Updated: May 5, 2021
Since the Red Scare of the 1950s, much of the American political consciousness lost a sense of perspective that could distinguish between the variety of political ideas left of center. This may help to explain why in many recent heated discussions, some might confuse socialism with communism.
Indeed, the vexed political landscape in the United States isn’t helped much by the use of the word “socialism” as either a rallying cry for political reform or a criticism and defense of American values. Unless you are a student of the history of political thought, understanding what socialism is and is not can be very confusing.
The aim of this blog is to provide some guidelines to help delineate what socialism is in its most basic form so as not to confuse it with the stronger prescriptions of communism.
The Motivating Idea of Socialism
While the historical roots of socialism in Western history can be traced to ancient Greek ideas of communalism, socialism did not emerge as a distinct theory about political design until the 18th century.
Historically, one of the main concerns in socialism is how inequality and disadvantage affect members of the polity when the ownership of wealth is concentrated in a minority of the population. For example, if one takes a measure of wealth to be reflected by household income, then one finds that there is a significant gap between the lower- and middle-income families (the majority), on the one hand, and the upper-income families (the minority), on the other hand.
By way of contrast, the motivating idea of communism took shape in relation to a specific conception of economic inequality caused by the exploitation of laborers. So addressing something like the gap between household incomes is, on this view, only corrected by stopping the exploitation of labor. (Yes, there is a much longer story to tell here about the control of the means of production according to Marx.)
Socialism is not committed to this remedy; and moreover, it does not have to be committed to a singular diagnosis about the cause of inequality. It can be pluralistic in identifying distinct cause-and-effect relations of inequality. For example, inequality can be tracked by GDP, capability, education, etc. In short, socialism is driven by a broader concern to recognize social inequality in its many forms and causes.
So given what I have just said, it sounds as if anyone concerned with social inequality counts as a socialist?
In some sense that is true. But what is important to note, and what on my view causes a lot of the vexation, is the manner in which socialism has historically proposed to remedy inequality.
A Stratagem for Remedying Misunderstanding about Socialism
There are at least three things to note about socialism’s historical stratagem. It supposes that
individual effort by itself is not significant enough to correct problems endemic to society;
humans are best directed by certain rules, laws, or policies in order to minimize disadvantage; and
the extent of oversight or control can differ.
The critic of socialism tends to be very wary of oversight since it smacks of a violation of individual freedom. While this debate is one that cannot be addressed here, it is worthwhile noting that socialism does not necessarily entail denying individual freedom; though it does commit to the idea that a functioning society is what makes possible individual freedom. (An idea that goes back to Plato and Aristotle.)
Another critical response is that if socialism believes humans need to be governed by rules and policies, it has a rather pessimistic view of the individual’s motivation and ability to do what is right for the common good. F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), a well-known critic of socialism, argued for fallibilism or the idea that it is better to let individuals make mistakes in order to learn what is right.
Whether this criticism is actually true about socialism depends on the socialism one advocates. There can be a more moderate stance that holds there are some areas where human mistakes are best minimized. When it concerns the health and livelihood of another person, for example, it is best not to use a trial-and-error method! (Aristotle noted the same with making moral decisions.)
Socialism Broadly Today
Today, diagnosing inequality and disadvantage has moved beyond simple economic concerns to include issues of race, gender, the environment, and religion. This broader reach is now phrased in terms of the welfare state. Despite these changes, the motivating idea of socialism remains intact: diagnose where and how disadvantage and inequality lie and then remedy them.
What has changed since socialism’s historical inception is the degree of oversight and control it entertains. Planned economies are a curious, obsolete thing of 20th century thought which tried to introduce aspects of scientific theory to social design (from eugenics to modeling social behavior on physics). There is also more discretion in understanding what constitutes private, personal property and what does not.
Another significant change is that many socialist nations tend to adapt policies according to their respective historical and cultural make-up. For instance, looking at European socialist nations, one will find different approaches and practices to minimizing disadvantage. The so-called Nordic model of socialism encourages ownership of personal property while also promoting a welfare state. In 2006, South Uist, an island community in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, instituted communal ownership of its land with the aim of addressing its own local economic challenges.
Whatever the differences, it is important to remember that there is no single form of socialism, and in most instances socialism today does not necessarily mean central control over every aspect of a citizen’s life. In its most virtuous form, democratic forms of socialism will involve public deliberation on what things are best controlled by central oversight.
The worry, of course, is that there exists no mechanism or process to stop such oversight from creeping into every aspect of one’s life.
In my next blog, I will discuss how there is a way we can think about a specific set of goods and services that are best owned by the public without violating the sphere of individual freedom.
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.