What is Socialism?

If there’s one thing that has been as misunderstood and misrepresented as Communism, that must certainly be Socialism. What it means to be a socialist nowadays, for most people, has very little to do with how the term was used in its origins of the 19th century. There’s not much point in rehashing the history of why this happened but I do want to point a few things about it.

First a very basic definition. At the very core, Socialism means the public or collective ownership of the means of production and a general attempt towards egalitarianism.

There have certainly been a quite a few currents towards Socialism, each attempting to bring it about in a different way. From escapism to revolution and, the most popular one, through reformation of Capitalism. The latest one is how most people today understand Socialism indeed, and that is in the form of a Big Government of “enlightened leaders”.

But just because one current is popular does not mean that it’s the only one and this is why it is disconcerning when I see otherwise smart people writing about Socialism in general as if it conflates with Social Democracy and then attacking flaws of Social Democracy as flaws of Socialism. This denotes either ignorance or laziness and in either case it promotes misinformation.

Certainly, there are enough flaws in Social Democracy or Fabianism to make the whole system fail in regards to Socialism (that is, to achieving collective ownership of the means of production and egalitarianism). What Social Democracy does manage to achieve is rather to alleviate some of the most obvious suffering (mainly by offshoring it or displacing it in time through debt) and thus serves as a palliative to the disease that is Capitalism, preventing societies from ever actually progressing towards Socialism. The fact that many Social Democratic1 parties call themselves ‘Socialist’ is simply the insult to the injury.

But there is another much more important distinction between currents of Socialism which neatly separates the way each tries to achieve it. It’s the distrinction between ‘Socialism from Above’ and ‘Socialism from below’2. The former is the classic kind of “Socialism” where the few enlightened leaders at the top try to bring about and sustain Socialism without needing any action from the general populace either than their unconditional support and submission to their ideas. This is the way that both USSR, and Social Democrats work and it suffers many of the problems that the Atheist Ethicist mentions.

The later way, which incidentally is the one I propose as well, is supposed to be achieved through the acts of the vast majority of people themselves (and not through some form of government).  The most popular currents of this type is Marxism and Anarchism and these methods have none of the same failing as ‘Socialism from Above’. It is because of this distinction, that talking of Socialism as if it only means Social Democracy is plain insulting to quite a few Socialists.

So please, if you’re going to talk about Socialism, either criticize what Socialism itself is trying to achieve, or criticize a particular method of achieving it (as in Marxism or Social Democracy). Those two are not the one and the same.

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  1. The obvious exceptions are the US American parties where the MacCarthian era has hopelessly screwed the usual names. Social Democrats are ‘Liberals’, Liberals are ‘Libertarians’ and Far Right Imperialist Theocrats are ‘Conservatives’ []
  2. For more information on this, I wholeheartedly suggest you read Hald Drapers “Two Souls of Socialism” which explains it much better than I ever could and I consider it one of the most important pieces on this subject []