I’m now finishing up a new introduction for a reissue of Eugen Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic FutureIn writing it, I identified three distinct answers to the question: “How could a movement founded to liberate workers from capitalist oppression end up shooting them in the back when they tried to flee the Workers’ Paradise?”

1. The Actonian “power corrupts” story

2. The Hayekian “worst get on top” story

3. The Richterian “born bad” story

Here’s my summary:

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular
explanations for the crimes of actually-existing socialism.   While Acton
never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly
illustrate his aphorism that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power
corrupts absolutely.”  For all their
idealism, even socialists will do bad
things if left unchecked.  Hayek, with
the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: Under
socialism, “the worst get on top.”  On
this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by
brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.

Richter’s novel advances a very different explanation for
socialism’s “moral decay”: The movement was born bad.  While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,”
their ideal was totalitarian.  Their overriding
goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man.  If this meant treating workers like slaves – depriving
them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to
quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian
punishments on dissenters – so be it. 

What weight would you attach to these three theories – and why?  Am I missing any important alternative explanations?