Learn From Sad History

20 October 2023
Learn From Sad History - Featured image

Millennials’ support for ‘socialism’ would wane if they were taught more of its true nature and tragic history, report IPA Research Fellows Lana Starkey and Colleen Harkin.

Long branded narcissistic, entitled, and politically apathetic, the ‘Me me me’ millennial generation—those born between 1980 and 2000—are now the largest voting group in Australia. If the polls are correct, their attitude towards politics can be summed up in three red emblazoned words: ‘Tax the rich’. In 2021, ‘the world’s most famous left-wing millennial’, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, attended the exclusive Met gala ball wearing an ivory Brother Vellies gown with the provocative slogan emblazoned in red across the back. The stunt drew a mixed reaction with some criticising it as hypocritical while others praised Ocasio-Cortez for audaciously demanding the uber-rich cough up at their own exclusive event. Whatever the effect, the stunt was appropriately glib, and along with a rise of socialist-leaning candidates across the Anglosphere over the same period, it prompted a reassessment of generation Y’s political preferences, hitherto considered largely incoherent.

Coinciding with Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, the February 2019 cover of The Economist heralded ‘The Rise of Millennial Socialism’ and featured the results of a 2019 Gallup Poll that found 51 per cent of Americans aged 18-29 approved of socialism. This poll showed a marked change in preference for young Americans who in 2010 preferred capitalism over socialism at 68 to 51 per cent. Since 2019, polls across the US and the UK have indicated millennials’ increasing interest in and support for socialism, with a 2021 UK poll finding roughly 40 per cent of millennials had a favourable opinion of socialism while a similar proportion agreed with the statement that “communism could have worked if it had been better executed”. What these polls most clearly demonstrated was a shift in the zeitgeist towards socialism. However, what respondents meant exactly by the term ‘socialism’ remains unclear.

In this context Canada’s Fraser Institute—in partnership with the IPA, the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, and the Fund for American Studies—commissioned a Leger poll on attitudes towards socialism, asking specific questions about the meaning of the term, and exploring how those favouring specific types of socialism plan to pay for the associated expansion of government. The poll was conducted late last year and covered the four participating countries—Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom—focusing on differences based on age. Of particular interest was what exactly was meant by the term socialism for those under the age of 34, who were not alive during the Cold War.

Millennials lack experience of socialism and the misery it imposed.

The results found broad support for socialism in that respondents across all age groups in all four countries agreed, to varying extents, that a transition to socialism would improve the economy and wellbeing of their citizens when socialism is defined as more government spending and provision of services and/or providing a guaranteed level of minimum income. This agreement was more pronounced across most age groups in Australia than in the three other countries. However, all four countries indicated relative support, and in all four countries the strength of this view decreased with age.

Crucially, support for socialism as the ideal economic system was strongest among those aged 18-34 regardless of country, ranging from 43 per cent in the US to 53 per cent in the UK, to 61 per cent in Australia.

Millennials in Australia showed the strongest net preference for socialism with 50 per cent identifying it as the ideal economic system, with this preference rising to 53 per cent for those aged 18 to 24. Only 30 per cent of young Australians agreed capitalism is the ideal economic system, with 40 per cent of millennials disagreeing with this. Australia’s strongest support for socialism resulted when respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “A shift to socialism in Australia would improve the economy and wellbeing of Australians”, with 62 per cent of Australians aged 25-34 agreeing. This was socialism defined as more government spending and services and/or a guaranteed minimum income and all age groups rejected the ‘traditional’ definition of socialism as the government seizing the means of production.

Interestingly, while support for socialism was broadly high and particularly high for millennials, no age group in any of the surveyed countries indicated a general willingness to pay for the costs associated with their favoured definition(s) of socialism. The two broad-based tax increases—a large increase in personal income taxes (with exceptions for lower-income workers) and a 20 percent VAT/GST (with exemptions for lower-income workers)—received by far the lowest levels of total support. At the same time, two targeted tax increases— a new wealth tax imposed on the top one per cent and a higher personal income tax imposed on the top 10 per cent—garnered strong support: ‘Tax the rich!’ Indeed.

