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    Reflections on Socialism: Definitions

    April 20, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    This weekend, I began drafting some thoughts which became a series of posts I’ve decided to call Reflections on Socialism. I’m not a perfectionist, but I am a realist and none of them are really ready for posting. But then it dawned on me that in order to think about things properly, I need to lay a foundation, which is to say that I need to define my terms.

    And I’m going to define a few different words in order have a broad base from which to discuss. I am not a dictionary, so this will be long and winding rather than short and concise.

    Socialism: Socialism is an economic perspective, a system of theories about how the world, especially economics, works {or should work}. When applied in the real world, it is collectivist in nature. What this means typically is that property is held in common ownership rather than private ownership. This idea of property would include both land and also the entire economic chain, the means of producing goods {like a factory or a farm}, and the means of distributing those goods {like a trucking industry or stores}.

    In early America, Jamestown is a good example of socialism. The colonists starved for years due to their economic philosophy, which was socialist in nature. In this instance, everything any colonist earned was put into a common store, to be shared by all. This was something the colonists had agreed upon together {at least initially}. In Industrial countries, socialism takes on a more frightening form, because it usually involves confiscation of property on the part of the government. More recently, it is the helpful hand of the government in the form of a bailout.

    It is important to note that Karl Marx believed that socialism was a stage following capitalism that a society passed through in order to reach the goal of communism.

    Socialism is not an epithet. However, there are many people who hold to this perspective who do not like the term. The term, however, should be applied if and when it is accurate, and regardless of how a person feels about the term. Using correct terminology is the only way to think properly about a thing.

    Communism: It has been said that all communists are socialists but not all socialists are communists, and this is true. In fact, utopian socialists who are not familiar with Marx are often shocked when someone implies that socialist ideology might or will lead to communism.

    The technical differences between communism and socialism are harder to explain. For instance, in high school I was taught that communism was socialism in a hurry. But this isn’t exactly true, though there is typically more violence on the part of the state when a country is becoming or is officially communist.

    I suppose there is a sense in which communism is socialism refined. For instance, Jamestown would be called socialist because the villagers held all things in common in a literal sense. A distinction would be a communist nation where everything is held in common, which is to say the State owns everything {or controls it, which is the ultimate test of whether property is actually private or not} and the citizens are under various stages of illusion about ownership depending on their relationship with the Party in power.

    Communism goes beyond economics, though. Communism necessitates a totalitarian state, controlled by a single political party, which controls social activity as well as economic activity. In fact this is why we use the word totalitarian, because the government attempts to control the total, the whole of a society.

    Fascism: This is a variation of communism that most academics have difficulty defining. As an outsider looking in, I would say that fascism seems to be the name we use for communist countries which possess the additional distinctions of a strong sense of nationalism and sometimes racism.

    Like communism, fascism is characterized by a strong central government, but power is generally dominated by a central figure {a dictator} rather than a central party. So, for instance, I would characterize Russia as communist with its domination of a Party rather than a figure {though it was considered fascist under Lenin}, compared to North Korea under Kim Jong-Il. Of course, it isn’t popular to consider any nation to be fascist these days, so I understand I am in the minority. However, it is helpful to make distinctions, and it is terribly hard to distinguish between fascism and communism.

    I don’t know that Kim Jong-Il is a terribly attractive personality, but fascist countries in general tend to revolve around a cult of personality. The central leader is, at the very least, initially attractive to the people. Either that or he is very, very scary and the people acquiesce out of fear.

    Technically, fascist countries are not completely socialist, but it is my belief that this is only an illusion. Freedom within a fascist country is almost identical to that under communism, meaning that citizens have the freedom to conform. If they do not conform due to race {like Jews under Hitler} or politics {like individual Christians and political leaders under the same}, they quickly find they have no freedom at all, and the government confiscates their property.

    Fascism, like socialism, tends to be used as an epithet at times, and this should not be so. I will never forget the day my high school principal called my father a fascist simply because he did not agree with him. My father, naturally, was not espousing a single tenant of fascism, which flies in the face of the classical liberalism to which my family ascribes. However, it is typical to misuse words in order to silence opposition, something I hope to avoid in this series.

    And, incidentally, I do not intend to solve the world’s problems in week.

    In case you were wondering.

    Keynesian Economics: The theory is the namesake of John Maynard Keynes, a bisexual British economist who, incidentally, advised the US into prolonging the Great Depression {that is an opinion, granted, but a pretty good one, I think, as I got it from my incredibly handsome husband}. If Marx had ever wanted someone to build a bridge between capitalism and socialism, Keynes was his man. What we are seeing now in our own government, with both George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, is the influence of this sort of thinking.

