What Is Socialism?

Socialism: The Debate

I’ve held forth at some length recently on the meanings of the words republic and democracy, which are of interest to Americans generally, and which have also, here at home, been at the center of heated debate in recent years, over the Alpine School District’s official statements of its mission, goals, and values. The debate is confusing and off-putting for many, in part because it sometimes takes a combative tone, but also because one side has directed a great deal of energy toward artificially narrow definitions of democracy and republic. We are told that a republic is good and a democracy is bad — end of story. Neither concept is that simple, and the part about democracy being bad rings false to a lot of people who love both their country and their freedom.

If the activists were more careful with their terminology, they’d say that a certain kind of republic (our kind, the democratic, constitutional republic) is good, and we need to understand and preserve it; and a certain kind of democracy (our kind, the liberal, constitutional, representative democracy) is good, and we should understand and preserve that, too. They’d say that we should be careful not to be diverted to either direct or social democracy, both of which really are bad — and one of which is a major feature of the Alpine School District’s official goals and values.

The movement could put itself on a sound theoretical footing by adjusting its arguments in two ways: opposing social democracy specifically, instead of insisting that all democracy is evil; and explaining social democracy without calling it Marxism. Besides sounding too extreme and too alarmist for the circumstances, Marxism actually is a different road to socialism. The movement’s alarm over socialism is at least partially justified, but its influence is compromised by imprecise and incorrect terminology.

Social This, Social That

Admittedly, it’s difficult to wrestle with terms like socialism and communism (if you don’t mind me throwing that one into the soup very briefly). Historically, they are evolving concepts, used in different ways at different times, in different places, and by different people with widely divergent agendas. Yet we must generalize, to avoid this blog post becoming as long as a book, so we will do so carefully, with a broad view of the history and theories of socialism.

To begin, I have some good news. We don’t really have to talk or worry about communism in this discussion. Though some other varieties of it have been practiced on a small scale, communism as it has been institutionalized at the national level in Russia, China, and elsewhere is not distinguishable from socialism. The Soviets, for example, generally used the terms communism, socialism, and, for that matter, Marxism and Marxism-Leninism essentially interchangeably. So, to avoid further confusion, I will use here only the word socialism, not the word communism.

Next — and this might be bad news — I must tell you that social democracy is not a kinder, gentler socialism. It may be a kinder, gentler, or at least more subtle path to socialism, but it actually leads, and is intended to lead, to the same socialism: a society in which wealth and other opportunities are redistributed, by force of law, to achieve a distribution which is someone decides is fair, just, and in some sense equal. These principles are often packaged and sold as social justice, which sounds like an honorable idea, but is nearly always — at least in serious discussion — a part of the socialist program. In any case, this forced redistribution and forced equality happen at the expense of freedom, as is always the case when a government attempts to enforce equality of outcomes.

If you’ll indulge some personal chatter for a moment, I’ll note that I’ve been taught by various stripes of self-proclaimed socialists — including members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, when I was studying (mostly) the Russian language in Moscow; and distinguished professors in the Ivy League, when I was doing graduate work in Russian literature, Russian history, and political thought at Cornell. Happily, my parents, Ronald Reagan, Alexis de Tocqueville, and a few others got to me first and made sense, so that all of this fine socialist instruction informed but did not sway me.

For what it’s worth, my mother was the primary political philosopher at home. She had little patience for socialism, but she had studied it carefully. Imagine talk of Fabian socialism at the family dinner table, if you can. My own library includes many of the classic works of socialism, most of which are all marked up, as a testament to careful reading. If you need me to cite a single, concise source from my library for the bulk of this discussion, I’d choose the excellent Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought. I turn to it often.

Three Roads, One Destination

There are three roads to socialism: Marxism, social democracy, and a middle road which, I’m sorry to say, is rather confusingly called democratic socialism. Before we look briefly at each of these, let’s remove one point of possible confusion. If you study Marx carefully, you may encounter something he called social democracy, but it’s much different from the social democracy we’re discussing here. In fact, the social democracy which concerns us began as an effort to describe a way other than Marx’s to achieve socialism, because thinkers quickly found some serious problems with Marx’s theories at points where they should have intersected with economic and political realities.

Here are the essentials:

In Marxism, socialism is achieved by revolution, and it involves government ownership of the national economy. When capitalism is sufficiently advanced — so the theory goes — this revolution will burst forth suddenly and violently, led by the people, who will then take over the economy — the means of production — and establish a totalitarian government with broad powers to impose its will on the population and the economy. Totalitarianism is required in order to impose and preserve the necessary changes, and it’s okay in principle, proponents will argue, because it’s done in the name of the people. In any case, the key features here are revolution and government ownership of the economy.

