An Unbiased Beginner’s Guide to Socialism
by Dylan Hofer, July 4, 2021
If you reside in the United States, socialism may be one of the most misinterpreted words understood by the general populous. With right-wingers who gawk at any mention of the word, and conflating it with the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union or the crumbling failed state of Venezuela; and on the other side, you have liberals who praise the word socialist by falsely proclaiming the success of “socialist countries” such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, when in fact they are actually social democracies. Socialism is a complex, deeply studied economic and political philosophy that has origins dating all the way back to ancient Greece, with the renowned philosopher Plato describing a collective society in his work, Republic.
It’s no mistake that socialism has become a muddied, dirty, and often misused word on both sides of the political spectrum when the United States government has been fighting against any form of socialism from taking root; from propaganda campaigns, silencing journalists, jailing self-proclaimed socialist activists, firing members of the government for even being “sympathetic of socialism”, and even assassinating proponents of the ideology. The United States has always been afraid of socialism given its stark contrast to the economic and political philosophy which governs the country today: capitalism. But this article is not intended to show all the ways the United States government has attempted to repress socialist ideas, that deserves an article of its own, rather it is to educate the common American on the basics of socialism, to help people have an educated opinion on what socialism really is. This is not an essay that wishes to persuade you to become a socialist, nor is it meant to make you hate the ideology, it is merely meant to educate the common person.
A Brief History of Socialism
United States presidential candidate Eugene Debs’ campaign poster
Photo: Milwaukee Magazine
Socialism as an ideology in the late 18th century and early-to-mid 19th century was a direct counter to the newly emerging economic system of capitalism. When the steam engine had been invented in Great Britain, the old world of feudalism would begin to change dramatically with what we would eventually call The 1st Industrial Revolution. As the steam engine brought on a new economic system, capitalism, many people had begun becoming skeptical of the ideology.
In the early days of capitalism, working conditions had been terrible. People worked very long hours, with very little pay, and factories hardly had any safe environments for workers. Child labor was often used, and many people would be injured or killed by the strenuous jobs they were forced to perform under the new system, and thus sparked the motives of early thinkers such as Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier to create their own images of collective societies to implement. Societies that would benefit the common working person. These individuals based many of their ideas on the works of previous utopians, such as Thomas More, who wrote the book Utopia to describe a society where there was no money, and people worked communally. Thomas More also got many of his ideas for his book from Plato, who described a collectively owned society in the book, Republic.
Some of these early thinkers attempted to build communes where their ideas could be tested, most of which ended in failure. It wasn’t until German economic and political philosopher Karl Marx came along where socialism would be described in a “scientific” and practical way to be applied. Marx believed that thinkers such as More, Saint-Simon, and others were too unrealistic with their ideas, and therefore they could never work. Marx would later go on to describe how the working class could overcome class struggle, and write many works that helped socialism evolve into the complex socio-economic system we know today.
Many other socialist thinkers would come into fruition during Marx’s time and after. Some famous socialists include Frederick Engels, Mao Zedong, and Vladimir Lenin. As Marx made socialism more popular, the philosophy began diverging into multiple groups. Anarcho-communists, Christian socialists, orthodox Marxists, democratic socialists, and social democrats would all become different groups that would fall somewhat under the socialist system at some level.
In the early 20th century, socialism started seeing some political progress across the globe. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought about a socialist government, formed by Vladimir Lenin, but eventually would fall under the iron fist of the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin, who was known for executing millions of Russian citizens, along with turning the Soviet Union into an authoritarian regime. Other countries would also attempt socialist economic systems, but many failed. It should be noted that a lot of fledgling socialist states were often crushed by the US government or the CIA with a coup d’etat. Today, few countries actually exist that still claim to be socialist/ruled by a communist party. These countries include Vietnam, Cuba, China, Laos, and North Korea.
After the Cold War came to an end in the early 1990s, many European countries began adopting hybrid systems of capitalism mixed with socialism. Some of these countries have market socialist societies such as Germany, and other nations like the Scandinavian countries tout their social democracies, which are renowned for being home to some of the happiest people on Earth. Many people in the US look to these nations as examples of what the US should become, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Though socialism never thrived in America as much as it did in other nations across the world, the US at one time did have a Socialist Party. Early socialists advocated for the 40-hour workweek, unions, and safer working conditions that are a common staple of the American lifestyle in today’s world. And even though the United States has never elected a self-proclaimed socialist as president, in 1912 Eugene Debs, presidential candidate for the Socialist Party garnered 6% of the popular vote. Some other socialist ideas would be implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1930s and the midst of the Great Depression. These policies would include Medicare, Medicaid, social security, and the welfare state we have today. But with all of this, there’s still an important question to be answered: what exactly is socialism?
