In presidential debates and Twitter conversations on #copolitics of late, the word “socialism” has been thrown around a lot. Between a presidential candidate who is a self-described “socialist” to people who promote the “democratic socialism” system they believe exists in some European countries, it becomes important to understand what “socialism” means and apply it to the context of contemporary American politics.
What is “Socialism”?
The starting point of any analysis is to define the word under discussion. “Socialism” is defined in Wikipedia as follows:
“Socialism is a social and economic system characterised [sic] by social ownership and control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system. “Social ownership” may refer to cooperative enterprises, common ownership, state ownership (achieved by nationalization), citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them. [Emphasis mine]
It further discusses the term “democratic socialism” as follows:
“While all tendencies of socialism consider themselves democratic, the term “democratic socialism” is often used to highlight its advocates’ high value for democratic processes and political systems…”
Finally, Wikipedia points out that “…some socialists have adopted the causes of other social movements, such as environmentalism, feminism and liberalism.” And, I would add, the climate change belief and agenda.
The ideas of socialism arose in the late 18th century in response to the perceived inequities of the capitalist economies of Western Europe and the United States, the disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution and the concepts of “equality and fraternity” that arose from the French Revolution. Various thinkers advocated for the abolition of private property, government ownership of the means of production, government direction and control of the economy, and equality of outcome (not of opportunity) for all citizens.
Through much of the 19th century, the concepts of socialism were further developed, refined and formulated by German philosopher Karl Marx to view the world through the lens of a class struggle between the “ownership” class and the “working” class. His view of the class struggle maintained that the State was run on behalf of the ownership class and was used to “hold down” workers – a view that certainly resonates with today’s Leftists, even though they are untiring advocates for government power. Marx advocated violent revolution to abolish the capitalist system and establish his “classless” system.
Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels authored The Communist Manifesto, in which the concepts of socialism are taken to their logical end – the system known to the world as “Communism”. Communism is that socioeconomic order under which all the means of production are owned by the State – government – and society is “classless”, with distribution of goods to the public based on need and the abolition of capitalism. As evidence of the fundamental illogic of the concept, communist thought also calls for the abolition of the State – which is impossible when the State owns the means of production and is used to enforce the concepts embodied in communist society.
There are some who argue that socialism and communism are not the same thing, that while communism is recognized as a failed ideology somehow socialism is “OK”. I’ve never agreed with that view, because in my study of history, the two concepts are related. While many people use the terms interchangeably, I believe that communism is simply the purest form of socialism. Indeed, this commentary I found on Investopedia.com sums it up quite well:
“Socialism shares similarities to communism but to a lesser extreme. As in communism, equality is the main focus. Instead of the workers owning the facilities and tools for production, workers are paid and allowed to spend their wages as they choose, while the governing body owns and operates the means of production for the benefit of the working class. Each worker is provided with necessities so he is able to produce without worry for his basic needs. Still, advancement and production are limited because there is no incentive to achieve more. Without motivation to succeed, such as the ability to own an income-producing business, worker’s human instincts prohibit drive and desire that is produced through such incentives.” [Emphasis mine]
To sum up, then, it is my view that “socialism” is a term and concept that includes the ideas, history and failures of the political ideology known as “communism”. In a world where words have meaning, this is what I, and many other people, think of in connection with “socialism”.
What is Socialism Really About?
A couple days ago on Twitter I posted this excellent article written by Dr. Sarah P. Condor-Fisher, Ph.D., Esq., LL.M. who grew up in communist (socialist) Czechoslovakia. The key concepts are shown below.
As any student of history and current events knows, all of the items cited above are characteristics of socialism as seen in the communist countries of the 20th and 21st centuries, in addition to an enormous body count and other undesirable results.
One of the participants in the #copolitics hashtag challenged my tweet, asking “what kind of socialism was that analysis taken from”, citing Norway as an existing example of socialism that invalidates Dr. Condor-Fisher’s essay. I said (and Wikipedia agrees) that “there are many varieties” of socialism, which in his view “proves” that my first tweet (Dr. Condor-Fisher’s article) was false. (Of course, by asking “what kind of socialism” he implicitly validates the concept that there ARE varieties of socialism!)
