A Lengthy Discussion of the Definition of Socialism

Hello, internet. I have returned to talk about socialism. Historian and theorist Carroll Quigley once wrote, “Naturally we cannot talk intelligently unless we have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by the words we use.” Clear ideas stem from clear definitions (and evidence), and so, before I try to say anything at all about socialism, I would very much like to define the word socialism itself.

But first a definition of definition.

Definition: A concise, exact statement that sets the boundaries or limits of the subject matter to include what belongs to it and exclude what does not. Its objective is to give the subject matter a distinctive identity and precise meaning to prevent conflict, confusion, or overlap.

Or, to put it more simply:

Definition: A statement expressing the essential nature of something.

Productive conversation is impossible without a shared understanding of what exactly is being discussed. If I am talking about a tree, and you are talking about a sloth, and we are both using the word “cumulus cloud” to refer to these things, debates about the weather become extremely frustrating and pointless. Since I hope to discuss socialism in depth in further posts on this blog, the concept itself should be clearly defined so that I don’t start comparing sloths and trees and cumulus clouds while no one has any idea what I am actually talking about.

Here is the definition of socialism according to Wikipedia:

Socialism: A range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment.

……okay. But what…does that mean…exactly? In an attempt to resolve some of the initial confusion I had with this definition, I did some further digging:

Social ownership (also referred to as public ownership) is a type of ownership that is not the private kind, meaning rather than individuals or companies owning private property and making personal decisions about it, “the collective” (whatever that is) or the state will own and control that property democratically. But is it just me, or is it not quite clear based on the definition who this “collective” will be who will own and control the things? Is it the government, specifically? Is it the community as a whole? The workers at every factory? The definition of social ownership does not designate who the group will be, but it is clear that it will not be private individuals.

Means of production are the various pieces of stuff that, when acted upon by a creative idea and some tools, cause new kinds of stuff to come into existence in an economy. This could mean (emphasis on the word could) factories, blocks of iron, crude oil, water, hammers, roads, sewer systems, airports, public schools, sunlight, hospitals, prisons, vegetation, phone service, the internet, minerals, lumber, and coconuts. Means of production are basically the physical, non-human things that play any sort of role in producing economic value. Everything that exists on this entire planet has some sort of economic value though, and is therefore a means of production in some sense. For example, my toothbrush helps keep my teeth healthy and free from cavities, which in turn affects my ability to go to work as opposed to lying at home in pain, and my tooth health impacts the amount of money my dentist will be making this month. If we are going to follow the idea of social ownership of the means of production to its logical end, only the most totalitarian society in which every hair on one’s toothbrush is owned by “the collective” would qualify as true socialism in the most complete sense. No society in all of human history has yet achieved this level of absolutism.

I am still confused. Collective ownership by some vague and unnamed group of every piece of stuff that exists in society is not what most people act like the word socialism means. Bernie Sanders has never mentioned a totalitarian toothbrush dictatorship, and the countries of Europe today do not seem to be striving for a 1984 society either. Many people, it seems, view the idea of socialism simply as this:

socialism_the_radical_idea_of_sharing

But what about Joseph Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? Or Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party? Or Chairman Mao of the Communist Party of China? Were they in favor of sharing, too? How can socialism be about Feeling the Bern while also being about starving 7.5 million Ukranians until they eat each other?

If the purpose of a definition is to prevent conflict, confusion, and overlap, the general definition of socialism totally fails. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being completely clear and concise, removing all conflict, confusion, and overlap, and with 1 being the entity being described is indistinguishable from every other thing that exists in the universe, and I have no idea what the thing even is, I give the definition of socialism a score of about 3. I can now say with confidence that a radish is not socialism, but that’s it.

