In this post, I give 4 points about socialism that people should keep in mind, to have a coherent, broad, and systemic understanding of socialism, to prevent being bogged down in capitalist talking points.
In Kierkegaard’s writing, one of the most major themes is “preaching Christianity to Christians.” He was Danish, and he was repulsed by the idea that most Danish people, and Europeans in general, were Christian to the extent that it was the mainstream religious ideology that enabled people to partake in society, but people were woefully ignorant about what Christianity was actually about.
Knowing this challenges the popular idea that secularization is relatively new, as Kierkegaard died 30 years before Nietzsche wrote Also sprach Zarathustra. It also illuminates the Lutheran Reformation, because Kierkegaard wrote hundreds of years after Luther, and lived in a nearly entirely Lutheran country. If the Reformation was a mission to democratize Christianity, how could so many Lutherans be so uninformed about the doctrine of their religion?
A big reason he thought people misunderstood Christianity is because they understood it as an institution of mainstream society, rather than a radical process of becoming.
I don’t have the same hostility and vitriol for socialists that Kierkegaard had for Christians. American socialists are the most well-meaning political group in America. However, I think most Americans who became a socialist in the mid-2010s did so out of necessity, realizing how screwed American society is. In fleeing to socialism, they often understand elements of socialism when its applied to politics, but miss some of the more underlying theoretical elements.
After all, if you’re reading this in the US, Canada, parts of Europe, etc, you are probably aware of the level of propaganda we’re subjected to about socialism. The goal of this post is to simply flesh out a broader understanding of socialism to help resist this propaganda.
1. Socialism has no specific definition
We all know that conservatives have no clear definition of socialism, because they’ll call any democrat a socialist.
But, there actually is no specific definition of socialism.
There’s of course the “stateless, classless society” definition. But that’s also how communism is usually defined, so what’s the difference? Then there’s the “socialism is the stepping stone to communism” description used by Lenin, but that doesn’t offer much about what socialism is.
I’m, for the most part, a fairly orthodox Marxist, so I identify myself as communist, but I personally consider socialism and communism functionally synonyms, while also acknowledging that to many people they aren’t synonyms.
You may be thinking “well, what’s the point if socialism has no definition?”. I want to get ahead of that and say, it does have a definition that I’ll get to later, but first I want to highlight the many divergent ways socialism is used.
There’s a post on Underground Mall called “Misconceptions about Marx” – there’s the link if you want to read the whole thing, but here’s a passage (yes, I’m quoting myself):
“Before Marx, socialism was used to describe a swath of different alternatives to capitalism that sometimes had little to do with one another. It was a realm of speculative theory, imagining futures.
“For example, some early socialists include: Victor d’Hupay, who came up with the word communism; Thomas More, who wrote Utopia; Charles Fourier, who founded the utopian socialist movement. You can also include Jesus, who is a socialist figure in liberation theology and Christian theology, as well as Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, a companion of Muhammad who established Islamic socialist ideas.
“All of these people are certainly socialist, but they weren’t exactly communist. Even d’Hupay, who came up with the word communism, wasn’t communist in the way we understand it now, simply because he was writing in a very different time. When d’Hupay came up with the word, the Industrial Revolution had just started in England, and it was decades before industrialization spread to Belgium and Northern France.”
Then, when Marx came around, he attempted to synthesize a lot of socialist ideas before him, within his distinct approach to historical analysis. Because of this, he treats socialism and communism as near synonyms.
In other words, socialism’s definition has changed over time, with the only relevant characteristic between each permutation being an alternative to capitalism. However, Marx used socialism and communism as near-synonyms, and then Marxists after him used socialism to mean the step towards communism. These definitions, although contradictory themselves, ended up being the two that stuck.
This creates a lot of confusion, because people still use socialism in a wide variety of ways.
And it’s not just conservatives and liberals who use socialism in a variety of ways, but many different socialists do.
2. How we should understand socialism
When socialism was first imagined, it was an imagined utopian future. The problem with that is we all have an imagined utopian future, and it seems incongruous to label those all the same things.
Thankfully, Marx did a great job of synthesizing the socialist thought before him into something dynamic, historical, and encompassing.
His definition essentially combines the shared characteristic of all socialism(s) before him.
He writes in Communist Manifesto:
“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.
“They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. The abolition of existing property relations is not at all a distinctive feature of communism.
“All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.
“The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property.
“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
For Marx and Marxists, a revolution is when a society changes from one economic system to another. That’s why it’s erroneous to call the American war of independence a revolution – they maintained the British mode of production, and in fact, were less economically ‘progressive’ than the English in several ways.
The two main classes in a capitalist society is the bourgeoisie – the capitalist class – and the proletariat – the working class. Of course, there’s more classes, and indeed, there’s subclasses within those classes.
So while people will sometimes criticize Marx for being overly simplistic about class, reducing it to a dichotomy, this actually isn’t true. He acknowledges a lot of more specific classes in his writing.
I’ll use an ancient example: in Ancient Rome, there was a class of people who could be classified as proletariat. They were urban workers engaged in some type of employment. However, the slave class had much more political revolutionary potential, because they were a larger class, more oppressed, and had more of a direct stake on working with the means of production.
