Socialism: What Is It Really?

Socialism is almost a universally misunderstood term. To some it is a pejorative, an awful thing, and to others it is the wave of the future. For many Americans it is whatever their favorite politician says it is. Plenty of governments and political parties of all types have referred to themselves as socialist. Some of them never actually define the word or why they use it. This confusion of definition makes the term ‘Socialism’ what cognitive linguists refer to as a contested concept. A contested concept is one that appears to be clearly defined by a certain word but the word, in reality, means different things to different people. 

One definition of a word is often promoted by a group to advance their ideology or philosophy over another group’s definition. Words have power, so defining them can mean the acquisition of power. Some words or phrases naturally have a variety of definitions, for example ‘interesting’ or ‘love’. Other previously clear concepts, such as ‘equality’ and ‘news’ have been intentionally muddied by people with an ideological agenda. They want to create confusion in the public about the meaning of the word. There is fierce competition between groups to establish a universal definition of a word. Each group wants to lock it into a particular picture or frame, and point it to their meaning of the word over all others. The winner then acquires the power of that word. The word now points to what they want the public to hear.

Socialism is a word whose definition has been fought over for years. Conservatives and capitalists have been winning this battle. But most recently, changes have appeared in the picture they want you to see when you hear the word ‘Socialism’. Most scholars define Socialism as a type of government, usually related to Marxist/Leninist ideology. This is true in many cases, but not all. Conservatives use this definition in their framing of the word. However, it is my contention that Socialism is not really a form of government. It is actually a necessary but separate part of government. How else could we explain why both both extreme right wing and left wing governments have been described as socialist. My definition of Socialism is not universaly accepted. But I believe in it strongly. Socialism is always an economic part of government but it is not a government by itself.  

In America the conceptual battle over the term Socialism has centered on the right wing’s campaign to tarnish the reputation of the word. It has been effective. They have taken advantage of the ambiguity surrounding the word’s meaning. Their tactic has not been to design an alternative definition of the word because today it has no definite meaning. Instead they have constantly bombarded the public with the idea that Socialism is bad. Like their complaint about most things liberal they tie Socialism to the idea that government interferes with a person’s ability to decide for themselves how to live, it limits their freedom and liberty. They have succeeded, primarily through constant repetition, in making it a dirty word to a majority of Americans. Many people now fear that Socialists hate American and will do anything to hurt them, from poisoning their water to stealing their children. These fears were intentionally promoted by conservatives. When they call someone a socialist, or claim a thing is socialist, people are afraid and angry.

As well as tying it to big government, capitalists have implied that Socialism will destroy the free market. Their attacks on Socialism focus on it being big, suffocating government that oppresses people. But their examples are mostly about government stealing people’s hard earned tax money and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. They hate government spending on programs they don’t like and didn’t have a say in. They tell us that a socialist government will take away your freedom to choose your own healthcare coverage. They say that Socialism will choke business until it dies from unnecessary and cruel regulation. They tell us Socialism will discourage the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that makes America great.

What do all these complaints have in common? They are all about money. They economic arguments. They aren’t about Socialism taking away our right to vote or abolishing the Bill of Rights. They are not about government itself. They are about what government does with our money. These complaints reveal what both the complainers and I consider to be the real definition of Socialism. Socialism is an economic system whose true opponent is not democracy but capitalism. The idea that Socialism represents big government versus the democratic will of the people is a smokescreen. The people who hate Socialism the most are capitalists.

The capitalists who play dirty to keep people thinking that Socialism a dirty word are aware that millennials and Gen Z see through their greedy tricks. Young Americans know that the rich use the poor’s desire to be wealthy to their advantage. They see how the oligarchy dangles the carrot of a nonexistent American dream in front of the poverty stricken, teasing them with the idea that they too can become rich if they just do what the 1% tell them to do. Our young citizens can tell that the system is corrupt and broken and there is no wizard who will give them everything they want. There are just some clever and frightened men behind a screen, pulling levers and manipulating the masses.

The coming political and economic power of people of color and young adults has the capitalists fearful. They have turned their attacks on Socialism up to 11. But in the last several years a new breed of young leaders have had the courage to declare themselves Socialists. They are challenging the capitalists directly. They see a future America where both Socialism and Capitalism have a role in our economy. They are confident history tells them they will prevail.

