“This has happened many times before, and is part of a predictable cycle. As I show in my new book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, socialist projects always go through honeymoon periods, during which they are enthusiastically endorsed by Western intellectuals. But since socialist policies generally lead to economic failure, and sometimes even political repression, those honeymoon periods typically don’t last for more than a decade. Then these foreign example fall out of fashion, and get retroactively reclassified as counterfeit socialism. The USSR, North Vietnam, Cuba and Maoist China all functioned as utopias du jour. In the 1970s, some Western intellectuals even pinned their hopes on more obscure areas of the world, such as Cambodia, Albania, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Nicaragua.
One common, backward-looking delusion in all of these cases: When explaining away the failures of the past, it was assumed that the hierarchical, stratified character of failed socialist projects had been a result of some deliberate political choice. Which is to say: It was believed that previous socialist experiments had failed because the leaders of these movements caused them to be centralized and autocratic as a matter of design—as opposed to a democratic socialist system based on mass participation and a radical decentralisation of power.
But the truth is that mass participation and radical democratization always had been idealized by socialists, including by socialist leaders who led successful national movements. But these dreams never survived, because it simply isn’t feasible to run a large society and a complex economy in this kind of participatory way. Democratic socialism works perfectly fine in small, self-selecting and homogenous high-trust communities with relatively simple economies, the prime example being the Israeli Kibbutz. But that model is not scalable (and hasn’t even aged particularly well in Israel itself). There is a reason that, even at the height of the Kibbutz movement, Kibbutzim never grew beyond a certain size. There seems to be an upper limit of around 1,500 people, and even that is rare: Most Kibbutzim have fewer than 500 members.
Regardless of what socialists say they want to build, socialism can only mean a society run by large, hierarchical government bureaucracies. It can only mean a command-and-control economy directed by a distant, technocratic elite. The reason it always turns out that way isn’t because revolutions are “betrayed” by selfish or undisciplined actors, but because no other path is possible. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself—which is why each cohort is sneered at by its younger counterparts.” – Kristian Niemietz, in an essay titled Socialism’s Endless Refrain: This Time, Things Will Be Different, in the Quilette blog