Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ten Myths About Socialism

Bernie Sanders
(Nigel Perry/New York Magazine)
Without a doubt, socialism is one of the most slandered ideologies in the United States. It's commonplace for people to accuse policies they don't like of being socialist when it's clear that they don't even know what the term means. Now that Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, is running for president and even gaining on Hillary Clinton in the polls for the Democratic primary, it's as good a time as any to dispel some common myths about socialism. In no particular order, here are ten commonly believed "facts" about socialism that just aren't true.

Redistribution of wealth is socialism.
While socialism does necessitate redistribution of wealth, given that it's about putting resources into common ownership, by no means does that mean that any and all redistribution of wealth is socialist. The main idea behind socialism is that the people as a whole, rather than a small elite, should own and democratically manage the resources within a society, so it's inaccurate to describe a system as socialist just because it attempts to redistribute wealth. In the 1930's, the prominent populist Huey Long was planning to run for president (before he was shot) with a plan he called "Share Our Wealth," which proposed a one hundred percent tax rate on top earners. Socialists like Norman Thomas (the perennial candidate for the Socialist Party) attacked Huey Long's program, because Long claimed it would make socialism unnecessary. So just because someone wants to redistribute wealth by no means makes them a socialist.

Socialism is a big government ideology.
Despite the talk about "big-government socialism," as if socialism and big government go hand in hand, socialists' attitude toward the government is widely varied. Some want to get rid of it altogether (most anarchists, in fact, are socialists). Karl Marx, probably the most famous socialist in history and the man whose name is basically synonymous with socialism in many places, had a complex attitude toward the government, wanting to democratize it and eliminate some of its coercive elements (such as a standing army) so it could be used as a tool to transform society, but believing after that transformation was complete, the government would be obsolete, leading to a stateless society. Other socialists take a less radical approach, such as Bernie Sanders, who believes in making the government more democratic and less corporate-influenced, and expanding social welfare programs. While this does mean the government is "bigger" in some sense, Sanders (and many other socialists) also support eliminating programs like the NSA surveillance dragnet, because they see them as intrusive on individual rights. So even socialists who support the government running social welfare programs don't see "big government" as being some worthy goal, they simply think the government can do some good if it adopts the right approach.

Socialism is atheistic and/or anti-religion.
While some socialists, such as Marx, hold a negative view of religion, others are religious themselves; Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party of America's six-time presidential candidate, was also a Presbyterian minister. In fact, enough socialists have been Christian that Christian socialism is recognized as its own branch of socialism. There are other religious branches as well, such as Islamic socialism and Buddhist socialism. For many socialists, far from being opposed to it, religion is the justification for their socialism.

Only cranks and nutjobs support socialism. 
The right wing in particular would like to give people the impression that if you support socialism, you're either crazy, jealous of rich people, or some leech who won't go out and get a job. The facts don't support this. Not only are socialist parties exceedingly common in other countries, often as major parties (just look at this list of political parties that are members of Socialist International), widely admired historical figures like George Orwell and Martin Luther King, Jr. voiced support for socialist policies.

Socialism is un-American 
This idea is barely worth addressing, since un-American is basically just an epithet to be used against anything one doesn't like. But it's pretty hard to maintain that socialism could be un-American when one looks at all the Americans who have been socialists. Along with King--whom we have a national holiday for--there's Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance; there's Helen Keller, who has been featured on a postage stamp and the Alabama state quarter; and, while Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet "Common Sense" helped start the American Revolution, didn't identify himself as a socialist (the term didn't really even exist while he was alive), he seems pretty socialist when you look at his actual ideas.

Socialism is based on "from each according to ability, to each according to need"
While this is more reasonable than many other myths about socialism, it's also wrong. The key tenet of socialism is that the people as a whole should democratically control the resources of society, rather than a capitalist class. Communism, as Marx promoted, operates on the principle of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" and while communism is certainly one form of socialism, it's by no means the only one; other systems reward people based on the amount of work they've done, and socialism like Bernie Sanders espouses mostly just aims to ensure everyone gets enough to have a decent living standard and not have to live in poverty.
Socialism doesn't work.
Bernie Sanders's brand of socialism, social democracy, is currently the system of the Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, which are all countries that are ranked as having some of the highest standards of living on Earth. As for the more radical varieties of socialism, while they haven't been given too many opportunities to prove themselves, they've generally performed admirably. Take, for instance, during the Spanish revolution, when many areas were controlled by anarchists and socialists; rather than everyone becoming lazy, as is supposed to happen under socialism, productivity went up significantly, and, rather than collapsing by themselves, these areas had to be conquered by force in order to end the successful socialist experiment.

Socialism is undemocratic.
While I've heard plenty of people contrast democracy and socialism, and libertarian capitalist guru Milton Friedman claimed that capitalism was a necessary prerequisite for democracy, the idea of socialism as being incompatible with democracy is the literal opposite of the truth. Rather, socialism is based on subjecting the resources within society to democratic control, meaning it is an extension of democracy. In fact, without at least some degree of public control of a society's resources, any democracy would have to be considered incomplete. After all, it's of limited importance who we elect if they're not even able to ensure we have the necessary resources to live a decent life.

