“Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.”
—Robert L. Heilbroner, “The Triumph of Capitalism” (The New Yorker, January 16, 1989)
Professor Heilbroner’s pronouncement of socialism’s death is greatly exaggerated. Socialism has risen from its own ashes perhaps more often than has any other political ideology on earth. Now, more than 30 years after Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev implemented reforms that helped burn the ideal of a planned economy to the ground, socialist doctrines are once again gaining in popularity, especially among young people.
Much has been written about socialism, yet too little has been read (too little serious writing, that is). This annotated list of recommended reading, compiled by Independent Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Williamson M. Evers, tries to remedy this deficiency by highlighting some of the most insightful critiques of socialism ever written. It’s not an exaggeration to say that anyone who carefully studies even a handful of these books will gain a stronger understanding of socialism than is possessed by the vast majority of socialists.
“This is the best list of what to read about socialism that’s out there,” says Dr. Evers.
David J. Theroux, President of the Independent Institute, concurs. “This critical bibliography can provide badly needed balance. By setting the record straight, these authors show readers that any skepticism about socialism they harbor is warranted. As they explain, the problem with socialism goes far beyond its practical ineffectiveness: its theoretical basis is morally deformed and leads inevitably to massive injustice and abuse.”
A Critical Bibliography on Socialism
If you can read just one book on this list, then make it Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. If you can read only two, make your second pick Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, by Ludwig von Mises.
Alienation and the Soviet Economy: The Collapse of the Socialist Era, by Paul Craig Roberts, foreword by Aaron B. Wildavsky. Independent Institute, 1990.
Paul Craig Roberts gives a valuable explanation of Marx’s theory of alienation. Roberts then discusses Soviet “war communism” (1918-1922) as a failed attempt to faithfully put into effect the socialist utopia described by Marx. Roberts also provides an account of how the post-1922 Soviet economy actually worked, although extremely poorly.
The Anti-Semitic Tradition in Modern Socialism, by Edmund Silberner. Inaugural Lecture delivered at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 1953.
Examines anti-Semitism in socialist theory and political movements in England, France, Germany, and other nations. Most socialist theorists identified capitalism with Jews. Discusses, among others, Charles Fourier, Ferdinand Lasalle, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Jean Jaurès.
“Between Immorality and Unfeasibility: The Market Socialist Predicament,” by David Ramsay Steele, Critical Review, (vol. 10, no. 3) 1996. Reprinted in his book The Mystery of Fascism. St. Augustine’s Press, 2019.
“Market socialism,” if it works at all, cannot live up to the utopian dreams of its proponents.
The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, by Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. Translated by Jonathan Murphy, edited by Mark Kramer. Harvard University Press, 1999.
An international best-seller documenting Communism’s repression and genocidal body count.
The Case Against Socialism, by Rand Paul with Kelley Ashby Paul. Broadside Books, 2019.
Rand Paul writes: “One of the greatest ironies of modern political history is that as socialists around the world rose to overthrow authoritarian regimes, they ultimately replaced them (despite their promises to establish free democracies) with authoritarian regimes of their own.”
This volume contains Ludwig von Mises’s essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” along with a foreword and afterword by Nobel Laureate in Economics F.A. Hayek. It also contains related essays by N.G. Pierson, George Halm, and Enrico Barone.
Critics of Marxism, by David Gordon. Transaction Publishers for the Social Philosophy & Policy Center, 1986.
A valuable bibliographic essay. Discusses, with brief analysis, the criticisms of Marxism by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, Karl R. Popper, Isaiah Berlin, H.B. Acton, John Plamenatz, Eric Voegelin, Leszek Kolakowski, and J.L. Talmon.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, by Frank D. Dikötter, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.
Frank D. Dikötter compiles previously secret documents from the Chinese Communist Party and presents them to readers within a clear historical narrative of the Cultural Revolution.
Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, translated by Philip Boehm from the original manuscript. Vintage, 2019.
A novel about the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s, in which an Old Bolshevik prisoner confesses for the good of the Communist Party to crimes he did not commit.
Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, by Ludwig von Mises. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008. Download PDF
Mises’s classic argument that economic calculation under socialism is impossible.
A more accessible re-statement of Mises’s argument about the impossibility of economic calculation in socialist economies.
