Sunday, May 17, 2020

What is socialism?

Every so often, I talk to people about socialism. Almost always, the first response is, "But what about Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez!? If you're a socialist, you must be in favor of gulags, reeducation camps, famines, hyperinflation, and mopery on the high seas."

Bollocks. It's a bad faith argument on its face. The reasoning is obviously unsound: Stalin was a socialist (granted), Stalin sucked (granted arguendo); therefore socialism sucks. Sorry, non-sequitur. You would have to establish that Stalin sucked just because he was a socialist. And people don't do that.

I'm sure there are a few fringe people out there who think that Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. is the One True Prophet. Fine, whatever. But most people don't think so.

These guys (and others) were real socialists, but they were also human beings, and they were working in very specific historical, economic, social, cultural, and international contexts. A simplistic analysis cannot separate out these various historical influences from the influence of socialist ideology.

It's worth taking a step back, though, and trying to just answer the question, "What is socialism?" There's not one good answer; it's not like the National Institute of Standards and Technology has standardized the term.

The best I can do is take a position that is half historical and half normative: I think what follows is common among socialists and worth keeping.

Socialism consists of three elements:
  1. The government acts directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class holds and exercises direct economic power
  3. The working class holds and exercises direct political power

Feel free to add "should" to the above to go from actually existing socialism to normative socialism.

These elements are continuous, not binary, so there is an overall continuum of socialism.

So, for example, the U.S. federal and state governments provide Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and health regulations, mass transit and other public goods, so the government does in fact at least partially act in accordance with the first element of socialism.

Most of the workers in the U.S. vote, and we still have (for now!) a political system that resembles a democratic republic, so the U.S. is at least partially socialist in the third element.

Workers have almost no direct (or even indirect) economic power, so the U.S. is almost completely non-socialist on the second element.

Anti-socialism, then, just negates the three elements:

  1. The government does not or should not act directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct economic power
  3. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct political power

Everyone should be aware of long-standing anti-socialist opposition in the U.S. to Social Security, Medicare, and all the socialist measures listed above. The working class has been all but excluded from any sort of economic power (and was almost completely excluded from economic power for most the United States' existence), and the project of neoliberalism has been to place most economic power outside the control of the state. Finally, the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party) has been dismantling even the appearance of a democratic republic.

If you want to say you're against socialism, I think you have to commit to 100 percent to all three of of the anti-socialist negations. Otherwise, you're at least a little bit socialist, and as they saying goes, I already know what you are, we're just negotiating the price.

Notice that the above elements say nothing about markets, central planning, the structure of the government, reeducation camps, freedom of speech/religion/assembly, etc.

These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not essential to socialism; they are implementation details. Implementation details are important, of course, but we have to agree first on the goals and framework before we can begin implementation.

The elements of socialism also say nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Someone could be a racist socialist: they would be an asshole, of course, and wrong, but they would be a socialist asshole. It is more productive, I think, to just say, "You shouldn't be racist," than to say, "If you're a racist, you're not a socialist."


  1. It's true that Communist Cuba isn't a place where I would want to live. On the other hand, Cuba under Battista was a shitty place for most of its citizens, too. Why shouldn't that be charged against capitalism's account?

    1. The bigger point is that Cuba is Cuba, not the United States. Capitalist, socialist, or communist, the specifics are important; valid generalizations are hard to extract.


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