In today’s political climate there’s so much misleading information being quickly disseminated through online social media. This treatment makes it hard to avoid political bias and unfair assumptions about your opponents position. So while there’s no shortage of political discussions being hashed out online, it’s surprising to me that socialism & communism are still tossed around as pejorative terms that are often misunderstood. I’ve started to lose confidence when hearing others speak on issues that surround socialist agendas (i.e. welfare, sustainability, education, government subsidies, healthcare, and social services, etc.) which is almost always reductive. I think the problem surrounding modern political discussions is a lack of education which causes a vacuous space where both sides are speaking past one another. To remain unbiased I will avoid taking a political position here. The purpose of this thesis is to address some common misconceptions about socialism from its historical to its modern development.
(1) People who defend communism will say there are no modern historical examples of communism (i.e. a stateless society where all private property has been abolished and the means of production are controlled by the laborers and corporate oligarchy.) But this is true only for (Marxist) communism which to be fair could be argued as the genuine article. Again, there has never been a Marxist communist nation-state. The most recent comments by Chinese President Xi Jinping would tout China as Marxist leaning but take that with a grain of salt. China is a mixed bag of a neo-liberal socialist market economy (SME) with a state-capitalist system (i.e. an economy in which there are state-owned market enterprises and are in-part controlled by a centralized government.) The neo-libertarian strategies of privatization also help China make sweeping market reforms and participate in globalization (Zhang, Ong 2008). There are some individual groups that identify as Marxist, and may belong to certain communes who practice these ideals. But ignoring some unintelligible conversation about China or individualism; to date, there have been no modern examples of a Marxist communist nation-state.
(2) Given (1) this is where most of the disagreement lays between the two camps of communism. Communism can be split into two doctrines of decentralized & centralized authorities. You can point to modern countries that could be considered examples of communist nations (i.e. N. Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos, etc.) but these are actually considered centralized versions of communism – where the production & wealth are completely or partially controlled by a political party. With this version of communism there is some obvious overlap with state-capitalism and totalitarianism. Again, in communist (Marxism) it is completely decentralized where the economic planning is controlled by the corporate oligarchy and labor unions. This is in stark difference to (Stalinist-Maoist) communism in which economic planning would be completely controlled by a centralized governing authority. The often misquoted Marxist idea of the centralization of capital had nothing to do with political parties but rather an end-game theory in which the market would be controlled through corporate monopolies. Yes, while many modern nations are considered communist they are still a far-cry from the same communist system that philosophers Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels had envisioned.
(3) The political and economic crisis in Venezuela. Yes, we have to talk about Venezuela. In recent years its become a favorite talking point of conservative pundits when attempting to demonize socialism as an example of a failed economic system. I detest arguments that equate socialist policies with the collapse of Venezuela which is a banana republic that is currently under a harsh dictatorship. A closer look at Venezuela would show massive corruption, incompetent leadership, and an over dependency on oil reserves that lead to hyperinflation. There is a long history of the failures of centralized socialism and military regimes. These military regime changes, lead by socialist political ideologies, were likely domed to fail because the leadership roles were usually filled by people without an educational background in economics nor public policy. You could list all of the historic leaders from former socialist regimes and nearly all of them received either a minimal education or dropped out of school completely. The founder of N. Korea (Kim il-Sung) dropped out of middle-school. Venezuela’s current president (Nicolas Maduro), records show he never even graduated high-school.
(4) Socialism does not equate to communism nor fascism. Yes, there are historical examples of regimes using communism as a propaganda tool towards political-ends. But the difference between today’s form of socialism is that the old is radical while the newest versions are reformist. Today’s socialism, like democratic socialism and social democrats, would not be considered fascist. The key difference here is that each promote policy decisions through a democratic platform choosing instead to focus on social and market reform. These democratic systems have worked for many countries. Consider monetary policies like fiscal-federalism, currently used in the United States, as proof of concept.
(5) Democratic Socialist vs Socialist Democrats? Modern socialism is generally considered to be discussed in the context of Democratic Socialism – democratic socialism favors a ‘socialist economy‘ working alongside a ‘capitalist economy‘ with the government having some control over the means of production. But its often called democratic to separate it from other centralized socialist models that were totalitarian such as the Stalinist/Leninist model. And then there are Socialist Democrats – who would favor welfare policies that focuses more on social inequality and inequity.
(6) Okay, but socialism has killed millions?! Yes and no, fascist regimes have used socialism as a political propaganda tool that caused the deaths of untold millions. But this argument is obviously reductive. It ignores the important principles of socialist theories that totalitarian governments essentially ignored. Although, if we want to talk about sheer numbers then it could be argued that capitalism kills more. Early European colonialism in the Americas killed at least 53 million people. Leopold II of Belgium exploited surplus of rubber from the European controlled Belgium Congo State which was responsible for killing at least 8-10 million of its inhabitants. Colonialism in India during British Imperialism brought about 27 famines that killed nearly 60 million [Davis 9]. Although, there is still not enough sufficient data it is estimated that around 14 million (European & Africans) perished during the 400 years of transatlantic slavery. These numbers also do not reflect the ongoing deaths caused by poverty each year. Canadian researches Gernot Kohler and Norman Alcock published a paper titled “An Empirical Table of Structural Violence” it found that 18,000,000 people die each year due to systemic poverty . These numbers do not reflect the untold casualties of warfare & capitalism in which Marxist theory claims is the root cause of conflict between nations.
