What is Socialism?


Lately, there has been a lot of labeling government officials, and Obama in particular as socialists, and decrying government interventions as socialist per se. Now, I will not deny that Obama is probably a socialist of some sort at heart, and that he has many of the aberrant moral ideas as the socialists. However, the characterization of the government’s present behavior as “socialist” is a misnomer of the highest order, as we shall see later.

I myself have described Obama as a National Socialist (NAZI), but that is not because he is a true socialist, but because the Nazis were not true socialists. They agreed with many of Marx’s propositions, and were a movement of the left (something that is often forgotten), but in practice the Nazis did not create a socialist government, they created a tyrannical government which functioned on a capitalist system. Likewise, what we see today with the administration forcing the CEO of GM to step down in exchange for government aid, is not an expression of socialism. In my opinion it is not even an expression of tyranny since the government is entering into a free contract with GM, and GM is freely accepting it to get the funds. Moreover, even if the government would decide without loaning any money out, that certain CEOs needed to go this would not be an expression of socialism, but of raw state power which is called Statism. Statism is where the state is essentially all powerful and trusted to do the good. Such a system may indeed be or become tyrannical, but it is not Socialist in any sense.

Incidents where Libertarians claim Distributism is some kind of veiled socialism because of the predication of government intervention in the economy betrays the same failure to grasp what socialism is even all about. Socialism was never defined as government intervention into economic life or the running of businesses. If it was then virtually every government in history would have to be socialist, even the Bush administration. Every government has regulated trade to a greater or lesser extent. Rather, Socialism as predicated by its founder, Louis Blanc, and its most well known advocate (Marx) is when the government becomes the universal capitalist. In every system, for wealth to be created, capital must be expended to produce the wealth. This is something as simple as the food a man must eat and the tractors, plows, and livestock he must use in order to produce wheat, or as complex as the scientists that must be paid to develop a drug. The amount of goods consumed in creating new wealth is always capital. The person laboring on it brings the human labor and together with that capital creates wealth.

This is true whether we are talking about Distributism, Capitalism, slavery or Socialism. There must be capital, and there must be labor to produce wealth regardless of where it comes from. Now in Distributism a large portion or a majority of members of society both own the capital (which is not mere money but the means of production) and the labor, as in it is the same person. In Capitalism however these are often divided, so that some men somewhere own the capital, and some men somewhere else labor on it, and the former keep the wealth while the latter get very little of the wealth that is produced. This produces a whole host of social evils and insecurities which go from the top down. Socialism proposes to solve all the problems of capitalism by making the state a universal capitalist. This means that the state will own all the capital, that is, all the means of production available in society.

For instance Marx and Engles declared in the Communist Manifesto:

“When therefore, Capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.” (Marx-Engles Reader, pg. 489)

Marx's thought is simply that capital will be socialized by the state, not that every man's piece of property will become that of the state per se, only if it is productive property. For Blanc, Marx and other socialists the state should not be concerned with my pipe or a picture of my family, or even a book. Rather, the state will own all the horses, tractors, plows, tools, food and housing which a farmer uses to produce wheat or corn or other crops. The state will own the factory equipment and belts, gears, cogs, etc. which laborers will use to produce machinery, assembly line products, or any other type of factory equipment, as well as the metal, wire, and all raw materials utilized in production. This is what is meant by Socialism. It is not that the state will tell a CEO to pack his things as a condition for government aid which he as asked for nor is it that the state will start behaving in a tyrannical way. The state may very well behave tyrannically without a hint of socialism.

Of course this is neither to say that tyranny is good nor that socialism is good. Ultimately, an attempt to implement socialism only leads us to the Servile State; that is back to slavery. It takes us there faster than Capitalism, which must at some point re-introduce slavery to bring stability to markets and keep the bottom classes consuming. Socialism soon discovers that the means of maintaining itself are impossible. To make the state the sole capitalist, two things are necessary. The state must be absolutely just and people must be content being told what to do in all things relating to business by the state (which is the owner). Hilaire Belloc describes it this way:
“Now the Socialist scheme requires both these very strong emotions, common to all mankind, to be suppressed. The people who run the State- that is the politicians-are to be absolutely just (although there is no one to force them to be just), they are to forget all personal wishes and to think of nothing but the good of those whose labour they direct and among whom they share out the wealth that is produced. We know by experience that politicians are not angels of this sort… You can not give this enormous power to men without their abusing it.

