10 Things Everyone Should Understand About Socialism
Cover photo credit. Socialist Party USA
Socialism as a political ideal is relatively new, less than 200 years old in its present form, but during the 20th century the tensions of the Cold War came to dominate international politics. America, cast as one of the defenders of the capitalist system inevitably viewed socialism with antagonism and suspicion. The result of this ideological struggle is that while the modern USA is a moderate but right wing capitalist democracy, the American left is positioned further towards the right of the political spectrum than its equivalent in many other countries.
Socialism as a political ideal is much more than just ‘Communism Light’. It is a sophisticated belief system that has evolved to form the basis of many of the world’s most progressive and respected nations today, countries such as Denmark, Norway and France. Such nations strive to allow the original ideals of socialism to flourish far removed from the rhetoric of communism providing high quality healthcare free at the point of need, a genuinely good education system and social security for those who need it.
So is socialism a dangerous step on the road to communism? Should we be suspicious of socialists and their desire to bring the state into every corner of our lives? Do socialists really want to bring an end to private property and make women a communal asset of society? In order to separate the fact from the fiction here is our list of 10 things everyone should understand about Socialism.
10. Socialism is older than you think
Of course socialism as we know it today has evolved over the last 200 years but it has its roots in the writings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and Sir Thomas More, the advisor to King Henry VIII of England considered the concept of a socialist state in his book Utopia in 1516. It was not until the French Revolution, however, that people started truly to consider whether a socialist nation state was a workable idea.
In tandem with developments in France, thinkers in Britain started to explore the concept of a tax on the wealthy to fund help for the poor, whilst workers started to form Trade Unions allowing them to take advantage of the power of collective bargaining to improve their pay and working conditions. The US followed suit and workers started to establish Labor Unions in a bid to improve their lot. As these unions formed, they became a focus for socialist thought and many remain directly active in national politics. The British left wing Labor party is, for example, still directly funded by the British Trade Unions who have a significant role in voting for new leaders.
9. The French Formed the First Socialist Government
In 1871 the world saw the first ever attempt by the working class to seize power from the wealthy. France was reeling under their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The people of Paris, with the help of the National Guard, took control of the city from the Government, and declared it an independent commune, urging other cities in France to do the same.
The commune immediately set about turning factories and other centers of employment into workers co-operatives. The leaders of the commune, however, felt that Paris was not ready for a truly anarchic society and realized the need for a continued government of sorts although the representatives on the governing council were paid no more than the average wage. The commune became mired in angry disputes between those who recognized the need for representative government and those who wanted to establish mass assemblies where all adults had an equal say.
This exercise in utopian socialist ideals did not last long; by May of 1871 the French Government had seized control of the city once more. This first exercise in socialist government may have been short lived and unsuccessful but it proved that it was possible and that socialism was a political force to be reckoned with. Socialists were on the move worldwide. In 1904 Australia elected the first ever socialist Prime Minister, Chris Watson and in 1905 Russian workers attempted to rise up against the Tsarist regime. They were unsuccessful at that time but, 12 years later Russia overthrew her monarchy in favor of a broadly socialist Provisional Government. They in turn were overthrown in a second revolution just 6 short months later.
8. Socialism is not Communism
While the two ideologies have much in common there are distinct differences between the two. Both socialism and communism claim to want to establish equality between all members of society. The two differ, however, in the application of those beliefs. Communism strives to control the economy of the state through authoritarian means and eradicate the concept of personal property whereas socialists believe true equality comes from giving people a greater say and allows for the existence and maintenance of private property.
Socialists are also (mostly) willing to work with capitalists and acknowledge the benefits of capitalism when it can be put to good use for the state. Communists, however, believe that capitalism and communism are mutually exclusive and work towards the full eradication of all capitalist systems globally.
Over the course of the 20th Century several nation states including the USSR, Vietnam, Laos, China and Cuba established themselves as communist by way of revolution whereas other countries such as Denmark and Norway established socialist democracies through peaceful and consensual means.
Communism can then be seen as an extreme form of socialism; indeed Marx himself saw socialism as a stepping stone towards communism, a lower stage rather than the ‘real deal’. Many socialists see their beliefs as an end in and of themselves and not a pathway towards the more extreme beliefs of communism.
7. Socialists Are Not Necessarily Atheists
Communist countries such as the USSR and China have, in the past, rejected religion in all its forms, repressing those who practice it. Religion was famously characterized, by Marxists as the ‘opium of the masses’ and, in general, both communist and extreme socialist parties believe that religion is inimical to the class struggle.
But these are extreme cases. Communism, as we have explained above, is not socialism. In most moderate and mainstream socialist parties and societies it is possible for people to claim to be socialist and indeed strive for socialist ideals while still adhering to a religion (many of the European politicians to the left of the political spectrum still have ties with a church or religion. In Norway, for example, which is regarded by many as a socialist country, there were, until recently, close ties between the monarchy, church and state. Many socialist parties around the world class religion and belief as a personal and private matter that should not be discussed at party meetings or influence party policy. The further from socialism and towards communism a party is the more likely it is to be atheist.
6. Socialists Believe That Inherited Wealth Is Incompatible With A Socialist Society
Throughout history people have strived to better themselves, to save money and to give opportunities to their children that they were unable to avail themselves of. People hope to collect assets and to pass them on to their family when they die. Family homes, jewelry, trust funds, whatever the inheritance many feel that the fruits of their labors should benefit their children.
Socialists, however, believe that people should make their own course in life and that the inheritance of wealth leads to it concentrating in too few hands. Such people who benefit from an inheritance have a better start in life, can afford better education and will therefore be better placed to get good jobs with high salaries, allowing the cycle to continue. The very act of choosing to buy the very best limits the options that are available to the poorer in society.
While communist countries have sought to do away with personal wealth altogether socialists approach this problem in a different way, by taxing death. While the USA has a high rate of Inheritance Tax (the fourth highest in the world) it applies large exemptions and therefore the tax is collected on very few estates. Other countries choose a lower rate but for the tax to apply to a greater percentage of estates.