What Does Socialism Actually Mean?

socialismCourtesy of Americans Against the Tea Party.

This meme is implying that North Korea, Nazis, communist regimes, and a guy taking your money with a gun aren’t socialist, while roads, fire departments and healthcare providers are.  In order to get to the bottom of this we must define the term socialism properly.

Merriam Webster defines socialism as:

a :  a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b :  a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

Going beyond this definition, a society may function in 3 basic ways in regards to economic activity:
  • It can attempt to uphold capitalism, where private property rights are respected, and each economic actor is free to use their property according to their judgement, so long as it doesn’t violate someone else’s property rights.
  • It can attempt to uphold socialism, where private property doesn’t exist, and the state either makes, or has the authority to make all economic decisions.
  • It can have a mixed economy, where some private property rights are respected, and some economic activity is performed by the state.

No society has ever practiced pure capitalism, although some have come fairly close.  Most countries have some form of a mixed economy, with some more free, and others more controlled.  It could be argued no country has ever practiced pure economic socialism, although the Soviet Union was quite close as the best known example.

It’s true that everything on the right side of the meme is socialist.  Those are examples of the state performing economic activities.  Supporters of capitalism would argue these services would be provided without the state, but it’s certainly accurate to describe them as socialist elements in a mixed economy.

How about on the left side?  Do totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and North Korea count as socialist?  Certainly, according to the definition of socialism. They were/are systems where private property essentially doesn’t exist, and where the state controls the means of production.  Nazi Germany is normally regarded as fascist, but fascism is essentially the same as socialism economically, the difference is only cosmetic.  While there were “private” corporations under Nazism, they were private in name only.  The state had the power to shut down, and/or confiscate the wealth of any company for any reason, and even elementary economic activity like buying raw materials had to be approved by the state, and generally weren’t unless one was well connected or apart of the war effort. (here’s a good resource for the economics of fascism).  Some businessmen made profits under Nazism, but as the regime continued fewer and fewer escaped the clutch of the state.

As far as North Korea, they are about as close to true socialism as any country in history.  Their philosophy of Juche is rooted in Marxism/Leninism, applied to the belief that Korea has the best country/culture/people on earth.  There is perhaps no country in history that has less regard for private property, and more state control than North Korea.  There is absolutely no protection or rule of law protecting private property, and virtually all economic activity is controlled by the state.

How about the picture of the guy stealing money at gunpoint?  This isn’t incorrect when applied to socialism.  People don’t generally want to give up their property to the state voluntarily, so something has to coerce them into doing so.  This something is the threat of force, and everyone knows if you defy the wishes of the state, eventually force will be used.  The tax collector only asks nice once (if you’re lucky!).

With the popularity of Bernie Sanders, many on the left are advocating what’s known as democratic socialism, and are attempting to “re-brand” socialism in a new light, which is likely the impetus behind this meme.  Under this ideology, the state would be democratically elected, (unlike traditional Marxism/Leninism) but the economy would still function in a socialist way with state, not private control.  Basically, its supporters are keeping the socialist philosophy, but condemning the means that governments used in the 20th century to accomplish it.  So far, there aren’t really any good examples of this in the real world, as the closer a country gets to no private property and state control over the economy, the less civil liberties there are and the less democratic it becomes.  That might be why there are no examples of countries on the right of the meme.

1 Comment on "What Does Socialism Actually Mean?"

  1. There’s a sentence in the last paragraph which contains an error:

    “Basically, it’s supporters” should be “Basically, its supporters”.

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