ONE thing that intrigued me about readers’ responses to my column last week was how many of them took issue with one of its premises, that socialism is dead. As the holiday season starts, for many of us this year with long light nights in Bonnie Scotland, let me propose a theme for discussion round the crackling fire.

Ever since I started writing my column, I have issued challenges for people to say what socialism is in the first quarter of the 21st century. I have never had a real answer.

After all, the countries that had built socialist systems in the 20th century abandoned them in the year of liberal capitalist revolutions, 1989-90. A good number of these countries suffered severe economic crises along the new way they had chosen, but none showed the slightest inclination to turn back. Capitalism, for all its faults, did plausibly offer them solutions for the future and liberalism, for all its faults, made sure the people’s will prevailed.

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Travelling round eastern Europe at that time, I spent a year living in Leipzig, formerly the second city of the German Democratic Republic. It was also the cradle of the revolution, and I spent a lot of time talking to people who had taken part in it, at least to the extent of joining the huge crowds demonstrating in the streets.

At the start they had been fearful. In earlier periods, revolutions were suppressed by force, with many people killed. But this time they found out, after a few days, that the forces of socialist order had lost the political and moral confidence to do the same again. Members of the old regime now just packed up and faded away, leaving the streets to whoever wanted to occupy them.

I befriended a good number of people from the winning side, and of course I wanted to know how things had looked from within their ranks, since what I knew already had come from the western media. And especially I wanted to know what they had thought when the new states quickly ran into deep trouble, with the collapse of the old economy and the difficulty of building a different one. The local rate of unemployment reached 40%, and many of the idle had no prospect of finding another job (this is still true in the deepest backwoods of East Germany). Even so, none of them saw any advantage in returning to the former system.

Most, though not all of it, had been absolutely terrible. Nobody had ever been officially out of work, so they got a pay packet every month. It was just that many jobs seemed pointless, while there were shortages of a wide range of consumer goods. Again, healthcare had been free (an emphasis shared with the Scottish socialists writing to me). Now they needed to follow the medical system of the Federal Republic, built on compulsory private insurance.

The defects of the East German system were mirrored, with local variations, all over the Communist bloc. They are the reason why a return to the past remains excluded by vivid memories of how bad it had really been among people who lived through it.

At the moment in the entire world there are precisely three examples of surviving socialist systems – in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. They are sustained not by democracy but by tyranny, and they will never set an example for anybody else. The existence of a free or cheap health service simply does not vindicate the suffering of the people. Countries with no access to Marxist ideas are also able to build health services, after all. It just depends on their general social and economic standards. Mostly these have always been superior in capitalist countries.

The same is true for us in Scotland too. We don’t hear much about our socialists’ political philosophy. On the contrary, Holyrood is primarily a pork-barrel. Politics is mainly a matter of hand-outs. SNP and Labour compete in terms of subsidies for this or that public purpose, or favours for fellow politicians. The Tories follow suit – at least they have the excuse that they are only imitating what Boris Johnson does in London.

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The present Scottish Government can then entertain many ideas that are socialist in origin, without claiming to be in any formal sense socialist. Rather, political correctness is the guideline, fixated on equality of class, gender and other fashionable watchwords of our time.

WHEN former MP George Kerevan and others announced their defection to Alba, they actually said this was because Nicola Sturgeon had drifted to the right, so as to compromise and dilute her party’s connection to the Scottish working class. Kerevan reported to his readers: “We have now concluded that our attempts both at winning the SNP to genuine radical, anti-market policies and in democratising the party’s internal life have been thwarted.”

Yet among policies that Sturgeon had been proposing and carrying out were higher public expenditure, nationalisation and political direction of private investment. Which other right-wing governments in the world today propose such policies for themselves? And if these do not add up to socialism, what more would need to be added to them to make sure they do?

By the end of the 20th century most nations that had turned to socialism did so on three grounds.

In Europe they had reached the end of long wars, awakening the hope in survivors of a fresh beginning. In Africa and Asia they had been liberated from colonialism. In South America the impulse to a domestic revolution had often been a genuinely popular one, but this too ended in failure and even worse confusion than before.

All over the world, people calculated things had got so bad they could hardly get worse, so that socialism seemed like a gamble worth taking.

History may again have forgotten about Scotland, but we resemble none of these types. Following one or other of their paths entails risks that few people are ready to take in the sort of advanced, industrialised society we live in, mainly because most of us value our high standard of living over our conformity to theoretical guidelines. By my calculation (there is no official figure) independent Scotland would be the 18th richest of 194 universally recognised countries. The prosperous democracies among them do have their poor and they do have their rich, even super-rich. But they generally agree the way to deal with resulting problems and controversies is through political debate rather than socialist revolution.

So why does anybody in this country waste time discussing socialist revolution? Any day of the week I can read such discussions in this newspaper, and socialist revolution seems to be a burning concern to most of its columnists especially.

It does not bother them in the least that there is no advanced country that has ever followed the path they want us to follow, and that none of the few that did have stayed on it. All this is even worse as an argument for independence, because it seems also to be a formula for a failed state.

It appears a failed state would be acceptable to all these pundits, so long as it was a socialist failed state. I think I’ll choose a different topic for the second night round the crackling fire.