Buffalo Bull

Issue E.29 – Sunday, 2019.05.05




Abuse of the Term, “Socialism”

Socialism Has Variants, with Enemies and Friends

“Socialism” is a broad category, with various definitions. There isn’t a single meaning. Among socialists of almost all kinds, however, the characteristic of shared ownership or control of productive economic resources is pretty much universal. Beyond that, it’s not always possible to know what is meant by the term, socialism.

To further complicate matters, there are some groups who call themselves “socialists”, who aren’t really socialists in any way to “real” socialists. Although socialists might disagree on the details beyond the shared ownership definition, they usually, at least, recognize one another as “socialist”, even when they believe the other socialists are wrong about this or that. But some groups, however, are simply not recognized as socialist. Think, for example, of the “National Socialist”, or Nazi, party, which wasn’t, in fact, socialist as far as anyone else was concerned. (Nazis treated bona fide socialists as subversives and as enemies.) Adolf Hitler claimed to be a socialist, and said his ideas were in part inspired by Karl Marx, yet at the same time praised and supported the institution of private property as leading to better living standards. This isn’t merely an “alternative” definition, it’s an outright antinomy. Reading Hitler, you get the idea he sometimes made things up as he went along. (Sound familiar?)

There are also groups which sincerely attempt to promote socialism, but who, for one reason or another, fail. When outsiders see these groups, they see the failed aspects, and equate those aspects with socialism, when in fact those groups just got some bits wrong.

Then there are the outsiders who don’t really understand what socialism is all about. They may call some things “socialist”, which really aren’t socialist. This is especially true of socialism’s enemies, who are often inclined to designate as “socialist” lots of things they don’t like, especially when those things are frightening or distasteful to their target audiences. Lately, for example, there has been a lot of pejorative and incorrect use of the term by capitalists, who are natural opponents of socialism.

In the current news, many in the U.S. believe that the Democratic Party leans toward socialism; this is clearly untrue, as almost all of the Party leadership are supporters of neoliberal capitalism, opposed to socialism, and the Party’s positions and actions reinforce that position. You won’t find the Democrats acting to turn over control or ownership of businesses or resources to the people or to workers: the phrase “a cold day in Hell” comes to mind. Similarly, many in the U.S. think that “Medicare for All” or some other form of single-payer is “socialized medicine”, when, at most, they are only vaguely similar to socialized insurance. (Likewise, Canada – which has a form of government operated single payer – has something resembling socialized insurance, not socialized medicine.) Many Americans have a vague idea that any help from the government is a form of socialism, whether it be bailouts of large banks (“socialism for the rich”) or food stamps (“socialism for the poor”); these misconceptions completely miss the mark. Other wrong beliefs are that, under socialism, everyone is treated almost exactly the same (wrong!); there is no market pricing under socialism (wrong!); there is no private property in a socialist society (wrong!); socialism implies some kind of dictatorship, with lack of civil rights (wrong!); there is no “free enterprise” under socialism (wrong!); and other fairy tales and horror stories. It is true that some socialist societies have some of these properties (for instance, the use of central planning rather than market-directed decision making), but these aren’t features of socialism, they are features of other aspects of those political systems.

Finally, some definitions of socialism are so absurd as to be almost comical. According to Donald Trump, “Socialism is about only one thing: it’s called power for the ruling class.” Since the ruling class – whichever class that might be – has, by definition, the power, then we always have socialism, regardless of the form of government or the organization of society. Even capitalism is socialism! Perhaps you need to be extremely smart, a “very stable genius”, to believe such stupidity; the rest of us are, apparently, inadequate to the task. Or maybe this comes from him inventing things as he goes along... as did that other guy, the mustachioed Nazi mentioned above.  

Gross errors and sometimes deliberate lies such as these have led me to write this essay.

This essay will describe socialism’s basic characteristics, touch on some variations, explain a little of the thinking and motivation behind socialism, show the errors of some myths and falsehoods, and contrast socialism with other economic systems. I hope this will give a more accurate picture than the popular media (which don’t really explain much of anything) and elevate the discussion from speculation and mudslinging to the level of a meaningful conversation.

Below, I will discuss some of the thinking of socialists, but this isn’t meant to be a polemic. I’m trying to shed some light on things people might read about socialism, but which aren’t always explained clearly. However, leaning, as I do, toward socialism, I’m sure that some of my attitudes will show through.  

What is Socialism?

What the Dictionaries Say

As a point of reference, here are some dictionary definitions of the term, “socialism”. These are from major and respected dictionaries.

First, here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says:

socialism. a. Fr. socialisme (1832), or independently f. social a. + -ism. See also next. The early history of the word is somewhat obscure. The first use of Fr. sociaed in common. to have been in the Globe of 13 Feb. 1832, where it was employed in contrast to personnalito. In its modern sense it is variously claimed for Leroux or Reybaud, writing within three or four years after this. A different account, assigning the priority of this use to England, is given in the Encycl. Brit. (1887) XXII. 205; according to this the word originated in 1835 in the discussions of a society founded by Robert Owen.