That’s why there were the Servile Wars in the Roman Republic, a series of slave uprisings. There wasn’t proletariat revolutions. In fact, a proletariat revolution at that point in history is anachronistic: no one could conceive a proletariat-run government in a primarily agrarian empire fueled by the master-slave social relation.
Having said all that, the way we should understand socialism is when society is run by the proletariat class. There are logical conclusions that would necessarily come with a society run by the proletariat, like, as Marx mentioned, the abolition of private property.
But what I would caution people to avoid is the idea that there’s capitalism and there’s socialism, and every government is a combination of both. That’s not true at all. Capitalist societies have socialistic elements, but they also can, and often do, retain elements of regressive class systems like semi-feudal agrarian systems, or slavery. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Socialism is not when the government does stuff
There’s a difference between social democratic Denmark and, say, the USSR under Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Both governments have socialistic elements and capitalistic elements. But no one could rightfully claim in good faith that they’re both “somewhere between capitalism and socialism”.
Denmark is and always has been a capitalist government. It’s designed to maintain capitalist class interests. The Soviet Union was not. The US has never desired to destroy, invade, or support a coup in Denmark. Denmark is part of NATO. They aren’t socialist. When history talks to you, listen.
I think a big reason for the idea that “Denmark is socialist” is that people in the US, and countries that are nearly as blood-suckingly capitalist, only know a society that’s singularly focused on the goals of one economic system.
But governments are informed by the economic system they use, and the economic system they use always privileges a class over the other classes.
In feudal economies (even in early slave economies, like Rome), there was a bourgeoisie class. But the bourgeoisie weren’t making policy, the lords (and masters) were. All of these governments had, what would now be called, ‘socialistic’ policies that helped the working class. If they didn’t have those policies, society would collapse.
There are many ways that socialist governments, and separately, socialistic policy, can look. This explains why Marx was cagey about describing socialism specifically.
Socialism is a government run by the proletariat, the dominant and primary working class in the global capitalist economy. And just like capitalist governments, there are a multitude of ways to run a government by the proletariat.
Saudi Arabia has a high degree of centralized state-planning in service of cripplingly violent capitalist enterprise. Denmark has a high degree of state social programs in service of caring for the working class, and regulate capitalist enterprise. The US has a large, powerful government that weaponizes capitalist enterprises to enforce capitalism around the world.
Socialist economies, or potential socialist economies, have a similar wide array of potential manifestations.
4. Socialism is not a utopia
All of this leads me to the point that: socialism is not a utopian political economy. Contrary to what some socialists might say, achieving socialism won’t achieve a perfect world. It won’t be the end of history. It won’t end conflict. It won’t even end inequality.
But, the agenda of a socialist government – making a society for and by the working class – would be a better and more efficient agenda than a capitalist government – making a society for and by capital accumulation.
It would certainly alleviate inequality, as much as possible. But within socialists, there are even debates about how much inequality there should be. For example, should doctors still make more than janitors? I think, probably, because it requires more training, and this is coming from a former janitor. But how much more should the doctor make? And should a high-ranking, more crucial worker get paid more than an entry-level employee? Well yeah, probably at least a little bit.
All of those decisions would be up to the workers to decide amongst themselves, rather than being dictated by a capitalist. For example, I used to work at a homeless shelter. The shelter manager was on call 24/7. She made decisions all the time that were hard to make, and had to do a lot of things that made the place function that no one else did. When I worked there, I, and my coworkers, would have definitely elected for her to make more money. She did make more money, but we weren’t the ones to choose that.
There will still be social, and even economic issues, under socialism. But socialism will be infinitely more equipped to deal with those issues. It’s simply the next evolution of political economy. In the same way capitalism was a major improvement over feudalism, so too will socialism be over capitalism. But it won’t be a utopia.
And a lot of the disagreements about how a socialist economy would specifically be like would play out after a socialist revolution, not before.
The point of this post is that, I think that many people who are newly exposed to socialism, come to that conclusion due to the nature of reality. That is, indeed, how most people come to socialism. Socialism is the logical conclusion of the lived experience of a working person.
But, after realizing that capitalist society is fundamentally broken, there needs to be some education. This isn’t because the working class is dumb: it’s the opposite actually. The working class will want to learn alternatives to capitalism, and will look anywhere to do it. And since we live in a capitalist society, surrounded by capitalist propaganda, the alternative that many people will find is more esoteric, hateful derivations of capitalism.
One of the best tricks of capitalist society, is conservatives love getting bogged down in absolute bullshit issues, and dragging you down with them. They focus on “by your logic”s, whataboutism, deflection, and rhetorical sophistry. Conservatives win on these grounds, because they have the status quo on their side.
The key to socialism is for socialists to see the forest through the trees. The key is to have a broader understanding of history and economics. The key is to think dialectically and analyze the world. The key is to not get dragged down into culture war bullshit. And most of all, the key is to tell people what socialism actually is, because if you have a vague notion of what socialism is, they will back you into a corner.