Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which, after five years of civil war, ushered in the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Given the ways in which these events influenced the trajectory of the 20th century, this anniversary has spawned scores of new books, think pieces, and commemorative events debating communism and the Soviet Union’s legacy.
Some have been important and insightful, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum’s latest book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Others were just ridiculous, such as University of Pennsylvania professor Kristen R. Ghodsee’s claim that women had better sex under socialism.
Millennials have factored into this debate in a significant way, as younger citizens are more likely to express favorable views of socialism – or at least are not averse to it. But millennials aren’t committed and principled socialists, so much as they have unrealistic views on what governments should do and are actually capable of doing.
Polling around these issues reveals millennials to be a confused lot. A Reason-Rupe poll from 2015 found that younger people have a more positive opinion of socialism (58 percent), but are also equally likely as older Americans to say they favor free markets. Yet, only 48 percent of millennials prefer a “government-managed economy” which seems to be a distinction with only a slight difference from bonafide socialism.
According to a Gallup poll from 2016, 55 percent of millennials have a positive image of socialism, while 78 percent also have a positive image of “free enterprise.” The second annual report from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation finds that 44 percent of millennials would rather live in a socialist country than one with a market economy, and yet they confuse the definition of socialism.
While millennials are not necessarily committed Marxists and probably won’t be dismantling the exploitative, capitalist superstructure anytime soon, at the very least they are open to the ideas much more than their elders. Self-proclaimed democratic socialist and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders enjoyed a positive 39 percent favorability rating from younger citizens, as compared to a negative 23 percent favorability for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary election.
The question remains: why? Given the destructive nature of command and control economies and political institutions in the 20th century – almost 100 million people dead and more in dire poverty to this day in places such as North Korea and Venezuela – why have these collectivist ideas not died already? Part of the explanation for the openness amongst millennials is certainly their distance from it.
Socialism on a global scale ceased to be a problem in the 1990s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, so younger Americans don’t have memories of the Cold War. They don’t have the same knee-jerk reaction to that term that their parents and grandparents may have — groups who were also subjected to intense amounts of anti-communist propaganda. Millennials also don’t understand and cannot conceive of the experience of living under totalitarianism.
As a friend whose family fled the Soviet Union as refugees for America told me, most people don’t have a “textured understanding of the details of everyday life under communism. They’ve never had to deal with something like shortages of basic products like toilet paper.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for this flirtation is the insistence on an ideal theory of government in a non-ideal world – approaching the real world, institutional problems with perfect alternatives. Intellectuals have been guilty of this for decades. As sociologist Paul Hollander notes in his 2017 book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship, many 20th-century dictators were beloved by western intellectuals because they were unable to separate the men and their actions from the ideals their political system symbolized. Appeals to equality overshadowed severe institutional flaws and the violence that followed.
Millennials fall into a similar trap. As writer Christine Rosen highlights in her recent cover story in the Weekly Standard, in a panel lecture about alternatives to the existing capitalist regime at the Museum of Capitalism in Oakland, Calif., all the speakers could come up with were “pro-community buzzwords like ‘sharing,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘capacity-building’” and others such as “openness, love, and compassion.” Two-thirds of people under age 30 think it is the government’s role to provide health coverage for all, and 45 percent want single-payer. But the institutional and financial constraints around such programs and their effectiveness cannot be eliminated by appeals to compassion.
Symbolism of a perfect world cannot solve real-world problems.
Millennials are not Marxists in any traditional sense, but like everyone else, they fall prey to utopian thinking. If there are any lessons young people should draw from the legacy of the Russian Revolution, it’s to think about unintended consequences: some of the grandest utopian thinking ever thrust hundreds of millions of people into utter hell.
It wasn’t a few bad apples, it was built into the system – and it’s still there.
Jerrod A. Laber is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a writer living in northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate, and was a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation.
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