The problems that I have with the definition of socialism are as follows:

  1. Without knowing exactly what social ownership entails and who specifically gets to own things (the government, the neighborhood, or the workers at Google), how can we discern precisely what it is we are talking about? Are we referring to trees or sloths or neither?
  2. Without drawing a line in the sand to designate exactly which items qualify as “means of production” and which items do not, how can we know the kind of society we are dealing with? Is this a world where I get to own my own toothbrush or one where the government will own it for me along with my hypothetical children? And how can I be sure?
  3. How can a single concept called socialism be one idea while also being a range of ideas that are held together by a common thread that has not been made clear? How can it be both one thing and everything?
  4. If socialism is many different things, why are we calling all of the things socialism and not naming them uniquely? Is there anything more specific than the vague notion of the “social ownership of the means of production” that holds all of the elements together?

These questions leave me wondering how the people of Facebook can speak about socialism with such apparent confidence. One reason, it turns out, may be because beneath the wide and vague umbrella of socialism exist a number of various and opposing branches called the Types of Socialism or the socialisms. I guess these could be considered “denominations” or diverse manifestations branching off of the concept of socialism at different eras in history. Each of the types redefines the notion of socialism in its own specific way, and each attempts to provide answers to the questions I have listed above, although their answers do not always mesh. One of the most disagreed-upon issues among socialists, for example, is the particular method by which a socialist system should be implemented. Should it be by vote? By seizure of the government? By worker action? By mass execution of the infidels? Each type of socialism answers this question differently.

What makes things complicated, however, is that because the groups’ answers to the questions differ, the word socialism has meant different things at different moments in history depending on which group was and is doing the talking. The Wikipedia page on the Types of Socialism acknowledges this confusion, saying, “Some definitions of socialism are very vague, while others are so specific that they only include a small minority of the things that have been described as ‘socialism’ in the past. There have been numerous political movements which called themselves socialist under some definition of the term. Some of these interpretations are mutually exclusive, and all of them have generated debates over the true meaning of socialism.” Well, great. That clears things up, then! I am now feeling confident in my understanding of socialism. Wait…no.

Also, many people allege that the specific manifestations of socialism are as unique and un-integratable with one another as caesar salad is with potato or fruit salad, implying that there is absolutely nothing similar among the groups apart from the sharing of a vague utopian goal, the specific nature of which floats around in the ether like a wind-blown ghost. I am extremely skeptical of this allegation of un-integratable-ness, but the issue may need to be a discussion for a future blog post. Check back later.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the specific types of socialism that have existed in past and present:

  1. Marxist Communism: Marxists aspire to create a classless, stateless social organization based on common ownership of the means of production. This will be achieved by capturing the state, which will later evolve into a non-governmental commune. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were Marxists.
  2. Autonomism: Through an everyday working class resistance to capitalism, workers will overthrow the system through self-organized, bottom-up action.
  3. Collectivist Anarchism: Collectivist anarchists believe that the economy and most or all property should be collectively owned by society. Historically, this was initiated by acts of violence and “propaganda of the deed” meant to inspire the workers to revolt.
  4. Anarchist Communism:  Self-governing communes use democracy to collectively dispense the means of production. Individuals do not receive direct compensation for labor, but rather have free access to resources.
  5. Anarcho-syndicalism: Labor unions are the source for revolutionary social change, replacing capitalism and the state with a network of democratically-managed workers.
  6. Social Democracy: Capitalism will be reformed from within, and the welfare state will be achieved through democratic vote. However, capitalism will not be totally destroyed but rather will be greatly “humanized” so as to support the values of freedom, equality, social justice, and solidarity.
  7. Democratic Socialism: A socialist economic system will be achieved through democratic vote. Capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity and therefore cannot be “humanized” in the way social democrats desire. Ultimately, capitalism must be replaced with socialism through a democratic management of enterprises. Some people claim that Hitler was a Democratic Socialist.
  8. Liberal Socialism: The values of liberty and equality are compatible and can be achieved through a mixed economy that includes both private and public property. Some people claim that Hitler was a Liberal Socialist.
  9. Religious Socialism: A form of communism centered on religious principles, usually practiced by utopian societies through the voluntary dissolution of private property so as to meet everyone’s needs.
  10. Eco-socialism: Eco-socialists (also known as Green socialists) believe that capitalism is to be blamed for environmental degradation, social marginalization, and inequality, and they seek to dismantle capitalism by advocating for common ownership of the means of production.

