A Brief Explanation of Socialism – and What It’s Not

There seems to be a lot of confusion across the board about Socialism. Whether it is coming from those who claim socialism as their own, or those who cry out against it, misconceptions abound. Having read my fair share of political philosophy over the years, and more than my fair share of history, I thought I might offer an explanation as to: 1) why socialism is so misconstrued in popular discourse, 2) what socialism is and has been, and 3) what is NOT socialism.

Let me get one distracting and erroneous argument out of the way before we begin. It does not matter what a political candidate calls him/herself, and it does not matter what voters or the media call someone either. Words mean things. Those meanings do not cease to exist because people spectacularly misuse words with stunning frequency. How many times have you heard some one say “literally,” when they obviously mean “figuratively”? To my great surprise, my wife grew up calling green bell peppers, “mangos.” Green bell peppers are not mangos, though, no matter long and self-confidently she had referred to them as such. Likewise, whatever a politician like Bernie Sanders may call himself is kind of irrelevant.

The term socialism has been distorted in American discourse over the years, largely as a result of our nation’s interactions with Soviet Communism. Modern popular conceptions of socialism have been filtered through the experiences of Bolshevism, Marxist Leninism, Stalin, the rise of a Soviet empire, and decades of antagonistic Cold War. As a result of political rhetoric as much as anything else, many Americans equated the term socialism with the repressive, authoritarian regimes of Soviet communism. Thus, Americans came to use “socialist” and “communist” somewhat interchangeably during the Cold War, and often in ways that had very little relation to their actual meanings in political philosophy. The word “socialist” became little more than a blunt political instrument used to bludgeon the opposing party, regardless of whether a particular policy stance had anything to do with real socialism. It’s a practice still popular today. By merely equating the opposition’s policy with “socialism,” politicians could (and can) immediately put their rivals on the defensive and sow seeds of doubt in the minds of American voters.

Yet, socialism is not synonymous with authoritarian, Soviet-style communism. That’s not to say that there is no relationship between socialism and communism. There is a relationship there, but that is not saying much; there is also a relationship between capitalism and communism in political philosophy. To understand the relationship between capitalism, socialism, and communism, we inevitably have to address the political philosophy of Karl Marx. It may be surprising to some that Marx viewed capitalism as a vital and necessary stage of economic development. It was not the final stage of economic development for him, though. Marx argued that economic development would naturally proceed past capitalism. Socialism, as Marx viewed it, represented a transitional stage between capitalism and his more fanciful ideal of true common ownership (communism). The link between communism and socialism, therefore, was in the proposition that the means of production should not be undemocratically consolidated in the hands of a few “Robber Baron” capitalists, but instead they should be socially owned – by the state at first (socialism), and eventually held in common property (communism).

What does this mean, having social ownership of the means of production? Put simply, the “means of production” are those elements of economic productivity that are not labor – capital, infrastructure, and so on. Socialism, then, is the proposition that certain elements of these means of production should be controlled by the government.

A key historical feature of political socialism has been its goal of bringing vital sectors of the economy under public control. For instance, in its 1912 platform, the American Socialist Party advocated “collective ownership and democratic management of railroads, wire and wireless telegraphs and telephones, express service, steamboat lines, and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large scale industries.” They also sought “the extension of the public domain to include mines, quarries, oil wells, forests and water power.” They proposed the collective ownership of patents as well. No contemporary politician (even a self-described Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders) would even think about suggesting this kind of stuff. No major political figure of the post World War II era has either campaigned or governed on the idea that the government should take ownership of Comcast, AT&T, Exxon, or United Airlines.

The Socialist Party of the past did not confine its goals solely to nationalizing certain industries, though. They also shared some goals in common with the other political parties. Those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of American political history might be surprised by a few of the elements found in the 1912 Socialist Party platform. The Socialists were arguing for things that we, regardless of party affiliation, take for granted in today’s world – a five day work week, restrictions on the use of child labor, the right of women to vote, and the “absolute freedom of press, speech and assemblage.” Does their support of such policies makes those things socialist? Of course not – a point to keep in mind in today’s political environment. These points express values that reach across party boundaries. They are not particular to socialism, and neither are regulations or public services that have traditionally drawn support from across the political spectrum.

Left unchecked, capital has a tendency to accumulate, leading to monopolies and a consolidation of power that undermines the very idea of free competition in the marketplace. Regulating that tendency has been championed by both major parties since the late 1800s. Just because the Socialist Party also supported such regulation does not mean that regulation itself is socialist. The same is true of public services. Many of the earliest water and sanitation services in the United States were privately owned, and we found out from experience that the private sector is actually quite bad at making these services accessible to all citizens. So we put the provision of water under the control of municipal governments and managed them as public utilities. That has some shades of socialism, but the truth is that in America even public utilities are not totally public. They are often operated as public-private ventures. In other instances, businesses use the apparatus of the state to extend their profit capabilities. That is far from socialism; that is neoliberalism. For example, even though they are private companies, UPS and FedEx depend on the United States Post Office to carry about one-quarter of the parcels they handle because those companies simply cannot make money delivering packages to distant rural areas.

None of these things are socialism, per se. If socialism does exist today, then it is a mere shadow of its former self. Socialism in America only exists now in political parlance as a synonym for taxes, public services, and regulation. However, I think it is safe to say that these things are not socialism. The public provision of schools, police, firemen, nurses, hospitals, roads, Social Security, Medicare, food or aviation inspectors, public libraries, parks, or the U.S. Military – these are not efforts to take state ownership of the means of production. They are efforts to, in the words laid down in the Constitution, “promote the general Welfare” of the members of our society.

And just to be clear, other services like food assistance and unemployment are not socialism either. If they are, then so are corporations. One of the most oft repeated claims about the virtues of capitalism is that it allows people the freedom to take a risk and reap the rewards of that risk. Yet, we have laws that give corporations special protections when their risks go bad, and the price of their failures often falls to the society at large. For example, when financial institutions started gambling with people’s money and retirement funds in derivative markets backed by questionable securities, they didn’t assume the risks of that venture themselves. Instead, American taxpayers bore the brunt of that risk through a government funded bailout in order to keep the global economy from collapsing. What is the “limited liability” of an LLC if not a socialization of the risks of entrepreneurial capitalism?

Socializing the risks for corporations through “limited liability” is no different in principle than socializing the risk of an average citizen. A factory worker whose company is looking to move production overseas faces the risk of unemployment. Why not have unemployment insurance to spread that risk out among us all, many of whom could easily face similar risks ourselves at one point or another? Or why not provide a free lunch to a child in a public school whose family is in poverty? I promise… it’s not socialism if you do.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
–Hubert H. Humphrey


Upcoming lesson… Neoliberalism (though you could probably just watch this video explanation)