Judging by the way the media and the GOP talk about it, you might conclude that socialism is anything the GOP disagrees with.
Teaching what socialism actually is is part of my job, so I get asked this quite a bit.
First, socialism isn’t one thing. There is socialism the idea—and the idea has been expressed in different ways by different people—and then there are a vast variety of ways that the idea of socialism has been implemented in various times and places.
When I talk about socialism in my classes, I usually start by drawing an umbrella on the board. Because socialism is an umbrella term for all these different manifestations. Only one of the many manifestations of the socialist idea is “Communism.” And then there’s Soviet Communism as opposed to, say, Maoist or several other kinds, and Soviet Communism also changed dramatically over time, so there’s really no such thing as one Soviet communism. More on that below.
At the most basic level, the core of socialism that all these variable manifestations share is the notion that it would be a good thing if economic resources were distributed equally in a society.
Here’s just the start of a list of things not all socialists agree on about how that equal distribution would happen:
1. By “equal” distribution of resources, do we mean absolute equality (everyone has the same) or do we mean relative equality (some degree of correction of the enormous gaps between rich and poor that characterize capitalist systems)?
Various mid-nineteenth century experiments in communal living aimed for absolute economic equality. Today’s European social democracies aim only for a modest degree of relative economic equality.
2. How would this distribution of resources be imposed, regulated, or maintained?
Since the assumption is usually that a society with non-socialist economic principles would be shifted to socialist economic principles, some mechanism would be required to effect the shift of economic resources from just one part of the population to a more even distribution across the whole population, and then to maintain that relative balance as time passes. There are many, many possible ways for this to happen. Just a very few of the possibilities are:
A. Voluntary sharing of wealth (as in a commune or co-op)
B. Government regulation and taxation provides incentives and other “invisible” methods of shifting some limited economic resources to the poor within an essentially capitalist economy.
This could in theory be done in a very minor way–as it is in all industrialized countries right now–in a moderately progressive way, as it is in some social democracies in Europe, or aggressively, which has arguably never yet been tried.
C. Government legislates salary caps and high minimum wages to deliberately even out wealth
I don’t know of a case where this has been tried to any significant degree.
D. Government nationalizes property (wholly or partially), sets prices, and otherwise directly controls the economy, seizing and redistributing assets as necessary
The Soviet Union did this in the early years following the October Revolution, in a policy referred to as War Communism, since it took place during a civil war and was justified as necessary to save the revolution in its infancy. Lenin changed this policy—reintroducing a limited market and limited private property—as soon as the Civil War was completed, though doing so was very controversial in the Party. We don’t really know what Lenin intended in the longer term, since he died in 1924.
E. Government plans economic production ahead of time (wholly or partially), determining what is made or exchanged by whom on what terms
The Soviet Union began doing this with the first Five Year Plan in 1928 (under Stalin), and it characterized most of the Soviet economy in subsequent decades.
F. War/revolution are employed to redistribute wealth by force
Arguably, this is another way of describing the Soviet policy of War Communism, and other examples of forced requisition during wartime in many other parts of the world.
3. What resources are we talking about? Just cash? Money and property? How about commercial services? Does socialism address political equality directly?
Traditionally, the discussion of what to equalize is about tangible economic resources, not health, education, or political rights. Although there are clearly connections between economic resources and how easily you can access medical care, education, or civil rights, socialism is at its core a theory about economic resources. The idea is that once those are equalized, the rest follows. Access to intangibles such as political rights, health, safety, and knowledge are really about the distribution of power, and are therefore fundamentally political, not economic, in nature.
IMPORTANT: Socialism, as theory, is an economic idea, not a political idea. So there is no inherent connection between socialism and any particular form of government.
Sing it with me: Economic ideas are about how money and other tangible resources are distributed. Political ideas are about how power is distributed.
Many Americans assume that there is some inherent connection between capitalism and democracy, and between socialism and authoritarianism. There is no such inherent connection, neither in theory nor in practice. There have been democracies with socialist economies (much of Scandinavia in recent decades, for example), and democracies with capitalist economies (such as the US). There have been authoritarian governments with capitalist economies (most absolute monarchies in the nineteenth century), and authoritarian governments with socialist economies (such as the USSR).
While all socialists like the idea of some degree of equality of wealth, socialists have not historically agreed on their preferred form of government. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, most (though not all) people arguing for socialism in the industrialized world prefer democratic governing and non-violent methods of wealth redistribution.
