As one of a growing number of supporters of democratic socialism in America, one of the chief arguments I hear from the conservative right is the evils of socialism historically. Anyone can point to Mao, or Stalin, or even Hitler (all of whom self-identified as socialists and proceeded to exterminate massive numbers of people while acting as dictators), and say, “Is that what you want? More of that? Are you really that ignorant of history?”
Putting aside the fact that capitalism has still killed far more people than these supposedly socialist movements ever did, this is a valid point, if you don’t actually understand what socialism is. Hitler was bad. Stalin was bad. Mao was bad. They all called themselves socialists or communists, and seized the means, and killed anyone they didn’t like. That’s bad, of course. So socialism must be bad, right?
The problem with this is that it misunderstands what socialism fundamentally is, and when you do fully understand what it is, it becomes obvious that they weren’t in fact socialists.
Now, this is the point where you’re probably thinking, what the hell is he talking about? These are the quintessential socialist/communist, marxist states, especially the Soviet Union and Communist China. Well, it’s true that that is typically how we think of them, and how they are spoken about in history, but it is nevertheless false. Allow me to explain why.
Confusion Within Confusion
One thing I can say with confidence about socialism, communism, and capitalism is that very few people in the United States of America actually understand them properly. I don’t believe this is by accident, I believe we are purposefully kept politically ignorant. I myself am still learning about these movements, and fully understanding them might require a career in political science. Nevertheless, allow me to clear up what confusion I can.
First of all, socialism is not communism; it is an extremely broad set of political ideas which has had many manifestations throughout history, and which pre-dates Karl Marx and communism by decades. That’s right, European intellectuals were discussing socialism when Marx was still soiling his little German diapers. Although Marx adopted it into his ideology, conceptualizing it as a transitionary state before communism reached it’s maturity, people invented socialism long before he came along, and many socialists never bought into his ideas.
So: Socialism = Marxism = Communism = False.
Next, socialism has taken a variety of forms, and still does. So, when we talk about socialism, we aren’t talking about something specific, and that’s a point I want very desperately to drive home for people. Socialism is and has been many, many things in different places, at different times, and to different people, ranging from socialist parties who are quite friendly to capitalism, to ostensibly socialist dictatorships. When I say it’s broad, I really mean that it is broad. In fact, it’s even arguable that the democratic revolutions which spread from France and America to the rest of the world were, in a sense, proto-socialist, and there is a long “distributionist tradition” in America, which also has traces of proto-socialism.
Like Peanut Butter and Peanuts
The dictionary definition of socialism is that the means of production (industry), distribution (supply chain), and exchange (market) be either owned (controlled completely) or regulated (controlled partially, limited) by the community as a whole. In other words, the community as a whole controls the economy, rather than it being owned and controlled by a few private individuals, as in capitalism. Just in case you’re feeling too lazy to Google it and verify, here it is:
Now, given this definition, on a logistical and practical level, you have to ask yourself: how else might the community as a whole control the economy, whether fully or partially, other than by democratic means? Any control by people as a whole is democracy by definition, and the only practical way to accomplish that is through some democratic voting system. In fact, historically, socialists have been some of the most vocal proponents of democracy, and the need for democratic methods to achieve this control over capitalism was alluded to by socialist thinkers from the beginning, as well as even Marx in his discussion of it.
So, socialism and democracy aren’t even like peanut butter and jelly, they’re more like peanut butter and peanuts. That is, it’s tough to even parse where democracy begins, and socialism ends, when you really start to think about it.
For instance, the federal government is itself an entity which provides services and produces goods to some extent, which is owned and controlled by the people as a whole (at least in principle), because it’s democratic. So, is it inherently a socialist institution? It’s debatable, but the argument can be made that it is. Furthermore, all businesses within the United States are subject to some kind of regulation, which is also the definition of socialism, so are we already a socialist country? The answer to that is more concrete:
Absolutely yes, The United States of America is a type of socialist country.
We have socialism already, it exists within our government and economy. Wherever the community as a whole exerts some control over the economy, such as by regulating companies so they don’t pollute, or don’t employ children, or violate health standards, or exploit workers for lower than minimum wages, etc., there you find socialism. We have it, and we’ve had it for a very long time.
Capitalism, on the other hand, is actually the antithesis of democracy. This is another counter-intuitive reality, if you’re an American; many even think the two are equivalent, but they aren’t. Why? Because capitalism is private ownership of business, and private ownership is literally the polar opposite of democracy: it means that one person, or some small number of shareholders, control the company from the top down, completely. It’s essentially a miniature dictatorship. You can’t get any more antithetical to democracy, or for that matter socialism, than that. Democracy is bottom-up control, and capitalism is top-down control. It’s not even debatable, it’s just a cold hard fact.
Capitalism and democracy are opposites, even if they live together in our society, side-by-side, one influencing the other. In fact, the whole point of socialism is to have capitalism be controlled by democracy, it’s opposite force.
So, contrary to the story that’s been sold to us, America and virtually every other first-world nation are not exclusively capitalist countries, or exclusively socialist countries; we are all some combination of these two quite broad political forces. Every nation in the developed world is a marriage of top-down capitalism, and bottom-up democratic socialism. So, when politicians like Bernie Sanders suggest we adopt a model like that of Scandinavia, he’s actually not suggesting we adopt a new system, but simply that we shift our current ratio of capitalism to socialism more in the direction of socialism, but I digress.