The End of Socialism, by James R. Otteson. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Otteson draws on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to criticize G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? Smith warned us about of the “man of system” who wants to arrange and move human beings like pieces on a chessboard. Socialist central planners treat human beings as objects and don’t care that people, unlike chess pieces, have a moral right to their own lives, purposes, and projects.
The Great Terror: A Reassessment, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Robert Conquest. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Stalin’s murderous purge of his fellow Communists and wide swaths of the rest of the population.
The Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, foreword by Jordan B. Peterson. Vintage Publishers, 2019.
The classic account of the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps.
The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-famine, by Robert Conquest. Oxford University Press, 1986.
Stalin’s deliberate policy of massive famine in the Ukraine.
“How Soviet Planning Works,” by G. Warren Nutter. New Individualist Review, vol. 4, no. 1 (Summer 1965), pp. 20-25.
In really-existing socialist countries, what is called central planning is hopelessly disorderly and chaotic. Warren Nutter writes, “Is it even possible to visualize Soviet planning as a process with dominant order, purposes, and continuity? I think not. . . . There is no command headquarters in the Soviet economy where brilliant scholar-leaders are solving a horde of simultaneous equations, pausing intermittently to issue the orders that mathematical solutions say will optimize something or other.”
“Ideology and Science in the Soviet Union: Recent Developments,” by Gustav A. Wetter. Daedalus, (vol. 89, no. 3) Summer 1960, pp. 581-603. Reprinted in The Russian Intelligentsia, edited by Richard Pipes. Columbia University Press, 1961.
Wetter was the West’s most prominent scholar who studied philosophical developments in the Soviet Union. Here he shows in detail how the Soviet regime and Communist Party enforced their ideological demands on scientists and how honest scientists tried to fight back. This ideological distortion was particularly detrimental in the field of genetics, where the Communist Party imposed the unscientific doctrine called “Lysenkoism.”
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed, by H. B. Acton. Liberty Fund, 2003. Download PDF
A detailed but accessible, critical presentation of the philosophical foundation of Marxism (dialectical materialism) and of Marxian political theory and ethics.
“Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint,” by Harold Demsetz. The Journal of Law and Economics (vol. 12, no. 1) April 1969, pp. 1-21.
D. W. MacKenzie writes, “economists Kenneth Arrow and Harold Demsetz had an exchange … that deserves some attention. Arrow contended that free-enterprise economies underinvest in research and invention because of risk. Arrow also asserted that an ‘ideal socialist economy’ would supply such information free of charge, thus separating the use of and the reward for producing such information. Demsetz penned a devastating critique of Arrow’s arguments on information, and of the ‘market failure’ literature in general. . . . To point to market imperfections as proof of the need for government intervention, he said, is to indulge in the ‘Nirvana Fallacy,’ whereby we compare allegedly imperfect real markets to imaginary governmental institutions that lack even the smallest imperfection.”
“Liberty of the Press under Socialism,” by Williamson M. Evers. Social Philosophy & Policy (vo. 2, no. 6) Spring 1989, 211–34. Reprinted in Socialism, edited by Ellen Frankel Paul. Basil Blackwell for the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, 1989.
Socialist theorists make extravagant claims about retaining liberty of the press under actual socialism, but without private property rights such liberty has not survived and cannot survive.
“Markets Without Property: A Grand Illusion,” by G. Warren Nutter. Reprinted in his Political Economy and Freedom: A Collection of Essays, Liberty Fund, 1983; and in The Economics of Property Rights, edited Eirik G. Furubotn and Svetozar Pejovich, Ballinger, 1974.
A critique of Oskar Lange’s proposal to use simulated markets to solve socialism’s economic-calculation problem—a problem that was laid out by Ludwig von Mises. Warren Nutter writes, “[W]e can see how empty [Lange’s] theoretical apparatus is. Markets without divisible and transferable property rights are a sheer illusion. There can be no competitive behavior, real or simulated, without dispersed power and responsibility. If all property is to be literally collectivized and all pricing literally centralized, there is no scope left for a mechanism that can reproduce in any significant respect the functioning of competitive private enterprise.”
“Marxism,” by David Prychitko. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Liberty Fund, 2010.
David Prychitko critically summarizes the core pillars of classical Marxism (labor theory of value, alienation, immiseration). Points to the importance of Hayek’s and Mises’s critique of socialist planning as incoherent and unworkable.
“Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities,” by Ralph Raico. Reprinted in Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010.
