Traditionally, the “communism/socialism/any-social-programs are too idealistic” argument has been reserved for the right-wing pedantic know-it-alls who think supporting the status quo is the “galaxy brain” position. However, as common right-wing sentiment has both moved further right, and became more commonplace, this same sentiment is now echoed by a lot of well-meaning, but self-sabotaging liberals.
Idealism can be a lot of things, so I will just look at the history of the word and the ideas associated with it. “Idealistic” is just a flat, vague dismissal, that says little of substance, so we can only guess at the intended meaning.
In the most clinical, philosophy department sense of idealism, it means something very different than the current connotation, but the current connotation has its roots in philosophical idealism. Philosophical idealism is the idea that some elements of the world, or the entire world, as we perceive it, is created in the mind.
For example, Kant advanced the idea of Transcendental Idealism. A simplified explanation of this is that we intuit the world through our perception of time and space. When we go to a party, we know the world by the fact that everyone shows up to the party, at the right place, at the right time. Time and space are not things, they’re mental faculties to understand the world. Appearances and representations, like colors for example, are mentally constructed, so we can mentally fill in a Euclidian world. The world doesn’t “look like” the way we perceive it, but the way we perceive the world is “graphed” on to a Euclidian world, to visualize and understand the world.
Another major example of Idealism in the European tradition is Hegel’s absolute idealism.
Hegel’s idea of absolute idealism is really complicated, but in the basic sense it means “all reality is spirit”. The only way the mind and the world can interact with each other is if they have independent identities. The mind could only perceive the world if things in the world have characteristics of their own, and these characteristics are compatible with our mental facilities of understanding. The world and everything in it all constitute a collective mind, and the trajectory of history is determined by the absolute mind of the world reconciling its contradictions.
Of course, I understand that when people say “Socialism is too idealistic,” they aren’t talking about Kant or Hegel. But a big reason a Marxist would object to the use of idealism to describe socialism, is because Marxism is explicitly and fundamentally anti-idealist. Marx’s political project was saying Hegel was right, history is a process of the world reconciling its contradictions. But unlike Hegel, Marx argued that history is determined by material, economic distribution.
For Marx, there’s a slave economy, which leads to a slave revolt, which leads to a feudal economy, which leads to a peasant revolt, which leads to a capitalist economy, etc. Hegel argued that history was the process of ideas evolving (idealism), and Marx argued that history was the process of material distribution, ie political economies, evolving (materialism).
What people really mean when they say “Communism is too idealistic” is that something about it is impractical or incompatible with the way things work, so it’s wishful thinking to believe it could work. They mean idealistic as in quixotic or unrealistic.
So what is it about communism or socialism that’s unrealistic? After all, they’re simply economic systems. Communism is a method of how to organize wealth distribution, and so is capitalism, feudalism, etc. How can an economic system be “unrealistic”?
I’m assuming what people mean is that Communism doesn’t account for some factors that capitalism does account for. This thing that capitalism accounts for can’t be material, or economic, because the way people distribute material can’t really be “unrealistic”.
The common answer is “human nature is greedy”, which capitalism accounts for, and communism apparently doesn’t. But we know that “human nature” in the past has been highly cooperative when people lived in primitive communes, and even contemporary communes. Human nature is informed by our place in history and our relation to material, so of course, when people can’t see beyond capitalism, they assume everyone is greedy, because preserving capitalism depends on greediness.
The human nature argument is actually the bourgeoisie “class” nature more than an expression of “human” nature. The bourgeoisie goal—the task of property ownership—is to earn a passive income through ownership, and consequently, other people’s labor. The goal to capitalism is to consolidate enough labor power that you never have to work, and make a lot of money.
But, think about the people you know who work a wage job. Workers, even after dealing with a 40+ hour work week, and the everyday tasks they do to survive, still pursue hobbies that enrich society in their free time. People want to work, they want to express themselves, they want to generate and maintain the value in the world around us. But capitalism doesn’t allow us to take pride in our work, which then creates the idea that people don’t want to work. People do want to work if they fairly benefit from the value their labor generates. People want to work with their own supplies, to the benefit of themselves and the people serviced by their labor.
Imagine the U.S. abolished the military. This would put about 1.3 million Americans without jobs. In order to give the former military people jobs, the U.S. government could take data about the workforce and determine which industries were in need of specific types of labor. They could also invest the former military budget into infrastructure, and create thousands of jobs in improving our cities and transport.
Now, imagine that those 1.3 million people who were previously U.S. military, are now doing the jobs other people don’t want to do. A massive volunteer workforce doing necessary labor. This employment organization could even fulfill the same social niche of the military, where old people lionize the laborers who worked in this organization.
Someone could be doing something like cleaning toilets, and under capitalism that’s seen as a lowly job. But if they were getting fairly compensated, and were directly connected to the positive benefit of their labor, and were getting positive reaffirmation for their contribution to society, then of course they would want to work. People want to do good things and work together.
In conclusion, the reason people say communism is idealistic is because they see it as a fair economic system, but cultural, social, and psychological factors prevent it from working properly. Therefore, communism is idealistic because it is an economic system that doesn’t resolve those other factors.
The reason this argument is wrong is people underestimate how much impact the economic system has on culture, society, and psychology. Marx claims, and I completely agree, that those things influence our economy, but the economy influences those things back. Most importantly, the economy comes first, and has more of an impact on factors like culture and society than vice versa. Of course, they’re both constantly influencing each other, but the economic system forms and limits not only our culture, but our way of relating to others, and the way we conceptualize the world.