1. A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.

2. A state of society in which things are held or used in common.

This is the definition given by the American Heritage Dictionary:

so·cial·ism n.

1. Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

2. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which the means of production are collectively owned but a completely classless society has not yet been achieved.

It is important to observe what these definitions don’t say, don’t clarify, and don’t explain.

First, the above definitions don’t explain what is meant by “means of production”, property, or other components of the definition. The most important thing to remember, because it’s often misunderstood, is that, to socialists, “property” almost always refers to tools, resources, land, and so on, used in the production of other things; socialists aren’t usually concerned with items held personal use, such as clothing, household furnishings, and the like. (Socialists think about clothing and other personal items in a shop’s or factory’s inventory, but not about clothing and other personal items which have reached their final users.) Socialism is about production, about productive assets and things used in commerce, not what we would often call “consumer” assets, once they have reached the consumer, or about final use. Socialist theory is concerned with common resources and things which can be used for producing other things, or which might be used in commerce, it isn’t concerned with end-user consumption. I’ll make this more clear, below. A clear exposition of this is found all over socialist theory; you might start with the Communist Manifesto, but it’s common to almost all forms of socialism. (Communism is one form of socialism.)

Regarding the first definition in the American Heritage Dictionary, it allows for the means of production and distribution to be owned either “collectively” or by a “centralized government”. While some socialists accept government ownership as “socialism”, most do not, at least with governments in their present forms. The possibility of government ownership is discussed more extensively, below.

Regarding the second definition in the American Heritage Dictionary, the one from Marxist-Leninist theory, you can disregard that except in the specialized area of Marxist-Leninist theory. I doubt that one person in ten thousand has actually read any Marxist-Leninist theory, nor can one person in ten thousand explain what it is. I will explain it a little below. In the mean time, if you hear the word, socialism, from anyone who hasn’t studied Marxism and its derivatives, that person probably hasn’t the foggiest idea of using it in that sense.

Similarly, the second Oxford English Dictionary definition, regarding things “held or used in common”, is informal. It’s not a very precise definition, and so it isn’t useful in a practical sense, but that meaning is sometimes implied in anti-socialist propaganda. Even simple hunter-gatherer societies don’t share all their personal effects. If you every see any real, existing society where everything is held or used in common, let me know, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

In U.S. law, at least, “socialism” isn’t a term of art. The word isn’t found in, for example, Black’s Law Dictionary.

What the Socialists Say

There are a great many varieties of socialism, but they all hold in common the idea of “social ownership” or “social control” of the factors of production. Social ownership or control is ownership or control in common, on levels ranging from enterprises to nations or even the entire world. Various socialists envision collectives, trade unions, cooperatives, public institutions, councils, citizen equity, and other ways of implementing social ownership or social control. These various forms of social ownership and control are usually seen as existing side by side, existing together. In a socialist society, participants or maybe even all citizens have a say in how things are done, and a share in the results. You might contrast this against, for instance, a capitalist society, where ownership and control are in the hands of the capitalist or owning class. Socialists expect the social interest to be substantial enough that it is meaningful: a little bit of capital stock in the hands of the workers, while most is in the hands of some capitalists, doesn’t qualify as socialism.

In some schemes, exceptions are allowed or tolerated: artisans or craftsmen without employees might own their own tools, or individual shopkeepers or traders might own their own cart, stand, or similar items.

Some, but not all, socialists envision social ownership and control accomplished by having a government control these resources, factors of production, and distribution mechanisms. However, few socialists see this happening with governments in their present forms. Most governments today are non-democratic and organized to serve a capitalist society. For example, in the so-called advanced or industrial democracies of the U.S., Europe, and Asia, the wealthy are in control of the governments, and most of the people have very little power. If an industry or resource were to be owned by such a government, then it wouldn’t be socially owned or controlled, it would be controlled by the wealthy class which controls the government. Socialists expect that socialism implies democracy in some form, and the “democracies” we now have aren’t de facto democracies.

Why Socialists Advocate Socialism

Socialists give various justifications for their beliefs: the most common are increased freedom, fairness, reduced alienation, peace, an improved natural environment, and more free time.

In a capitalist, neoliberal, or other kind of non-socialist society, without much democracy, a large proportion of the population or workers has little money or wealth. We see it in current society as most people living paycheck to paycheck – if they get checks at all – and not having enough money for basic needs such as medical care, wholesome food, education, child care, or satisfactory housing. A person is not completely free if he or she cannot afford basic needs: his choices are limited, not merely because he cannot acquire what he needs, but because, in his struggle to get those things, he must work in unsafe conditions, for employers which exploit him, or under other disabilities. Those who do not own or control the land, resources, factories, offices, and other factors of production, have no choice but to work for those who do own or control them, on whatever terms are available. However, there is plenty of wealth to go around in the world: there is enough food, enough money for medical care, and other resources to meet basic needs. Under socialism, everyone will have a share of the wealth, and need no go without basic needs, which liberates the people, and makes them more free.

