"Socialism is that social system under which the necessaries of production are owned, controlled, and administered by the people, for the people, and under which, accordingly, the cause of political and economic despotism having been abolished, class rule is at end. That is Socialism, nothing short of that." - Daniel De Leon, "The Daily People" - January 23, 1906
Over the past year or two, with the rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders here in the US, the term socialism has received a serious boost in popularity. In fact, it has begun to be thrown around like some kind of buzzword, with no reference to its use in history or cultural significance. Worse, this is being done in ways that distort the word's actual historical meaning and importance. Today, in popular liberal parlance, the term appears to mean "any kind of social programs or regulation that a government performs," which is a meaning that seems literally borrowed from right wing proponents of corporate deregulation. Such a meaning is nonsensical, as it implies that any government in history can be called socialist, so long as it fulfills some sort of social advocacy role. The result is that one could even call Rome, under Caesar, a socialist empire, simply because they gave out free grain to the plebeians. We can and must do much better than this. As James Connolly pointed out,
“State ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism; if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials, but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labor, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.” - "Workers’ Republic" - June 10, 1899
For the best definition of any term we must speak historically, and historically, socialism in all its many forms, shares a few common characteristics:
1. Common ownership of the means of production within the social group: This is true of all versions of socialism, from the small scale Utopian communities to proponents of large scale state and global socialism.
2. Egalitarianism: All versions of socialism favor some form of egalitarian social and leadership structure in their communities.
3. Collectivism: All versions of socialism recognize the importance of communal organization and the dangers of putting the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.
These characteristics provide us with a solid working definition that is still broad enough, some I am sure, might say too broad, but I am attempting to be inclusive here, to cover a lot of diverse movements. This definition unites every major movement that has pretty much been called socialist from medieval Christian communalists, to Marxists, to anarchists, and everything else in between.
From this definition, we can see that the popular liberal definitions of the term socialism, or for some, and more popularly, "democratic socialism," are not socialist at all. Such “socialism” embraces American nationalism, individualism, and capitalism. Capitalism is inherently opposed to socialism, as it is defined by private property and competition among individuals, which results, inevitably, in inequality. This also shows that nations that are often called socialist, like those of Scandinavia, are not socialist at all. Finally, this further shows that utterly reactionary movements, such as the “National Socialism” of Adolf Hitler, are not only not socialist but diametrically opposed to actual socialism, as has been outline here.
How has socialism been interpreted? Historically, socialists have sometimes dramatically differed in their reasons for embracing socialism, ans sometimes, even violently differed in their understanding of how to implement socialism in the world. These historical struggles have produced three general types socialists.
1. Utopian socialists: I am not using the term Utopian here in a negative way. I am using it as Engels did to refer to socialism rooted in some form of idealism based in either religious or secular philosophies. The Christian communes that developed, broader movements like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and others that popped up all throughout western history, qualify as Utopian style socialists. Typically, these were limited to small scale and short lived communes as the people attempted to emulate early Christian communities, in accordance with Christ’s commands and the philosophy of St. Paul. In the modern era, Christian based Utopian socialism has become more broad, and is best exemplified by the “liberation theology”of Gutierrez
2. Scientific socialists: Historically, the first person who attempted to put socialism on a scientific rather than religious footing was one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Karl Marx. He did so along with his partner, Frederick Engels. So influential and so solid were their theories that it is literally impossible to discuss socialism without confronting them. Many, to this very today, equate socialism as Marxism, even though Marxism is just a major school within the broader socialist movement, itself. Marxism is an entire system of analysis with complete human liberation as its express goal. This goal is called "communism;" hence, this why Marxists are called communists. The method Marxists believe is necessary to achieve their goals is rooted in the revolution of the oppressed masses. It is dependent upon them seizing control of the means of production via revolution and then using state power to transition society gradually towards communism.
3. Anarchists: Anarchism grew out of disputes between Marx and other early scientifically minded socialists, mainly Bakunin, with whom, Marx had a famous disagreement at the First International, a meeting of the worlds foremost Leftists. Marxists and anarchists, essentially, share the same goal of achieving communism, but they differ on two major subjects. First, the primary dispute between anarchists and Marxists rests on the question of authority. Anarchists are vehemently against any kind of centralized authority, while Marxists, by and large, are not. Second, there is also the related question of revolution and the need for an intermediate socialist state before the implementation of communism. Anarchists, basically, want to move immediately to full communism rather than implementing a transitional socialist state, as Marxists believe is necessary.
