What is Socialism?
From a modern perspective, the canonical Socialist is, of course, Karl Marx. And the canonical vision of Socialism – which prescribes, among other things, government ownership of capital – is the Marxism that derives from his seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, and out of which the predominant 20th-century experiments in Socialist governance around the world evolved.
But Socialism pre-dates Marx, tracing its roots to writings of Henri de Saint-Simon, in the early 19th century, in which he described “socialism” in broad terms as something in opposition not to Capitalism but to individualism. The Communist Manifesto, itself, criticized other forms of Socialism that were popular at the time, characterizing its Socialist doctrines as superior to “Reactionary” or “Bourgeois” or “Critical-Utopian” versions that were either insufficiently focused on economics and class or insufficiently radical in their proposals for change.
Nor was Marx, himself, in practice a dedicated Marxist Socialist per se. The end-goal of his vision for the evolution of political and economic society was not Socialism but Communism, in which the State, far from owning or controlling the means of production (or anything else), had become superfluous and had, therefore, “withered away” entirely; in which the means of production would be held and managed not by a political State but cooperatively, by the communal will of the people and without need for any form of political control or leadership, because that was the natural result of a cooperative human nature left uncorrupted by the selfishness of Capitalist and Bourgeois influences.
In his telling, Socialism was merely a necessary intermediary step, an authoritarian interregnum that would oversee the “re-education” – or, rather, the de-education – of the masses of people whose inherent communal natures had been corrupted by the comprehensive social conditioning of Capitalist economics and Bourgeois values. And, because the purpose of that intermediary Socialist phase was specifically the purging of Bourgeois Capitalist influences and attitudes that prevented humanity’s communal essence from flourishing, the Socialist state would need to assert absolute authority not only over the means of production but also over all aspects of society and of culture, and over all individual attitudes and behavior, for so long – and only for so long – as was necessary to complete that purge.
The Socialism prescribed by Marx was intended less to distribute the fruits of production equably throughout society than to impose an economic, cultural, and social hegemony upon society, with the goal of eradicating all possibility of dissent against the wisdom and the ecstasy of harmonious communal existence. State ownership of productive resources was not the objective of Marxism but merely one of its means, a way to prevent those Bourgeois Capitalist attitudes from prospering, or even arising, by denying individuals the mechanisms, the opportunity, and the agency for advancement through individual initiative.
In other words, Marxism was a particularly narrow and parochial version of Socialism, focused on achieving a specific reform of human behavior and human nature, at odds both with various other forms of Socialism that coexisted with it at the time it was formulated and with various other forms of Socialism that have arisen since. And assertions that modern proposals for socially-oriented policies are not “Socialist” because they are not, specifically, Marxist – or that they don’t demand that the government directly appropriate and manage society’s capital resources – are similarly narrow and parochial.
What, then, is “Socialism”?
Although it sprang originally from observations about the economic ills created by industrialization, and evolved through various theories about the natural evolution of human civilization, Socialism, as a political philosophy, transcends those origins. Just as we don’t expect that the term “liberal” necessarily means exactly the same now as it meant to the American Founders, or that the “conservatism” of today’s self-described conservatives is identical to the “conservatism” extant during the waning days of the Cold War, so we cannot judge what we mean by modern “Socialism” strictly by reference to the standards and terms defined by its 19th century theorists. Whatever it may have begun as, what Socialism has become is not strictly a theory of economics or of “social progress” but a more general theory about the relationship between individuals and society. The question of what Socialism is hinges not on the ways in which various Socialist theorists say Society should be re-made but on why they contend that such a re-making is necessary; and, more importantly, on why and how they contend such a re-making is justified.
At root, Socialism begins with the presumption that there is a communal entity, a “Social” gestalt or, more colloquially, “Society”, which embodies and represents the collective aspirations and welfare of the mass of people. That is, it begins with the presumption that “Society” is a communal agent, an integrated organism separate and distinct from the individual people it represents, in the same way that the human body is separate and distinct from the individual cells which form its structure.
And Socialism concludes with the consequent presumption that, as the aggregation and incarnation of such communal purpose – as the legitimate agent for the interests of “the people” en masse – “Society” attains and asserts a moral status that is superior to and, therefore, supersedes the moral status of any individual.
In other words, Socialism says that Society is not merely the product of human striving but its purpose. Therefore, Society is not merely a practical and passive cooperative organizing structure, evolved to support individual aspiration, but a purposeful and active communal organism with its own independent and predominant moral value and moral agency. And, therefore, a proper arrangement of human affairs would acknowledge and operate in accordance with that Socially-ascendant vision of moral hierarchy, would codify, in both principle and practice, that the individual is subordinate to Society – that, at all times and in all circumstances, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
Through its assertion of moral superiority over the individual, Society also thereby asserts corresponding moral and practical claims on the individual: a debt both of material and of service to be paid to Society in the name of the “Social Good”. Hence, the fundamental and inevitable corollary of the elevation of Society to the role of prime moral purpose and prime moral agent is the diminution of both moral purpose and moral agency for the individual. If the moral purpose of human striving is the Social Good, then the individual is, ultimately, less a self-justified moral being than an instrument of that Good. The individual is, therefore, an instrument of Society, to be made use of in whatever ways Society deems necessary or desirable.
