A while back I wrote an article describing what I viewed as the most fundamental problem with communism and why I thought it invariably creates dictatorships. But since that time I have learned a lot more about the various philosophies that fall under the name “socialist”, and I now consider my previous article on the subject to have been oversimplified and poorly informed.
What I want to explain is the core distinction between Marxism and other socialist ideologies, and by extension why ‘Marxism’ is not synonymous with the term ‘socialism’. Many supporters of market economies do not understand the difference, as was the case with myself. And as a result, when socialists argue that dictatorships like the USSR were not “true socialism”, we accuse them of employing a “No True Scotsman” fallacy. However, as I have come to believe, they may have a valid point.
I think it is important for people to understand the terms they use in political debate and be exposed to the diversity that exists among ideologies. Otherwise we may be inadvertently conflating distinct ideas. For even if we do not come to agree with a particular doctrine in full, we can use those ideas to develop more nuanced political views that move beyond the simplified choices currently offered in the United States by the major parties and the right-wing libertarian movement.
I first became aware of my mistaken views on the word “socialism” when I came across a Spanish documentary about the anarchists in Catalonia during Spain’s civil war. I decided to watch it out of curiosity because I had never before heard of the term “Libertarian Socialism” displayed in its title. The two-hour video, which included interviews with people who had been part of the society, was incredibly interesting and changed my understanding of what socialism was and could be. That lead to me learning about other cases of socialist principles being put into action that did not involve an all-powerful state nor necessarily even abolishing the market economy.
The most crucial point to understand is that ‘socialism’ has always meant not only collective ownership of the means of production, but also active, democratic worker control. From that definition we can begin to see why many socialists object to hierarchical dictatorships like the USSR, Mao’s China, and Castro’s Cuba being called ‘socialism’.
The confusion about this term arises because of a key problem in the Marxist notion of how to achieve that final goal of egalitarianism and worker control. Marxism alleges that to transition to a socialist society where workers own and control the means of production themselves, it is necessary to first establish a highly centralized government to overthrow the ruling classes, represent the people’s interests, and organize the process of collectivization. Otherwise, they claim, the revolution will fail.
What happens, however, is that when this type of government is created, such as occurred in the USSR, the people running this centralized state have complete power. The state becomes a hierarchy of a powerful ruler or small group at the top with police and the military under their direct command. Then under threat of force, they manage a powerless working class who have no control over their workplaces or their own lives. Those in power never relinquish that power, and the hierarchical structure of the society makes it nearly impossible for the lower classes to effect change. The result is that socialism is never actually achieved or practiced.
Economic systems like this where the state controls the means of production are identified by the term “state socialism” since the workers are considered to own the means of production in the sense of the state alleging to be a representative of the population. But in actuality this sort of centralized government is a distinct group of people who control the rest of the society.
Other socialist ideologies oppose the idea of allowing power to be centralized in a powerful state, whether in transition or ever. Supporters of these ideologies wish to bypass any transitional stage, and instead directly transform existing enterprises and social institutions into worker cooperatives and democracies that operate for the benefit of themselves and the community as a whole rather than for any boss. All major institutions of society are collectivized but run on a democratic basis. In this situation there is no practical hierarchy among individuals and the social and economic change they are able to achieve is remarkable.
This is not just a matter of looking at a single political theory and labeling its failures one way and its successes another, as opponents of socialism often claim. This is a fundamental structural difference between two distinct types of political ideologies.
In fact Marxism was criticized by other socialists before it was ever implemented – and for the very reasons which later manifested in the now infamous communist regimes.
The First International, an early international organization of socialist groups and labor unions, became divided along two categories of socialist theory. There was Karl Marx and supporters of state centralization on one side, while Mikhail Bakunin, a proponent of direct transition to worker control, and his philosophical sympathizers were on the other. The Marxist faction believed that socialism should be established through the actions of state power, while Bakunin’s faction, the anarchists, believed socialism should – and only could – be achieved through a direct transition without conferring power to any centralized government.
Marxism was criticized as advocating “state capitalism”, a pejorative term for a system where the state in effect assumes the role of a capitalist or boss. Because of this perception of a centralized state being nothing but an even more powerful, singular capitalist structure, it is easy to see why many socialists oppose it.
And of course the Marxist factions returned criticism against their opponents, and the divide continued for years and still exists today. Vladimir Lenin for example published a book titled Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, also translated as The Infantile Sickness of ‘Leftism’ in Communism. The few significant non-Marxist societies which came into being were made enemies of the communist states and were destroyed, including the most famous and arguably most successful example in the Catalonia region of Spain.
The value of understanding the distinction between the various forms of socialism is that we can expand our political understanding. Doing so makes us less vulnerable to propaganda, and we can develop new political movements by considering how aspects of prior ones can be adopted or modified. For example it is worth learning and debating how specialized application of socialist principles within and among towns, companies, and other communities may be effective at reducing problems of poverty, lack of time, lack of access to transportation, and inequality of power – all without increased taxation or a powerful central government.
Originally, Social Democracy referred to a doctrine based on using gradual reform by the state to eventually achieve a socialist economy, but today it describes a distinct ideology where the goal itself is to retain private ownership of the means of production and use the state to counteract the less desirable effects of the market. It does this through various forms of redistribution and protections for workers without aiming to ever establish socialism. Generally the state is quite centralized and is heavily used by owners of powerful companies to enforce their own interests and distort the effects of the market even further.
Opponents and supporters of these policies both commonly refer to any collective or redistributive measures as “socialist”, but the label is inaccurate.