What I am seeing is a thing called socialism which seems to mean something slightly or extremely different depending on who you talk to. Under the umbrella of socialism live the socialisms, under which live the people of the socialisms who don’t necessarily believe that the other people of the other socialisms should be considered true socialists at all because few agree on what the word socialism actually means in the first place. But don’t worry! There is nothing strange or concerning about this! Socialism is just too complex, ha ha ha, and it doesn’t need to be limited to rational models that dominate modern academic economics. After all, why should we bind ourselves to dogma? Socialism is definitely awesome, and YOU SHOULD BE A SOCIALIST even though nothing in this paragraph makes sense and even though the definition of socialism will probably change at least three times in the next twenty years.

Whew!

Now that I have proceeded this far, is there anything to be gleaned about socialism as a whole from the explanations of the types above? Do the definitions of the types reveal anything that the general definition of socialism does not? One thing that jumps out right away that all of the types seem to share is a strong dislike of capitalism. Phrases like, “resistance to capitalism,” “property should be collectively owned by society,” “replace capitalism,” “humanize capitalism,” “mix capitalism with socialism to make it better,” “dissolve private property,” and “blame capitalism for earthly degradation” are present in each and every instance listed above. What exactly is capitalism though? This seems important.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Capitalism: An economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined by competition in a free market.

To further expand on this definition, private ownership of the means of production refers to lone individuals and private companies having exclusive possession and decision-making power over the stuff that belongs specifically to them. Additionally, a free market is an economic system characterized by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses, where the forces of supply and demand are free from intervention by a government. The opposite of a free market would be a regulated market, where a government intervenes in supply and demand through laws creating barriers to entry, price fixing, requirements to comply with environmental standards, product-safety specifications, information disclosure requirements, regulations that privilege special interests, and other tactics. While socialism advocates economic regulation and collectivism, capitalism advocates economic freedom and individuality.

If you follow the definition to its logical end, the essence of “true capitalism” is not particularly difficult to pin down. Capitalism in its most complete sense would be a society where there is no such thing as public property whatsoever and where the government has absolutely zero say in economic affairs, not even to impose the tiniest regulation or requirement. Has true, full capitalism ever actually existed? The answer is no. Since birth, capitalism has always been regulated or mixed with other systems to some degree, although there have been periods of time where the economy has been freer and more capitalistic than it was during other eras.

Are the capitalistic notions of private property and unregulated markets completely antithetical to the theories held by the various types of socialism? YES. Most definitely. But why, exactly? Why do the socialisms oppose these ideas?

Several weeks ago I sat through the full 49:45 minutes of this incredibly patronizing video lecture on socialism given by Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The video’s title is, “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again.” I will discuss this video in greater detail in a future blog post because some of his comments on the Soviet Union are so gag-inspiring that my sense of justice requires that I write about them further; but for the purposes of today, I will reference the video only to explain Wolff’s account of why socialists seek to overthrow capitalism. According to Wolff, “capitalism promised so much and delivered so much less” because it created an individualistic, violent, and unfair free-for-all within Western civilization, “dripping blood from every pore.” Essentially, socialists saw capitalism as a system that exploited workers and fostered inequality, with some people having a lot while others had only a little. Socialism by contrast, which sprang up in the 1840’s as a reaction against the supposed evils of capitalism declared, “We are not for the individual first and foremost; we are for the community first and foremost.” Wolff expressed this notion as a “brotherhood first, individual second” sort of idea. He went on to say, “It’s about a different vision for how you organize and understand what society is.” Where capitalism sought to create an individualistic society of private property with each person responsible for pursuing his or her own best interest, socialism wanted a world where everyone was roughly equal with everyone else and where the interests of the collective were managed by all rather than by a privileged few.