However, Society is not an organism with a physical body and a tangible voice, not an organism that can be clearly observed and can speak its own mind for all to hear. So, Socialists must assign the role of Spokesman for Society to some other, more accessible entity, an institution with a plausible claim to an understanding of what constitutes the Social Good and with identifiable and practical means of asserting control over the citizenry in furtherance of that Good. In practice, that almost always means the political State. How else, after all, is Society to enforce an appropriate individual duty upon those who would not willingly offer it?
Hence, although Socialist rhetoric emphasizes the moral ascendance of Society over the individual, Socialist practice always demands the palpable ascendance of government and its potentates over the rest of the citizenry.
At first glance, this depiction of the fundamental nature of Socialism may seem a dubious proposition, a contradiction, given that so much of what we presume, in daily usage, to be “Socialist” thought revolves around a desire to arrange things in ways intended to make life “better” for large groups of people who are observed to be suffering in some way. If the whole point of the popular forms of Socialism is to make things better for those suffering individuals, how can we believe that it does not respect the moral value of those individuals?
The primary answer to that seeming contradiction is simply to acknowledge that Socialism doesn’t necessarily devalue individual moral value in its entirety. Its premise does not ordain that individuals must have no moral worth and no moral authority; it is merely that their moral worth and their moral authority are subsidiary to the moral worth and moral authority of Society, overall. Hence, versions of Socialism that advocate a Social Good measured in terms of equity among the citizenry often do acknowledge some individual moral value. But they rank that moral value above, and at the expense of, moral autonomy — they view individual well-being not as something individuals properly assess and pursue for themselves but as something properly assessed and managed in the aggregate by a Social judgement. They posit that the maximum Social Good is achieved by some communally or philosophically determined “optimum” society-wide distribution of individual Good; and that it is the role and the duty of Society to achieve that optimum distribution by asserting Social authority over individual moral autonomy – by, if necessary, selectively and actively reducing the Good of some individuals in order to boost the Good for others.
The second answer to that seeming contradiction is to acknowledge that, in their most extreme forms, egalitarian versions of Socialism do, in fact, utterly devalue the individual because their conceptions of what constitutes the individual Good are entirely relative, based on perceived differences between people rather than on any sense of actual individual well-being. They, therefore, represent only a veneer of concern for individuals pasted onto a core that is wholly concerned with some vision for what is Good for Society as a whole.
In their mildest forms, such visions of what constitutes the Social Good may simply put a floor beneath the acceptable measure of what is Good for individuals. In those cases, the devaluing of the individual Good relative to the Social Good is real but may be considered, perhaps, relatively benign: the measure of Social Good is, indeed, based on an absolute (if communally-determined) measure of what is Good for the least fortunate members of Society; and the degree of subordination of individual moral autonomy to Social authority necessary to ensure that desired minimum level of individual Good may be relatively modest.
In their most extreme forms, however, such visions of what constitutes the Social Good stipulate not a minimum amount of what is good for individuals but a maximum, and typically narrow, degree of inequality among individuals. In those cases, there is no conception of what constitutes individual Good that is independent of the Social Good: the concept of individual Good has no absolute meaning or measure because it exists only comparatively, relative to the Good of all other individuals, relative to the degree of ‘equity’ or ‘disparity’ among them. Hence, such visions of the Social Good are entirely focused on that overall Social measure of Good and, thereby, demean both individual moral value and individual moral autonomy. Individual Good, in any absolute sense, is irrelevant provided there is an agreeable overall Societal distribution; and no individual may second-guess or act in contravention of that presumed Societal “optimum”, never mind assert or pursue a vision of his own individual Good that deviates from the Social determination of what ‘equity’ demands.
Those examples suggest that what constitutes the “Social Good” is a source of great variety in the practical aspects of various Socialist polities, as are the specific mechanisms through which Society is presumed to assert its moral claims on the individual. For example:
- Marxist Socialism defines Social Good as an egalitarian and communal control over productive economic resources by “the workers”. To achieve and hold onto that communal economic control, Society must and should assert total political control over the means of production, over social and cultural norms, over individual attitudes and behavior, and over individual lives, with the goal of purging all vestiges of Bourgeois Capitalism from Society and turning everyone (or, at least, everyone who survives that purge) into one of those agreeably communal “workers”.
- Fascist Socialism – in particular, Nazism (which was, we should remember, an abbreviation for “National Socialism”) – defined the Social Good in entirely different terms, as a combination of an Aryan Nationalism that elevated “The Volk” above other Nations and a racial purity that clearly differentiated “The Volk” from everyone else.
As with Marxism, Nazism asserted an absolute power of the political State to regulate both economic and cultural affairs as a means to achieve that Social Good. But, because it conceived of the Social Good in terms of what benefited and strengthened the Aryan Nation, rather than in terms of an egalitarian distribution of economic means among individuals, it was perfectly happy to assert State control over the means of production indirectly, rather than directly, through a form of crony Capitalism. Nazi leaders didn’t consider it a problem that wealth was allowed to flow disproportionately to their capitalist cronies provided those cronies guaranteed the industrial output it generated would be directed toward the National interest. That is, they asserted coercive control over the results of production without the need to take either ownership of or hands-on responsibility for its means.
