With no carrots in the form of market incentives, socialist leaders deployed a terrifying array of sticks.

It’s a common trope that capitalism corrupts. Anyone who has spent time with our species knows that we can be avaricious, materialist and selfish. Tempting as it may be to think that socialism would make us better, it seemed to make us worse.

The communist revolution sought to reshape the economy by giving government control over the means of production. But socialist revolutionaries had more than the economy in their sights. They aimed for nothing less than an extreme makeover of human nature. Unfortunately, actual socialism seemed to make people worse, not better.

Why did socialists seek to change man?

Marx believed that “the essence of man” was “no abstraction inherent in each single individual.” Instead, this essence was “the ensemble of the social relations.” And by changing social relations, he believed man could be changed for the better.

For his part, Stalin saw that certain aspects of human nature were stumbling blocks to the socialist dream. In 1935 he told a conference of collective farm labourers that “a person is a person. He wants to own something for himself.” It will “take a long time yet to rework the psychology of the human being, to reeducate people to live collectively.”

But Stalin and others believed that, given enough time, socialism would create what they called the “New Socialist Man.” He would be intelligent, healthy, muscular, selfless and supremely dedicated to the cause. Basically, he’d look like everyone in the socialist “realist” paintings that the government compelled artists to paint.

He would care less about his private life and his family and more about society-at-large. It was in this vein that Soviet education theorists taught that “By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe.” In the place of such “egoistic love” the state encouraged “rational love” of the broader “social family.”

Socialists had a practical reason for remaking man. Without economic freedom, citizens had little incentive to produce. In a capitalist society, Adam Smith’s butcher, brewer and baker serve us dinner because they are incentivized to do so; it puts money in their pockets and food in the bellies of their children. But in a state-run canteen the workers were paid whether they served decent food or not. The socialists hoped that by remaking human nature—by creating a New Socialist Man motivated to serve others and not just himself and his family—they could solve this incentive problem.

How did people change?

As I’ve explained in an earlier post, the incentive problem was never solved. The New Socialist Man never got very good at serving others, so socialist societies were systematically poor.

But what happened to human nature? Did they succeed in changing it? The species evolves over generations so, of course, the seven-decade socialist experiment didn’t alter human genes (when Marx sent a copy of Das Kapital to Charles Darwin, it apparently sat unread on Darwin’s shelf). But socialism did have a profound effect on cultural norms and attitudes. And these changes were almost entirely for the worse.

In my book on Poland with Pete Boettke and Konstantin Zhukov, we quote one Pole from the late-1980s who observed: “one can make a generalization that everybody in Poland who has the chance engages in a good deal of stealing, cheating, and supplementing his or her income by illegal means.”

Another complained: “Why must I so often do things to get a promotion or improve my family’s living standard that run against my conscience? Why and how has it become true that I am a swine? When did I realize it, and when did I stop caring?”

Socialist planners also worried about cultural decline: “What is going to happen to the character of the young generation,” a state planner asked, “if from the very beginning of their working career in the enterprise, they are being taught and morally forced to cheat at the expense of the whole society?”

In our Estonia book, we quote Václav Havel, the poet-playwright-dissident who became Czechoslovakia’s last president. He identified the problem in his New Year’s address of 1990:

We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities… I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact, and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all—though naturally to differing extents— responsible for the operation of totalitarian machinery, none of us is just its victims; we are all also its cocreators.

Even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev complained in his autobiography of “a gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people.”

Why was the New Socialist Man a worse man?

The control problem is one explanation for this gradual erosion of moral values. With no carrots in the form of market incentives, socialist leaders deployed a terrifying array of sticks—mass deportation, widespread surveillance, arrests and slave labour. They even weaponized children against their parents (a topic I plan to cover in a future post). And since the socialist revolution was built around the notion of class warfare, the socialists felt justified in using these sticks against any class that stood in their way: kulaks, capitalists, ethnic minorities, nationalists, internationalists, left deviationists, right deviationists, religious leaders, cultural icons and intellectuals.

In the face of such widespread terror, it’s no wonder that the socialist state bread cultural habits of anger and distrust. But terror was not the only source of cultural rot. The dysfunctional economy, with its everyday contradictions and absurdities, was another source.

Despite the promise of material abundance, shortages were endemic to the socialist economy. Consumers routinely faced shortages of soap, coffee, sugar, laundry detergent, cigarettes, rubber, transportation, household appliances, cars, housing, clothing and—above all—meat. The shortages arose in part by accident. Without market-determined prices, planners were often flying blind. But shortages were also purposefully engineered by bureaucrats to solicit bribes from rationed consumers.

The only legal way that people could get what they wanted was to wait in line—sometimes for weeks on end. And even then, thugs could jump the queue. Those who didn’t want to wait would resort to bribery and the black market. Even socialist planners and factory leaders had to use the black market to meet their targets in the Five-Year plans. People commodified their relationships, using friends and family to supply them with what the socialist economy would not. This gave rise to what was called “an economy of favours” and the saying that “One must have, not a hundred rubles, but a hundred friends.”

The political scientists John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky describe the dynamic:

When the need for social or political contacts to accomplish anything—from getting enough steel in order to meet one’s factory’s plan quota to finding chocolate for a child’s birthday party—become indispensable… human relations suffer. People expect both too much and too little from friends, family, and acquaintances: too much, since almost every aspect of your life depends on what others can do for you; too little, since the instrumentalization of these relations means that they are sucked dry of any inherent pleasure.

The anthropologist Janine Wedel describes the effect on a Polish woman who manipulated her connections to obtain curtains: “[She] feels a kind of revengeful pride—she is happy to manipulate a system that has humiliated her all her life.”

As we put it in our Poland book: “The new socialist man was not the selfless creature of Marxist writing. He was a grifter who had no choice but to make his way by cheating the rest of society, just as the rest of society cheated him.”