(This desire for freedom surprises or puzzles a lot of non-socialists, who have been fed the false, anti-socialist propaganda that, in a socialist society, the government tells everyone what to do and how to do it. How can that be, when socialism requires democracy, and the people in a democracy control whatever government there might be? Often, this wrong impression is reinforced by the observation of societies which aren’t really socialist – the former Soviet Union is a common example – because the factors of production are controlled by a government which isn’t truly controlled by the people.)

Socialists view the current highly unequal division of wealth as fundamentally unfair. The wealthiest garner more wealth, even as they sleep, more than the poor or working people will ever hope to gain in weeks or years or even lifetimes of hard work.

Alienation is the separation or isolation of people from one another, and from their own lives. In our capitalist society, most relationships are shallow, based on the exchanges of money for goods and services, or on the roles which the participants play in the processes of production and consumption. We often don’t know our neighbours, our co-workers, and others with whom we associate, except in superficial way: we are alienated from them, and don’t see them as complete human beings. Moreover, because we are not in control of our own lives – including our workplace activities and environment – we withdraw and become isolated or alienated from our own lives. Although these conditions and results aren’t entirely due to the economic system, the current neoliberal capitalist society plays a major role in creating and sustaining them. Socialists see an antidote in a socialist society, where people have meaningful, democratic control over their own lives.

Much of the violent conflict in the world is due to attempts by one party or another to gain control over natural resources, profitable industries, or other valuable assets. Socialists tend to see these conflicts as initiated by wealthy classes owning or controlling, or wanting to own or control, these assets, while the working classes, the poor and other lower classes bear most of the adverse consequences. For example, were it not for a relatively few wealthy groups fighting for control of oil and mineral resources – with the costs being borne by the rest of the population – many of the wars in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere wouldn’t be fought. In a socialist world, the people who suffer the most from the wars would oppose them, and they, as the majority, would be in control so that their positions would be more likely to prevail.

Much of the world’s natural resources are owned or controlled by a small wealthy class, who decide how those resources will be used. If the owners decide to cut down a forest or to destroy an ocean, there is in practice little which the people can do to oppose such actions. Would the workers in a factory vote to poison their own workplaces? Would the people living on a lake vote to pollute the water? Would the inhabitants of a city agree to make the air unbreathable? With the people and workers in control, socialists expect that we would have less devastation of the environment, more money spent on workplace safety, and more careful attention paid to keeping our workplaces and living places free from toxins, hazards, pollution, and poisons.

Finally, automation, both machinery and computerization, have greatly increased human productivity. We have to work less and less to produce more and more. Rather than enjoying the fruits of this increased productivity, however, workers have often been asked to work more and more. Since about one percent (this varies over time and by nation, but is a good approximation for neoliberal industrialized countries) own or control about half of the wealth, we can justifiably say that we work half of our work days for ourselves, and the other half for the wealthy capitalists. Socialists expect that workers will choose to work less, at the same time they will earn more, since the wealthy won’t be able to collect their profits merely because they own or control the factors of production.

Democratic Government

Most people in the so-called “industrial democracies” subscribe to the fiction that they live in real democracies, despite that the average person has little say in the government, and, in any case, the government itself has little say over how resources and other wealth are to be used. Why kind of power does a government have when it has almost no control over natural resources, over where factories are to be built, over what kinds of investments are to be made, and little direct influence of the distribution of material rewards (and punishments) in a society? In a capitalist society, it is as if the government gets a little control, but almost all say over wealth, spending, investments, and all other material goods is taken out of the hands of the government and those matters are decided by the wealthy.

(Socialists often make comparisons of socialism to capitalism. This is because capitalism, especially of the neoliberal variety, is the prevailing form of societal organization in much of the world, and because socialism arose as a response to the problems of capitalism.)

It is worthwhile to envision what a true democracy – necessary for true socialism – would be like.

In a true democracy, the people would be able to make the laws themselves, and cancel out or override their elected representatives. This would not require nearly impossible-to-meet signature gathering requirements and other measures designed to keep control away from the people.

Instead of the government deciding whether to allow fracking or offshore drilling, or whether to enforce net neutrality, or whether to strengthen workplace safety rules, the people or workers would decide these kinds of things themselves. This would eliminate the bizarre practice of agencies taking “public comments” on such measures, then ignoring what the people clearly favour.

(Imagine holding elections, say, every month, with the people voting from their phones or computers, to decide these questions... What would it be like if every law passed by Congress also had to be approved by the people themselves? How would you like to vote directly on all of the money spent by your city, state, or national governments?)

What about those ridiculous, fraudulent, bogus hearings, where officials or citizens are called ot testify in front of committees, with the committee members holding stock in, or taking contributions (bribes) from the witnesses, and avoiding asking important questions? In a democracy, the people get to ask questions, and to sent witnesses to jail for lying under oath. (In the early days of the United States, in most states we had randomly selected grand juries who could do these things, and we didn’t have prosecutors or district attorneys to tell them what to do and what not to do. The people, represented by a random sample in grand juries, had all of that power themselves. Later on, the idea of having the government “capture” or control the grand jury was invented, and the people lost much of their power in the process.)

