What follows is a compilation of installments of a series that I did in November of 2008 on the blog. Shortly after the election, there was a lot of discussion, and when the question of the difference between "socialism" and "communism" came up--as I shall expand on below--I took the opportunity to clarify some thing, not to mention getting on my podium as well. I've cut out extraneous matters, but basically kept the entries as they had appeared in context. Consequently, you will see some transitional phrases that really don't fit, but I wanted to maintain the informality of style that otherwise would have gotten totally lost.
Thanks to the election, there is a lot of discussion in the air as to what might or might not happen over the next few years. [By the way, we all know that not everyone manages to lose with grace, but I'm not sure I have ever encountered as much graceless winning as this year. Sure, supporters of Obama are entitled to gloat, but what's with all this ex post facto vitriol? Is this how Obama is going to unify us?]
Anyway, the word socialism makes regular appearances, and as Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini,
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
In an e-mail conversation the other day, I mentioned to someone that the Nazis in Germany were socialists, though they definitely were not communists. My friend replied that he thought that the Nazis were fascists, and, of course, they were. These labels can be more confusing than helpful, and I promised that I would talk about the differences in a blog post. So, here goes.
A few years ago, a very successful talk-show host, let's call him "DD" related to his audience the following confrontation. He was in some kind of public discussion, and a young man told him that he, DD, was a "fascist." DD asked him what he meant by the term. The person responded:
I don't have to tell you. You're the fascist, so you know what you are.
That conversation would have taken place sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, so theoretically it's eligible for my list of the ten dumbest things said in the twentieth century, but I'm afraid it doesn't have sufficient long-term significance for this honor. I'm merely bringing it up in order to illustrate how people misunderstand or misuse political labels. Frequently, of course, such terms are used with pejorative intent, as in that little vignette. So, let me try to clarify the three terms: socialist, communist, and fascist in their most common usage. If you know your way around political philosophy, or if you consult various sources, you will quickly see that there is no unanimity in their descriptions or definitions, so I will try to remain fairly general.
A big part of the problem with this terminology is that it changes over time as well as from country to country. One thing is for sure: I have multiple times insisted that you cannot get the current meaning of a term from its etymology, and this is one of the most outstanding examples of that principle.
By saying this, I'm not trying to trivialize or vacate the term, but I'm attempting to explain it by a "limiting case." Obviously, it's absurd to call someone a "socialist" just because he or she thinks it's a good idea for the government to pave roads so that ambulances can get sick people to the hospital faster. Still, in a fairly far-fetched sense, if the government takes your money in order to take a burden off someone else, this would be "redistribution of wealth," and, thereby, a miniscule form of socialism.
Thus, in this minimal definition, almost all of us are "socialists." However, whether the term is applied meaningfully and not just technically, depends on the extent to which the government enforces the socialist idea, and the easiest way to do so is to imagine a comparison chart of how socialistic various countries are. I would guess that the United States would be in the lower half of such a chart.
So, let's summarize what we have so far. There are three main points to understanding socialism:
Now the obvious questions are: Who sets the standard of what is enough? and What is the best method to even out the economic standard of a country's population?
Well, it's becoming obvious to me that this essay has to be a multi-parter. So, need to hang it up for now, and next time I'll pick up with communism and try to show that there is a fundamental difference between it and socialism.
Let's continue with the exposition of socialism, communism, and fascism. I'm writing this introduction after I've written the body of tonight's entry, and I want to emphasize that, even though the idea of writing this essay arose out of a conversation about last week's election,this piece is not at all about the election. I am also realizing that, if I want to be faithful in my time allotments, it's going to take more than two or three installments.
Last night I wrote about socialism and said that in a minimalist way, with an over-generalized definition, very few people are not in some way micro-mini-socialists. An overly loose application of this term incorporates the idea that a government should support its citizens in various ways by taking money from those who have it and giving it to people who do not. For example, it is customary to remunerate fire and police departments with tax money, and so, those who are better off than others fund these organizations, which, in turn, are obligated not to discriminate on the basis social standing. If you look at the message board, you'll see where Jimm reminded me that in that sense, even Adam Smith was a socialist, to which I replied that this was my point. Any decent human being, it seems to me, recognizes that those who are well off have an obligation to care for those who are not. Consequently, socialism in its more common appelation is a matter of the degree to which it is implemented.
