Ah socialism, the “S” word that is finding its way into more and more conversations within America. For a while it’s always been in conversations, but usually about “those damn socialists in Russia” or something like that. The reason it’s finding its way into modern conversations is between the United States is really “A Tale of Two Cities,” or more a tale of two economies; one economy is booming, surpassing most of the world, producing massive amounts of wealth and the highest standard of living in the world while the other economy has been stagnating for almost three decades, hasn’t created wealth in 30-40 years, and is mid-tier first world. The ruling elite and upper middle class get to enjoy the first economy, about 70-80% of Americans endure the second. So, that’s why socialism keeps coming up.
But for all the talk about socialism, it would seem that no one really understands it, both those who hate it and those sympathetic to the sound of it. See, one side hears “socialism” and they immediately think of some Nordic paradise only with real beaches and warm weather (because this is America) where everyone has healthcare, everyone goes to school for free, and we all enjoy salaries of $100,000 a year. The other side hears “socialism” and they think back to their days growing up in the shadow of Russia (because, let’s be honest, the biggest demographic opposed to any and all socialism are all 40+), they think of the government controlling everything in your life, and think that younger generations are wanting to Make Lenin Great Again. The fact is, however, that both sides are pretty wrong.
To understand socialism, it’s probably best to realize that socialism isn’t some monolithic thing. The Bolshevism in Russia circa 1917 and the Soviet government that came from it certainly falls under socialist theories, but not all socialist theories would accept Bolshevism. So let’s look the fear of Bolshevism right in the face and after that, let’s go on to define socialism to show that it’s not the big, scary monster that everyone seems to think it is.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had different types of socialists there, but the Bolshevists seemed to rise to prominence. Whereas most leftists in Russia at the time wanted a decentralized socialist state, the Bolshevists believed only through a centralization of the localized soviets could bring about a truly socialist state. The soviets, before they became “The Soviets” who went on to kill Apollo Creed and then lose in hockey, were localized councils formed of factory workers and other laborers. After deposing of the Tsar, they helped make up the provisional government. Everything was great until Vladimir Lenin came up with this crazy idea that a federation of soviets would work better and that they’d work best under a charismatic leader (very anti-Marxist). And then Vladimir Lenin gave a speech where he said, “And, my dudes, I’m a charismatic leader and came up with this idea, so…” And while everyone was thinking that this seemed weird, Lenin basically Leroy Jenkins’ed the provisional government, but was successful and after the Russian Civil War the soviets became the Soviets.
The Russian model of socialism, specifically of Communism, was one of heavy centralization, bureaucracy, and cult personality (until post-Stalin, when everyone realized that maybe having a cult personality isn’t the best thing); ironically, these are the things that Marx argued against and that most socialists – dating back to the French Revolution (first one) and especially the second French Revolution (second one) – were very much against. The Russian Model (or Marxism-Leninism) wanted a vanguard of revolutionaries who made revolution their profession, who would guide the people through a transition into a purely Communist society. Of course, as humans are humans – and as Russia will always be Russia – once the people were in power they forgot about that whole transition thing. They centralized the economy, worked from a planned economy – which is what harmed the Ukraine more than anything – and gave control to the “soviets,” who weren’t a vanguard organically grown from the working class, but were a political elite selected due to their loyalty to the party and personality leader.
Anyone with a proper understanding of socialism can look at the above model and go, “Yeah, I don’t like that” and still be a socialist. See, Marxism-Leninism is a school within the broad spectrum of socialism. If someone can reject the above and still be a socialist when the above is socialist, what exactly is socialism?
The briefest and simplest definition I can think to give is that socialism is any view where the public use of a good is valued above the private ownership of a good, to the point that the good is publicly owned and managed. To some, that still sounds like Soviet Russia, but it’s not. Roads are considered a public good. Fire departments, police, even utilities are considered public goods. They are, then, publicly owned and paid for by communal funds (taxes). Few people, except for the most libertarian and anarcho-capitalist among us, would argue for privatizing the police, the fire department, or roads. No one wants to call the police or fire department only to be met with a one-time use fee of $99, or pay a monthly subscription of $300. These things are public goods. But at its most basic level, that’s socialism.
There must also be an understanding of the difference between private property and capital producing property. Can I own property under socialism? Can I own a business under socialism? Can I have a paycheck or any ownership under socialism? The answer is, yes, of course you can to all of the above. A home, a car, a computer, a TV, or any other thing that we consider marks of a quality of life aren’t public goods because they have no public interest. They are property, but they aren’t capital producing property; no one makes money by having a TV, a car, a computer, etc. They might be used to help you obtain capital, but they themselves are not capital producing. Owning a business, however, is a capital producing property and now we get to discuss socialism.
The socialist theory of business ownership varies depending on the school of socialism we’re talking about, but at its core the argument is and always will be that the private ownership of a business must always come second to the public good offered by the business. This isn’t to say that you can’t own a bodega or own a fruit stand, but the moment your ownership threatens the good of the local community, you’ll face regulations or even lose the ownership of the property. That sounds extreme, but we already do this; if a factory is dumping toxic waste into a local river, they risk the government shutting their business down (or at least did at one point, not so much under the current administration).
Ideally, socialism would look at capital producing private property and argue one of two things (or both): All capital producing property should be owned and managed by the workers of that property and/or all capital producing property should be owned, managed, and regulated by the community. It takes the idea of democracy and privatizes it, eradicating the dictatorship of executive boards and management and instead creating mini-democracies out of businesses. And it’s hard to argue against the theory (and practice), because to do so would be to say that democracy is a bad thing (and at times it can be, but how many capitalists want to admit that?). The argument goes that the worker should be entitled to own the fruits of his labor, otherwise he’s engaged in a form of slavery. It may not be the Roman system of slavery or the American system of slavery, it may not be brutal, but it’s still a form of slavery because his entire existence rests upon the good graces of a boss. His labor is owned by someone else, which would fall under slavery.
Even strict social goods like healthcare and education can be federally funded, but administered at a local level. Within the US, this means that states or even municipalities would have the responsibility of running the administration of their universal healthcare system and education system (with the support of federal dollars, so there would be federal guidelines, but still the freedom to run the system that best supports the locality). All told, the goal of any socialist system is to give more power to the locality whether it’s in business or government. Someone who supports a decentralized socialist system (such as myself) is a big fan of local government, but is also a big fan of local business.
It is why some of us can look at Bolshevism with the same disdain that a capitalist would look at it; but we look at capitalism (at least American Capitalism) and see it being just as bad as Bolshevism (there’s an argument that Bolshevism looked worse than it actually is because it took place in Russia, and Russia is notoriously bad at anything government related, historically speaking). It’s why some of us, many of us, can ask for a socialist system, but to leave the Bolshevism on the side.