Special interest groups, lobbyists, and others seeking favours wouldn’t be confronted with a few Congressmen, representatives, or county commissioners to bribe or otherwise influence. Instead they’d have to convince all of us we’d be better of with their proposals. Having all of us better off might not be so bad.

Note that various kinds of socialists envision government working in different ways. Some socialists are mostly concerned with workplace governance, while others think of larger-scale socialism. Most see more than one kind of democracy at once, all working together.

This may sound rather complex and unwieldy, and it may also sound like a lot of work, having frequent elections to decide so many things. Yes, it is, but that’s how real democracies work. If we’re going to take control, we must make the effort. Otherwise, we get back to the current system, where we lose the control. Any other kind of government isn’t a true democracy. If you’re going to be a car mechanic, then you roll up your sleeves and get grease under your fingernails. If you’re going to be a citizen in a democracy, then you roll up your sleeves, spend time learning about the issues, and participate in real debates and discussions. In the ancient Athenian democracy over two thousand years ago, they had a name for people who kept to themselves and who didn’t participate in the decision making processes. They called those people idiots.

Socialists argue that, in a socialist society, you’ll work less and have more control over your own life, and you’ll be better off materially. The price you pay will be a requirement to participate in the government, in worker councils, and in other popular institutions. You’ll give back some of that free time you have gained, but socialists believe most people will think the exchange a bargain.

Getting from Here to There

There is much debate among socialists how we get from the current capitalistic, non-democratic society to a socialist society. There are a variety of obstacles, and most admit we don’t have complete answers to the questions.

The term, revolution, is used to describe any fundamental radical change in the form of government, whether or not brought about by violence. Thus, when socialists use the term revolution, sometimes they mean peaceful change, and other times they mean violent change.

There isn’t a bright line between peaceful and violent revolution. Sometimes, for example, large non-violent actions (protests, strikes, and such) combine with a few violent actions (takeover of government offices) to effect a revolution with limited, mostly isolated violence.

Peaceful, Non-Violent Change

Some believe that socialism can be attained at the ballot box, or using other peaceful or non-violent means. Under this scenario, the people would choose socialism over the existing system, perhaps little by little. Sometimes this attitude is called “reformism”.

There are two main difficulties with this proposition:

First, it requires education about the nature of socialism, so that the existing misinformation is countered. This is made problematic by the overwhelming control of the media – print, broadcast, entertainment, and internet – by capitalists who oppose socialism. These are the same capitalists who own and control the other industries and resources of the economy. Those capitalists aren’t going to give socialism a fair hearing: they’re going to paint it in a bad light. Yet, most people get their news and information almost entirely, directly or indirectly, from the capitalist-controlled media. Education of the people is a tall order under those circumstances.

Second, most people have little or no experience governing themselves. A transition to a democracy requires that people assume the role of self-governing citizens, yet there aren’t the institutions, role modes, experience, and opportunities to do this, to gain experience or to practice. Sometimes, a few local governments have attempted to govern themselves more, by changing the way meetings are held, changing the rules, and so on, but they have been confronted by massive opposition from special interests and the enormously greater relative power of higher level governments. The results are usually mixed. People don’t associate the idea of citizen control of policing, popular control of taxation, and so on, with the broader concept of socialism, so the changes usually end with a single issue. Where are people going to gain practice governing themselves?

Third, the existing system is designed to preserve itself. It contains “safeguards” (from the perspective of the capitalists) designed to prevent exactly the kind of fundamental changes required by the introduction of a socialist system. It is very difficult to change organic laws, and nearly impossible to change constitutions in meaningful ways.

So far, history has shown limited success introducing socialism using peaceful change.

It may be that things will change by the advent of new technologies (such as the global internet, which has a little bit challenged the for-profit media) the global scale of events and institutions, singular events and developments, the world economic collapse, the ravages of incipient climate change, or other things. It remains to be seen.

Violent Change

Some socialists believe that violent change will be necessary to introduce socialism, that reformism will never succeed completely. Although the need for violence is lamentable, some feel it is justified to counter the existing violence of the capitalist system, in which millions die or suffer from diverse causes (hunger, pollution, poverty, brutal working environments, and other conditions) which are products of capitalism, and which are expected to be reduced under a socialist system.

Violence has risks for the socialist movement itself, beyond the direct impact. For example, even when violent revolution is attempted or employed in countries with horrible, capitalist-caused living conditions (poverty, death squads, torture, and such), the revolutionaries are often painted as “the bad guys”, which is inimical to the image and reputation of socialism. The capitalist press, and capitalist governments, paint the revolutionary violence as unwarranted while minimizing the violence of the population under the capitalist system. To make matters worse, often the people – whose lives the revolutionaries are trying to improve – are made to pay severely as an object lesson and to discourage them from cooperating with the revolutionaries.

Role of the Vanguard

Because of the difficulty in educating the people, in giving them experience governing themselves while they are living in a non-democratic society, some socialists accept the utility or necessity of a vanguard group or class moving the peaceful or violent revolution forward. The vanguard is presumed to do the advance work, perhaps even of bringing about a change of government, then using the vanguard’s power (at that point, possibly the government’s power) to introduce socialism to the rest of society. The common way this happens is: a vanguard gains some popular support (but not enough to effect a revolution), uses that support to gain power, then attempts to impose a new order using the power it has gained.