In social democracy, socialism is achieved by evolution, not revolution. Rather than Marx’s prophesied sudden full flowering of socialism when the time for revolution is ripe, social democracy looks for — and actively pursues — the achievement of one socialist objective at a time. It is a protracted process, not a discrete event. It contemplates a long period of social reform by democratic means — again, not by revolution. In social democracy there is no decisive break with capitalism; nor is there outright state ownership of the entire economy. Rather, there is extensive government intervention in and control of the economy. For what it’s worth, labor unions are coopted to play a prominent role in the evolution.

If this description of social democracy sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. President Obama has governed as what he appeared to be before the 2008 election: a social democrat. In 2008 I blogged on this very topic, under the title, “Obama: Communist? Marxist? Socialist?

The middle road to socialism, called democratic socialism, resembles Marxism in that it contemplates government ownership of the economy, not just extensive control and regulation. But, like social democracy, it pursues socialism by democratic means instead of Marx’s revolution.

It’s important to remember, so I will emphasize again, that Marxism, social democracy, and democratic socialism are not different ends. They are not ends at all. They are different means to the same end: socialism. The twentieth century proved over and over again what the Obama administration has only begun to prove in this century: socialism is hostile to human freedom, and its commitment to self-government, if any, is not lasting or deep.

Therefore, What?

Accused of promoting socialism through their wholesale adoption of John Goodlad’s program, Alpine School District officials denied that was their aim. I believe them. I don’t think most of these good people yet realize how social democracy fits into the picture, and the generalized attack on the word democracy has failed to make that clear. In response to the ongoing assault, someone at the district modified material at the district’s web site, removing some of the words that offended people, without otherwise departing from the establishment’s pet educational philospher — and, I am told, without the prior approval of the school board.

There were also revisions to the district’s mission statement. The barbarous jargon word “enculturating” is gone, and we were left with this: “Educating all students to ensure the future of our democracy.” Leaving the word democracy there is enough to anger the other side, which, as I have said, needs to broaden its understanding of democracy and narrow its attack to the bad kind of democracy Goodlad advocates, social democracy. Otherwise, this language is a considerable improvement.

Language currently on the Mission Statement page at the district Web site explains one of the district’s “moral dimensions of teaching” — also borrowed from Goodlad — as follows: “2) Public education has a responsibility to teach children the social and political skills they need to successfully contribute in America’s culture of freedom, law, and responsibility.” This is relatively inoffensive — in fact, it’s pretty good — though I’d prefer they didn’t split an infinitive, and I’d rather they spoke of a responsibility to help parents teach children social and political skills.

Unfortunately, in the next paragraph the statement goes all the way back to where they were before. It begins, “The phrase, Enculturating the Young into a Social and Political Democracy, is the formal language for principle #2 (above).” The “political democracy” there still grates on a lot of people, though, again, it is technically correct (see my previous post). Opponents would get more traction if they’d simply pass by this one and focus their efforts on social democracy, which is the real problem here. It is — if I may say so — a large enough dragon all by itself.

A tighter focus on social democracy would probably help to loosen the district’s death grip on democracy in general. Most members of the Alpine School Board do not want to grapple with philosophy. They’re not card-carrying social democrats, I think, but they’re also not well enough versed in all of this to understand what the real problem is. We might consider trying to teach these officials one concept, social democracy, and teach it clearly, and help them understand that they don’t get to define it in their own benign, convenient, Utah-friendly way — because it already has a clear, widely-accepted meaning — and let them keep their political democracy in the bargain. Maybe then they’ll be willing to let go of the really bad stuff.

I don’t suspect most of the district’s administrators, teachers, and other staff of being committed social democrats, either. I suspect them of being good people with values much different from social democracy, who have not yet devoted the necessary time and intellectual effort to understand what social democracy is, and to grasp that to promote it is to promote socialism. Many of these good people are simply too busy doing their jobs, notably including teaching their students, to devote much time to philosophy. That’s probably a good thing, particularly since so many of them are doing excellent work. The simple fact of the matter is, until you dig a little, social democracy and social justice sound like happy things, not mortal threats to individual freedom.

If people in the Alpine School District generally fully understood these concepts, there would be thousands of parents and other voters protesting, not dozens. But if this were generally understood, ironically, they wouldn’t have to protest much. The district, on its own initiative, with little or no prodding, would arrange for its official commitment to social democracy to disappear not only from its Web site — a cosmetic change, to be sure — but also from its educational philosophy.

I would love to see elected officials on my school board and everywhere else, who were able and willing to grapple with political philosophy just enough to grasp what we’ve been discussing here, and who would be intelligent and responsible about it. Proper respect for what the words actually mean would do wonders for our political discourse — and, I think, our political results.

One guy’s opinion.

This article is reprinted with some edits from LocalCommentary.com, where I first posted it in 2010.

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One thought on “What Is Socialism?”

  1. RodTheWrench says:

    Well said! Any progress so far in the School District?

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