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.
5. Socialists Are Not Against Private Ownership Of Property
One of the beliefs commonly attributed to socialists is a hatred for private ownership of property. This belief harks back to the events of communist revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere, where personal wealth and property was confiscated for the benefit of the state. People were allocated state housing of a size deemed sufficient for the needs of the family concerned.
When socialist governments were first elected, however, they did not interfere with the private ownership of property. When Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labor Government in the UK following an election in 1923 it was touted as a ‘national misfortune’. Fears were stoked that private property and the institution of marriage would be abolished, and even that women would be nationalized. As it turned out, the socialist government confined itself to pushing through social security and pensions legislation and working to solve several important foreign policy dilemmas of the day. Private homes were safe! And this has been the case for all democratically elected socialist governments ever since.
By and large, the governments of moderate socialist countries permit the ownership of private property such as homes and cars. What they do not generally permit is for personal wealth to be used to exploit workers and therefore private ownership of industry is often curtailed with utilities, transport companies, large factories and so on being owned directly by the state. This happened, to a great extent, in Britain, France and other Western European Countries after the Second World War. Other countries such as Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and Iran to name but a few have nationalized foreign owned private industries. Such nationalizations often come at great cost to shareholders who lose their investment in the corporation. Nationalization of industry can be a powerful tool which enables new governments to raise funds and buy the loyalty of their population through the provision of state sponsored employment. It is therefore viewed, by many developing nations, as a fundamental right guaranteed by the UN Charter!
4. The US Democrat Party Are Not Socialists
Because the Democrat Party sits towards the left of the Republicans it can be tempting to believe that they hold socialist beliefs. Indeed Republicans often conflate the two, claiming that Democrat initiatives such as Obamacare, social security, The New Deal, Medicare and the Civil Rights Act amongst others were ‘socialist’ initiatives.
Ask any self-identifying American Socialist or any European voter whether the Democrats are socialist and they will laugh at what they perceive to be your naiveté. The American Democrat Party sits to the right of many of the centrist groups in other countries and the USA is a long way from moving towards implementing socialist ideals with the American welfare and support systems being considered very weak when compared with the support extended in other countries.
3. Socialism Is Not Inherently More Or Less Fair Than Capitalism
Socialists like to claim that the society they strive to create is one that is fair to all who live in it. ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his means’ may be a Marxist/communist statement but it has its adherents amongst socialists too. The sentiment behind the phrase is that excess wealth will be redistributed from those who are able to generate it directly to those who need it and may not be able to work or support themselves.
Socialists claim that to do otherwise would be unfair whereas many capitalists believe that redistribution is unfair in that it takes away money from those who have worked to obtain it and gives it to those who have done nothing to deserve it. This, they claim, fosters laziness and an overreliance on the state. Rather than support the ‘fair’ redistribution of wealth capitalists prefer to rely on a doctrine of equality of opportunity – i.e. everyone gets the same chances in life. This is also the theory behind the ‘American Dream’ – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Socialists, of course, argue that in any system of inherited wealth and privilege there can never be true equality of opportunity.
In truth an objective review of the two systems does not show any one to be fairer than the other. No one could argue that it is reasonable to leave people who have experienced unexpected problems in their life destitute and potentially out on the street. A modern state should aim to support those in need. An over reliance on welfare can, however, be detrimental both to the state that provides it and the families who lose any incentive to work to support themselves. If welfare is allowed to get out of control a government will find itself in a position where, like Belgium, welfare spending becomes so high that it contributes to the national debt
2. Socialists Are Very Active On Environmental Issues
During the second half of the 20th Century environmental concerns started to become more mainstream. Agencies such as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have attributed a rise in greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere to the burning of fossil fuels in factories, cars, planes and power plants. This belief has become a new global orthodoxy with media and governments around the world subscribing to the ‘settled science’ that climate change is real.
This orthodoxy suits socialists – they can claim that a minority of exploitative capitalists are destroying the earth, our home and the property we all hold in common, for their own selfish reasons. The easy acceptance of the climate change narrative by people of all political persuasions has allowed socialists to use it as a Trojan horse to advance their agenda in countries that would otherwise be hostile to their ideals. Under the cover of environmental concern socialists have managed to destabilize the energy security of major countries such as the UK and Germany.
1. Socialism can coexist and even thrive in a democracy and vice versa
If you were asked what were the most socialist countries in the world today you might be tempted to answer China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba but you would be wrong, These countries are communist, not socialist. Other countries such as Venezuela who claim to be creating a socialist paradise are, in fact, doing very little to ensure that the masses are well cared for and supported.
Countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Finland and the Netherlands, all modern democracies, have successfully combined a free market capitalist economy with a high class state run health, education and welfare systems that are supported by high taxes. These countries have proved that socialism can survive and even thrive when it is moderate instead of extreme.
Socialism and socialist are words that are bandied about. In some societies (parts of the USA are typical) it is seen as an insult whilst others wear the name as a badge of honor, but the truth is very few people who use the word are actually aware of the political realities and nuances that lie behind it.
Socialism evolved together with communism, from the crucible of the trade union and equality struggles of the industrial revolution. The two belief systems evolved in parallel with key philosophers such as Marx seeing socialism as a necessary step on the road towards true communism.
While communist parties in diverse nations sought to change the world through violent revolution and upheaval, socialist parties strove to make themselves appear responsible and electable, hoping to change the world through democratic means. These socialists met with great success with many developed nations creating extensive welfare systems to support those who could not support themselves and to provide free access to high quality health and education services. All paid for by high taxes on income, capital and even death.
Many anti-socialist myths are propagated by those who fear potential socialist influence. This includes beliefs that socialists are against personal property and religion. The truth is somewhat more moderate, though many socialists are atheist and many would like to see key industries nationalized and run from the center.
Socialists are equally responsible for the propagation of anti-capitalist myths often believing that they have the moral high ground over those who do not wish to support those in need of assistance and convincing themselves that capitalists and the right are uncaring, unthinking and evil. This narrative and the associated guilt is often used quite successfully to push socialist agendas in non-socialist countries.
Margaret Thatcher, the famous British Prime Minister once said that ‘The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money’ and she has been proved partially right. Successful socialist states do run; countries like New Zealand and Finland are successful (although they face their own problems) but only because they have a high tax take in order to fund their high spending habits. The only reason they are able to maintain the high tax take is by running a successful capitalist economy where corporations and individuals are free to make money (and keep some of it for their own purposes) but were this not the case, there would be no assets to be taxed and the system would fall to pieces. This essential contradiction lies at the heart of socialism, but also differentiates it from its close cousin, communism.