What is “Socialism,” Anyway?

The word “socialism” is constantly being thrown about by supposed supporters and detractors alike, most of whom are people who have no clue as to what socialism actually is.

I am opposed to conventional socialism, which I actually consider to be a conservative philosophy (see Murray Rothbard’s essay “Left and Right” on this). Historically, socialist societies have been very conservative. There is no developed, “First World” country that practices socialism, and there never has been. The supposed “socialist” countries in Northern Europe practice a kind of “welfare capitalism” that is often more “free market” than the United States (where the market is subordinated to a kind of corporatist-financier-plutocratic-military-command economy, like an industrial-technological version of the economy of the Roman Empire).

Historically, socialism has appealed primarily to middle-class intellectuals and professionals in colonial societies and feudal countries whose national, political or class ambitions were being frustrated by either external colonialist/imperialist powers, or their own entrenched/inert ruling classes. Socialism was regarded as means of seizing the wealth of external colonial overlords, their colonial puppet rulers, and feudal elites, and utilizing this wealth for internal development (which is why Western colonial powers have been so opposed to socialism). Most of these countries eventually convert to capitalism (or simply stagnate or fall apart).

This Wikipedia entry listing socialist countries that have actually existed is pretty thorough. Notice that not a one of them is or has even been a Westernized industrial democracy. The “socialism” of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, etc is standard welfare capitalism of the kind that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century through philosophies like progressivism, Fabianism, social democracy and reform liberalism.

Modern industrial economies are hybrids of market relations, and bureaucratic-managerial-administrative systems, with interlocking public, private, and independent sectors. Check out James Burnham’s work on the “managerial revolution” from the 1940s. He was an early observer of how classical bourgeois capitalism was being replaced with the modern, corporate, administrative kind. In a historical context socialism means either a nationalized economy that is directed by the state, or a worker run cooperative/syndicalist system, or some kind of New Harmony like utopian commune. However, the latter two examples are a fringe tendency within socialism (or have been during the past century), were denounced by Lenin as an “infantile disorder,” and are not what most people think  of when they think of socialism.

I totally agree of course that socialism can assume many different forms besides Marxism-Leninism. Many of the socialist countries on the Wikipedia list above were not Marxist-Leninist. I’m familiar with all that of course. As an anarchist, I’m basically a “libertarian socialist.” But I leave libertarian/utopian socialism out the definition of socialism I am using here because it remains a fringe concept and, as I said, and it’s certainly not what most people, socialists and anti-socialists, think of when they think of socialism. The point being that Berniebros and AOC groupies are not actual socialists whatever they may call themselves or whatever their critics may think of them. They’re just progressives/reform liberals/social democrats.

It is true that in the 19th century socialism was also used as a broader philosophical term that was synonymous with the “social question” or the “labor question.” I suppose with that label virtually anything can be socialism, including the Catholic Church. But it’s a somewhat broad and imprecise conception of socialism.

The Wikipedia entry on socialism is also pretty good.

“Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management,as well as the political theories and movements associated with them.Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.”

The key is social ownership, which is not what any of the Western countries practice. Welfare capitalism is the universal norm in the developed countries, though with large public sectors, social programs, etc.

The point is that all of these “The commies are coming!” reactions to people like Sanders from the “right” are misplaced, and self-proclaimed Milliennial “socialists” don’t known what they’re talking about either. It’s just a debate over whether the public sector should be a little larger or a little smaller within the same state-capitalist-corporate-social democratic framework.

My own preferred model of economics would be something like syndicalism, with maybe a mixture of Proudhon’s mutualism and Tucker’s individualist anarchism.

Anarcho-communism is too utopian to be applied outside of localized or federated voluntary communities like Hutterite colonies. The problem with anarcho-capitalism is that I don’t think capitalism in any conventional sense can exist without the state to uphold and enforce it. I don’t have a problem with Spooner’s, Rothbard’s, Hess’, or Konkin’s laissez faire individualism of individual property owners, but that’s not what real world capitalism is or has ever been.

I think a real world, functional anarchist economy would be a mixture of syndicalist/guildist industrial systems, cooperatives, mutual banks, barter and trade networks, LETS, P2P, voluntary anarcho-communes, land trusts, and individual property owners. The role of non-state and non-commercial organizations and institutions would be important as well, e.g. fraternal associations, ethnic fellowships, religions, mutual aid societies, families, voluntary associations centered around common interests, etc.

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  1. There are about 600 different kinds of “socialism”. Most libertarians would sympathise with at least some of the voluntary and cooperative kinds of socialism, which are very different from the compulsory State socialism imposed upon whole populations. – Sorry, but I do no longer have a website. – JZ, 13.3.19.

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