In today’s political climate there is much to be discussed. Yet, so much misleading information is consumed and 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 too 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) No Examples of Historical Communism — (Objection) Political philosophers will often 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. 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 anarchist-communist groups, 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) China, an Example of a Communist Nation State? — (Objection) 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). China is also heavily technocratic with 8 out of 9 of its top leadership having a scientific or engineering background.
(4) (FACT) Socialists History of Uneducated Leadership — There is a long history of the failures of centralized socialism and military regimes. These military regime changes, lead by communist/socialist political ideologies, were likely domed to fail because the leadership roles were usually filled by people without a higher educational background. You could list all of the historic leaders from former communist/socialist regimes and nearly all of them received either a minimal education or dropped out of school completely. Both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler dropped out of school at an early age. From the eastern communist leaders Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam never finished his secondary education. The founder of N. Korea (Kim il-Sung) dropped out of middle-school. Mao Zedong revived only a basic secondary education at Hunan First Normal School, later founded as a college and then University in 2000 and 2008, respectively. Venezuela’s current president (Nicolas Maduro), records show he never graduated high-school. The only historic communist/socialist leaders with a basic college education were Fidel Castro and Vladimir Lenin, and if we’re honest these leaders didn’t fair so badly. But they still would never go on to pursue any higher degree of learning. As a technocratic philosopher, I fully recognize my bias towards higher-educational leadership. I won’t say having a higher-education is absolutely necessary. But the social and political failures of these communist regimes given their lack of higher education is I feel a valid objection.
(5) Socialism Equates to Communism & Fascism — (Objection) We need to first clarify that these historic regimes were using communism as a propaganda tool towards political-gains and self-interest. But the difference between today’s form of socialism is that the old was more radical while the newest versions are more 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.
(6) 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.
(7) Millions have Perished Under Communism — (Objection) 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 numbers then it could be argued that ‘capitalism has killed more.’ Early European colonialism in the Americas killed at least 53 million people. Leopold II of Belgium exploited the 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 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 also do not reflect the untold casualties of warfare & capitalism in which Marxist theory claims is the root cause of ongoing conflict between nations.
(8) Socialism is the Opposite of Capitalism — (Objection) The founder of modern socialist theory Karl Marx was, once again, not anti-capitalist. Marx was the one who first developed the concept of ‘surplus value‘ which is a core principle of capitalism. Most modern socialist & communist theories work in conjunction with a capitalist system. We already spoke about how China is a socialist market economy (SME) with capitalist leanings. 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. Scandinavian countries have a strong welfare system. The presumption that socialism or communism is the opposite of capitalism likely stems from historical examples of (Stalinist/Maoist) regimes. Which makes the social stigma that socialist systems are antithetical to a capitalist system grossly misleading. The original Marxist theory was never against capitalism. The core principle of Marxism favors a free-market capitalist economy controlled by its workers.
(9) The Socialist Regime of Joseph Stalin — (Objection) “Stalinism” is hard to define because Joseph Stalin was not a man of principle. He was no doubt a ruthless communist dictator but 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, as a socialist system, 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.
(10) The Nordic Model is Capitalism? — (Objection) There have been recent articles that erroneously dismiss the Nordic model as an example of socialism. These opinion pieces are often cited by conservative detractors who lambaste the Nordic model by unfairly 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‘, once again! Remember, that there are many forms of socialism that affect either the economy and 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.
(11) The Zero-sum & Lump of Labor Fallacy — Socialism and communism is often unfairly criticized by abusing these fallacies. To use an example of how the zero-sum fallacy works, is say 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 simple proof bares true mathematically it is a negligible example of how modern economies work. This may have been the belief in the mercantilism era of trade systems. After all, gold and silver were the popular mediums of exchange during that era, and that was a limited resource. But after the industrial revolution modern economies now generate wealth through surplus value. Systems of money called currency became the modern medium of exchange. The point is to say that economies have evolved past the idea of a 0-fixed sum. You could say that this argument is a Malthusian fallacy. In marvel The Avengers movie one of the main protagonist Thanos abuses this fallacy. He falsely believes that by getting rid of 50% of the population he can save the universe and maintain it’s resources. This is also the main plot in the 2016 film The Da Vinci Code: Inferno; but I digress. ‘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 by anti-immigration groups like FAIR, who propagate this false narrative that an increase in the population of undocumented immigrants would have a negative affect on competition and labor. Again, this is not how modern economies work! 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 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 different terms mean. Because 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 online political discussions. The designations that make socialism differ can at first seem like you’re splitting hairs. But we must remember that 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 our history we must also recognize the modern socialist 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 that the ‘British Parliamentary Style‘ of debate is better because you establish your definitions first which can avoid any sweeping-generalizations. 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 in this debate, just remember that an informed public makes for far better informative views.
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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. Retrieved from libertarianinstitute.org/articles/the-nordic-model-isnt-true-socialism/
Kagan, J. (2018). Lump of Labor Fallacy. Retrieved from http://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. Retrieved from http://www.fairus.org/issue/workforce-economy/immigration-labor-displacement-and-american-worker