Towards a Responsible Definition of “Socialism”

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple“Red baiting” — the process of referring to one’s opponents as “socialists,” and relying on that word alone to silence opposition — remains one of the oldest tricks in the right’s playbook. Its return to the front lines for usage against our new Democratic President was eminently predictable, but still disappointing. In the likely-futile hope that our opponents will listen to reason, and accord to words their actual meaning rather than the meaning they wish them to carry, then, consider this brief history of socialism.

Our opponents today use the term “socialist” to refer to any increase in government power. That is not strictly — or even loosely — historically accurate. “Socialism” is not a direction, and the adjective “socialistic,” as an indication of a trend towards socialism, has little meaning, unless we’re to conflate all progressive reforms with actual socialism, all increases in police power with actual fascism, etc. Historically, socialism has only one meaning: a system in which the state — or the workers directly — own the means of production.

triangle shirtwaistLoosely, socialism emerged from a discontent with what remained of the feudal state after the French Revolution of 1789, and with the emergent, eminently abusive nature of pure laissez faire industry. For the peasant and working classes, there was a sense that real change had been within grasp at the turn of the 18th century, and yet slipped away. As the middle class emerged, and wealth concentrated in its hands, the industrialists responsible for 80-hour work weeks, child labor, dangerous workplaces, and inhumane working conditions substituted for displaced monarchs as the workers’ enemy. The term “socialism” emerged to express this anger, but lacked real meaning, until the failed revolutions of 1848, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which immediately preceded them.

Marx put a name, a theory, and a purpose to this loose discontent: communism, a system in which social distinctions melted away, to be replaced, following a bloody workers’ revolt and a transitional period of “socialism,” by a utopian “communist” society. Socialism — which Marx regarded as a means to an end — was a hybrid capitalist/Communist system, in which the means of production were publicly owned, but working and bourgeoisie classes remained separate, and therefore, to Marx, impermissibly unequal.

For some time, the theories coexisted, and throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th, both remained major intellectual forces. But by the 1900s, socialism stood defanged in most countries, as governments responded to workers’ needs for living wages and social security (small “s”) with reforms that terminated the worst excesses of pure laissez faire capitalism, while retaining a modified free-market system. Otto von Bismark, Chancellor of the new German Empire, famously made the connection explicit, creating various national insurance schemes out of an expressed desire to avoid socialism. It worked, and other industrial nations, the United States included, duplicated the effort. As a consequence, classic socialism vanished as a serious intellectual force in all but Russia and the newly industrialized European east.

So what does this all mean? Simply put, it means there can’t be true socialism without actual, permanent ownership of the means of production. Moves loosely in the direction of actual ownership — like regulation — may, to the modern eye, give the appearance of socialism. But historically, regulatory frameworks, worker’s compensation plans, even national health systems represented an alternative to rather than the victory of socialism, derided by both socialists and communists as inadequate half-measures. If Marx, Engels, and other socialist luminaries considered themselves to have “lost” when sensible social reforms deprived their revolutionary ideologies of a raison d’être, who are we to rewrite history and tell them they won?

Fiorello_LaGuardiaFurther, American history flatly rebuts the contention that regulation, or even emergency nationalization of select companies or industries constitutes, or necessarily leads to true socialism. Lincoln seized railroads and telegraphs wholesale; Truman famously attempted to nationalize the nation’s steel mills; Nixon permanently purchased failing railroads and converted them to public utilities (you know these lines as “Amtrak”); Reagan nationalized failing banks; and the one million New Yorkers who went to work today on the MTA’s subway lines did so on lines wholly owned by the government, seized by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a fierce critic of socialism, under highly dubious circumstances.

Some of these politicians nationalized companies reluctantly, like Obama, and ultimately relinquished control. Others, like Nixon and LaGuardia, took deliberate and permanent possession of private property, for the collective benefit of their constituents, and yet neither modern America nor New York City can fairly be called socialist. Simply put, the slippery slope is flat.

Socialism has a long, sordid history, and its only real triumphs come from the lengths to which statesmen will go to avoid it. But whatever else it might be, it is not subtle. Socialism is neither creeping into American politics, nor any part of President Obama’s agenda. His economic theories may have their faults, but if so, conservatives owe it to the public to meet him on the merits, rather than resorting to anti-intellectual, distortive namecalling. It’s time to start stop trying to scare independent voters with “the spectre of Communism” and, as a nation, finally make peace with the fact that America is not, nor has it been for some time, a pure laissez faire nation. And we’re probably better off for it.



  1. So what does this all mean? Simply put, it means there can’t be true socialism without actual, permanent ownership of the means of production.