The results suggest most respondents find themselves broadly aligned with the outcomes that socialism purports to achieve but have little understanding of how the system really works. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly by their perception that there is the possibility of a ‘free lunch’.

More striking, however, was the high level of support for socialism from Australian millennials and their disenchantment with capitalism. The strong desire for a profound economic and social change—and the fact such change is conceived of in terms of ‘socialism’—may in part be due to their lack of real-world experience of socialism and the misery it imposed. In response to these findings, the IPA—in conjunction with the Fraser Institute, The Institute of Economic Affairs, and The Fund for American Studies—has established the ‘Realities of Socialism’ project. Its aim is to educate people about socialism and capitalism, and in particular the experiences of genuine socialism imposed on tens of millions of people across the world throughout the 20th century.

Schools have moved from education to political pursuits.

This project should resonate with us as we lead up to Victims of Communism Day. Marked each year on November 7, the Gregorian calendar date of the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 by the Bolsheviks, the date was celebrated in the former Soviet Union as ‘October Revolution Day’ (for the Julian calendar date of October 25) and is still celebrated as such in contemporary Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, parts of the former USSR.

In the USA, Victims of Communism Day gained federal recognition in 2019 and to date Alabama, Idaho, Florida, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Georgia have passed resolutions to officially recognise the date, with seven other States moving to do the same. Florida passed the Bill last year, and significantly, Ron DeSantis included a mandate requiring high school students to learn about the evils of communism. Announcing the Bill, he explained his rationale behind the inclusion of the teaching of communism in schools:

Honoring the people that have fallen victim to communist regimes and teaching our students about those atrocities is the best way to ensure that history does not repeat itself. … we are guaranteeing that the history of those who fled communist regimes and their experiences are preserved and not forgotten by our students. While it’s fashionable in some circles to whitewash the history of communism, Florida will stand for truth and remain as a beachhead for freedom.

In the Australian context—and in light of the IPA’s research into the National Curriculum, conducted as part of our ‘Foundations of Western Civilisation Program’—this is heartening, and indeed, encouraging news. As one of the sites of a larger ‘culture war’, schools have received renewed attention over the past few years. Boundaries between school and home, and between the responsibilities of teachers and parents, have become increasingly blurred and in the process schools have become politicised. School culture wars were once waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. These debates were relatively easy to adjudicate, as the law provides a level of clarity on the separation of church and state.

Conflict has now turned towards how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterise histories of empire and colonisation, and unlike the relative certainties of evolutionary theory, the vagaries of historical interpretation leave the door open for political weaponisation.

The tone of historical debate has also shifted from a contest over facts and the significance of historical events to the question of ‘values’ to be judged; and a sorting between those to be dismissed or imparted. This line of thinking poses questions like: ‘Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers?’ rather than emphasising the value of letting those in the past speak for themselves and on their own terms. In this way, educational goals have become blurred with political aims, and schools have moved away from educational concerns to political pursuits.

When teachers come to see tackling broader social problems, as defined by them or the curriculum, as integral to their mission, it sets school in opposition to the home, and we have seen the furore that this creates, particularly in America. Florida, again, leads the way on combatting the politicisation of schools, passing the Individual Freedom bill that bans educators from teaching students critical race theory, or the concept that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, colour, national origin or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” as well as banning concepts that teach that one race, national origin, or sex is morally superior to any other.

In Australia, schools use resources such as ‘Racism No Way’ where students are schooled in concepts such as ‘unconscious bias’, ‘institutional racism’, and ‘tools of whiteness’ and are repeatedly told to apologise for colonisation. Beyond even this, there is a far more insidious political shift underway that is less about the content that is taught and more about the mode of inquiry that is encouraged, and it is here where history is dealt the strongest blow.