I am deliberately painting this picture with a broad brush here, as socialism is, ultimately, a very broad concept. Further, the three subdivisions presented here also have very distinct subbranches and various intermixings of their own. Implicit in these differences are disagreements over how to implement and manage the intended society. Historically speaking each type has had varying degrees of success at implementing their intended goals. The Utopian communities were able to achieve their goals, at best, only on a small scale with tiny, short lived communities. When they attempted larger operations in the medieval period, including a wide scale revolution, now know to history as the peasant rebellions, they were ultimately crushed. Small Utopian communities have continued to pop up ever since, but no large scale Utopian socialist movement has ever succeeded in taking control of a government for any period of time.
Likewise, Anarchists have only been able to enact small scale short lived communes, with only two major exceptions. In the Ukraine, during the Russian Revolution, and in Catalonia, during the Spanish Revolution, Anarchists were able to seize power within the context of larger struggles. While state forces were occupied with fighting other forces, the Red Army in Russia and the Republican forces in Spain, they were able to enact temporary reforms; however, they were unable to implement their policies within the small regions that they controlled. They found themselves quickly forced into compromising their ideals in order to function and unable to defend against superior miliatry forces.
Marxists have, consistently, been the only socialists to both win revolutions and to maintain them for any significant period of time. This is evidenced by the fact that at socialism's height, two thirds of the planet was under some form of socialist government, usually some form of Marxism-Leninism. This could not be maintained, however, due to the development of a number of problems, both internal and external, to the states in question. Mainly due to the following reasons.
1. Most socialist nations were heavily underdeveloped. Often, they were literally living in a medieval state of technological and social development at the time of revolution. This, of course, put them at an immediate economic and military disadvantage, in relation to capitalist nations who had, typically, a one hundred years head start on them developmentally. This made competition extremely difficult.
2. Such conditions demanded the funneling of money into the military and industrial sectors, of course, at the expense of certain luxury items. This would regularly create a civilian population that was envious of the perceived abundance of luxury in competing capitalist nations, versus the lack of such material goods in their own nation.
3. A failure to resolve certain internal contradictions within these societies caused moves towards increasingly oppressive bureaucracy, revisionism of the original revolution, and ultimately, the reinstatement of capitalist economic policies. With these failures in mind, it is important to remember that these socialist experiments achieved mind blowing things. For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself here to the case of the Soviet Union. On the subject of economic growth:
“The adventure led from illiteracy to literacy, from the NEP to socialism, from archaic agriculture to collective cultivation, from a rural society to a predominately urban community, from general ignorance of the machine to social mastery of modern technology. Between the poverty stricken year of 1924, when Lenin died, and the relatively abundant year of 1940, the cultivated area of USSR expanded by 74 percent; grain crops increased 11 percent; coal production was multiplied by 10; steel output by 18; engineering and metal industries by 150; total national income by 10; industrial output by 24; annual capital investment by 57. During the First Five-year Plan, 51 billion rubles were invested; during the Second, 114; and during the Third, 192. Factory and office workers grew from 7,300,000 to 30,800,000 and school and college students from 7,900,000 to 36,600,000. Between 1913 and 1940, oil production increased from nine to 35 million tons; coal from 29 to 164; pig iron from 4 to 15; steel from 4 to 18; machine tools from 1000 to 48,000 units, tractors from 0 to over 500,000; harvester combines from 0 to 153,500; electrical power output from two billion kwh to 50 billion; and the value of industrial output from 11 billion rubles to more than 100 billion by 1938. If the estimated volume of total industrial production in 1913 be taken as 100, the corresponding indices for 1938 are 93.2 for France; 113.3 for England, 120 United States; 131.6 for Germany, and 908.8 for the Soviet Union.” Schuman, Frederick L. Soviet Politics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1946, p. 212
That is an insane level of development! Before 1953, despite famine and world war, a world war they bore the brunt of and ultimately won, the lifespan of the average Russian doubled. Additionally, illiteracy was wiped out, and full equality for women was achieved, along with universal suffrage and universal healthcare. Further, rapid scientific development lead to victory in the space race and the creation of the only economy that was able to go toe to toe with the mighty USA. This was done in addition to supporting working class struggles around the globe, as well as, supporting various peoples seeking to exercise their natural rights to national self-determination.
Only a complete fool would call such accomplishments, when taken in total, an abject failure. Far from failure, when we strip away capitalist propaganda and myth making, and when we understand historical context, what we see is a legacy of the human struggle for liberation, punctuated with both tragedy and amazing success. We see a legacy that we can join with and improve upon.
So, the question facing us all, as capitalism continues to stumble and fail, and as it devours our environment to the point where we literally face the choice between embracing a new socialist experiment or facing potential extinction, is very simple. Rosa Luxemburg, a leading German communist, put it most succinctly, "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism. Which will it be?"