The American Civil War was based on the North opposing slavery. Yhat opposition was a direct threat to the South’s economy. The current growing political division in America is also based on racial and class struggles that are a direct threat to our wealthy rulers. Over 150 years since the emancipation of the slaves racism is still a major factor in American politics. The coming economic and political power of people of color and the young is bringing to a head this centuries long conflict. we are in a real war between white supremacy’s political and economic domination of our nation versus a new multicultural politics and economy that works for everyone. Socialism or more accurately socialist principles are in the trenches of this fight. The fight over what Socialism really means is intense and important.

An appreciation of what Socialism is and isn’t.

Socialism is a kind of system and philosophy that goverments use to run their economy. The standard dictionary definition of socialism states that it is a government that owns and/or controls the means of production. Significantly, that definition does not say what type of government that might be. A government that controls the means of production can be of any type, from democratic to authoritarian. Socialist economies, no matter what type of government uses them, work the same way every time.

Conservative capitalists continue to constantly tell us that Socialism is a threat to Anerica and a destructive type of government. This is not true. Socialism isn’t really a type of government at all. In fact, governments that feature a Socialist economy are widely diverse in nature. They can be, and have been, both right and left wing, conservative or liberal, with hybrid types in between. Here are some examples. 

Nazi was an abbreviation of National Socialist Party, the political party that ruled Germany during World War II. It featured a government dominated by the Nazi Party, which worked closely with all levels of business plus religious and cultural entities to form an authoritarian, nationalist government. Nazi Germany’s socialist economy was based on the power of the government to force business to follow its orders or face punishment. It was socialism used and controlled by a right wing government.

There also are and were many left wing governments who applied socialist principles to their economies, most of them based on a Marxist/Leninist philosophy. These socialist governments insist that capitalists are only concerned with profits and not the welfare of the people. Therefore it is the people who should rule, control the means of production, and direct the economy to the people’s benefit.

To establish governments with Socialist economies, the people, usually headed by a charismatic leader or leaders, will often overthrow what they feel is a corrupt government. The goal is to give or restore control of the economy to the people. Many of these sovereign nations refer to themselves as People’s Republics. As a Republic they are governed by representatives, usually limited by a constitution. But rather than holding democratic elections that feature two or more strong parties they hold elections where only members of the one ‘party of the people’ are elected.

In these ‘Republics’ the head of the party usually has more power than the head of state. It is also the party which dictates how the economy operates. This kind of socialist economy often works better in theory than in practice. Many of these governmental representatives are chosen more for their loyalty to the party rather than for their ability to govern. Their weakness lets the economy fail. Weak leaders can succumb to the lure of power. Power can corrupt even the most honest of politicians. ‘The people’ who overthrow corrupt governments can easily become corrupt themselves. Therefore, many of these nations are unstable, with one government after another becoming corrupt. The people rise up once again and that government is also overthrown. But the economy remains socialist.

An extreme form of Socialism is Communism. Communism is perhaps the purest form of Socialism in the sense that the government is the economy. In Communism the workers both own the means of production and elect the representatives that form the government. Again, there is only one party, the worker’s party. The two major Communist nations were and are Russia and China, both born of 20th century people’s revolutions.

Russian Communism also featured only one party, the Communist Party. The nation was divided into integrated social, economic, and political units called communes. Thus the name ‘Communism’. The workers elected a committee, called a Soviet, that ran the commune out of those workers who were party members. Central government representatives were elected out of the Soviets. Again, party leaders had more power than the elected representatives. The Russian ‘empire’ or sphere of influence was the called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 

The USSR was a Union because it united a number of previously sovereign nations such as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, etc. into one functioning government. It was Soviet because its basic political unit was the Soviet. Theese nations were Socialist Republics because they were sovereign states that were dominated by Russia. Russia allowed them to elect and send party representatives to a central government, called a Politburo, that controlled their government, and individual lives, through controlling the communes

In the Soviet economy each commune was given a specified task and was told by government what production goals they were to reach. There was a strict hierarchy of rulers who handed down these orders from the level above them, much like a military hierarchy. More and more pressure was placed on communes to produce more and more to keep pace with western capitalist economies. The economy began to lag behind the capialist nations. Although the USSR had a large amount of resources the Soviet model was not able to take advantage of them. Also, the Communist hierarchy easily became corrupt as opportunites for bribery and lies were numerous. Eventually, over about 75 years of Communist rule, it became clear that communist economics were failing and in the late 20th Century the USSR broke into it’s separate staes, most of whom returned to democracy and capitalism.