Communist countries represent socialism in action.
Despite the fact that, of course, Communist countries claim to be socialist, actual socialists tend to disagree. George Orwell, for instance, commented that "Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism." Noam Chomsky agrees with this critique, calling the idea of the Soviet Union as being socialist a "mammoth lie." In Communist countries, the state runs the economy, but this doesn't equate to socialism. As Friedrich Engels notes, "if [any state ownership] is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism." While Communist countries openly proclaim themselves to be socialist, they also claim to democratic and run for the benefit of the people, which are claims that we all can agree are false. The claims of the USSR (back when it existed) and other countries in its mold of being socialist are about as honest as the routine claims made by the US government that it's spreading democracy and freedom across the world.

And for the final myth:

President Obama is a socialist.
While I haven't heard it so much recently (though I don't doubt it's still routinely claimed in certain circles), it used to be popular among right-wingers to call Obama a socialist. This is pretty reminiscent of the situation in France that Karl Marx wrote about in this passage
Whether it was a question of the right of petition or the tax on wine, freedom of the press or free trade, the clubs or the municipal charter, protection of personal liberty or regulation of the state budget, the watchword constantly recurs, the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: "Socialism!" Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic, bourgeois enlightenment socialistic, bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier. 
Norman Thomas said about the allegations of socialism against FDR: "there is nothing Socialist about trying to regulate or reform Wall Street...There is nothing Socialist about trying to break up great holding companies...There is no socialism at all about taking over all the banks which fell in Uncle Sam's lap, putting them on their feet again, and turning them back to the bankers to see if they can bring them once more to ruin." And Obama is no FDR. Probably the most liberal piece of major legislation he's signed, his healthcare law, keeps in place private health insurance companies and gives them taxpayer dollars to do the job they should have already been doing--providing health insurance. While it's nonetheless an improvement on the previous system, it's far from socialism, just like everything else he's done. In fact, he's avoided anything even remotely socialist even when the opportunity was ripe; he came in when we were facing an economic meltdown, and the economy is still as privately controlled as ever.

I will emphasize, in closing, that this is not a complete list. More lies and nonsense have been spread about socialism than almost any other ideology in America, and it would likely take an entire book to cover them all. But these are some of the biggest and most pervasive myths about socialism that I've heard, and while I'm no position to single-handedly erase them from the public consciousness, hopefully this post can do some small amount of good in that area.

1 comment:

  1. "There is nothing Socialist about trying to break up great holding companies":
    I agree if they are protected or subsidized as long as they are not to be replace by Government own monopolies. I have lived where such monster exist. They are often managed by bureaucratic hierarchies and nominated to top managerial position base on their political alliance and connections instead of there qualification. There are a lot of things that have been corrupted in the US with the Government cronies system but as I am sure you know , it takes two to tango and if you don't milk the honorable public servant(s) you may also lose your permit.

    Ignorance is not only from people that do not know about soft socialism but there are also idealist that do not seem to know that socialist countries are shy about bad news.
    Try to get decent heath care north of Sanders Vermont. Good luck with that.
    You don't hear to much about that do you? They are now reverting to building private clinics every were. Low cost care and you also tend not to dye waiting in line.
    As for Health care in the US it as nothing to do with a free market and so called affordable heath insurance was never the real problem it's a total fraud. Insurance premium are always base on what it is we insure and that is what the magic man (what you see and what you don't) don't want to talk about we have been made to believe heath care is expensive. Technological advance makes me use this computer for 20% of the cost of 1998 with several time more capacity but for some mysterious reason a simple routine medical procedures will cost more.
    It's the non-transparency racket and the fact that Government does not negotiate prices. What is it when you're basically flat on your back unable to consent and someone rams you for 20 times the usual price? How is that not a violation of general consumer protection statutes, This is issuance against a manufactured racket "Every person who shall make any contract or engage in any combination or conspiracy hereby declared to be illegal shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $100,000,000 if a corporation, or, if any other person, $1,000,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or by both said punishments, in the discretion of the court." Oh but wait... the "Sherman and Clayton Acts" mysteriously does not apply to the medical profession. If it did the cost would fall by 75 to 80%. Outside the US an American private hospital with US trained Doctor and personal , including US made medication will charge only fraction of the cost in the US The law says that any act designed to fix prices or restrain trade by agreement or conspiracy between two or more entities where market power exists is per-se unlawful and triggers these penalties. But no politician seems to have looked at that instead they have forced the public into the an extortion Government endorsed racket.

    In Canada don't even think about suing a doctor in Europe if you lose you will have to pay the cost. In the US lawyers go fishing adds all day long in Florida "Call Dr extortion and I will make me and you rich. Doctors have to pay hundred thousand dollar in premium. Did they address that? Of course not since most politicians are lawyers and the lawyers lobby is one of the biggest.
    Despite the fact that I do not agree with you I think you made a important distinction from the general perception of modern socialisms and the Cuba or Venezuela kind of ideology before common sense type of socialism. Thank you