    I don’t know if this is entirely accurate. As we know the fascists in Italy seized control of companies but kept them private in name only. While I don’t think we are sliding towards true socialism, I think there are socialist aspects to the way the government effectively took control of certain companies in the wake of the financial meltdown last year. I think that is the most unfortuante side-effect to the kind of alarmism that comes from government officials in times of crisis.

  2. “Socialist aspects” is meaningless. The U.S. has had socialist aspects for decades. By that logic, we’ve also had fascist aspects — you can’t have a police state without police! If you want to have an honest discussion, without alarmism or namecalling, the question is what approach predominates, and we’re still at free markets.

    1. The important debate is why the knee-jerk reaction to most crisis is to socialize industry. Is that an effective response?

    2. Not always, but in those cases where it’s proceeded, the answer is probably yes. The MTA is vital to New York life, but, as anyone can see, is difficult to run for a profit or at a profit. Reagan’s bailout of those banks probably saved trillions of dollars of peoples’ money.

      1. I think that probably says more about how screwed up the economy of NYC is than anything else.

        1. I think the bigger reason that transit no longer a “profitable” business has more to do with anti-trust law and automotive industry lobbying than anything else. Back in the day when electric streetcar businesses were turning profits, it was because the Electric Company was the Streetcar Company was a big Real Estate Developer. That’s still the case with Japanese suburban development – the commuter rail companies are also big real estate developers, and they design their developments so everybody in them will have to ride their trains. As it applied to the old US electric cable-car transit(which were profit-turning enterprises up until the 40s and 50s), the company would build their line out, powering it with their own electricity, then build houses where their line went (and sell the people who moved in their electricity). That started getting broken up in the 20th century as too much of a monopolistic business. Also, Detroit started lobbying heavily for a shift in zoning and street layouts so that the density you need for transit (if you want to DREAM of coming close to just to breaking even on a single route, for the peak time of use, you’ve got to have 8-12 dwelling units/acre for buses and close to 20 for light rail), but that make having a car a necessity.

          Which lets me move in to an observation on ACG’s original post: government regulation of industry may be as much a corporatist act done in the service of a subset of capitalism-market participants, as a socialist act. Take a look at the recent tobacco regulation law: Altria (Philip Morris) supported it. All the other tobacco companies opposed it. Why? Because Philip Morris has close to 50% market share, and everybody else combined makes up the other half, so limits on advertising keep Camel and Winston from edging onto Marlboro’s turf. There’s extensive regulations on pharmacies, and Joe the Pharmacist can’t satisfy them to open his own pharmacy? That’s the whole reason Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens lobbied for those regulations to be put in place: to keep Joe the Pharmacist from being able to enter the market. Economic regulation can (not always, but often) serve large or well-established business interests by interfering with smaller business’s ability to compete or new business’s ability to enter the market. And protecting large/established businesses is not socialist by any definition of the term.

  3. kyleFitch · ·

    I agree that many people who use the word “socialist” in relation to President Obama and his policies probably could not explain their reasoning. It is certainly used as a pejorative by many opponents to the President because it resonates with people. Do I think that Mr. Obama intends to dispose of the Constitution and create a socialist regime in its place? Of course not. But you cannot pretend that there is not a type of socialism that uses gradual change in established regimes to install policies and programs that fulfill the socialist ideal. It exists. It is called Fabian socialism. The President has made clear that he believes in a strong centralized government, redistribution of wealth, and strong labor unions – all core values of socialism. While policies that the President is proposing would not immediately nationalize industries, such as health care, they certainly could lead to the day when government ownership is fait accompli. In health care for instance, using price controls to limit treatment costs, pharmaceutical costs, and labor costs, would most certainly lead to a shortage of doctors, hospitals, drugs, etc. At which time the government could step in under the guise of “rescuing” the industry, and achieve ownership of the means of production. To see an example of this, one needs to look no further than South America. I am not saying that the United States is on the verge of a socialist takeover. I am saying that to dismiss the idea as pure rhetoric or a misunderstanding of socialism, is to dismiss a legitimate concern for people who value freedom and liberty.

  4. I worked for a Fabian Member of Parliament. They’re not socialists. They favor achieving the goals of socialism — social justice, living wages, etc. — without the revolution & state ownership tenets that make formal socialism unique. Fabians are NOT for state ownership of the means of production. Critically, Blair jettisoned that tenet of the Labour platform prior to his election — and he’s an influential Fabian.

    It’s true that, at a certain level of abstaction, “strong centralized government, redistribution of wealth, and strong labor unions” are characteristics of socialism. But they’re peripheral markers, and belief in those tenets is equivocal between socialism or any number of market-centered, progressive systems.