- “Democratic Socialism” asserts yet another view of what constitutes the Social Good: the nature of the Social Good is not to be determined a priori, through some philosophical musings, but democratically – the Social Good is what a majority of “the people” say they want. To enforce that notion of the Social Good upon the minority of individuals who disagree, the State must have broad powers of confiscation and of regulation, both economic and cultural.
It is true that Democratic Socialists do not, as a rule, advocate for outright State ownership of Capital. Why would they need to, when they can assert the control they desire through extensive regulation over how it may and must be employed by those who do (nominally) own it, and over how the fruits of its employment must be redistributed?
It is also generally true that the level of State authority exercised under Democratic Socialism need not be as severe as it is under other, more totalitarian forms. But it must exist if the minority is to be brought to heel. And – of particular importance in the American context – the less homogeneous (or the more “diverse”) the population, the more likely it is that there will be significant minority dissent and the more assertive and severe that State authority will generally need to be in order to restrain that dissent.
- Many of the fundamentalist religious movements around the world – including many American “conservative” Christian groups and much of what we think of as fundamentalist Islam – are, in practice, best understood as variants of Socialism. Their conception of the Social Good is spiritual, rather than material or cultural/racial – an actual Heaven rather than merely the Heaven-on-earth of the Commune or of the Fatherland — but they exhibit all the signs of Socialistic thought: a presumption that they have a clear (in this case, God-given) vision both of what constitutes the Social Good and of what individual behavior is required to support that Good; an assertion of moral authority to impose their vision of the Social Good and of individual duty upon everyone; an avowal and demonstration of hostility to individuals who disagree with and resist that moral vision; and exhibition of a willingness, and even an eagerness, to sacrifice individuals to the cause.
- Much of “Progressivism” is also, at least in disposition, Socialistic. The Progressive canon asserts there are identifiable social and political reforms that are necessary for the “progress” of civilization and which, therefore, comprise the “Social Good”. Progressives claim to know, with fair certainty and high confidence, what those reforms are and what they require of us. And they declare, in the name of that Good and with the ascendant moral authority of Society, that the political power of the State should be directed toward achieving those reforms without much regard to the cost for individuals who might find themselves on the wrong side of such “progress”.
In modern discussion, the reforms that American Progressives advocate are often indistinguishable from the populist (and increasingly “identitarian”) policies advocated by Democratic Socialists, so Progressives wrap themselves in the banner of “Democracy”, in the same way Democratic Socialists do, and offer a similar approach to controlling Society’s cultural preferences and productive capacity through regulation and redistribution, rather than through direct government ownership.
It is worth remembering, however, that earlier iterations of Progressivism advocated for less egalitarian goals, like a meritocratic society, politically-enforced eugenics (and the anti-immigrant mindset that went with it), and politically-enforced temperance (they were behind our disastrous experiment with Prohibition). The Progressive vision is not inherently grounded in democratic preference but in a philosophical and cultural (though they would deem it “scientific”) vision of what constitutes “social progress”. Hence, the Progressive appetite for democracy is only contingent: it ebbs and flows along with level of popular support that their visions of “social progress” generate.
The hostility to individuals who disagree with the moral vision of what is Good for Society seen in our various examples is not an inherent philosophical element of Socialism but has seemed, historically, to be a practical element of it. Certainly, it is, and has always been, an explicit element of Marxism, with its goal of purging all Capitalist and Bourgeois elements from the population, if not by “re-educating” people then by eliminating them. And, certainly, Nazism declared all manner of people to be enemies of “The Volk” and, therefore, to be targets for enslavement or extermination. Democratic Socialists and Progressives are neither so grandiose nor so bloodthirsty but they, also, direct a persistent and systemized vitriol at those who are “rich” or “greedy” or part of “the 1%”, at those who won’t “pay their fair share” or who put “profits ahead of people”, and at those who are “intolerant” or “deplorable” or insufficiently “woke”. And many religious conservatives direct a similar – and, far too often, murderous – anger towards those they perceive to be disobedient to the will of God or of Allah.
There is a very simple and human explanation for that: if we know, of a surety, what is Good for Society and what duties individuals owe to Society in support of that Good, then anyone who disagrees with that assessment of the Good or shirks in their duty to support it is, by definition, acting against the Social Good, against the “common interest”, and, therefore, against us. They don’t merely disagree with us. They don’t merely have a different, but legitimate, viewpoint. We are right and, so, if they disagree, they must be wrong! They are not diverse but recalcitrant! They are not contrarian but obstreperous! They are not dissidents but sowers of disorder, avatars of chaos! They impede our achievement of the nirvana that is within our grasp! They cheat us of what we think – what we know – we deserve!
How, then, are we to think of them, other than as enemies of Society? How, then, are we to treat those who disagree with us, other than with contempt and rage?