Friday, August 21, 2009

What is Socialism?

A while back I was attacked on this blog by a number of Yoder-quoting radical types who were outraged and scandalized by the fact that I sounded like I was agreeing with First Things and refused to endorse socialism. I also criticized Rowan Williams and, for some reason I can't quite grasp, the same people who claim to love the Anabaptist pacifist also love the head of the world's richest state church.

Anyway, when I offered some boiler-plate criticisms of socialism and implied that it had something to do with (a) the Soviet Union and (b) the ideas of Karl Marx, I was informed that I had no idea what I was talking about and did not know what socialism meant. I'm quite sure I did not know what socialism meant to my interlocutor; all I could discover was that he was very sure that anyone who was not a socialist (in his definition) was a very bad Christian, if he could indeed even be called a Christian at all.

Well, reading F. A. Hayek's very incisive and clearly written The Road to Serfdom (Collected Works, Vol. II, University of Chicago Press, 2007) has helped me to figure out what was going on in that curious incident. Hayek identifies a common confusion about socialism. He says:

"The confusion concerns nothing less than the concept of socialism itself. It may mean, and is often used to describe, merely the ideals of social justice, greater equality, and security, which are the ultimate aims of socialism. But it means also the particular method by which most socialists hope to attain these ends and which many competent people regard as the only methods by which they can be fully and quickly attained. In this sense socialism means the abolition of private enterprise, of private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of a system of 'planned economy' in which the entrepreneur working for profit is replaced by a central planning body." (p. 83)

Now this distinction, I think, goes some way to explaining what many theologians mean when they talk about socialism - or social justice or concern for the poor or a number of other similar slogans. They are simply mouthing slogans and ideals without actually sitting down and thinking through what a concrete and serious program to achieve those goals actually would entail.

Hayek goes on:

"There are many people who call themselves socialists, although they care only about the first, who fervently believe in those ultimate aims of socialism but neither care nor understand how they can be achieved, and who are merely certain that they must be achieved, whatever the cost. But to nearly all those to whom socialism is not merely a hope but an object of practical politics, the characteristic methods of modern socialism are as essential as the ends themselves. Many people, on the other hand, who value the ultimate ends of socialism no less than the socialists refuse to support socialism because of the dangers to other values they see in the methods proposed by the socialists. The dispute about socialism has thus become largely a dispute about means and not about ends." (p. 83)

I think it would make sense for theologians to reserve the label "socialist" for those who are committed both to the ideals and the means and for those who value the ends but not the means to call themselves liberals. This would save a lot of confusion in determining what someone means when it is said that a Christian must be a socialist.

Personally, I would argue that a Christian cannot be a socialist in the sense of endorsing both the ideals and the ends for to do so is to endorse a totalitarian order that is at odds with the Christian concept of freedom. A Christian can, however, be a socialist in the sense of endorsing the ideals but not the ends. In that case, however, a Christian is in serious danger of being exploited by more doctranaire socialists and used to further a totalitarian agenda.

Hayek points out that the means we are talking about (centralized economic planning) need not be used for socialist ends, but can be used for any ends whatsoever (except for maximizing liberty, of course). Since, the means advocated by socialism are not unique to socialism itself, he prefers to call those who advocates these means "collectivists." So, in these terms, I would revise my statement to say that a Christian cannot consistently be both a socialist (values social justice ends) and a collectivist (advocates centralized economic planning to achieve these ends) simultaneously.

This is by no means just a lot of hair-splitting to no practical effect. Hayek points out that: "Nearly all the points which are disputed between socialists and liberals concern the methods common to all forms of collectivism and not the particular ends for which socialists want to use them." (p. 84) One of the reasons I distrust liberalism (besides its conceptual incoherence) is that throughout the Twentieth century it has tended to accept collectivist methods bit by bit. This is where conservativism is valuable; as a brake on liberalism, which cannot seem to resist the siren song of collectivism.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Maybe you should read some socialist or marxist theorists before decided what they do or do not believe or how they think that the desired end of a more egalitarian society should come about.

Further, maybe you should read some of the theological critics of capitalism working from the Christian tradition but also making use of the marxist tradition. A good place to start would be Philip Goodchild, Graham Ward, or John Milbank. It is not enough to quote an economist (especially one praised by Thatcher and in support of Pinochet's economic policies, but that is an entirely different matter) and then dismiss a long, robust and nuanced tradition and the many, many theologically nuanced positions within it.

For a simple and straightforward example of one such position see...