Socialism in all of its forms is anti-capitalism. It is a reaction against the capitalistic principles of private property, individualism, and unrestricted economic freedom on the grounds that capitalism is cruel and unfair. Even though the types of socialism disagree on how exactly a collective whole working together for the best interest of the group will actually be achieved or maintained, they do all agree that capitalism needs to be replaced with something more “humane” (aka collectivist). The specifics beyond this one point of agreement are still vague and subjective as I have already discussed, but the anti-capitalist nature of socialism is clear and shared by all. As a whole, socialism, from Marx to Stalin to Anarcho-syndicalism to the Democratic Socialists of America, seeks to oppose and overthrow capitalism, whether that means destroying it through revolution, democratic process, or worker strike, and whether it means “humanizing” capitalism, mixing it with other systems, or wiping it off the face of the planet for all eternity.

The last time I had this much difficulty locating an objective definition for a concept was back when I was teetering on the verge of atheism for the first time, grasping desperately onto the last vestiges of my Christian faith. Christianity just did not make real sense to me, and no matter how I looked at it the concept remained nebulous, floating without anchor in a twilight world of feelings, meaning whatever religious people wanted the word to mean at any given era in history. Traced through time there are thousands of different manifestations of Christianity, all of them contradictory and many of them mutually exclusive, and yet the idea of Christianity persists in all of its subjective glory, morphing shapelessly from one version of itself to the next as civilization reroutes itself toward new goals. When people use the single word Christianity to talk about their belief system, what are they specifically referring to? With its coat of many colors, how exactly does one judge Christianity on its rightness or wrongness if the religion stands for thousands of different ideas that simply shift in and out of popularity as people’s perspectives change over time?

The further I dig into socialism, a suspicion builds. Socialism, like Christianity, has a certain religious feel to it. It appears to mean whatever people feel in their hearts that it means. It morphs. It changes. It starts out as one thing and then becomes another without too much fuss being made. People try it one way, and when that one way fails, they move on to try it another way without concern for the fact that the second way is contradictory to the first, and despite the fact that the literature does not seem to make sense all together as a cohesive whole. Socialism is open for interpretation. It is open to your feelings, and isn’t that nice?

Capitalism, by contrast, is not like this. There is no range of capitalism; there is just capitalism, and it means one specific economic system that could concretely be pointed to were it ever to be implemented in its fullest sense. When and if the ultimate version of capitalism ever does have its moment (meaning all public property has been abolished and all restrictions on business have been lifted), its final judgment day will also have arrived, and that will be that. If in the end, when held up to the light, capitalism fails, honest capitalists will have no choice but to admit they were wrong, slink embarrassingly away into a corner, and think up some entirely different idea.

But not so for the socialists. Due to the floating, quasi-religious nature of the concept at the center of their system, when the next so-called socialist system fails, socialists will have the option to claim, “Well, that system that failed was not real socialism because [fill in the blank],” and who could prove them wrong? If one cannot point to what socialism specifically is, one can never know for sure when one has actually tried it. If socialists have not and will not set limits around the essential nature of their system, the boundary can just keep shifting, creeping out further and further until the socialism of the future is so unlike its original manifestation that it is literally unrecognizable. Without a boundary, anyone can logically claim that almost any brand of socialism arrived at at some future date both is and isn’t real socialism. And so, by these methods socialism can mean or not mean virtually anything as long as it does not mean capitalism.

When all is said and done, capitalism is a clearly defined economic method, but socialism, the system that seeks to overthrow it, is not. Does the lack of clarity prove that socialism is wrong? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it does. But the ambiguity is reason to pay close attention, as it leads to the possibility of the socialist goalposts being moved in any debate. As a concept, the word socialism in all of its haziness is ripe and ready for equivocation, and its sub-types are bursting at the seams with contradictions. What unites them is a mutual understanding that in order to achieve the ideal human society, capitalism must not be left to its own devices. But is that actually true? Must capitalism be crushed in order for human life on earth to reach its highest potential? In order to answer that, I’ll have to do more research. Thanks. Bye.