The educational goals of the Australian National Curriculum are set out in a December 2008 document, the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’. The declaration sets out what it understands to be the three ‘major changes in the world’ which students must be equipped to deal with: global integration which ‘heightens the need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural and religious diversity, and a sense of global citizenship’, the growing influence of Asian nations ‘increasing Australians’ need to become ‘Asia literate’, and ‘complex environmental, social and economic pressures such as climate change that extend beyond national borders pose unprecedented challenges, requiring countries to work together in new ways’.

These major changes are identified as of the upmost importance, along with closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students and translate into a definition of ‘successful learners’ as ‘active and informed global citizens’ who understand Australia’s history, culture, and government, the value of Indigenous cultures, are committed to democracy, equity, and justice, and ‘work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments’. Three cross-curriculum priorities were then created to aid in the achievement of these, quite specific, educational goals: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. Since 2008 Asia has come to be neglected and sustainability has expanded its reach with the latter and Indigenous studies included in every subject studied.

Large sections of history are overlooked.

The inclusion of ‘topical’ subjects in a curriculum is necessary and indeed beneficial, however, the Australian curriculum has explicitly conflated educational goals with the political aim of creating socially conscious ‘global citizens’. While the educational concerns ‘literacy and numeracy’ and ‘critical and creative thinking’ are listed in the document, particular emphasis is placed on the vague phrase ‘ethical understanding’ and they are on the whole subsumed by the larger political pursuit of producing ‘successful learners’ who are socially conscious ‘global citizens’.

This is the official framework through which history is taught in Australian schools, and it is why we find that although students may study important historical periods and events, they do not study them to learn from them on their own terms. Rather, they study the past with an inordinate focus on today’s narrow political and ideological concerns, and any value that is identified in the study of the past is seen as valuable because it happens to agree with what we believe is good today. Present concerns must dominate the socially conscious future ‘global citizen’, particularly present political agendas. Thus, we find that the study of World Wars I and II in the National Curriculum is first and foremost the study of the creation of the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights. While significant moments over the period and Australia’s role in the conflicts are noted, these are treated almost as a backdrop for the main event, which is the revelation of UN ideals, and the task at hand, which is for the student-cum-global citizen, now empowered by UN ideals, to “design action that will lead to a more equitable and sustainable future”.

The consequence of a curriculum designed to equip students to ‘act’ is that large sections of history are overlooked or glossed over in a rush to reinforce the approved diktat, in this case UN ideals, and we find the year 10 history program reading “The inter-war years between World War I and World War II, including the Treaty of Versailles, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression” followed directly by “Continuing efforts post-World War II to achieve lasting peace and security in the world, including Australia’s involvement in UN peacekeeping”, then “How has Australia developed as a society with global connections, and what is my role as a global citizen?”. Students are encouraged to address the two cross-curriculum priorities, indigenous issues and sustainability here, and we find in a subject ostensibly about 20th century European history, exemplary essays given that are ‘a photo essay on an environmental issue’ and an essay exploring ‘the civil rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’. The only more traditionally ‘historical’ essays given are on the Gallipoli campaign, Kokoda, and peacekeeping in East Timor. Crucially, students do not seem required to study the history of communism. While Hitler is compulsory, a study of the Cold War and Stalin is only ‘recommended’ in what is effectively a footnote, along with Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan.

Writing of the importance of Victims of Communism Day in the spring edition of IPA Review last year, David Cragg reflected on how a commemoration of the day would be extremely beneficial for Australians, and for our students in particular:

What historical optimist Francis Fukuyama thought would be the ‘end of history’, and the affirmation of liberal democracy as a global benchmark, has sadly turned out to be the ‘end of memory’. Few Australians under 30 or even 40 years of age have much grasp of the ideological horrors which marred most of the 20th century. Today, many young Australians are being taught that our immigrant country’s ill treatment of indigenous

Australians since 1788 is a bloody horror beyond any cultural context or international comparison. Little do they know … but if we do not tell them the truth, who will?

