What exactly IS socialism anyway?

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  – From the tatters of an ancient Greek poem

I recently had an ugly exchange on Facebook with some acquaintances that started out being political in nature before descending into the gutter.

Two young graduate students pursuing studies that have nothing to do with political economy and who, unsurprisingly, consider themselves to be socialists simply turned what could have been a great teaching moment for a large number of people into an affair that was more deserving of spot on the Jerry Springer Show than in public, polite discourse.

Now, it must be noted that I am to blame for how the debate turned out, as I took the bait set for me that would lead the discussion from the intellectual arena and into the garbage.  You win some, you lose some, and I am quite certain that my vituperative attacks on socialism will cause them to think twice about posting such dim-witted, reactionary posts to their Facebook walls in the future.

I initiated the venomous exchange after my acquaintance posted this link written by a British aristocrat calling on socialists everywhere to simply begin ignoring capitalism as a way to further its (quite hideous and inhumane) demise and become replaced by a benevolent and voluntary form of socialism.

Here is what I said:

“This article elicited two different reactions from me: the first was a smirk. Faced with the theoretical framework of the classical liberal on the one hand and, on the other hand, with the empirical evidence to support capitalism’s triumph over an older age of barbarity, the “I’m-not-a-socialist-or-a-​communist-but-I-still-beli​eve-that-capitalism-is-imm​oral” intellectual is forced to reduce his argument to a vulgar fashion statement: proclaiming his moral indignation at the system that has given him such an easy life. And his adoration of an older age is indicative of his philosophy’s (whatever that may be!) contempt for the common man, I think. What really caused me to smirk, though, was his call on the individual to simply “tune out the capitalist message” so to speak. Such desperation is indicative of the Left’s intellectual bankruptcy.

The author (and I presume you, too) would NEVER deign to read a book by a prominent liberal academic. That would be unwholesome, even impure.

The second reaction was much less interesting, I am afraid. I merely shook my head in heated disgust at the West’s intellectual class. You see, Dear Uncle, even though the intellectually bankrupt Left cannot compete with libertarians in the field of theory or with empirical reality, they are still free to lie to themselves (and the public at large). The straw man in this article is not what concerns me, but rather the superfluous attack on free trade. The attack reminded me of Roseanne Barr: I wanted to laugh, but it was just too ugly. So answer me this Dear Uncle: On that fateful morning in Ghana (you know the one!), did you enjoy – after taking a shit – having to walk to the nearest well to fill up a bucket of water in order to “flush” the toilet? It is a question that has to do with free trade (and ethics, for that matter), but first I must gauge the level of honesty that you have with yourself. It is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”

Now, I have bolded the last segment of my initiation because I think it is pertinent to let readers know that I specified exactly why I asked the question that I did.  I received the following response from my self-styled socialist friend:

“Brandon, I know you think capitalism has triumphed (I can hear the trumpets in heaven as I type), but, if it indeed has come off victorious, what has it won? And at what cost? And how can you empirically measure that?

These are questions you might want to ask yourself before you berate someone you indignantly and self-righteously call ‘Dear.’ Don’t you see the irony?

You’re an interesting provocateur; a self righteous smirker indeed! Libertarians believe in an all powerful god: the free market. It’s a belief. Bottom line. [Emphasis mine – BC] Do yourself a favor and don’t get so worked up when someone doesn’t want to worship your god. It’s called pluralism. You can be a capitalist and I can be a socialist. Live and let live.

Free trade all you want but I’m not buying whatever you’re selling, especially if you’re exploiting other people in the process. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m trying to do right by other people.

I like that you brought us back to the material (I’m sure Marx and Bakunin would be proud of you) with the shit story. I’m pretty sure I DID walk to the school well that morning. Other days the students fetched my water like they did for all of the other teachers. Did I get paid for my services like all the other teachers? No. Was the school generous enough to offer us room, including water? Yes. Do I really need to answer to you?

(This is where it’s going to get dirty… turn away if you’re sensitive like I am.) And who hooked you up with that gig anyway? Why were you in Ghana? Sounds like you might be feeling guilty for mooching off your ‘liberal’ aunt and uncle and the entire school. Or maybe the State of California? Holla if you on scholarship! Looks like someone has benefited from mutual aid and community cooperation a lot in his life. But did you ever give anything back to us or them except a couple of snide facebook comments and some smirks? [Emphasis mine – BC] Be honest! Ah, you blessed us with your libertarian theory and empirical data! Thank you Jesus (you know what I’m referring to)!”

It is apparent from this that my acquaintance was – what’s the word for this? – oh yeah, “butt-hurt” by my broadside, and the remainder of the debate was constantly brought back to my shortcomings as an individual by this particular acquaintance rather than on ideas and their real-life implications.

This, the ad hominem fallacy, is a common tactic among the rank-and-file, and I should have ignored the bait and stayed on topic.  I have bolded a couple of parts in this particular response that I think merit further scrutiny, though.  In my initial response to the article posted, I mocked the author’s calls to simply imagine capitalism away.  I did not tell anybody anything about themselves.  I did not try to tell the author or my acquaintance that he was wrong, or that he “believed” certain things about a subject.  I simply stated the obvious, and then asked a question which I thought was pertinent to a discussion that has been going on since man began to speak.

Now notice that my acquaintance takes full rights in informing me of my own position on things.  And notice that my acquaintance is quick to inform me that I owe him something, if only a ‘thank you’. Throughout the rest of the back-and-forth, my acquaintance – a graduate student at one of the world’s most prestigious universities – continued to inform me of what I “believed” in, and what I was ignorant of.