The vanguard model of revolution is found even outside of socialism. For example, the signers of the Declaration of Independence might be considered the core of a vanguard bringing forward the 1776 Revolution of the American Colonies against the British Crown.

Among socialist revolutions, the best known mostly followed the vanguard model. For example, the Bolshevik Party was a major part of the vanguard in the October 1918 Russian Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party was the main part of the vanguard in the 1949 revolution against the Chinese Nationalist forces, and the Movimiento 26 de Julio was the vanguard in Cuba’s 1959 revolution against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

Due to the significant task involved in the transformation to a socialist society, the first phase of the revolution – acquiring control of the government – may take considerably less time than the second phase. An armed takeover might be quick, but creating a socialist society might take generations.

One way this strategy might fail is for the second part – the creation of a socialist society – to fail, despite a successful government takeover. This might leave the people worse off than before, certainly an undesirable outcome.

Another unwanted possibility is for the vanguard, either the original revolutionaries or their successors, to succumb to corruption, to prefer personal power to democracy once they have gained office or find themselves in privileged positions.

This presents a confusing picture for those not familiar with the details of the developing revolution. Some examples:

The October 1918 Russian Revolution was led, in part, by Vladimir Lenin and Lev (Leon) Trotsky. Lenin became the first head of the new government, and aggressively pursued continuation of the revolution. Trotsky held various high offices, and likewise aggressively pursued the transition to a socialist society. After Lenin’s death in 1924 for reasons of health, Joseph Stalin became head of the government. Many socialists consider Stalin to have betrayed the revolution; he was strongly opposed by Lenin before Lenin’s death. Eventually, after clashes between Trotsky and Stalin, Trotsky was exiled in 1929, and assassinated in Mexico upon Stalin’s orders in 1940. The anti-socialist policies and actions of Stalin brought about the destruction of socialism in Russia, and indeed in the Soviet Union, but outsiders and enemies of socialism often did not understand that the Stalinist government and its successor regimes were not truly socialist. Even many socialists were fooled, and many took a long time to realize what had happened.

Of course, Russia no longer has pretensions of being socialist.

Mao Tse Tung was in the vanguard of the 1949 Chinese socialist revolution, and assumed control of the government. Under his tenure, the situation of the Chinese people improved enormously: he instituted reforms aiding literacy, health, income, personal freedom, and other values. He certainly made many mistakes while he was alive, and there was great progress among the people during his tenure as Chairman. There were also huge setbacks, and times of suffering, including the deaths of millions. There is debate about the extent to which Mao ought to be blamed for the failures. Eventually, after his death in 1976, there was a slow capitalist counter-revolution, so that China’s economy today is partly in government hands, and partly in private hands. It appears that the progress toward socialism has stalled or been halted entirely.

Officially, the Chinese Communist Party doctrine is that China is in an early phase of socialism, and has not yet achieved a full socialist society. Officially, full socialism is the goal, and the present “temporary” employment of capitalist methods is a necessary step on the road to socialism. Chinese socialist theory, sometimes called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, is a somewhat different animal from, say, European, American, or Russian socialism, because it has been specifically adapted to conditions in China. (China, for example, was long treated as a colonial region, and exploited by European and American capitalism, while the Europeans and Americans did not experience such exploitation. Socialist theory takes into account history’s effects and the stage of development of a society when evaluating the proper path to socialism.) Regardless, even the official position is that, whithersoever China ultimately goes, it isn’t now a fully socialist society.

To be fair (although I don’t necessarily agree with all of these arguments), many socialists defend both Stalin and Mao on the grounds that the situations they faced required lamentable “tactical” measures. Russia had to contend with opposition by the capitalist powers, the Russian Civil War of 1917 to 1922, and the war against Nazi Germany. China had staggering levels of poverty, illiteracy, and opium addiction at the beginning of the revolution, as well as opposition by the capitalist parties. Some argue that the severe actions taken by both were out of necessity. Regardless, both socialist revolutions largely failed. Certainly, the people and workers themselves never took control, regardless of whether or not the governments were, from their points of view, benevolent.)

(As a matter of interest, about half of Russians in the current capitalist Russia say they would return to Soviet days if given a chance, while a significant majority of the Chinese people are mostly happy with the current Chinese government which calls itself socialist. After the fall of the Soviet system in Russia, poverty increased greatly and life expectancy went down dramatically, and are now recovering, but considerable damage was done. On the other hand, the current “socialist” Chinese government since 1949 has steadily improved the lot of most of the Chinese people, despite occasional setbacks. There are a lot of factors involved in both countries, which is a good reason not to jump to conclusions about whether socialism itself is to be credited or to be blamed. You might ask yourself what things would be like if there were still Tsars in Russia, or if the successors of Chiang Kai Shek were still in control of the mainland of China.)