Florida governor Ron DeSantis announcing proposed legislation “to protect Floridians from the woke ESG financial scam”.
Photo: FLGOV

The ‘end of memory’ is indeed what took hold at the end of the Cold War in the West, and it found its apogee in the ‘third way’ movement of the 1990s which aimed to remedy the ‘pure market vision’ and ‘neo-liberal’ attitudes to investment of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US that critics alleged had socially divisive and politically unsustainable consequences globally and locally. The centre left or social democratic projects in Clinton’s America, Tony Blair’s UK, and Gerhard Schröder’s Germany were seen as seeking an equilibrium between open markets, the fast world, and those marginalised by the process, and the new liberal ethics took the form of an abstract commitment to social justice concerned with how the world ought to be, rather than how it actually was.

The language of Human Rights is the new newspeak.

The ubiquity of activism—and indeed, students as budding activists—is the point at which we have arrived, and the language of Human Rights is the new newspeak, with movements in the name of abstract notions of ‘diversity’, ‘equity’, and ‘inclusion’ common. It is from these abstract vantage points that the excesses of the market are now attacked, and rather than invoke Keynes and Minsky’s suggestions that free markets are unstable, critics instead point to “global catastrophes” such as climate change and assert that these require “an entirely new economic model”.

We find such rhetoric in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a set text under a lesson plan by Cool Australia for the ‘Sustainability’ priority for year 9 and 10 students. Klein is a Canadian eco-feminist, and her book includes provocative statements such as “If the trade rules don’t permit all kinds of important measures to deal with climate change—and they don’t—then the trade rules obviously have to be rewritten”.

It is a manifesto of sorts and students are required to read the book and watch the film then “explore alternatives to economic growth that serve human needs and minimise the impact on the environment”. Klein herself advocates the “transfer of resources and green technology to developing countries” but fails to mention that the lack of cheap, reliable energy is the main force consigning the Third World’s poor to destitution. In fact, it is hard to tell what Klein’s economic solutions are. The enemy, however, is clear:

Popular uprisings would spread across the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, from Poland to Hungary and finally to East Germany where, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Under the banner ‘the End of History’, right-wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition, whether socialism, Keynesianism, or deep ecology. They waged a frontal attack on political experimentation, on the idea that there might be viable ways of organizing societies other than deregulated capitalism. Within a decade, all that would be left standing would be their own extreme, pro-corporate ideology. Not only would the Western consumer lifestyle survive intact, it would grow significantly more lavish … that voracious lifestyle would be exported to the middle and upper classes in every corner of the globe.

We might direct Klein, and Australian students, to The Road to Socialism and Back: An Economic History of Poland, 1939-2019, a report prepared about Poland for the Realities of Socialism project, and then ask them to consider the citizens of Warsaw, whose tap water was described in a 1991 Washington Post article in this way:

It spurts yellowish-brown from the tap, laced with heavy metals, coalmine salts and organic carcinogens. It stains the sink, tastes soapy and smells like a wet sock that has been fished out of a heavily chlorinated swimming pool.

The same article reported that Warsaw tap water had double the World Health Organization’s limits on chloroform concentration; a quarter of Poland’s big industrial plants had either no waste-water treatment or used treatment devices with insufficient capacity; 57 per cent of the Vistula River was classified as unfit for any purpose and the average concentration of mercury was nine times greater than the Polish norm for safe drinking water.

History matters, realities matter, and our report shows there was a wide chasm between the lofty goals of socialist ideology and the realities of socialism as experienced by the Polish people. Moreover, it shows that while the transition back from a socialist to a mixed economy was not without its own pain, it did unleash the extraordinary productive power of the Polish people, allowing their standard of living to rise at more than twice the rate of growth that prevailed during the socialist era—that ‘changed everything’.

To learn more about the Realities of Socialism project, visit realitiesofsocialism.org

This article from the Spring 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Research Fellows Lana Starkey and Colleen Harkin.

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