    A lot of the flap over Obama’s “socialist” beliefs comes from the “share the wealth” comment. That was an unfortunate line, taken woefully out of context. All tax policy, and therefore all government, is inherently redistributive.

  5. So what does this all mean? Simply put, it means there can’t be true socialism without actual, permanent ownership of the means of production.

    I don’t know if this is entirely accurate. As we know the fascists in Italy seized control of companies but kept them private in name only. While I don’t think we are sliding towards true socialism, I think there are socialist aspects to the way the government effectively took control of certain companies in the wake of the financial meltdown last year. I think that is the most unfortuante side-effect to the kind of alarmism that comes from government officials in times of crisis.

    And Mike, let’s be fair – much of that government control was taken by a Republican Administration. Granted, Mr. Obama has continued the practice a while longer, but this isn’t something the Democrats pulled out of their collective backsides.

    1. Unfortunately for the Left they are going to get 100% of the albatross for what was done last year. I don’t think there are any illusions that they weren’t calling most of the shots when the Stimulus and related actions went down.

  6. It’s not quite true that socialism “lacked real meaning” until Marx and Engels came around. At least a generation earlier, you had Robert Owen and Charles Hall in Britain, and Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon in France.

    What Marx and Engels did was rather to ‘hijack’ this earlier concept and make it simply a part of their idea of their historically determinist progression towards communism.

    But a socialist ideology existed before that time as well. Granted, it was a very diverse ideology, but it’d say that’s not any less true of socialism after M&E or even today, for that matter.

  7. Great points by Steve and Lanfranc; I was looking forward to your comments on this, Lanfranc.

    And Mike, the theory that the left will lose hard next year depends on the existence of plausible alternative candidates. How’s that going?

    1. I’m not sure about other states but the field we have her in KY is one of the best I’ve seen since I started following politics. And again, this is going to be such a slam dunk in conservative districts that i don’t think it really even matter who the GOP runs.

      1. Yes, taht would be a major upset if Kentucky were to elect some conservatives. It would change everything we know abou tpolitics.

        1. My point was that conservative-leaning districts are going to fall. There are plenty of good Republican candidates out there.

  8. kyleFitch · ·

    There is a very important distinction to make between the concept of socialism and Marx’s version of socialism. As you pointed out in your post, to Marx socialism was a transition period between capitalism and communism. It was Marx who identified that control of the means of production was the reason for class inequality. His belief was that public ownership of the means of production was the only way to achieve an egalitarian society. But, also as you pointed out, the concept of socialism predates Marx’s philosophy. Therefore public ownership of the means of production is not sine qua non for socialism. The central idea behind socialism is economic and social equality. Whether it is Marxism, communism, social democracy, etc., if the goal is equal economic outcomes, then it is a form of socialism. So, once again, you are correct in asserting that we are not on the verge of a socialist revolution. Any rhetoric to that effect is just that, rhetoric. Nothing more. However, referring to any policy that one sees as government coercion to achieve “redistributive change” as socialist is not irresponsible. It is not even “red-baiting.” Calling the president a “communist”, that would be red-baiting. The “Joe the Plumber” moment is not the only time Mr. Obama has referred to wealth redistribution. Incidentally, I agree that the exchange with “Joe” was taken out of context. He was talking about progressive taxation, not socialism, and I have no problem with that. The problem I did have is his use of the word “the”, as in “the wealth.” Wealth is not a pie. The economy is not a zero sum game. But that is a different discussion. By the way, taxation is not inherently distributive. A government can choose to spend the revenue in a way that only the people who pay the tax can benefit. For example, municipal land fills that require proof of residency to use. And as for the Fabians, you are right, they are not nearly as socialist as they once were. But then again, neither is Europe.

  9. On a similar note, considering that (as far as I can recall) all western European social democratic and democratic socialist parties grew out of the original internationalist socialist movement, I don’t think “sordid” is exactly the best way to describe its history. I’d suggest “hugely successful” instead.

  10. […] Nazism, communism, and other historical horrors. The attacks aren’t new, nor are their easy rebuttals. That Hitler pushed for universal healthcare (just like Obama!) conveys about as much information […]

  11. Too many worrying about socialism don’t seem to rightly understand what socialism really is or that the U.S.A. has had it since Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the “New Deal” which started Social Security System and we are regulated by those numbers ever since. In-a-sense if you don’t take the number your abilities to buy and sell are greatly hindered. And today you cannot partisapate in using credit or credit cards without an account number. WAKE UP! We are and have been under Socialism since then. Everybody seems worried about it coming to us but it’s here,I don’t see that it’s so bad in-that it helps a lot of poor people to live better. The only thing bad about it is those who work the system and won’t work if offered a job; that’s the bad side that needs a remedy. That’s my view point. SINCERELY,Lefty Cor

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