It should go without saying—though sadly it does not!—that by “people arguing for socialism” I do NOT refer to the U.S. Democratic Party. Economically speaking, the American democratic platform is on the conservative end of the spectrum and from a European point of view virtually indistinguishable from the U.S. Republican Party on economics. By “people arguing for socialism” I refer to people actually arguing for socialism. Such as the Socialist Party USA or the American Social Democrats. Ask them what they think of Obama, I dare you. (LOL)
4. Is socialism something that can be achieved, or does it happen “spontaneously”?
This has historically been an incredibly contentious question. Many proponents of socialism consider economic equality a goal that can be worked for, and perhaps fought for. Others acknowledge that economic equality would be an improvement for human societies over capitalist or other economic systems, but do not believe that socialism can be created “from above,” that is, imposed by professional revolutionaries or government fiat.
Karl Marx inspired many professional revolutionaries, including the Bolshevik Party that took power in Russia in October 1917 and set about imposing socialism from above, but Marx himself believed socialism would happen “spontaneously,” from below, through a process of economically exploited classes recognizing how they are exploited and working together to take control of their economic power as producers, which would eventually result in a system characterized by greater economic equality and which Marx identified as “socialism.”
He wrote about all that in the second half of the nineteenth century, as labor in Europe was indeed being grotesquely exploited. After Marx’s death, labor in Europe and the U.S. began to organize and to strike for better conditions. As it happened, the general revolution Marx predicted did not occur (at that time!) — instead, the owners and managers compromised enough on working conditions and wages that workers began to enjoy (just) sufficient health, safety, and access to material goods and education to not be motivated enough for a revolution along the lines Marx expected. The democratic socialism and welfare systems of liberal democracy that dominated Europe after the second world war have essentially held that compromise in place. Until recently, that is, when deregulation, anti-union legislation, and the defunding of welfare and other public programs in the US and (to a less extreme degree) in Europe is beginning to shift the labor-management relationship backward again. It remains to be seen where this relationship will go, but I find the Occupy movement a fascinating early sign of resistance to these anti-labor policies. I say this only to point out that Marxism is not necessarily a relic of history, but still a framework that can be applied to working conditions and economic systems today.
Okay, so that’s socialism. What about Communism?
Communism is even more confusing!
Communism has a lot of meanings, too, depending on the context in which it’s being used.
Marx and Marxists have been known to use “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably, but when they’re being picky, socialism is often referred to as a transition stage on the way to communism. In this sense, socialism marks a stage after a revolution has overthrown private property, but before government has “withered away.” Communism then describes a utopian stage where government is unnecessary—society is classless, all labor is equal, and the system can maintain itself.
What gets really confusing is when a country like the USSR undertakes a revolution and declares itself a Marxist state — what they said they had achieved was not socialism or communism, but a revolution that was directed toward that end. So, when the Bolshevik Party that seized power in Russia in 1917 changed their party’s name to the Communist Party and their country’s name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they were using those terms aspirationally—they were aiming for socialism and communism. As the years followed, the Party dithered about just how much socialism had actually been achieved at any given point, but technically communism, if you read your Marx and Lenin, as every Soviet citizen did, remained on the horizon.
That would be confusing enough, except that these aspirational names have by now become descriptive of the countries engaged in this experiment. So, while the Soviet Union was attempting to achieve Communism, it became known as “a communist country,” and thus we began to speak of “Communism” not as the utopian final phase of Marxist development, never (yet) achieved on earth, but as “what they’re doing over there in the Soviet Union.” This is an extremely problematic usage when even in the USSR the Communist Party admitted that what they were doing was not actually Communism!
Since the end of the Cold War (at least) most scholars don’t like to refer to anything the Soviet Union was actually doing as “socialism” or “communism” because the terms are so imprecise. We tend to use those words mainly to describe the theories. The reality in the Soviet Union is known by the specific policy names used by the Party at the time — such as War Communism or the New Economic Policy or Perestroika — or in more general contexts by the leader who is associated with a certain cluster of policies, hence, “Leninism,” “Stalinism,” or for the Brezhnev period, “stagnation,” a term coined by Gorbachev that is irresistibly evocative, if not precisely literally accurate. One can also speak accurately of the type of socialism actually practiced in the Soviet Union as “planned socialism” or simply a planned economy.
A final note on anarchism, another frequently misunderstood term. Anarchists do not advocate chaos. Anarchism is also something of an umbrella term, encompassing both individualists and collectivists, but the collectivist branch can be seen as a variant of socialism. What distinguishes collectivist anarchists is that they are particularly concerned with the role of government in establishing or maintaining economic equality—namely, they want government to stay the heck out. A case can be made that if there were ever hope for the Bolshevik Revolution to live up to any of the theoretical principles on which it was based, this hope was derailed by the domination of government and Party at the expense of workers. Other arguments can be made to explain the many hypocrisies of the Soviet state, but there’s no question that Lenin’s notion of the Party as “vanguard” leading the revolution on behalf of workers resulted in a much more powerful role for the state than many socialists condoned at the time or since.