Illustration of the people advocating for socialism
Socialism by pure definition is “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” What this means is that in socialism, the workers and common person should own the business they work in, and decide which direction to take the business, instead of the aforementioned business being owned by one or a few rich individuals. Socialism, as explained before, was developed as an ideology directly opposed to capitalism, and therefore it’s important to see how socialists view capitalism in order to understand what socialism is.
Capitalism, in the socialist’s eyes, is a system that is by its very nature unsustainable and anti-worker friendly. Capitalism simply has one goal, and that is to create a profit for the owners of industry. In capitalism, an individual can merely own a factory that produces a product that will be profitable in the long run but is not always necessary in society. For example, socialists will point out that many people can afford a smartphone but 100s of millions of people go hungry worldwide and blame this on the ineffectiveness of capitalism.
Socialists also believe that capitalism is at its very nature anti-worker because the capitalist’s goal is merely to collect as much profit as possible, whereas the worker’s goal is to get paid for as little work as possible. These two goals are completely opposed to each other and therefore lead to class struggle. Socialist thinkers like Karl Marx pointed out that capitalists use primitive accumulation, which in Marx’s eyes was simply theft. The process of primitive accumulation goes along the lines of this; The workers create an item for one price, the capitalist sells it at a higher rate, and also at the same time cuts workers’ wages, since the capitalist’s goal is to make a profit for themselves. Marx believed this was inherently wrong, and that workers deserved the benefits of their hard work.
To a socialist, capitalism is a system that poses an existential threat to the environment and the world around them as well. Since the Earth is only a place of finite resources, eventually the over-abundance of consumption and goods that capitalism drives will eventually leave the planet dry, without anything needed for the necessities of life. Socialists believe that people need to commonly own the workplace in order to create a sustainable, better life for all denizens of the planet.
Socialists believe in many common rights among all peoples. These rights include freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to food and water, the right to housing, the freedom of religion, the right to education, the right to adequate healthcare, the right to employment, a fair paycheck, and the right to leisure. Socialists are naturally democratic and believe that under capitalism true democracy cannot exist due to the rich and 1% owning the resources and therefore the government as well.
One other important thing to point out is the difference between socialism and communism, as they are often interchanged with each other by people who don’t fully understand the terms. Communism is an ideology that has the singular goal of creating a communist society. A communist society would be a classless, moneyless, and stateless society, which has never existed. Certain socialist countries are dictated by Communist parties, who have the goal of attaining communism, but this has never been done in practice. The idea of communism is that after transitioning from capitalism to socialism, people will gradually do away with a need for money, government, or anything needed to survive in our modern world because these needs will be provided for by the community as a whole. People will be allowed to work a job they love, and not worry about getting a paycheck to survive. Socialism is a transitionary phase between capitalism and communism, by letting the workers own the means of production through some sort of democratic process.
However, some communists don’t believe in a transitionary phase and believe that after a revolution where the workers overthrow the bourgeois, communism should be established immediately. These communists are known as anarcho-communists, or anarchists. Those who believe there should be a transitionary phase are called classical Marxists, or socialists.
Classical Marxists can be divided into two groups as well, which are orthodox Marxism, and revisionist Marxism. Orthodox Marxism is an ideology that believes in the principles that Karl Marx laid out during his life and in his works, and continues building on the foundation Marx laid out during his lifetime. Many ideologies can be categorized within Orthodox Marxism, such as Leninism, Trotskyism, and Luxemburgism. Though knowing their differences is not needed for having a basic understanding of socialism. Revisionist Marxism is an ideology that has changed some of the fundamental principles Marx laid out and therefore has created entirely new systems. One of these systems is social democracy, which can also be described as human-centered capitalism. In social democratic countries, the nations are still capitalist but have very strong social security nets and provide basic services for their citizens. These basic services include things such as medical care and education. However, these nations are still capitalist because the workers don’t directly own the means of production. Social democracy is not to be confused with democratic socialism. Democratic socialism is a system that advocates for a socialist means of production, alongside a democratic process.
Socialist man holding a sign to represent workers
As you can probably tell, socialism is a very complex socioeconomic and political way of thought. Though governments in the West, specifically in the United States have been dead set on shutting down the ideology in any way possible, I find that it is the complete opposite reaction to how one should deal with views that challenge their own. In order to create a more perfect union, a more just and civil society, we must be willing to reflect on what we find important, and listen to what others have to say when they show flaws in our system. Perhaps some of those criticisms will be wrong, and perhaps some of them will be right, but to shut down thought instead of listening to one another is a dead-end ticket to something going terribly wrong. There are many bright minds out there, from all over the world, and from all over the political spectrum. In order to find what’s best, we must always strive to work together. Anybody who enforces indoctrination, uses propaganda to steer public opinion, instead of an honest intellectual discussion is committing one of the worst unpatriotic acts I could think of. All anyone wants is a better world for themselves and their children, and no one gets that by merely listening to one side while ignoring the unchecked thoughts in their head.