Last week, Goldsmith University’s LGBTQ+ Society sent out a string of tweets defending the Soviet Union’s Gulag system. The Gulags, they claimed, were nothing like the death camps of the deluded Westerner’s imagination. They were humane places of rehabilitation, where criminals were given a chance to redeem themselves.

When those comments went viral, they were met with widespread condemnation – including from Goldsmith’s own Student Union – while hardly anybody rushed to their defence. If the members of Goldsmith’s little Stalin fan club were hoping to replicate Ash Sarkar’s rise to fame, capitalising on the socialism craze which seems to define the mood of our times, it clearly did not work out for them.

But what’s the difference? If a vocal endorsement of socialism/communism was all it took to turn Ash Sarkar’s into a national superstar, why did the LGBTQ+ Society’s attempt flop so badly?

The difference, of course, is that Ash Sarkar understands that socialism is only popular in the abstract. The popularity of the general idea does not extend to any of the attempts to actually implement it. Calling oneself a socialist or a communist is considered ‘cool’, but praising a real-world example is considered gauche.

The ‘cool’ socialist knows that the Soviet Union was never ‘really’ socialist. They believe that Stalinism was a distortion of socialism, and that due a series of bizarre coincidences, socialism was then subsequently distorted again and again in many other places.

But were the horrors of Stalinism really just a coincidental by-product of socialism? Or were they an inevitable consequence?

On the one hand, critics of socialism need to admit that the Stalinist period was an exceptionally murderous period even by socialism’s gruesome standards. The Gulag system, which had predated Stalin, also outlasted him, but on nothing like the same scale and deadliness. Khrushchev’s policy of ‘de-Stalinisation’ after 1953 showed that the Soviet system did have some limited capacity for self-reform. Some socialist regimes – most notably, Maoist China and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge – were about as atrocious as Stalinism, but many others came nowhere near. So to claim that socialism must always lead to industrial-scale mass murder would push the envelope.

On the other hand, even the least bad examples were still notorious police states, which severely restricted civil liberties and personal freedom. And more importantly, socialist states were not just randomly repressive. They were all repressive in similar ways. There was method in it. Socialist states often have to resort to repressive methods in order to enforce compliance with the Five-Year-Plan (or whatever the national equivalent is).

Unlike a market economy, where we can all pursue our separate individual goals, a socialist economy is organised around a unifying plan, which embodies the presumed collective goals of society as a whole. In such a society, you cannot allow individual members to just do whatever they please. Collective priorities override individual priorities – and this would still be true even if a socialist system could be impeccably democratic.

For example, once the planning committee has allocated your manpower to a particular workplace, you cannot just decide that you would rather move somewhere else, and do something else. If a large number of people did that, it would jumble the plan. This is one reason why socialist societies usually ban emigration, as well as freedom of movement with the country.

The Soviet Union banned emigration right from its inception – however, in the years before the transformation to a planned economy began in earnest, people could still move freely within the country. Not coincidentally, this freedom was taken away from them during the rollout of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), when a system of internal passports and residence permits was brought in (see here, p.70). This was not an act of random cruelty. You cannot plan an economy when the factors of production move around all the time. The planners need to be able to allocate those factors, which then need to stay where they are.

Nor can you have democratically organised, self-governing workplaces in such a system. What do you do if the workforces of individual factories decide to deviate from the Five-Year Plan? If you cannot enforce the plan, you might as well not have a plan in the first place. But if the management of state-owned enterprises has no autonomy to do anything other than follow orders handed down to them by the planning committee, then ‘workplace democracy’ is just window dressing.

And so on. The short summary is that while socialism does not always have to lead to a bloodbath, it cannot be anything other than authoritarian, repressive and technocratic. It does not always have to lead to Gulags – but it can never come close to the romantic, worker-run grassroots democracy our trendy socialists like to talk about.

In my paper ‘The Mirage of Democratic Socialism – An Alternative History’, I conduct a thought experiment, which describes socialism under idealised conditions. I describe a socialist country which is governed by people with the most noble intentions, who try their best to move towards that romantic workers’ democracy. It is technically set in a fictitious post-1990 East Germany, in a parallel timeline where the fall of the Berlin Wall did not lead to German reunification, but to a process of democratic renewal within the GDR (which is what some people predicted would happen at the time). But the details of time and place are secondary. It could just as well describe a future socialist Britain, governed by Ash Sarkar and her comrades.

It works for a short time. But soon, the cracks begin to open, as the contradictions between a collectivist economy on the one hand, and individual freedom on the other hand, become apparent. As per assumption, there are no ‘bad people’ in this paper. But this does not preclude bad outcomes.

The history I describe is entirely fictitious. Let’s hope it stays that way.