Especially with the recent successes of so-called “socialist” candidates in elections in the U.S., and the increasingly favourable views toward “socialism” indicated by polls, the definition of the term, socialism, needs clarification in each instance where it is used. Concentrated, biased media have long ignored and mis-characterized socialism, and have attempted to bury it, to have it forgotten. Most Americans have no idea what it is, nor do they have knowledge of its history.
Socialism isn’t the only term which requires clarification. For example, the meanings of “libertarian”, “democracy”, and “net neutrality” have changed over time. Two self-identifying libertarians might almost completely disagree with each other regarding the meaning of “libertarian”. A closer examination of younger people’s attitudes often shows that what they mean by their growing disapproval of “capitalism” is often, in fact, an indication that they more and more prefer a more regulated form of capitalism, not the end of capitalism itself. There is a huge difference between eliminating capitalism and “fixing” it. Similarly, the range of systems called “socialist” is vast. Of course, we can’t forget the differences between the National Socialist German Workers' Party, usually called the Nazi Party, and the Communist Party, which also call themselves “socialist”, yet are mortal enemies with widely divergent goals and practices. Often, a word denotes practically nothing at all.
Approximately, “socialism” designates some kind of common, popular, or collective ownership or control over the means of production. The term doesn’t usually apply to personal possessions: socialism refers to the common ownership of capital, resources, and enterprises which produce and create other goods, commodities, products, and so on. Almost none of the major socialist movements want your home, your clothing, or other such things. They want the popular control or ownership of factories, mines, and businesses. Of course, there are extremists, but even the leftmost groups with any meaningful support, influence, and likelihood of success, limit their platforms to the means and factors of production. This is clear all the way back to the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, and even before that. That socialists or communists want to own “everything” in common, is a lie repeated by their opponents to frighten people away, so that those people won’t continue on and give socialism serious consideration.
Socialists are divided various ways. Two main differences are: which assets are to be socialized, and in how such socialized assets are to be owned, managed, and controlled. There are subsidiary disagreements, as well, flowing from these first two, such as, How are the profits, if any, to be distributed?
Some socialists are concerned only with large enterprises: they don’t care about small shops or firms. Some include resources such as mineral deposits and large or small tracts of farmland, others think in terms of enterprises employing people. You might roughly draw a line between capital assets, which are assets to create more assets, and non-capital assets, which are merely used, though, like parks and museums, don’t “wear out” or become “used up” in the most common sense. There are socialists everywhere on these spectra. That’s one of the main reasons we need to ask what a person, such as a candidate or commentator or member of a group, means by “socialism”.
Socialism can be effected by many means: by ownership, by control, by accountability, by legal obligations, by taxes, and by other means. These are all different socialisms. Which one does a specific person, using the term, mean?
Ownership and control are usually, to some extent, distinct. An enterprise can be controlled without ownership. For instance, a firm might be controlled by requiring that workers or the people or the government be represented on the board or other governing body. Control can mean everything, and some socialists don’t even talk about ownership: total control is tantamount to ownership if the entity is considered to be non-profit. (Here, I use the term, “non-profit”, to refer to an entity where there are no shareholders with any claim to any profits or surplus.)
Management and control, themselves, present a range of possibilities. For instance, these can be exercised by the general government, by the workers, or by the population. Worker cooperatives are possible. Perhaps the most evil trap is the illusion that the government, whatever its form, will act in the best interests of the people or even of the workers. A firm falling prey to an incompetent or corrupt government can at times lead to a worse situation than if it were left in the hands of capitalists. Be very wary of socialism by way of government, because government is often controlled by capitalists and by those whose interests are at variance with those of the people.
Regardless, the right to control ought to be inalienable. If, for example, stock in a firm is distributed among the people, it ought to be non-transferable: otherwise, it will all end up back in the hands of a few. That’s what has almost invariably happened in the past when government owned companies became privatized by the distribution of unrestricted capital stock: that’s a recipe for socialist suicide, for self-destructing socialism.
Who are to be the beneficiaries? The workers? The general populace? The various kinds of socialisms answer this question in various ways. If the answer isn’t well-defined and well-enforced, then political machinations will hijack the management.
Summarizing, the term, “socialism”, isn’t unambiguous. For evidence that this is so, look to the various parties, organizations, and movements which call themselves socialist. Some of them can’t even agree on what they mean when they use the term themselves, and others offer vague and unclear definitions. And some merely lie: they claim that they want to benefit some group or attain some goal, but, in fact, work primarily for the good of another group or toward different ends.
This lack of clarity and definiteness does not mean that socialism is bad or wrong, it means that we must be careful not to fall for ersatz improvements, nor should be allow the enemies of socialism to define it. There are many forms of socialism, some clearly worse, and some clearly better, than others. We will make errors along the way, to be sure, but let’s ask questions before each step. If we, the people, the beneficiaries, the workers, retain control, then we can change course as required, but there is no sense to heading off in the wrong direction from the beginning.
Wednesday 2018.07.04 — Initial release.
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