Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Ambiguous Meaning of the Word "Socialism"

I frequently observe that the word "socialism" is being used in different ways with different meanings by those debating each other. Part of the reason for the ambiguity is that the word itself has a range of possible meanings which are closely related but not identical. Some of the reason for the difference in opinion lies in the similar but crucially different shades of meanings employed by different people.

Take the brief definition in the Oxford Dictionary: "a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that community as a whole should own and control the means of production, distribution and exhange." This is a highly ambiguous, but common enough definition. Let us list the ambiguities.

1. First, what is "community?" Is it the state? Or could it be guilds or private groups such as co-operatives? If a group of people jointly own property, machinery, etc. and work together to produce profits, would that be socialism or a variation of capitalism? Those who are against socialism often oppose it precisely insofar as and to the extent that it is statist. They prefer many centers of power in society distributed among private companies, publicly traded companies, regulatory boards, the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government and so on. They fear the concentration of all economic and political power in a governing class of bureaucrats and their political masters. But they think that churches running hospitals, parents running charter schools, inter-generational family farms, and credit unions are all great. Are such people socialist, anti-socialist or anti-statist?

2. Second, it is still socialism if the government controls the means of exchange and distribution (through taxation) but leaves the means of production in private hands? This is how the welfare state works, which is a long way from pure capitalism but still not quite pure socialism. Many people fear a government monopoly on the control of the means of exchange and distribution as much as they fear outright government ownership of the means of production. Often government ownership of some of the means of production is enough to give government, in connection with its control of the means of exchange and distribution, effective control of industries without outright total ownership.

3. Third, every society is in a process of historical development and evolution in one direction or another. Twentieth century liberalism is perceived by conservatives (especially neo-conservatives) as moving in the direction of collectivism of some sort in a gradually reforming way. To speak of being "progressive" or of "reform" is, for many (most?) contemporary liberals to imply moving in the direction of socialism without any assumption that we will need to go "all the way" toward a purely socialist society. This means that liberalism is no longer historical liberalism, but merely a stalking horse for outright socialism; liberalism has become an ideology without content because the actual content of its teaching comes from socialism.

This sort of contemporary liberalism has embraced the teaching that economic equality is a prerequisite for personal liberty. Therefore, conservatives often tend to lump liberalism, fascism and socialism together as various forms of collectivism, all of which are opposed by the traditional Western emphasis on the liberty of individuals, churches, schools, businesses, cooperatives, guilds, parties and various other forms of voluntary associations - all of which together make up civil society. By eroding civil society, and especially the pre-political natural family, liberalism is destroying gradually by evolution what socialism destroys suddenly by revolution in order to clear the decks for an all-powerful state which can implement economic equality.

The word "socialist" is a barrier to clear communication and debate because of its inherent ambiguity. When some people speak of "the common good" in the context of Roman Catholic social thought, the idea is that charity will be shown to the needy rather than allowing a ruthless social Darwinism to rule. This is not necessarily socialism. This may simply be a respect for a widespread distribution of private property, private charity and/or a restrained welfare state. To the extent that anyone uses the word "socialism" to describe what Roman Catholic social thought calls for he is only confusing the debate.

What people sometimes mean by socialism, both in theory and practice, actually is better described as conservatism. The freedom of individuals and a prosperous community that aids the weak and vulnerable may be achieved best by a society made of of people who accept Christian principles of charity and concern for the poor along with free markets, strong family structures, strong churches and a thriving civil society. Real conservatives do not advocate monopoly capitalism, social Darwinism, the breakdown of civil society or the kind of individualism that ignores the claims of others on the individual, including the needs of the weak and vulnerable as well as the claims of family ties and religious duties. The liberal charge that the only alternative to 19th century robber baron capitalism is socialism is simply false.

One often hears rage against capitalism and condemnations of capitalism from moralistic people who want to blame all the ills of the world on the free market system of exchange and private ownership of the means of production. But this moralistic outrage is so extreme and one-sided that it substitutes for clear thinking. If undue concentration of economic power in a few multi-national corporations is a bad thing, the solution cannot be to concentrate all that power in the hands of one multi-national corporation: the state. That only makes the problem worse. To suggest that ordinary people control the socialist state by voting is more incredible than the suggestion that they control businesses by making rational economic choices as consumers. In reality, the main way citizens restrain the totalitarian power of the state is by setting up a system of the division of powers so that power is distributed in many hands. Once this division is eroded, democracy as mere voting procedure becomes ineffective.

Anti-capitalism is fashionable among intellectuals, academics, union leaders, leftist activists etc. but it really is just a form of covert socialism. The problem with it is that it demonizes capitalism in such a way as to make the Marxist mistake of locating the source of evil in an economic system instead of in human hearts. Nothing can restrain, moderate and mitigate capitalism except morality rooted in religious conviction; socialism is inadequate for the job. Why? Because sin is a matter of human will and not economic organization.