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First

Hello, internet. It turns out that writing about the world is a thousand times more terrifying and difficult than writing about oneself, and it turns out that I have spent the last ten years as a coward.

When you write about yourself, you are your own universe and your own ultimate authority. No one is there to look over your shoulder and judge you for calling a mud puddle a daisy, and no one is ever going to challenge your interpretation of your life’s own events because no one else was there inside you experiencing what you experienced in the way you experienced it. You are basically immortal and a wizard.

But it takes courage to make a claim about the world that exists beyond your own mind. It does actually take a special kind of bravery to point down at a daisy growing out of the dirt and to say, “That is a daisy right there.” If you claim that something in particular exists or happened, people will ask, “Where?” and, “When?” and, “Do you have any evidence?” If you formulate an idea or put forth a hypothesis, they will probe it gently or not-so-gently with sticks, saying, “But that doesn’t make any sense because I experienced a thing that directly contradicts your idea,” or, “But you have failed to take into account [something extremely important],” or, “You really do not have enough evidence to support that.”

The danger in making claims about the world is that other people can get into their cars and drive out to the field where the daisy you wrote about is located, and they can look down and see for themselves whether or not the thing you described actually has a green stem and petals. And if the daisy turns out to be a mud puddle…then you are just wrong. You just are. With writing about the world comes accountability. Or it should.

I really hate it when people don’t care enough about the truth of things to go and see whether the daisy actually exists or not. It’s all over the paper: “Daisy found in empty field where nothing has grown for 500 years!” They’ve called for a holiday and founded a new political party: The Daisykins. Someone even started a new Daisy religion, and everyone is joining, and everyone is so happy happy happy! But the question that it seems almost no one cares to ask is, “How do we know that the daisy actually exists? Did anyone look?”

I started this blog for several reasons that I am now going to list here:

  1. I used to think that I knew a lot of stuff about the world. I had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and I was a high school teacher, and teachers know stuff. But then, through a series of semi-traumatizing events, I saw for the first time how absolutely and embarrassingly ignorant I was of the actual world that existed beyond my vague, agnostic, solipsistic bubble of faux-knowledge that I had built for myself out of a shitty five and a half years of college education. I was an ignoramus. Inexcusably so. But! Since realizing this, I have been trying pretty hard to redeem myself by backtracking over a lot of old terrain and looking to see if any of the ideas I took for granted for so long were ever actually connected to reality in the first place. In doing so, it has started to become exceedingly clear to me that the majority of people who talk about ideas in this world do so with only the vaguest notion of what they are actually talking about. This bothers me. It bothers me so much that I created this blog in order to write about what I have noticed.
  2. Secondly, if I am ever going to get better at thinking and at writing, I am going to have to get over my fear of disappointing people and my fear of writing un-perfect arguments. I am going to need to at least make an attempt. Please bear with me, as this blog will be a work in progress.
  3. When I look out at the world, what I hear are many people talking about Democratic Socialism. Based on what I have read about it over a period of about four weeks, Democratic Socialism does not make any sense and neither do the shallow claims made about it by those who are looked up to in society. I have a very strong suspicion that Democratic Socialism is not the daisy everyone seems to think it is, but I recognize that four weeks of research is not enough time spent to know this for sure. This is the third reason why I have created this blog. I want to understand Democratic Socialism, and I plan to spend more time doing so here.

Well, that’s it. I guess there are really only three reasons why I have started blogging again for the first time since I was twenty-four and dumb: to integrate into a more cohesive whole some things I have noticed about the world, to become better at thinking and writing in general, and to figure out what is really going on with Democratic Socialism. The thought of putting forth the product of my own mind to be weighed, measured, and examined is intimidating, frankly, and I have honestly never done this before, so you may need to bear with me a little. In all my years of “wanting to be a writer” and “applying for my MFA,” I only ever wrote about myself.

I should also probably mention that even though the date at the bottom of this post says May 5th, that is not actually the date of this post. Today is May 10th because it has taken me that many days to un-wimp myself. Just so you know.

Thanks, internet. Be back soon.