Flavours of Revolution

While many socialists argue for socialism based on its advantages, some of which have been discussed above, others give additional support based on analysis of social history. Under this framework, societies evolve in predictable ways. For instance, feudalism gives way to capitalism, and capitalism is replaced by socialism. This happens, not only because the changes are desirable, but also because, in each case, the preceding social structure is unstable and eventually must collapse. Each major transition is associated with a revolution, which may be peaceful or violent or both. In other words, the internal contradictions of each social structure make the next revolution inevitable.

Capitalism is afflicted, by its nature, by various internal contradictions, which may be seen as internal conflicts or opposing forces resulting in instability.

As one example, under capitalism, capitalists seek the highest return on their investments. However, competition and other forces drive down the return on investment, which over time tends to zero. How does capitalism function when capitalists can’t make profits? There are other forces at work, as well: for one, technology increases productivity, which increases profits, counteracting the tendency to zero profits, but that is only one of the other contradictions inherent in capitalism. Competition also creates a tendency to monopoly, destroying competition, and so on. There are parallel contradictions, as well, such as the ones relating to the concentration of wealth, the inequality which tends to grow over time, and the creation of a dispossessed class of workers who can no longer afford to purchase all which they produce. All in all, the net result is an unstable system which will ultimately collapse.

The inevitable revolution initiated by the capitalists in the transition from feudalism is called the bourgeois revolution. The inevitable revolution initiated by the workers in the transition from capitalism is called the proletarian revolution. (Many socialists see capitalism as an essential – even beneficial – step along the path to socialism.)

In this context, those socialists who subscribe to this theoretical framework do not choose to create a proletarian revolution. Rather, they participate in a proletarian revolution which will happen regardless of what they do. Their task is to make things as humane and as easy as possible.

Another variation on this interpretation is that the various contradictions within capitalism cause repeated crises. These crises themselves do not cause the collapse of capitalism, but instead provide opportunities for the proletariat to initiate the revolution.

The “Socialism in One Country” Debate

Because the economies of countries are so heavily intertwined in the current capitalist system, many socialists argue that a complete transition to socialism is impossible until it happens in all countries. With a mixed system, socialist countries inevitably participate in capitalism as they trade with capitalist countries.

Partly for this reason, partly because of the advantages of socialism, and partly for reasons of fairness to the people of the world, many socialists feel it is incumbent upon them to encourage the development of socialism to all parts of the world. (Note that capitalists advocate the spread of capitalism, too, so this isn’t a unique attitude.)

This entire process is complicated by the various types of societies found in the different countries of the world. Since some socialist theories require that advanced capitalism is necessary before a complete transition to socialism can take place, while some countries remain partly feudal societies (think, for example, of Saudi Arabia), socialism may be a long time coming.

Transition to Complete Socialism May Be Gradual

Although “revolution”, in some minds, conjures up the idea of sudden, complete change, socialists do not usually expect the transition to socialism to be an instantaneous phenomenon. Whether or not the revolution is wholly or partially violent or peaceful, and whether or not the vanguard model is considered, it is common to expect the revolution to take place over a long period of time, or to be completed in phases over many years. Sometimes, the revolution is seen as requiring generations to unfold.

Depending on the context, the interim period may be a time of mixed capitalism or other economic structures alongside socialist structures. Different socialist theories and practices refer to “phases” of the revolution, or use other terminology, depending on which theory is discussed.

For instance, Friedrich Engels, some of whose work was done in collaboration with Karl Marx, foresaw that, under some circumstances, there would be periods of private ownership of capital simultaneous with popular ownership. He thought that taxation of profits and inheritances, among other things, might be tools to facilitate and to control and eventually to eliminate such co-existing capitalist enterprises. Official Chinese Marxism bases some of its decisions to retain a partly-capitalist economy, to some extent on this part of Engels’ work.

Some socialists envision an advanced stage of socialism, called communism, which will evolve from a socialist society. They predict that communism will include the elimination of money, drastically reduced function of the state, and certain other phenomena. Communism, itself, isn’t a monolithic philosophy: as with the rest of socialism, it has many variants. Communist theory is largely based on the works of Marx and Engels, and is often closely associated with them, but there are other foundations of communism, and there also are followers of non-communist theories who rely on Marx and on Engels, as well.

Some Falsehoods Regarding Socialism

Misconceptions about socialism are common. Some of these are based on failure to understand capitalism or to understand economics generally, while others are based on misinformation about socialism itself.

Markets, Free and Otherwise

It is often said that socialism is not efficient or fair because it dispenses with markets, which are believed to be efficient and to lead to optimal (in some sense) allocation of resources. This is wrong for several reasons.

First, not all socialist systems eliminate markets: there are many theories of socialism based on markets, while other socialist theories replace some or even most markets with various kinds of central planning. At any rate, socialism does not necessarily imply lack of markets.

Second, markets are efficient only under narrow sets of circumstances, which are not often achieved, and this efficiency is defined in abstract mathematical terms which aren’t based on any kind of social efficiency. The most common definition of market efficiency is based on Pareto optimality, which doesn’t purport to lead to optimality in a way that an average person would intuitively recognize. Even this kind of efficiency requires several conditions, such as knowledge by all participants in the market of all prices paid by everyone and knowledge by everyone of the terms and conditions of all trades.