Having tried to make the point that the roots of socialism arose out of everyone's conscience, from hereon out I will reserve the term for those who envision a society in which socialism is the main philosophical foundation of the economy. Real socialists don't just want the government to be involved in a few aspects of our economic lives, but they expect the government to be regulating the economy on all levels.
Many people don't mind contributing money to good causes, but most people also have a limit as to how much they are willing to sign over to the government and its projects. Now, follow me closely here. In order for a government to be consistently socialist, it cannot ever just say, "Well, we're done. There is complete equity among all members of our society; people are all contributing to the best of their ability, and everyone's needs are being met by government programs." In other words, a truly socialist government must continuously find more and more problems that it must address. If the foundational justification for a socialist government is to heal wounds, it must continuously find new wounds to heal. A socialist government by definition must be an activist government.
If what I'm saying here sounds somewhat farfetched, consider the opposite, viz. that the government has reached a point that it declares that all all citizens are totally equal, and an economic egalitarianism has been attained. I can think of two reasons why this is not going to happen: For one thing, the evidence is in by now that consistent socialism does not work for any number of reasons: workers lose motivation, the government runs out of funds, people will insist on receiving benefits for which others have worked, etc. Second, I have a very hard time imagining anyone occupying a seat of power, and then reliquishing it because the government has finished its job. That's not likely--to say the least--because it goes against the grain of human nature.
This idea is beautifully illustrated by Anwar Sadat in his autobiography, In Search of Identity. When he took over as president of Egypt, following the revolution led and perpetuated by Abdel Nasser, he saw a challenge to get his country away from the notion of the never-ending revolution.
Some people like revolutions for what they get out of it, but after a while they want to be able to lead a peaceful, balanced life. On the other hand, the government needs to maintain credibility and cannot slacken off in its enterprise of continually finding more targets for its programs.
And thus, we come to the major point I wanted to make tonight. Consistent socialism sooner or later will hit a point when the citizenry begins to feel oppressed, particularly if they do not see any tangible benefits in the supposedly ongoing revolution. At that point, the government needs to start forcing people to participate in its programs. And thus, we get a set of parallel lines in another hypothetical graph: the extent to which a government tries to maintain its socialistic agenda is directly correlated with the loss of various rights or freedoms by its citizens. The more socialized it is, the less freedom and rights can its people enjoy.
The only consolation I can provide for anyone who has slept through the twentieth century is that the same correlation appears whenever the government is based on any other ideology.
|Socialism is based on the idea of the redistribution of wealth. This is to say that it begins with the reality that some people are economically better off than others and attempts to even out the differences.|
|--------Everyone is entitled to exist on a minimal positive level. In other words, people on the lower level of economic standing are not just missing something that it would be nice for them to have, but they are being deprived of something to which they are entitled.|
|------- People who have more than others are not entitled to keep everything that they own.|
Now, let me go on with my little exposition on what started out as the question of "What is the difference between socialism and communism?" Please keep that in mind. I am not setting up a full-blown political philosophy here, nor do my criticisms of socialism carry the weight of proving that, if there is something wrong with socialism, then libertarianism must be correct. As I said on the message board, such a construal would be logically invalid and conceptually false. In the box on the right is a summary of what I perceive as the attributes of socialism in general. Now, before we are ready to tackle communism and fascism, let me call attention to the kinder, gentler option of implementation, called "liberalism."
Theoretically, one could be so convinced of the truth of socialism that one might engage in seriously harmful actions in order to impose this ideology on one's people. Let's take our time and save belaboring how this has been done in various countries for later. But it didn't happen in England or France, let alone the U.S. As everyone knows, Germany and Italy did have implosions, but in a different form than Marx had predicted. It is not by coincidence that the countries which Karl Marx expected to undergo the revolution towards communism, never did. The reason why it did not happen the way that Marx thought it would, is that the West European countries, even though they were committed to "socialism" in the totally neutral sense in which virtually everyone is a "socialist," reduced it to a more moderate form, that we can call "liberalism."
"Liberalism," also known as the "L-word," is the target of much--let's mince our words here--criticism and satire these days. I'm not going to get into that discussion now, though people should have no problem knowing where my political allegiances are. But looking at the larger picture, the point is that liberalism as a whole plays by the rules. Sure, we accuse each other of underhanded devices, but President-elect Barach Obama won an election, not a coup. In 2000, the screams concerning the electoral votes in Florida were possibly audible on Mars, but the Democrats accepted it. As I have said multiple times, the most serious problem that we are conceivably looking at, is suppression of freedom of speech in order to squelch the talk shows, but I suspect that even those who have called for such measures would have second or third thoughts about it once it occurs to them that they would be gagging themselves in the long run.