Assholes and Oranges
So, if socialism is almost synonymous with democracy, or at the very least impossible to even conceptualize without democracy, then how can we ever call any authoritarian system socialist, with a straight face? When the definition is literally that industry be controlled by the people as a whole, how can top-down controlled governments like Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China, be considered socialist?
The answer is that it’s partly because they self-identified as socialists, and used socialist rhetoric to get into power, and even enforced quasi-socialist (redistributionist) policies while in power. Perhaps it’s also because the capitalists who rule our society want very much for socialism to be seen exclusively as a bad thing, but that’s my conspiratorial speculation. Regardless, and this is a key point:
Just because someone calls themselves a socialist and engages in redistributionist policies doesn’t make them a socialist if their system isn’t democratic, because the very definition of socialism requires democracy.
So, were these exemplars of evil socialism actually socialists? Did they have democracy?
Stalin & Soviet Russia
Soviet Russia actually began as a democracy, and in fact “soviet” was a title for the elected political representatives and governors. However, during Stalin’s reign, the democratic element eroded, and for the rest of it’s existence, the Soviet Union was controlled from the top down by the leaders of the party, in authoritarian fashion, and of course killed some ~20M people.
The idea of democracy in the People’s Republic of China was expressed by Mao as an ideal, but was repressed from the beginning. Although elections were allowed to take place, who was allowed to run in the elections was controlled by the communist party, and still is; therefore, China can be said to have never truly had a democracy. This authoritarian government killed 20–45M people, depending on various estimates, under Mao.
While Hitler was instated to power by a democratically elected leader in the Weimar Republic, and claimed to be a socialist, with the term even being in his party’s title, from the moment he came to power, he systematically dismantled democracy in Nazi Germany, to the point that it was eradicated before WWII even began. We all know Hitler killed some ~12M people.
If you look around to the various examples that are always given as horrific socialist disasters, you will find almost universally the same pattern. They are cases where some figure removes democracy from the equation, or at best has a fake democracy like China where the party controls the elections, and they all became authoritarian states. The moment they lose democracy, they should also lose the title of socialism, whether they continue calling themselves socialist or not.
If socialism requires, by definition, democratic control of industry by the people, which also requires a democratically controlled government, then none of these leaders or their governments could be said to be socialist, because they all removed democracy from the equation. They may have called themselves socialist, they may have tried to redistribute wealth among their people in a way that we conflate with socialism, but if the economy was not partially or fully controlled by the community as a whole, which is tantamount to saying by democratic means, which it wasn’t, then they were not socialist governments.
You can even read about it on wikipedia, where it describes authoritarian socialist states as those that claim to be socialist, and are conflated with socialism, but actually are not, because they reject the fundamental element of democracy, and democratic rights. They are fake socialism, the wolf of fascism wearing the grandma mask of socialism, with you as Little Red Riding Hood, noting how sharp grandma’s teeth seem to be.
Let that sink in for a moment. The big bad boogie men of socialism throughout history were not in fact socialists. We could call them a great many other things, bastards, communists, dictators, fascists, assholes, genocidal maniacs, and a lot more. But one thing we can not call them, with any degree of intellectual honesty, is socialist. Does this bring the socialist death-count to near zero? You decide.
Socialism’s Many Successes
So, if those disasters weren’t actually socialist states, can we find examples of socialism’s successes? I would argue that we don’t have to look far, at all. Our own government, as well as that of every developed, first-world Western democracy is at least partly socialist, and these are also the greatest nations on Earth today. Everywhere that you are guaranteed a livable wage at any job, free public education, that you are not forced to work in a factory as a child, that you enjoy the benefits of restrictions on pollution, wherever ecosystems flourish under government protection, where you have access to public parks and services, and many other things we take for granted as part of a modern democratic society, you’ll find the benefits of socialism.
In fact, I would challenge you to find a comparable nation that is “purely” capitalist, i.e. where business and the private sector controls everything without hindrance. The only states that fit that description are fascist states, and they aren’t great places to be. Generally, the more we ease the restrictions we place on the private sector, the more it tends to exploit and pollute in the name of seeking profits, as well as aggregates to fewer and larger monopolies, a pattern we’ve seen unfold under neoliberalism since Reagan and Thatcher.
Neoliberal regressions aside, the fact of the matter is that after the turbulence of the industrial revolutions and modern age, we have found what works, and it’s a combination of capitalism with socialism. From here on, it’s just a matter of finding the perfect ratio. How free should the market be? Which regulations are most helpful? What domains of goods and services should be fully socialized, as K-12 education, the postal service, and many other things already are?
The questions we face today are not whether to be socialist, but how socialist to be.
To completely abandon socialism would be tantamount to a return to a kind of neo-feudalism, a dystopia which many fear we may actually be heading for, if the very real neoliberal conspiracy continues it’s dismantling of democratic government. Imagine having to choose between living in Facebookland, Disneyville, Shell Empire, or LockHeed Martinburgh, and living according whatever rules are laid down by the corporations who care only about their profits. Or worse, not even having the choice, but being born into endentured servitude. That is just one version of the dystopian future we’ll have, without socialism.
Those of us advocating for what we call democratic socialism in America aren’t trying to get rid of capitalism, we simply think that a better combination of capitalism and socialism includes things like the socialization of what is essential to life, such as healthcare and education, because these things shouldn’t have to be a profit-making scheme for the rich. We think that most of those things can be paid for by, brace yourselves, actually taxing the rich and Wall Street trading, and I personally also think we should seriously consider a shift towards economic democracy.
We can and should debate these nuances of how socialist we should be, but let’s not debate whether America will ever be socialist, anymore, please, because it already is. Let’s move on.