Raico writes: “[I]f something like Stalinism had not occurred, it would have been close to a miracle. Scorning what Marx and Engels had derided as mere ‘bourgeois’ freedom and ‘bourgeois’ jurisprudence, Lenin destroyed freedom of the press, abolished all protections against the police power, and rejected any hint of division of powers and checks and balances in government. . . . But to Marx and his Bolshevik followers, this was nothing more than ‘bourgeois ideology,’ obsolete and of no relevance to the future socialist society. Any trace of decentralization or division of power, the slightest suggestion of a countervailing force to the central authority of the ‘associated producers,’ ran directly contrary to the vision of the unitary planning of the whole of social life.”
The Moral Collapse of Communism: Poland as a Cautionary Tale, by John Clark and Aaron B. Wildavsky. Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1991.
A detailed case study of Poland as an actually-existing socialist society. People at all levels had to rely on connections and networking to obtain goods and services. Benign use of such connections easily shaded over into corrupt uses and moral degradation. The country’s economic disorganization and shortages provided the basis of the ruling elite’s privileges. The authors write: “It was in communist Poland … that the state repressed the masses, sought to impose the ideological hegemony of the ruling class, and pursued policies that seem to have no purpose other than to protect the political power and economic well-being of the fortunate few.”
Naked Earth, by Eileen Chang, New York Review of Books, 2015.
Perry Link writes: “In Naked Earth, Chang shows how the linguistic grid of a Communist land-reform campaign [1949 to 1953] descends on a [Chinese] village like a giant cookie cutter. … [S]he seems, like George Orwell, to have almost a sixth sense for immediate comprehension of what an authoritarian political system will do to human beings in daily life. She looks past the grand political system itself and focuses instead on the lives of people—how they fell and behave as they adapt to what the system forces upon them.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, with an Introduction by Julian Symonds, Everyman’s Library, 1993.
Orwell depicts a dystopian future that largely extends the features of Communist Russia in a further nightmarish direction that he calls oligarchical collectivism. Nineteen Eighty-Four explores such themes as perpetual warfare, propaganda, speech controls, cults of personality, and government surveillance. David Ramsay Steele writes: “The severest socialist critics of Orwell, like [Raymond] Williams, [Isaac] Deutscher, and E.P. Thompson, were generally people who generated an immense quantity of verbiage about socialism, which they believed ought to be democratic, without ever grappling with the arguments indicating that socialism can never be democratic.”
Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class, by Michael Voslensky. Doubleday, 1984.
The sociology of the ruling class in the actually existing socialism of the Soviet Union.
Opium of the Intellectuals, by Raymond Aron. Routledge, 2001.
Raymond Aron, the most important French classical liberal of the post-World War II era, describes life among French intellectuals and the resulting high fashion of being anti-capitalist.
The Pasternak Affair: Courage of Genius, by Robert Conquest. J. B. Lippincott, 1962.
How really-existing socialism endeavors to crush artistic freedom. A chronological account of the efforts of the Soviet authorities to suppress the novel Dr. Zhivago. Includes documents that show socialist bureaucrats in action.
Dystopian novel written by the late 19th-century leader of Germany’s classical liberal political party. Bryan Caplan writes: “Decades before the socialists gained power, Eugen Richter saw the writing on the wall. The great tragedy of the 20th century is that the world had to learn about totalitarian socialism from bitter experience, instead of Richter’s inspired novel. Many failed to see the truth until the Berlin Wall went up. By then, alas, it was too late.”
The Political Economy of Stalinism: Evidence from the Soviet Secret Archives, by Paul R. Gregory. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Analytic study, drawing on the “rational choice” approach to political science, of how and why really-existing socialism operated the way it did, based on evidence from official Soviet state and Communist Party archives. Paul Gregory writes: “[T]here was no solution to principal-agent problem between the ‘dictators’ [the Politburo at the top and subordinate dictators like Gosplan just below] and the ‘agents’ [those who either produced the output or were held responsible for that production]. “Producer-agents could rightly argue that they were inundated with arbitrary and destructive orders. . . . [T]he dictators, on the other hand, could point out that the agents were opportunistic and they lied, cheated, and operated their enterprises in in their own interests. Both were correct.”