[Second], you will never get the run of men and women contented to live their whole lieves entirely under orders. In exceptional moments a large part of individual freedom will be given up to the necessity of the State-as during the Great War; for if the State did not survive the individual’s life and that of his children would not be worth living. The individual in abnormal crises goes trhough a great deal of suffering for a moment in order that he and his should have less pain in the long run. But even in such crises a large part of liberty remains to him. Under Socialism he would have none. He would have to do what he has told by his task-masters, much more than even the poorest labourers now have to do what they are told by task-masters. And there would be also this difference: that everyone would be in that situation and there would be no way out.” (Economics for Helen, pg. 109-110)


Certain Catholic libertarians try and act as though Socialism is entirely condemned and that Capitalism has been praised by the Church. This is simply not the case. It is a simple and ridiculous principle. If anything other than Capitalism is socialist, and the Church has condemned socialism, then it is possible to say that anything that is not capitalism is condemned. However, this overlooks both that the Church has condemned the grave separation between rich and poor as well as the control of the means of production by a few, present everywhere under capitalism (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Centessimus Annus), and that the Church has described socialism only as the belief that all means of production should be transferred to the state (abolition of private property) and a belief in class warfare only solvable by the state owning capital. (Rerum Novarum no.9)

Hence, if any real progress is going to be made in solving economic woes, it is important to speak with the same terms. The debate as it is framed today often is useless since it does not clearly define the terms it uses, and often obfuscates meanings. It is one thing to identify the abuse of state power which began under Bush, and is being expanded under Obama with the same evils of fascists and communists, it is quite another to say that the US is becoming a socialist state. Ironically, by defining socialism as anything contrary to free market capitalism, as the right attempts to do today, is to say that the US has been a socialist country longer than there have even been socialists.

6 comments:

JimB Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 10:16:00 PM CDT  

Athanasius said: "It is one thing to identify the abuse of state power which began under Bush, and is being expanded under Obama with the same evils of fascists and communists, it is quite another to say that the US is becoming a socialist state. Ironically, by defining socialism as anything contrary to free market capitalism, as the right attempts to do today, is to say that the US has been a socialist country longer than there have even been socialists."

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I understand what you are saying here but I have to disagree. I am new to this (about a yr) and came to it from "the right" in an effort to seek out what the Church had to say about economics in light of what has been going on these past two years – particularly regarding foreclosures and banking.

I have been in that “evil” sales and marketing field all my life and one lesson I can offer distributivists is that in trying to reach people with a message - you have to meet them where they are - not where YOU are. I cannot stress this enough.

In my opinion this is PRECISELY where distributivists shoot themselves in the foot by insisting on these semantics and wordsmithing. I have been participating in the Yahoo discussion group and I must say that often the "hard core" distributivists come across as elitist snobs who are eager and ready to dismiss anyone who doesn't already have a complete understanding, and I have seen several people chased away because of it.

Right or wrong - you need to realize that the context of economics in this country for the vast majority of people existed in the context of the Cold War. That comes down to Marxism and our brand of "capitalism". The fact that people "misunderstand" distributivism or see anything other than capitalism as socialism is not their fault - IT'S YOURS!

Because of the current crisis, people are angry and confused and looking for answers and alternatives. As Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel has been quoted as saying “it’s a shame to waste a good crisis”, but that is precisely been my experience with distributivism. If you people ever wish to win people to the cause -- then this snobbery and academic elitism needs to end.

