Socialism Is Still A Wildly Misused Term [Opinion]

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Socialism is still making news for its growing popularity with the American public. The latest Gallup polling from May, 2016, shows that those who are Democrats, or lean toward Democrats, give the term “socialism” a 58 percent favorability rating, “capitalism” has a 56 percent favorability rating with that same group. It also showed a 55 percent favorability rating amongst 18-29 year olds generally (in that case, less favorable than the 57 percent favorability for “capitalism”).

However, this information is only useful for marketing purposes, as there is still widespread misconception of what socialism is. The term has been used over the years in drastically different ways: both to garner support and vilify political opponents.

Socialism has two factors which both must be present in which to define something as socialism: collective ownership of the means of production and collective control of the same. Merriam-Webster, in part due to the fact that that dictionaries connote popular usage rather than proper usage, gives its primary definition as, “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

However, governmental ownership and control of the means of production is clearly not necessarily socialism. If we harken back to the days of feudal society in Europe, we see a quite brutal serf system where the king was seen to have owned all of the lands of the kingdom, and the serfs, barely a step above slaves, were to work the fields, mines, forests, and roads for the benefit of the king getting only a small share of the land to work for their own subsistence. The king was the government, and the king owned the land, the primary means of production in feudal society. Moreover, through an elaborate hierarchy of nobles, from dukes downward, the king controlled the production of the land and made sure that the serfs stayed in line.

Socialist thinkers were well aware of feudalism and by no means saw it as socialism. Karl Marx, from whom most modern socialist thought comes from, either through his work or derivative works, placed feudal societies, defined by agriculture being the primary means of production, as the stage after primitive societies and before capitalist societies. Yet, many nonsocialists today see governmental ownership and control as being socialism, despite feudalism then meeting the definition of socialism.

The slaying of Thomas Becket
In European feudal society, the King owned and effectively controlled the means of production - yet it clearly is not what is meant by socialism. The government owning and controlling the means of production is not sufficient to establish socialism. [Image by Featured image credit: Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

The misconception here comes from the misconception that the government necessarily is a vehicle of the people. In a nation such as the United States, where our government is supposed to be democratic and beholden to the will of the people, though I’ve previously covered studies which show that is not the case, at least now, it is easy to mistakenly define government in this way. Proponents of authoritarian “Communist” regimes also like to define it as such, even claiming that democracy isn’t necessary if the government is operating in the “interest of the workers.” Of course, a king will claim to be working in the interest of his subjects; that is not necessarily the case.

Actual socialism must have meaningful input by the community, deciding input even, however it is implemented. While socialism can, indeed, have centralized decision-making power, that decision making must be democratic and include the entire community in some sense.

During the Red Scare and Cold War, socialism began to expand in meaning in the United States, as political attacks began to appear in the form that advocating for any regulation or social program was encroaching socialism. This very much started as a slippery slope argument, but then devolved into mere accusation; it was socialism. This problem was exacerbated by social democrats taking power across Europe. Early social democrats had the same goal as socialists in their eventual goal, but they felt that it could be done in stages, through a slow process of change — but not evolution, because groups evolve, not individual governments — and eventually you’d end up with socialism. Some industries were nationalized and became centrally planned, obvious ones like Britain’s rail system, and the social democrats also sought to ease the pains of capitalism by introducing strong labor laws and a strong social safety net which were their greatest achievements. This bandaging of capitalism began to be associated with socialism.

As a result, we see today many, not all, Bernie Sanders supporters claiming fire departments, the U.S. Postal service, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and even the U.S. military are all socialist. Let us be clear, they are not, though several programs such as Social Security came from watering down the platform of the Socialist Party of America in order to create the New Deal. None of these programs include collective ownership and control of the means of production. The Army Corps of Engineers may produce levees, dams, and other forms of infrastructure, but these are not the means of production, save some hydroelectric dams.

Bernie Sanders at a rally
Bernie Sanders tried to utilize the popularity of the term socialism in his campaign, claiming to be a democratic socialist, something he hasn't been for decades. As a result, the term socialism has been confused yet again. [Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]Featured image credit: Alex WongGetty Images

Notably, the parts of the Socialist Party of America’s platform which were adapted were demands by socialists, but not socialist demands. These were immediate demands, in part to illustrate that capitalism would not allow these basic needs to be met, in part to give something that could be done prior to actual revolutionary change. Even if they weren’t watered down, they wouldn’t be socialist.

Furthermore, we get some mass confusion from the legacy of the Nazis, or National Socialists, and a much larger article is deserved on exactly why they aren’t socialists. However, it only takes a modicum of review of Hitler’s treatise, Mein Kampf, to see he was no fan of socialism as we have defined it.

“I was filled with wrath at […] what seemed to me the incredibly frivolous way in which the most important problem then existing for Germany, Marxism, was treated. [in reference to Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law which outlawed political organizing by socialists]

“In the years of 1913 and 1914, I, for the first time in various circles which today in part faithfully support the National Socialist movement, expressed the conviction that the question of the future of the German nation was the question of destroying Marxism.

“Marxism, whose goal is and remains the destruction of all non-Jewish national states…

“While the Jews in their Marxist and democratic press proclaimed to the whole world the lie about ‘German militarism’ and sought to incriminate Germany by all means, the Marxist and democratic parties were obstructing any comprehensive training of the German national man-power.

“The bourgeois world is Marxist, but believes in the possibility of the rule of certain groups of men (bourgeoisie), while Marxism itself systematically plans to hand the world over to the Jews.”

However, when we get to the formation of the National Socialist party, while the term socialist isn’t specifically explained, the spirit of their branding is rather clearly laid out by Hitler.

“On principle, the color red was chosen; it is the most exciting; we knew it would infuriate and provoke our adversaries the most and thus bring us to their attention and memory whether they liked it or not.”

Furthermore, the term socialist tended to denote a party of the working class in Germany at the time, and Hitler was opposed to the bourgeois parties, not because of their policies, but because he saw them as weak and of course Jewish control of international finance — a clearly bourgeois field — was a key part of his ideology. In a sense, the word socialist was being used as a substitute for populist, not to claim an ideology. Nazis were fond of the state directing production, but private ownership was key to Hitler’s ideology. So the Nazis used the color red to troll socialists nearly a century ago — he speaks of using it in 1920 — and used the term socialist more as a signal of populism, a right-wing populism like the Counter-Enlightenment alt-right movement we have in the United States today.

Yet, socialism, actual socialism, while it isn’t many things, does include variety within. Libertarian socialists and anarchists tend toward favoring a decentralized economy where worker-owned and run cooperatives, which are socialist institutions, are the norm. Other socialists such as Leninists and Trotskyists favor a more centralized approach through the state. Of course, there are many who fall in between — myself being one — but that is certainly a topic for another day.

What is important to remember here is that socialism is economic democracy: the community owns and controls the means of production rather than private interests owning and controlling them. Government isn’t socialism; government programs aren’t socialism; regulation isn’t socialism; socialism is defined simply by the relationship between society and the means of production.

Gallup doesn’t tell us about socialism’s popularity, it tells us about the popularity of a term. If we want to know if people support socialism or not, we need to know if they support the idea of socialism, not the name.

[Featured Image by Steve Easton/Getty Images]