After another person pointed out the bloody history of socialism, my opponent asked if any “socialist-democratic” nations were involved in those murders. He went on to say that “democratic socialism” as currently practiced in Europe does not have any of the 5 aspects cited above. Somehow, in his view, the presumption that because the country he (erroneously) uses as an example does not have the negative aspects of socialism that the entire concept and the essay I posted are false. I don’t see how one exception (especially an incorrect one) can invalidate an entire concept with richly documented history.
The Bloody History of Socialism
Socialism, in its communist form, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of human beings through the twentieth century to the current time. This fact is indisputable and incontestable. Professor Rudy Rummel documents on his website https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/ the numbers of people killed by their own governments in compliance with their sovereign laws. Almost all of them are some variant of socialism including communism and National Socialism (Nazi Germany).
All of the aspects cited by Dr. Condor-Fisher can be found to some degree in every communist society listed above.
In his brilliant (but depressing) book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, author Matthew White documents the 100 worst genocides in human history. Several of them are attributable to Communist dictators/parties seeking to impose the socialist “utopia” on their countries including:
- Joseph Stalin 20 million
- North Korea 3 million
- Mao Zedong 40 million
- Haile Mengistu 2 million
- Khmer Rouge 7 million
- Postwar Vietnam .4 million
Only by separating the concepts of communism and socialism can one make the argument that socialism is not the cause of any mass murders. When it is generally accepted that communism is a form of socialism in a world where words mean things that argument falls apart.
Modern “Democratic Socialism”
Interestingly, Norway is not listed on Wikipedia’s list of current socialist countries. In fact, no European country is considered “socialist”. Norway is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. The economy is “mixed” (meaning a combination of private and state ownership of the means of production) and has generous welfare state benefits. To call Norway a socialist country is incorrect. It is not.
Sweden is a constitutional monarchy and has a mixed economy rich in natural resources. Denmark is a representative democracy and has a market based capitalist economy.
While not part of Scandinavia, Finland is a parliamentary democracy with a capitalist economy.
One common characteristic of the Scandinavian countries is that they all have mixed economies and high income taxes that fund generous government benefits. It is these aspects which give rise to the term “socialist”, but they truly are not – not as the term is defined and generally accepted.
The four countries listed as current socialist states by Wikipedia – the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Cuba, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – are NOT democracies. They are all ranked as “Mostly Unfree” or “Repressed” on the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom.
Wikipedia’s list is incomplete in that it omits North Korea, a clearly communist state run by a murderous tyrant. All of the aspects of socialism cited above are present in North Korea.
There are a handful of democratic countries run by democratic socialist parties, but none of them are in Europe. And to be fair, while none have any genocides or mass murders that I’m aware of, none of them seem like they’d be pleasant places to live. With the exception of Peru, all are ranked as “Mostly Unfree” or “Repressed” as well.
Feel The Bern
Unless Senator Bernie Sanders is truly advocating that the U.S. government take over the means of production in the United States, a task which can only be accomplished by a bloody revolution, he cannot truly call himself a “socialist”. He does favor confiscatory taxes and ever-increasing government involvement in the economy, which qualifies him as a “progressive”. His distrust of large corporations (but not of large labor unions) and Wall Street is evident. His promises of free stuff for everybody would be financed through new and creative taxes and crushing debt, but aren’t realistic and the price tag for his extravagant promises equals the value of today’s national debt. Clearly his model for America’s future is not practical or sustainable.
To say that Sanders favors “European style socialism” is wildly inaccurate, because there IS no socialism in Europe.
Many aspects of the current progressive movement are inspired by Marx/Engels and I believe that the true goal of modern day progressives is ever increasing government involvement in the economy and control over the everyday lives of Americans. Maybe they are working toward a true socialist dystopia where the government owns the means of production, but that is a long way off.
There aren’t any socialist democratic countries in Europe. Scandinavian countries are not socialist countries. Socialism, especially in its communist form, has a long and bloody history of genocide, enslavement and war. People using the term “socialism” should study and understand it before advocating it for America.
By Richard D. Turnquist
October 18, 2015