Many liberal politicians have socialist agendas, but despite all the rhetoric and controversies, we are within the same system.
On my first trip to India a number of years ago, I had to get used to getting my ears burned concerning President George W. Bush. Like many other people around the world, many Indians do not understand American politics, but that does not keep them from having opinions, and expressing them unkindly. So, one day, as I was talking to a Muslim gentleman outside of a curio shop, he got started on comparing the politics of India vs. the U.S. I was all prepared to hear the usual complaints, but it turned out that his conversation topic was going in another direction. He told me how impressed he was by American politics. Specifically, he brought up the impeachment of Bill Clinton (who is generally very popular in India), and bemoaned the fact that--according to his understanding--in the United States even the highest-ranked politicians are accountable, while in India--again, as he saw it--there were no such means. Whether he was right or wrong does not matter for my purposes here. I simply want to use his observation to illustrate the fact that liberalism, even though it often is slightly disguised socialism, tries to achieve its goals within our system of government.
So, for the moment, one or two more entries spawned by the question, "What is the difference between socialism and communism?" Tonight we're actually at the center of the isssue, but we're not going to be done quite yet.
Communism can be made to look like socialism, and it apparently does have a lot of traits in common with socialism, but they are really two different things. Socialism is a theory on which to build a form of government; communism is the goal of an extreme form of abstract socialism. The Communist Manifesto intentionally rejected the term "socialist" because it already was way too watered down for Marx and Engels.
Let's remind ourselves of our loose definition of socialism, according to which the government attempts to even out the distribution of wealth of its people. The Marxist view is that Communism is the end result when the entire population of the world has been forced to undergo the process of redistribution. But don't think of this process as a liberal government adjusting the tax code in order to make the rich pay more and let the poor get the benefits. The only way that Communism can become a reality is by the inevitable sequence of revolutions that determine the course of history. [ In a maladaption of the Kantean/Fichtean sequence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (based on Feuerbach's materialism) . . . ] Marx construed all of (European-based) history as a sequence of revolutions of ever-increasing magnitude. According to his analysis as of 1848, the world was on the brink of the largest revolution yet, which he predicted would soon begin in Germany. [By the way, it's amazing if you get a chance to read the Manifesto, how many factual errors it contains, both in its descriptions and its predictions. It's actually easier to count the few facts it gets right.]
The so-called Communist world after World War II, including the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, had not actually arrived at the point of Communism; the whole idea was that they were on the way, but they hadn't gotten there yet. True Communism would be the eventual utopian state of a paradise for all. Until then, according to Marx's prediction and the self-description of the "Communist" countries, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was the current manner of government. (Of course, the proletariat could not really begin its alleged dictatorship before thousands of them were killed by its self-proclaimed leaders. See Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, chapter four).
Thus, the sequence in the twentieth century was supposed to be this: In an ever-spreading series of falling dominoes, one country after another would experience the decisive revolution in which the proletariat, guided by the Communist thinkers, would overthrow the bourgeoisie. Then the process of reallocating the private property of the bourgeoisie would begin. This move was supposed to be considered to be identical to the abolition of all private property since the proletariat didn't own any worth mentioning. Then, when everything has been reappropriated, humanity would experience the materialistic nirvana of Communism.
So, socialism, as we have seen, can take many forms. It can be a minimalist standard by which a government looks out for the welfare of all of its citizens. Not everyone is capable of gainful employment or personal self-maintenance (and don't forget that in the USA, NGO's are still supported by tax deductible gifts, so the government is not totally out of the picture). Socialism can be the principle by which a liberal government implements policies according to existing laws and standards (I'm ignoring effectiveness for the moment). It can also be a code word for something far more invidious, namely the forceful and inhumane reallocation of property and power by individuals whose actions consistently belied their alleged intent.
But we're not done yet. Fascism, as I said at the outset, is also a form of socialism, and--as far as I can tell--at this point in time, it is once again much more of a threat to us and the rest of the world than Communism.