Communist China saw the Soviet Union begin to fail as the Soviet form of economics and worker operated government was unable to compete against the challenge of Capitalism. Economically, they realized that some capitalist principles had to be used to compete with the West. The government remained “communist” because they remained a one party government with representatives selected only from within the Communist party. However, they began to downplay their communisy nature and started to call themselves simply ‘China’. Businesses and corporations were allowed to compete in international markets using certain capitalist principles. Still, because government permission and guidance was required for companies to use capital, their economic system became something of a hybrid. This socialist/capitalist hybrid economy has seen greater success than Soviet style economics ever did.

There is another hybrid form of Socialism, one which has had a measure of success. It originated not in authoritarian, one party goverbments but mostly in parliamentary onarhies, where the monarch are primarily figureheads and government is democratly elected from a number of parties. Its appeal is growing in America. It is gathering support from many younger Americans and even some old school American socialists. This American Socialism, often called Democratic Socialism, is modeled after what is known as Scandinavian Social Democracy or the Nordic Model.

I don’t know a great deal about the inner workings of Scandinavian style social democracy. What I do know is the government is democratic, elected by the people. The power of the government and its economy originates in the will of the people. Nordic people have a tradition of working together and sacrificing personal gain to make sure all citizens have security in their quality of life. The Socialist nature of the economy comes from this strong social welfare tradition. While Nordic economies still feature a large amount of capitalist free-market activity, this strong social welfare policy dominates. It is another type of hybrid economy, one whose government is very different from China, but with a similar economic philosophy.

The citizens of Nordic social democracies pay a high percentage of their income in taxes. For this they get such social benefits as publicly financed (not free) healthcare, higher education without fees or tuition, generous parental leave for all parents, nearly unlimited unemployment benefits, and other generous social welfare programs. The Nordic spirit of community motivates Scandinavians to pay more taxes in order to insure meaningful and secure lives for everyone regardless of status. It is largely this strong social safety net which appeals to many young Americans.

We should expect more of these hybrid economies in the future, as it has become clear that neither pure, unrestrained capitalism nor strict and limiting Socialism have succeeded to any great degree. These new ideas have been largely ignored by the leaders of both the capitalist and socialist forms of economics. They still see the world from a 20th Century viewpoint. The failure of these old economic theories stems from the constant economic growth needed by Capitalism and the harshnesss of government control of the economy that defines Socialism. Both are impossibly and/or functionally unsustainable. 

Much to the irritation of America’s conservative capitalists there has been a recent increase of interest in and support of Democratic Socialism. They can no longer avoid the challenge of hybrid economies. Young people are not accepting the conservative definition of Socialism as being a dirty word. They see the hypocrisy of conservatives who claim Nazism and Communism are the same thing and say that Socialism is a government that is desperate to destroy America and Democracy. 

Millennials and many precocious Generation Z youth see through this effort to define Socialism as a threat to everything American. They see that a well thought out social democracy that both respects individual liberty and social welfare is not only desirable but necessary. They want a government and economic system with the honest competition and entrepreneurial spirit of Capitalism and the wise regulation of capitalists and efficient social services found in Socialism.

Americans don’t realize that we have many hybrid Socialist programs already in place and succeeding. Local services such as police and fire services, water treatment and snow removal are paid for through taxes but produced and controlled by government. That’s Socialism. Every time we hear of a “public/private cooperative project” we are dealing with a hybrid of Socialism and Capitalism. Government and private business working together is a growing means of doing large public projects such as road building and bridge construction.

Neither Keynes’ nor Friedman’s economic theories work in the 21st Century. This is something all politicians must learn and embrace. Strictly adopting either demand driven or supply side economic principles by themselves in today’s information and service world is not wise. America no longer has the industrial, manufacturing economy of the past. Hybrid economies featuring modified principles of both Capitalism and Socialism, or perhaps a totally new economic theory are the future.

Until then the battle rages on.