Third, truly free markets are actually quite rare, even, or perhaps especially, in capitalist systems. Any time a market is regulated, those regulations distort the market. This is true even when the regulations are ostensibly for some good purpose, such as assuring the quality of goods. Also, there are almost no markets which account for the totality of the effects of a transaction. For instance, fossil fuel and chemical prices don’t include the costs of environmental pollution, and markets in machinery and in computers don’t allow for the societal costs of unemployment caused by automation.

The Soviet Union, China, and Other “Socialist” Places

It has been explained above that many countries or groups which call themselves socialist, are not, in fact, socialist, though some claim to be on some path to socialism. The situation is made more difficult to understand when it is seen that often the Soviet Union would work against true workers’ or peoples’ movements in other countries, claiming to promote socialism while, in practice, promoting loyal “communist” parties and opposing true socialist movements. However, such actions are not more disingenuous than those of so-called democratic countries, such as the U.S., which has often worked to overthrow the popularly elected leaders of other countries in order to install acceptable, compliant dictators. These countries claim to be democratic and to support democracy, but in practice they are ruled by a few and support “friendly” dictators and autocrats; democracy is acceptable only when the leanings of the people are profitable.

An example is the Soviet Union, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After the October 1918 Revolution, Lenin, who was the leader of the Revolution and of the subsequent revolutionary government until his death in 1924, sought to establish (in his words) “an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich”. Lenin excluded from that democracy the capitalists and other oppressors of the people, those who made a profit from the labour of others, but he did allow individual dissent: it was permissible to criticize and to offer alternative views on how the new socialist society ought to be governed. When Stalin assumed control, however, he changed that policy: he excluded and violently suppressed, sometimes by imprisonment or even killing, not only enemies of the people, but also even workers who disagreed. He also governed the Party with an iron hand, insisting that the Soviet communist party maintain control over communist parties in other countries. Stalin became an autocrat, a dictator, which opposed rather than supported popular control of the factors of production. This was not socialism, regardless of what it claimed to be or where it claimed to be headed.

One country which has been recently and wrongly described as socialist, but which needs mentioning due to current events, is Venezuela. The official political philosophy of Venezuela is Bolivarianism, which is an amalgam of principles not completely socialist but which includes some ideas common to many forms of socialism. The government describes Venezuela as undergoing a Bolivarian Revolution, so they don’t claim to have reached the goals of Bolivarianism. The Venezuelan Socialist Party is incumbent, but they don’t claim that the country is socialist, only that socialism is a goal. In fact, the economy is mostly capitalist. The Venezuelan oil industry was nationalized in 1976, long before socialists came to power, but part of the stock has since been at times in private hands. The economic problems seen now have been recurring for many decades, and the country has suffered previously during times of low oil prices. Foreign firms exploiting the oil long exerted much control over the country, and Venezuela has struggled to rid itself of foreign control. During the times of foreign domination, Venezuela was kept largely dependent on other countries; the economy was arranged so that Venezuela had to sell its oil to get food and other necessary products, rather than producing those things itself. (This forced dependency is a common problem among colonies of imperial powers.) The vulnerability is being corrected, but the situation has hampered its liberation from foreign domination. In summary, the problems now being suffered by Venezuela have many complex roots, but cannot much be blamed on the country being “socialist”.  

Equal and Unequal Rewards

Another misconception about socialism is that everyone is rewarded equally, and that there is no incentive for personal initiative. On the contrary, the reality is that in practically all socialist and would-be socialist economies, there are high paying jobs and low paying jobs, there is financial incentive to study and to work harder and to seek advancement. However, there are two main differences from capitalist society: pay and working conditions are in the hands of the people and the workers, and the profits are distributed to the people or to the workers, and not to private owners.

The difference regarding salaries and profits is this: the size of your reward is in the hands of your co-workers and the people, not in the hands of the manager, boss, or owner. Let that sink in: instead of being rewarded for pleasing the boss, you have an incentive to work as a valued part of a team, as a useful and wanted part of a group.

Also, as in capitalist societies, there may also be taxes, such as value-added taxes or income taxes. The rates are set by the people, as is to be expected in democracies.

Innovation and Progress

Many socialists believe that capitalism is an essential stage in the progression to capitalism. Without the level of development brought by capitalism, society would not be ready for socialism. However, capitalism is an unstable system, and will eventually collapse due to its internal contradictions. That does not mean, however, that progress and innovation will end or will slow down with the end of capitalism.

Proponents of capitalism sometimes point to the tremendous amount of technological progress and improvements in living standards brought about by capitalism, especially during the last century or so. They sometimes argue that these improvements would not have occurred, or would be less common, without the incentives provided to capitalists to innovate and to build. However, this argument assumes that the innovation and construction was done by the capitalists, and would not so likely have taken place without them. In fact, most of the work of building new industries and firms and technologies isn’t done by the owners, it’s done by the workers. Those billionaires wouldn’t be wealthy if it weren’t for the work done by their employees and contractors – work the surplus value of which the billionaires and other capitalists have appropriated. It takes thousands of people to build a modern automobile or cell phone or data network: even the best engineers and scientists build on foundations built by others, using equipment and tools and supplies designed and constructed by thousands of others. It is a myth promoted by capitalists that this or that genius founded a new industry or disrupted a major market, then profited appropriately.