I have studied Google advertising and it they use the term “search continuum” which is a fancy term for knowing what stage people are at in the “buying process”. For example, through research marketers have determined that if you type “headaches” (plural) in the search box the chances are pretty good that you are searching for information “about” headaches. On the other hand if you type in “headache” (singular) the chances are pretty good that you have one – now – and are looking for relief right now! Understanding and making this seemingly small but vital distinction allows advertisers to vastly improve their return on investment of advertising dollars by tailoring the message to where prospects are in the buying process, and is the reason newspapers are losing ad revenue to the web. Google’s success – more than any other factor – can be attributed to this ability to “get inside the customers head” and give the right message to the right person at the right time. My point is not about making profits – it’s about understanding the people you serve.

The responsibility for conveying a message and what that means is yours. When St Paul was in Athens, he was invited to speak at the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the name both of a group and the site on which they met. They were the most prestigious council of Elders in Athens. They met to discuss matters ranging from the philosophical to the practical concerns around the running of a democracy. Paul had first been ridiculed by these elder statesmen, but they were intellectually curious and given to fads, so they decided to hear him out. He told them, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. As I went about the city and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found among them an altar inscribed ‘to an unknown god.’ I know this God; let me tell you about him.”

Paul explained that the “unknown god” was the one who made the world and everything in it, and really didn’t need an altar, and was probably the one their own poet Epimenides was talking about when he wrote “In God we live and move and have our being.” Paul talked the whole time without mentioning Jesus by name, and only describing him at the end as the man who would judge the world with righteousness, but that God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Not exactly the traditional Gospel message Paul usually delivered. But he was in Athens.

Some have criticized Paul’s sermon in Athens, saying he soft-peddled the Gospel, and he should have told it the traditional way, put it in the Athenians’ face, and let the Spirit move them to accept or reject Christ on the spot. It raises the question of separatism or accommodation. How much do you accommodate the culture you are in, in order to communicate the Good News? In 1Corinthians St Paul gave us that famous line, "I have become all things to all people.”

You don’t “win friends and influence people” but telling a customer they’re wrong and need to get it right. You meet them where they are and bring them along through patient teaching and coaching. My observation thus far is distributivism is stuck in academia and demanding that students “pass the test”. Your “market” isn’t students and these blogs and discussion groups aren’t a school. Your “market” is mothers & fathers, and husbands and wives and workers; all who are stressed to the max and need to learn in spoonfuls and take baby steps. Demanding they “get it right” will only drive them away.

I’ll leave you with a comment I heard an evangelist say once: “You can win an argument and lose a soul”. As I said, in that regard you are your own worst enemies, and I suggest you take a lesson from Google, and St Paul and learn to adapt your message to your audience. If you find this post offensive – then it was aimed directly at you.

Athanasius Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 12:01:00 AM CDT  

Your “market” is mothers & fathers, and husbands and wives and workers; all who are stressed to the max and need to learn in spoonfuls and take baby steps. Demanding they “get it right” will only drive them away.I don't see anything in what I wrote that demands people "get it right". The purpose, and in my opinion the tone is "this is what socialism is". I don't see anywhere where I opined that people are stupid for not figuring out what socialism is. And it isn't semantics, if we are not clear on what terms we are using then we are simply not going to get anywhere.

Moreover I never said anything about the current crisis, I simply said that the essentials of what socialism is are not at work in the present situation.

With respect I think you are harping more on the Distributism yahoo groups than the writers at this blog. I've never read them, I've know of other distributists who are not fond of the writers for that yahoo group.

Nevertheless, if people think something other than capitalism is socialism, and we preach something other than capitalism, they will think it is socialism, unless you kindly tell them (as I believe I have done) what socialism is. I can't see it as counter-productive at all.

The fact that people "misunderstand" distributivism or see anything other than capitalism as socialism is not their fault - IT'S YOURS!This is a non sequitur. If as you say, seeing anything but capitalism as socialism is a reality of the cold war period, how is it the fault of distributists since apart from a few minor outlets predication of distributist ideas is recent?

Lastly, look over many of the posts here on the review. Many of these take the same tenor of St. Paul to the Greeks. Look at a time when things were more stable, how can we get there now? Mr. Médaille has written much in this field.