It seems to me that the word "socialism" is irredeemable because of its historical connections to statism and collectivism. Theologians and pastors who choose to use the label "socialism" to describe their own positions should therefore admit that they are opposing the mainstream of Christian teaching and the Western tradition and embracing a revolutionary doctrine in which the state becomes all powerful and civil society is eliminated either gradually or suddenly.

For this reason, the culture wars' focus on issues of human life and marriage are intricately bound up with the issue of socialism. Socialism cannot be implemented until the family is broken down and civil society crushed because only then can enough power be concentrated in the hands of the State for it to implement the full socialist agenda of equality. Socialism involves not only the nationalization of businesses, but also the destruction of the family and civil society. This explains why the Labour Party in the UK, the Socialist government currently in power in Spain, the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US and the NDP in Canada all put so much emphasis on liberal policies on abortion, marriage and other anti-human and anti-family positions. This is why policies that lead to the destruction of the family and civil society are now identified as "left wing." It is because the destruction of the family and civil society paves the way for the all-powerful State, which seeks to meet all the needs of individuals and thus assume a paternalistic oversight of the population that can only be described as "soft totalitarianism."

In the end, the danger inherent in the ambiguity of the word "socialism" is that "social justice," "concern for the poor" and "protection of the vulnerable" become pretexts for the rise of the all-powerful bureaucratic State. This goes on all the time in liberal Protestantism. The irony is that it is precisely the weak and vulnerable - unborn children, mothers, the sick, the elderly - who end up suffering at the hand of the bureaucratic State. So far as I can see, the only way to keep the debate from being hopelessly muddled is to restrict the meaning of the word "socialism" to the state controlling the means of production, distribution and exchange. Socialism of this sort must be opposed vigorously by Christians who take the biblical teachings on sin, anthropology and eschatology seriously.


Josh said...

I am not as suspicious of socialism as you and Sarah Palin are, but I agree with you that "[t]he word 'socialist' is a barrier to clear communication and debate because of its inherent ambiguity."

My concern about left-wing socialism is the possibility of the state acquiring too much power; I have the same concern about right-wing fascism.

Craig Carter said...

Hitler's type of fascism was not called "National Socialism" for nothing. It was socialism with a nationalistic twist and a personality cult of the leader. We see this same pattern in various other kinds of 20th century socialist states including Stalin's USSR, North Korea and today in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. I'm glad that you agree that concentrated state power is the danger, whatever the label is.

I agree that socialism can be restrained in some situations, but I think there is always a tendency to drift toward soft totalitarianism. Ironically, the stronger the conservative movement is in a given society, the less dangerous socialist ideology is - which then leads some to pooh-pooh the danger of socialism! For example, here in Canada the Conservative Party gains enough votes that a full-out socialist program is not going to fly at election time. Yet, we have had 'creeping socialism' for decades and the cumulative effect is to make a conservative country with a socialist elite. Americans should not assume it could never happen there.

Peter Dunn said...

Josh: Tell me what is right-wing facism, and where does it manifest itself in the US political system today? Whereas socialism and liberalism seem to be strongly occupying the Democrat party today in the US, especially with their current push to nationalize health care, I don't know who represents this other group that you call "right-wing facists". Who are they, and what would they do that you are so worried about them?

Josh said...


I was speaking generally. My point was that any state can acquire too much power, whether under left-wing leadership or right-wing leadership.

Craig Carter said...

The terms "conservative" "right-wing" and "fascist" are often used interchangeably but they have very different meanings. There are many shades of conservatives, but no traditional conservative or social conservative or paleoconservative could ever find fascism congenial. He would oppose it as vigorously as he would socialism and for many of the same reasons.

I am conservative in that I stand for limited government, the rule of law, free markets, the priority of the family and the church to the state, natural law as the basis for civil law, strong civil society, distributism and the religious basis for morality.

I get tired of people associating "right wing" with "fascist" with "conservative." That betrays either (1) lazy thinking, (2) a liberal or socialist ideology, (3) anti-Westernism or (4) all of the above.

George W. Bush was "fascist" exactly to the extent that he departed from conservatism (eg. out of control federal spending and the Patriot Act, which undermined civil liberties). Note well that these are two policies of the Bush Administration that are being continued by the Obama administration. On top of that, the Obama administration is fascist in other ways as well - eg. nationalizing the auto and health industries, promoting big government as the solution to all problems and being soft on Islamo-fascism and dictators like Hugo Chavez - not to mention Obama's little personality cult.

I think liberals hurl the "fascist" charge at conservatives primarily to cover up their own complicity with fascist tendencies, not in the interests of true description of their political opponents.