(7) Socialism is NOT the opposite of capitalism! Most socialist theories work in conjunction with some form of a capitalist system. We already spoke about how China is a socialist market economy (SME) with capitalist leanings. But even the original Marxist theory favored a free-market capitalist economy. There are other great examples of socialism & capitalism working in conjunction, such as in mixed-economies. North America & the European Union are modeled after this system. The presumption that socialism is the opposite of capitalism likely stems from historical examples of (Stalinist/Maoist) regimes.
(8) Stalinism was NOT socialist! Stalinism is hard to define because Joseph Stalin wasn’t a man of principle. He often acted inconsistent with his own ideals. A basic assessment of the Stalinist regime will show a totalitarian state with a cult of personality. Stalinism has been disputed by several prominent Russian political writers and philosophers. Leon Trotsky, founder of Trotskyism, described Stalinism as neither socialist nor capitalist. Trotsky described Stalinist policies as a form of bureaucratic collectivism. Unfortunately, he was not able to develop this theory further as Stalin had him assassinated in Mexico City, Mexico in 1940. Another political writer and follower of Trotskyism, Tony Cliff described Stalinism as state capitalism or bureaucratic state-capitalism.
(9) The Nordic model is not socialism? There have been recent articles that dispute the Nordic model as an example of socialism. These strong opinions are often cited by conservative detractors who lambaste the Nordic model by contrasting it with the classical Marxist definition of socialism (i.e. a free-market economy with less/no government influence). OK, let’s define social democracy vs democratic socialism, again! Remember that there are many forms of socialism that affect either the economy and/or its social reforms. This is a prime example of the ‘catch-all’ terminology that confuses people. Although the Nordic region is mostly a free-market economy the Nordic model would still be considered a social-democracy – because of its democratic implementation of socialist policies that have created a strong welfare state.
(10) The Zero-sum & Lump of Labor Fallacy. Socialism and communism is often unfairly criticized by abusing these fallacies. The Zero-sum fallacy works like this. If I have a piece of pie and I wanted to share it equally with 3 other people then I would have to divide the pie by 1/4. While this example bares true mathematically it is unfortunately not how economics works. This is because economies generate wealth! Economics is not some 0-fixed sum that needs to be rationed or allocated for everyone to get an equal share. The Lump of Labor Fallacy is another type of zero-sum fallacy. This fallacy would instead assert that there is a fixed amount of labor to employ. This fallacy is often abused my anti-immigration groups like FAIR, who would assert that a an increase in the population of undocumented immigrants would have a negative affect on competition and labor. This is also a Malthusian fallacy; but I digress. The underlining assumption here is that any re-invigoration of socialist systems would lead to massive unemployment and a scarcity in resources which is simply not true.
Beyond the basic definitions I’ve provided it can be very difficult to define socialism. It could refer broadly to an ideology or related to its influence on a specific policy. I’ve told you about just two versions of communism but there are even more versions of socialism (i.e. Mutualism, Democratic Socialism, Socialist Democracy, Revolutionary Socialism, Eco-socialism, post-capitalism, Market/Non-market Socialism, Autonomism, Anarcho-collectivism, etc.) I wouldn’t encourage you to try to understand what all of these terms mean. But it does help to at least familiarize yourself with these terms to gain more insight. Hopefully this will reduce the prevalent reductionist thinking that has hollowed most of these talking points. The designations that make socialism differ can at first seem like you’re splitting hairs. But we must remember the original Marxist definition is not a practical way of defining socialism in any historical or modern context. The historical fascism that defined the Stalinist, Maoist, and Khmer Rouge regimes omit the important principles of the Marxist theory of decentralized power. Although we shouldn’t ignore history we must recognize the modern socialists shift to decentralization which has shown positive results – by using democratic institutions to push for socialist policies & planned socialist economies. If you’re committed to engaging in these topics I find it’s better to establish your definitions first to avoid any general assumptions. If you take anything from this reading I hope its the ability to differentiate what these socio-political terms actually mean in theory. And whichever side you find yourself on the debate remember an informed public makes for far better informative views.
Works Cited Page
Baijie, A. (2018). Chinese leader honors enduring legacy of Marx.
Zhang, L. Ong, A. (2015). Privatizing China. Cornell University Press https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=kxxZo6qOW_UC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=China+Socialism&ots=jnYBNoTcO0&sig=ndElT2EZ4fBhdxj8e42nSRbKwpw#v=onepage&q=China%20Socialism&f=false
Kautsky, J.H. (1997). Centralization in the Marxist and in the Leninist tradition. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0967067X97000159
Stevens, J.D. (1979). The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism. Macmillan Press LTD. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=aPSxCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR8&dq=Socialism&ots=_78VnP3Zvr&sig=V87vPd5Uvwmuu98chnukl9EkvBA#v=onepage&q=Socialism&f=false
Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso. p. 9.
Cliff, T. (1955/2020). State Capitalism in Russia. Haymarket Books.
Boyce, P. (2019). The Nordic Model Isn’t True Socialism. https://libertarianinstitute.org/articles/the-nordic-model-isnt-true-socialism/
Kagan, J. (2018). Lump of Labor Fallacy. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/lump-of-labour-fallacy.asp
“Protecting the jobs and wages of American workers is a clear objective of U.S. immigration policy.” (2016). Immigration, Labor Displacement
and the American Worker. https://www.fairus.org/issue/workforce-economy/immigration-labor-displacement-and-american-worker