There were also smatterings of praise for the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, a brutal murderer who keeps his countrymen locked up on the Caribbean island-state (and socialist paradise) of Cuba.  If it were not for our own over-crowded prison populations here in the United States thanks to the government’s War on Drugs, I would be able to be a bit indignant at my acquaintance’s praise for dictatorship.  I did remind him, though, that literacy rates and longevity of life in Cuba were on par with the rest of the West, and that Cuba’s health care system relies on private money for innovation and support as much as any other state’s system (speaking of costs).

Added together – the praise for (disputed) accomplishments of dictators and the penchant for informing others of what they actually believe in – an interesting brew begins to bubble up.

Throughout the remainder of the debate I took the pains of trying to point out the fallacies and implications of my acquaintance’s arguments, but such points were merely brushed aside, as I was repeatedly informed that I knew nothing about socialism, or better yet, that I did not understand it.  Fair enough.  I may not understand what socialism is.  I may not know that socialism is not about Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Nkrumah, Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, and others who are often associated with socialism-in-practice.

I do not claim to be an all-knowing hedgehog.  I do think that I know bits and pieces of the historical process fairly well.  I do think that I have a decent grasp on a number of social theories.  But I most certainly do not know what socialism is.  In fact, I am not certain that many people do.  However, if the hedgehogs of the world refuse to (graciously) let people in on their little secret, I do not see how the world can benefit from the illustrious benevolence of socialism.

I took an Ethics course at Cabrillo College one semester, and it was taught by someone who had earned her PhD from Columbia University.  She once told the class that if she couldn’t understand what we were writing then we didn’t understand what we were writing.

Let me be clear: Industrialization has been an arduous process for societies that are able to eliminate the legal and political barriers erected to “preserve order”.  Local communities disappear.  Pollution occurs.  Livelihoods become obsolete.  And economic inequality abounds.

On second glance, though, local communities are still around.  The West hypocritically tells its former colonies that they are dirty, and are polluting the world with their industrial waste (the fact that this is true is not what makes it hypocritical, but I should not have to spell everything out for you).  Hunting and horseshoeing have indeed become obsolete professions in societies that commit to placing the individual and the rule of law above all else.  There are significant wage gaps between CEO’s and sandwich makers these days.  Most of this can be explained through the tax structure and regulatory regimes of the West (which can be repealed), and to say that the income gap is less significant than it was when a landed aristocracy and religious hierarchy oversaw the work of its serfs is a bit silly, don’t you think?

In conclusion, I am not asking for much from any self-proclaimed socialists out there.  All I want is an honest definition of what socialism is.  It is apparent that I do not know what the “big thing” is.  I would like to, but I need help.  Are there any socialists out there willing to lay out a clear and concise definition of what socialism means?  If not, I will be forced to continue to associate socialism with the 20th century’s mass murderers, episodes of mass starvation, lower standards of living for all but a few (“the purists”), the humiliation of man, and brutal dictatorships.

Update: The acquaintance I was engaged with left a message on this blog demanding that I take this short essay down. He claimed that I was insulting him and his family. Obviously, I have done no such thing. What is striking about his arrogant demand, though, is that a human being could actually become so poisoned by an ideology as to think that he has the power to command others. The socialist would like that power, no doubt, but he will have to murder in order to get it. In China, and Cuba, and Ghana, and Russia, and North Korea, the socialist has done just this. In the United States he would not hesitate to do the same.

Update 2: My acquaintance demanded that I remove his demands from the ‘comments’ thread as well. This I was happy to do, but not because I was intimidated by his demands. I did it only because I took pity on him. I burned his idols before his eyes, and he now knows the true place of his priesthood in society: Throughout this whole ordeal, he was never able to procure a definition of socialism (though he was quick to remind me that I don’t know what it is).

6 thoughts on “What exactly IS socialism anyway?

  1. Socialism is basically Communism, ie. consume and produce whatever you like whenever you feel like it. The difference is that Socialism retains some vestige of differential wages somehow (but I wouldn’t over-egg this, it sounds more like “hard workers get paid more than people who take time off” rather than “doctors get paid more than street sweepers”). At least this is what I get from asking socialists.

  2. Would your socialist friend accept an invitation to bury the hatchet and post with us, here, on a promise of mutual best behavior?

    • I doubt it. He’s still in grad school back East. However, this is an old classic from my personal blog and since this dogfight happened I have seen a number of Facebook posts advocating a “Progressives for Ron Paul”-type vote for his colleagues and friends to ponder.

  3. “Socialism” is a family of concepts. The original socialism was “worker socialism,” in which workers own the means of production. A worker would own the tools and land he uses. Worker socialism includes labor cooperatives.

    State socialism is the ownership of land and capital goods by a government, which therefore also controls the employment of labor. There are degrees of state socialism, from totalitarian central planning and control, to the state only owning the commanding heights such as infrastructure and banking, to “market socialism” in which the government ownership is local and competitive.

    Democratic socialism is state socialism in which voters elect not just the government chiefs but also vote on economic issues. Many state socialists believe that dictatorial government is not truly socialist; it has to be democratic.

    Redistributionist socialism taxes the rich and transfers income to the poor. This socializes the wealth rather than socializing production.

    In my judgment, discussion best avoids the term “socialism” since it has so many variants, but if one must use it, then adjectives are warranted.

    • Duly noted.

      I actually have some basic familiarity with socialist strains of thought, but the opinion piece in question that was posted to my acquaintance’s Facebook wall made no such distinctions, so I decided to prod my gifted sparring partner.

      Sometimes you have to scratch, and sometimes you have to cleave to get what you need out of somebody.

      My sparring partner kept lecturing me on the different types of socialist strains, but he could do no more than inform me of what I did not know.

      Sometimes a good dose of venom is the best elixir. As I mentioned to Brian (who I wish would log on and start posting here!), my acquaintance has recently begun to advocate a vote (of protest?) for Ron Paul.

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