Ask yourself how much those billionaires would have accomplished, how far they would have gotten, without the workers they hired, without the raw materials and knowledge they used as starting points. They’d still be tinkering with their inventions, presenting their ideas to others on home-made chalk boards, wearing whatever clothing they had time to weave together and sew themselves. No, almost no innovation is a solo act, it’s almost invariably a team effort.

Look around at the most creative people you know: they do it largely because it comes naturally to them, because they enjoy it, they find it personally satisfying. Sure, they won’t turn down the money, but they create regardless, if they’re given the circumstances, the time, the resources. History has shown that to be true. And one of the major goals of socialism has always been to unleash human potential, to give people the freedom to explore and to create and to develop themselves as well as their creations and inventions. How many artists and inventors have had to sacrifice their potential in order to survive, to make a living, to deal with working long hours to pay the bills?

Socialism, by freeing the working class from the drudgery of employment in unsatisfying and alienating jobs, is likely to set free a wave of creativity, innovation, and progress, far beyond what we have seen during the capitalist phase of development.

Personal Effects

Sometimes it’s wrongly believed that, under socialism, everything or almost everything will be held in common. That’s not true. Socialists are concerned with things used to make a profit, not with your personal items. The reason is that capital – assets used as part of a profit-making or surplus-making process – are the basis of a society’s gain, and socialists are concerned with the distribution of the gain, and also with the decisions which are made about how capital is to be employed.

If you own a pair of shoes to wear, then socialists aren’t concerned about that. (It is common that they want everyone to have enough shoes or other goods, but that’s about all.) On the other hand, if you buy a shirt and have it with the intent to sell it at a profit, then it’s part of a cycle which will potentially create a surplus or profit, and most socialists will feel that, past a point, you shouldn’t have that inventory yourself, that it should be held in common. As a practical matter, many socialists don’t think that things you make yourself, or very small businesses, or certain kinds of businesses (family businesses, small farms, and so on) need to be socialized; where the lines are drawn varies from one socialist to another. Some would say that enterprises with more than one person ought to be held in common among all of the persons involved, others would make them community-owned, and still others would allow some outside ownership as long as the people involved make the decisions.

The main point here is: socialists don’t want your personal property, and they may or may not want to socialize small businesses or firms, depending on the flavour of socialism.

Fair Comparison

While it is debatable whether there are any true country-level democracies, or whether there are any true country-level socialist societies, there are also those who would claim that many if not most of the so-called capitalist countries aren’t completely capitalist, that they are hampered by excessive government regulation, interference in markets, and so on. Maybe so, but there clearly is a scale upon which all of these countries can be evaluated. Let us hypothetically classify countries and societies as “more capitalist” and “more socialist”, and see whither that leads.

Poverty is found in some “more socialist” countries, but it’s also found in some “more capitalist” countries.

Oppression and lack of freedom are found in some “more socialist” countries, but they’re also found in some “more capitalist” countries.

Dictatorships and autocracies are found in some “more socialist” countries, but they’re also found in some “more capitalist” countries.

Violence is found in some “more socialist” countries, but it’s also found in some “more capitalist” countries.

Therefore, to say that, data or experience show that socialism is the cause of these evils is based on faulty or dishonest thinking. The error is to ignore that there are many other significant factors at play.

You can do the same exercise with desirable attributes of a society. For example, you can say that a high material standard of living is found in some “more capitalist” countries, but it is also found in some “more socialist” countries, and so on. The result is the same: it is faulty or dishonest to base conclusions upon what amounts to cherry picked data.

There are a few classifications of countries which measure the levels of “freedom”, “wealth”, “inequality”, and so on. These commonly rank countries with various kinds of scores, with statements such as “X is the 23rd most free country, with an average freedom index of 12.27”. This is a beginning, but these classifications are, so far, inadequate for a scientific approach to the questions brought up in this essay. In part, this is due to a lack of rigorous definitions (how do you define or measure popular control of factors of production? which are the factors of production?) and so on, and partly due to a paucity of data sets based on definitions. (Of course, it’s sometimes problematic to find data without the definitions coming first.)

Therefore, I don’t see a way, at this time, without further work, of drawing many general conclusions based on data. It’s a little surprising to me that I haven’t heard of anyone trying, though it is certainly possible that such studies and research might exist.  

Socialism Is About One Thing...

In its most general sense, socialism is about popular or worker ownership or control of the factors of production. That’s all, that’s the only essential quality.

There are other systems which masquerade as socialism, just as there are many which pretend to be democratic. If it isn’t democratic, if the people or workers aren’t, in fact, in charge, then it isn’t, in fact, socialism.

The rest isn’t fixed, it depends on how we get there, and on the details of the implementation.


Edit history:

Sunday, 2019.05.05 – Initial release

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