If you find this post offensive – then it was aimed directly at you.Please, take your own advice and drop your smug attitude. You are approaching a violation of the useful principle you have just quoted. Thankfully, being a philosophy major, I learned a long time ago not to take things personally. I don't care who its aimed at, let's stick to facts.

JimB Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 10:35:00 AM CDT  

I think it's time I step back and take a break from this blog and group.

Anonymous,  Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 3:52:00 PM CDT  

These are fair points by Athanasius, but the term "socialism" in this country is mostly construed as a redistributionist state. On those terms, the U.S. is certainly becoming more socialist.

In today's context, wealth is being redistributed from those that are fiscally prudent to those that are not, namely, debt-holders from consumers up to banks and the government itself.

To the extent that the past two administrations have been nationalizing large corporations, it is accurate to say that we are becoming more socialist by the terms Athanasius uses.

As for distributism, it is worth pointing out that it is emphatically not re-distributionism (at least in the direct sense of taking from A and giving to B). I think this is the playing field for the distributist debate because redistribution of wealth is how people understand socialism (which is how it works in Scandinavia).
It's fine if people call the administrative/corporatist welfare state socialist because it is in one sense of the term socialism.

I think some distributists want to clarify these terms because they are really interested in defending a corporatist system, and not really a distributist one. Some early distributists were sympathetic to corporatism, but it is a dead-end because economic planning is a fraud.

Rather, the essence of distributism is a decentralized (often agrarian-based) system of widely distributed property that is a bulwark of liberty precisely because it relieves men from dependence on the state thus checking the power and growth of the state. This is its best selling point.

Prescient distributist thinkers such as Dorothy Day and Schumacher understood the poison of the welfare-warfare state, which in the corporatist context is usually based on militarism, jingoism, and anti-semitism.

Moreover, distributist thinking should also take seriously some of the claims of the Austrians from Schumpeter and Roepke to Hayek and Mises. Many distributist thinkers are trapped in the 1930s. Although the principles expounded during the early days of distributism are perenially valid, the point of the church's social doctrine is to apply those principles to concrete historical and economic circumstances. Knowledge in these areas (social sciences) develops and changes, and Catholic social thought has to account for that on some level.

Jan Baker Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 4:16:00 PM CDT  

I would like to quote a little from Quadragesimo Anno. In paragraph 111, Section 2, after discussing changes in capitalism in Section 1, Pius XI covers changes in socialism, a splitting into two wings violently opposed to each other, the one called communism, the other socialism, which is "surely more moderate," although still not rejecting class struggle. Then, in paragraph, 114, we find this:

For if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred . . . .it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate Socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles. For certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the state since they carry with them a dominating power so great that it cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals."

Then the encyclical continues, in 116, to say that among socialists there will be those groups or factions that have "recovered their senses" and reject the class struggle and the abolition of ownership.

It behoves us, therefore, to make sure when we discuss socialism, that we keep these distinctions in mind and identify and even support those initiatives that "come very near those that Christian reformers of society justly insist upon." (113)

It is possible that the devolution of socialism has continued and that many of the programs to be found in what we term 'the socialist countries' are of this type and acceptable to Catholics as long as we firmly reject class warfare, the abolition of private property, and materialism, as defined by the denial of spiritual realities.

It was confusing then, and it is confusing now, but we cannot allow ourselves to be highjacked by worshippers of 'the free market' because we feel obligated to reject anything that might be possibly called socialist. Nor can we limit the definition of distributism to agrarianism. Pius XI made finer distinctions, and so must we.

atlanticwriter Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 11:10:00 AM CDT  

Thanks for this post, which for someone like me starting to think about distributism for the first time, is a helpful summary of some of the key concepts.

A few additional thoughts.

1. The obsession among many on the American right with labeling a policy or government as socialist as a means of rubbishing it appears, from my European perspective where socialist ideas are far more widely accepted than is the case in the US, to be both intellectually lazy and, frankly, tedious.

Such rhetoric may appeal to a portion of the populace who have already embraced the paradigm you demolish in your article, but from this side of the pond it just feels redundant.

2. It seems rather offensive to label President Obama as a Nazi. Can you justify this rather extreme-sounding language?

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