“The Political Economy of Utopia: Communism in Soviet Russia, 1918-21,” by Peter J. Boettke. Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines, vol. 1, no. 2 (January 1990): 91-138. Reprinted in his Calculation and Coordination: Essays on Socialism and Transitional Political Economy. Routledge, 2001; and in his Political Economy of Soviet Socialism: The Formative Years, 1918-1928, with a foreword by Yuri Maltsev. Kluwer Academic, 1990.
Boettke shows that the Soviet economy from 1918 to 1921 was an effort by the Bolsheviks to put into place Marx’s vision of a moneyless, nonmarket economy. It failed catastrophically. Boettke quotes Soviet political scientist Alexander Tsipko, who asked (in 1988-89) the question that all proponents of democratic socialism have failed to answer: “Why is it that in all cases and without exception and all countries . . . efforts to combat the market and commodity-money relations have always led to authoritarianism, to encroachments on the rights and dignity of the individual, and to an all-powerful administration and bureaucratic apparatus?”
Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, by Robert Michels, with an introduction by Seymour Martin Lipset. The Free Press, 1966.
Sociologist Michels sets forth “the iron law of oligarchy.” Shows that socialist parties, labor unions, and other groups will be run by an elite group and will not be egalitarian in practice. Michels writes: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”
The Poverty of Historicism, by Karl R. Popper. Harper & Row, 1964.
A counter to “the fascist and communist belief in the Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.”
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. Graywolf Press, 2012.
A historical novel. Tom Palmer writes, “Spufford … describes the period [under Nikita Khrushchev] when many believed that the USSR would surpass the ‘capitalist west’ in the production of consumer goods … Spufford does an admirable job of explaining the real functioning of the economic system that existed in the USSR, with a focus on the role of blat (the exchange of favors) and the tolkachi (the “pushers” or “fixers” who organized complex chains of indirect exchange to supply what was missing).
Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, by Max Eastman, Devin-Adair, 1955.
Henry Hazlitt writes, “Mr. Eastman argues that socialism has failed over the last century in every nation and in every form in which it has been tried. He explains why political liberty depends upon a … competitive market and the price system. His arguments are all the more persuasive because of his personal history. He began as an extreme left-wing Socialist. As editor of the Masses and later of the Liberator, he ‘fought for the Bolsheviks on the battlefield of American opinion with all the influence my voice and magazine possessed.’”
Includes “The Marxist Case for Socialism,” by David Gordon; “Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes,” by Ralph Raico; and “Karl Marx: Communist as Religious Eschatologist,” by Murray N. Rothbard.
Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Freedom, Exploitation, and Justice, by David Gordon, Transaction Publishers, 1991.
Philosopher David Gordon takes apart the “analytical Marxists” (John Roemer, Jon Elster, and G.A Cohen), who have dropped the labor theory of value and the concept of “alienation” that stems from Hegel, but still want to hang onto much of the rest of Marx.
Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered, by Don Lavoie. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
In this discussion of Mises’s argument that economic calculation under socialism is impossible, Lavoie turns away from the static equilibrium of neoclassical economics. Instead he contrasts socialism with the dynamic market process in which rivalry among entrepreneurs leads to decentralized and efficient economic coordination.
The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek. University of Chicago Press, 1944. Download PDF. Also, Condensed Version, Reader’s Digest, February 1945. Also “The Road to Serfdom in Cartoons,” Look Magazine, February 1945.
Hayek’s book is about the inevitable corruption of free institutions and sacrifice of human values if socialist practices are put into effect. Peter Boettke writes: “[Classical] liberalism, Hayek argues, had imparted a ‘healthy suspicion’ of any argument that demanded restrictions on market competition. With its critique of the competitive system, socialist theory had unfortunately swept away the [classical] liberal constraints against special pleading, and opened the door for a flood of interest groups to demand government protection from competition under the flag of socialist planning….
“Hayek provides one of the most articulate statements of the [classical] liberal proposition that economic freedom and political freedom are linked…. He argued that economic control does not control merely ‘a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for. Central planning means that the economic problem is to be solved by the community instead of by the individual; but this involves that it must also be the community, or rather its representatives, who must decide the relative importance of the different needs.’”
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott. Yale University Press, 1999.
James C. Scott analyzes the hubris of officials at the center and warns readers about the authoritarian mindset of technocrats.
A thorough examination of socialism in its many aspects. Includes Mises’s classic argument that economic calculation under socialism is impossible. Henry Hazlitt: “The most devastating analysis of socialism ever penned.”
