in Hampshire, extolled the revolution in their 1935 book, "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?"
Nowadays, no one defends Stalin anymore. Western lefties will tell you that the USSR was never socialist, but practiced a form of "state capitalism." Yet, they went on to repeat the cycle with virtually every other new socialist regime: China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Albania, Cuba, Nicaragua.
The script never varies. We are supposedly witnessing a new dawn until the moment of collapse – at which point, overnight, we are told that it "wasn't real socialism". Here, for example, is Noam Chomsky in 2009:
"What's so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created."
And here he is today: "I never described Chavez's state capitalist government as ‘socialist' or even hinted at such an absurdity. It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained."
But Venezuela isn't remote from socialism. It's a textbook example. Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, set out to replace the market with a system of state production and distribution. Result? Shops are empty, inflation is running at 720 percent and hunger has returned. A few state-run distribution centers offer cheaper food, with rationing by queue rather than by price. Queues, of course, are a feature of every socialist regime.
So is corruption. The bigger the government, the more people's success depends on sucking up to officials rather than on offering a service to consumers. Expanding state bureaucracies offer new opportunities for nepotism. First, Venezuelan jobs were allocated on the basis of political allegiance; now food supplies are.
And so is penury. When I was growing up in South America in the 1970s, Venezuela was a place that people emigrated to. Now, Venezuelans are stampeding to get out. And – I still find this almost unbelievable – there are recorded cases of death from malnutrition.
It's true that pure undiluted socialism, like pure undiluted capitalism, exists in theory rather than in our complicated world. Still, we can make some rough comparisons. In 1973, when Chile abandoned Marxism and embraced markets, income per head there was 36 percent of what it was in Venezuela; now, it is 151 percent. Or compare West Germany to East Germany, or South Korea to North Korea, or Cuba to Bermuda.
"That's not fair!" say Leftists, "You're citing all the examples of dictatorships!" That's right, comrades. And maybe that's telling you something about the way socialism ends up relying on coercive force.
It is not fair to judge socialism as a textbook theory while judging capitalism by its necessarily imperfect real-world examples. Judge like with like, and every socialist state is poorer and less free than its market-based neighbors. If you know of a counter-example out there somewhere, compañeros, let's hear it.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.