Well, on with the discussion. Another manifestation of socialism, and the last one I want to mention, is Fascism (aka National Socialism). Now, if you look up "Fascism" in a reference work, say the Wikipedia, it may start out with a pretty clear definition, but in fairness has to add variations on that understanding of the term from different scholars, and pretty soon it seems pretty confused. The problem is that this word originated in specific circumstances and since then has been applied to other, differing, circumstances, so that any firm denotation must either squeeze or stretch the original meaning in order to fit other situations. (A very similar phenomenon has occurred with the word "fundamentalism." Scholars argue about its general meaning in Islam and Judaism, not realizing that it does not have any meaning there at all, except whatever they want to endow it with.
At that, the Wikipedia's initial definition of Fascism, coming straight from the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is certainly adequate for our purposes:
An important reason why the meaning of the term has become so obscured is because we have become too addicted to the notions of right, left, and center in politics, and Fascism has been labelled as the "extreme Right." The problem is that these orientations are anything but permanent directions, which sometimes even become reversed over a period of time. Furthermore, political circumstances are frequently far more complex than such categories. Let me give you a couple of historical examples:
So, are we going to put Hegel and Nietzsche on the left or the right side of the political spectrum? It would seem to me that the best thing to do is to go easy on the identification of political views as left- or right-handed, and let the particular position speak for itself.
Oh, time flies. Well, I'm still not going to get this done tonight. More tomorrow! In the meantime, you may want to contemplate that definition of fascism.
Okay, let's bring this topic to a conclusion. Last night I ended by saying that the idea of left-wing vs. right-wing is anything but standardized, and, consequently, the idea of Fascism is frequently totally misunderstood. Back in the 1920's through the 40's, when many countries were openly Fascist, they were characterized as "extreme right," in contrast to Communism, which was called "extreme left," with functional democracies in the middle. But note two points:
A. Fascism and Communism had perhaps more in common than what separated them, namely:
The above description sounds extreme, of course, but as I keep saying, unless you slept through the twentieth century, you know that whether we are talking about the so-called left (Communism) or the so-called right (Fascism), it barely does justice to the horrific events of the last one hundred years. Millions of people have been murdered by their own governments in the name of totalitarian ideologies, and millions more have had to live in their shadow. Even now, the countries that are still calling themselves "Communist" have actually metamorphosed into Fascist dictatorships.
B. In the contemporary American political argot, "left" and "right" have taken on totally different meanings. The emphasis of what is now the "right" is on a decrease of the role of the central government in our lives and an emphasis on our freedoms in commerce, beliefs, and religion. Consequently, to come back to my original vignette, "D.D.," our hypothetical talk show host, cannot possibly be a Fascist. The further "left" you go, the closer you get to a strong central government with an integrated socialism.
Let me go just a little farther out on a limb. For the last sixty years we have been so occupied with the threat of Communism and then with its demise, that we have not really looked carefully enough at the nature of Fascism. Just as in the 1970's we were caught totally unawares by Islam as a political system as well as a religion (and many people still are), I'm not sure we're really aware of the possibility of a new form of Fascism as something that's not just a page from history or a "third-world" phenomenon.
I wonder whether four years from now we will still be able to listen to D.D. on the radio or write blog entries such as this one.
I said at the outset of this series that these thoughts are triggered by the election, but are not about the election. So, if you like, you can let them be done with those asterisks. However, I'm worried that someone may draw inferences from what I said that I don't intend, so please let me clarify.
Are we all clear yet on the fact that President-elect Obama is neither a Muslim nor a Communist? . . . Good.
Can we add to that the fact that he is not a Fascist? . . . Excellent. . . . I don't think that he is, though I will never understand how people can think that his ideology, as expressed by his connections and voting record, are irrelevant. Still, so be it. Scott C. certainly was right when he reminded me that many people were voting for him simply because of his closer affinity to the goals of the Democratic party than McCain (close call, though, that one). However, many were not, and that brings me to the problem that I do think is real, not perhaps with Mr. Obama, but with many of his followers, or--to really qualify myself--the chemistry between him and his followers. As I asked a while back: Why are there so many sore winners? Where is all that vitriol coming from? Why are there so many people angry at those who did not and do not identify with him? It seems to me that many people are opening their arms to Mr. Obama as they would to a dictator with all the supposed answers and can't get over the fact that some people don't feel that way about him. Let's remember the line traditionally attributed to Thomas Jefferson:
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.