Socialism: A Study Guide and Reader, edited by David M. Hart. Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, 2018.
Includes extracts from critiques of socialism by Frédéric Bastiat, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen Richter, Yves Guyot, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, H.B. Acton, Alexander Gray, and others.
Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, by Kristian Niemietz. Institute of Economic Affairs, 2019.
They all began as democratic socialism—before turning into coercive, stratified, hierarchical societies run incompetently by a technocratic elite. When today’s proponents of democratic socialism say “this time it will be different,” they are only saying what was promised in every preceding effort to put socialism into practice. Chapters on Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cuba, North Korea, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Albania, East Germany, and Venezuela.
Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World, by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell. Regnery Publishing, 2019.
P.J O’Rourke’s review of the book reads, “What is ‘socialism’? And do countries that overindulge in it wake up with bad hangovers? You bet they do. Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell give you the hair-of-the-dog cure [with] a dose of political economy.”
“The Soft Budget Constraint,” by János Kornai. Acta Oeconomica, Vol. 64 (2014), pp. 25–79.
The soft budget constraint appears when the need to “balance the books” between the spending and the earnings of an economic firm has become habitually relaxed over time, because overspending will be covered by the State. Firms have come to expect this because it is public policy. The softness weakens the firm’s responsiveness to price signals and generates inefficiencies. When socialist countries attempt “market socialist” reforms, they typically let firms distribute profits to workers and managers, but continue subsidies, loans to firms that are not creditworthy, and absorption by the State of financial losses—all of which incentivize recklessness. This is a topic where the author was a pioneer, writing on it (carefully) even when his country Hungary was under Communist rule. In this article, Kornai sums up his life’s research on the topic.
“Soviet Venality: A Rent-Seeking Model of the Communist State,” by Gary M. Anderson and Peter J. Boettke. Public Choice, vol. 93, nos. 1 & 2 (1997): 37-53. Reprinted in Boettke’s Calculation and Coordination: Essays on Socialism and Transitional Political Economy. Routledge, 2001.
Anderson and Boettke liken the Soviet economy after 1921 to the 16th and 17th century mercantilist states of Europe (such as France under Louis XIV). The Communist rulers handed out monopolies to loyalists. The ruling elite reaped rewards in the form of status, power, and privilege. Soviet central planners (who didn’t exist in classical mercantilism) couldn’t really plan for the future and didn’t; they helped sort out friction amongst the monopolists.
“Sweden’s Lessons for America,” by Johan Norberg. Cato Institute Policy Report, February 11, 2020.
Norberg writes, “Sweden is not socialist. If [Bernie] Sanders and [Alexandra] Ocasio‐Cortez really want to turn America into Sweden, what would that look like? For the United States, it would mean, for example, more free trade and a more deregulated product market, no Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the abolition of occupational licensing and minimum wage laws. The United States would also have to abolish taxes on property, gifts, and inheritance. And even after the recent tax cut, America would still have to slightly reduce its corporate tax. Americans would need to reform Social Security from defined benefits to defined contributions and introduce private accounts. They would also need to adopt a comprehensive school voucher system where private schools get the same per‐pupil funding as public ones. Sweden is not socialist. If this is socialism, call me comrade.”
A Tale of Two Economies: Hong Kong, Cuba and the Two Men Who Shaped Them, by Neil Monnery. Gulielmus Occamus & Co. Ltd., 2019.
Comparing the results of the laissez-faire policies of Hong Kong to the socialist policies of Cuba, Monnery tells the tale of these two economies through the stories of John Cowperthwaite, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, and Che Guevara. Neil Monnery writes, “Cuba had a clear aspiration, from the time of Guevara onwards, to create a modern economy, less dependent on sugar. But it was Hong Kong, which had no central view as to how the economy should evolve, that actually delivered progress and change.”
A novel (relying on the insights of Ludwig von Mises) in which a communist dictator’s son and political heir de-socializes a society.
“Who Would Choose Socialism? The Israeli Kibbutzim Provide the Acid Test for Voluntary Socialism”, by Robert Nozick. Reason, May 1978. Reprinted in his book Socratic Puzzles, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Famed Harvard philosophy Robert Nozick uses the example of Israeli collective communities to illustrate how many people would voluntarily choose to live under socialism, “under highly conducive conditions.” It turns out, precious few.