    Keynesian thinkers are the ones that say things like “such-and-such company is too big to fail.” This assertion is based on a global perspective of economics: that one company can begin a domino effect. Now, I suppose we would all admit that such effects are possible and we have seen them before. But Keynesian economists go farther and say that the possibility of a domino effect necessitates the direct and indirect intervention of the State. So, for instance, in the case of AIG we have a big company that certain economists say could cause a domino effect, which may or may not be true. Keynesian thinkers assume that we can {a} know that this is true for sure and {b} choose to intervene in such a way that will bring about desired outcomes.

    Keynesian economics, in my opinion, has a romanticized view of the State, assuming that the State is {a} qualified to make such judgments and also {b} able to act in such a way that it both prevents disaster and does not cause any negative side-effects by its actions. In Keynesian economics, the State is usually seen as immune to all of the laws governing the economics of private companies.

    One additional important idea if Keynesian economics is the goal of full employment. Employment is a form of compensatory slavery in this sense, with employees under the power and authority of an employer. This is to be contrasted with the distributist goal of a broad base of citizen-owners, something I explain more below.

    Classical Liberalism: Let’s start by deconstructing these terms a bit. Classical tends to refer to the idea of “traditional.” Here, I’m using the word classical as a contrast to the word “liberalism” standing alone, which these days has no resemblance to its former meaning, having been hijacked by politicians. The word “liberal” is rooted in the Latin word liberalis which deals with freedom, or something befitting the free.

    Which begs the question: free from what, exactly?

    Or begs an even better question: free for what, exactly?

    So here we have a traditional {“classical”} view of the philosophy called liberal, which is dealing with freedom, a citizenry of free people.

    The most concise document to point to in this instance would be the Declaration of Independence, which explains that God created people equal, meaning that they are all meant to be free and have certain rights which shall not be denied them. The Declaration calls these rights life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, the “pursuit of happiness.” It is important to note here that the idea of pursuing happiness was, in the context of its time, tied to personal economic development and the ownership of property.

    I could write for days and days about the classical ideal of liberalism, but I will try to be brief about my ideas in order to prevent boring even myself.

    The idea is that people are free because it is their nature to be so, not because some official somewhere decided that this suits them. This is why, for instance, the Bible encourages slaves who are able to attain freedom to do so; it is human nature to be free, bound only to God and His commands.

    Because the idea of freedom is rooted in nature, it follows that humans are not free to do anything and everything they please. However, it also follows that because this is rooted in nature, we don’t necessarily have to meddle in the affairs of others because nature’s God has built nature in such a way that discipline follows fools by way of natural consequence.

    But we’ll discuss the book of Proverbs at a later date.

    Since I’m trying to define terms, I will say that classical liberalism can be seen in contrast with the other terms in this list. This idea rests on a firm conception of private property and also personal responsibility {and not State responsibility}. The State exists by and for the people {not the other way around} and the State should be as small and limited as possible because, as one of our Founder’s wrote, men are not angels, therefore power must be checked and balanced.

    In regard to economics, Classical Liberalism rejects State intervention and State ownership as a matter of course.

    Capitalism: At its core, capitalism is quite simple: an economic system or theory based on private ownership and private control of land, the means of production, the means of distribution, and all profits gained by economic activity.

    Capitalism is often portrayed by Hollywood as a form of greed. If it is greedy to want to own your own home, raise a cow on your own property, drive your own car, or simply make your own choices with your own money, then pretty much every human being is guilty of this sort of greed.

    It is important to note that while some capitalists are greedy, capitalism does not necessitate greed. Capitalism is simply an economic system based on private ownership and limited State intervention.

    Distributism: I have to mention this one as it was the belief of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributism is, I believe, an ideal. Those of us who express any sort of distaste for capitalism are usually upset not at the idea of private ownership, but at the abuse of the power wielded by the rich or, worse, huge impersonal corporations. Even my father, a staunch capitalist, once expressed concern over what happens when businesses get too big.

    Chesterton once said that when we feel this way, it is not because there are too many capitalists, but because there are too few. This idea has a connection with agrarianism, which I won’t define except to say right now that it is a agriculturally-based economic system.

    The theory of distributism maintains a goal of all the parts of capitalism {property in all its forms and functions} being available to as many citizens as possible. The ideal would be like what we saw in the LORD’s founding of Israel, where each family owned a portion of property {except the priests, but we won’t go into that}.

    Distributism holds up a capitalistic ideal that desires not a select few rich people and the rest of the citizens having mere jobs, but as many families as possible being self-employed owners of productive property.

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  • Reply Ken April 22, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    The irony of being called a facist by your high school principal was the interesting history we had. He was my government teacher when I was in high school. My beliefs in personal liberty could be directly attributed to him because when he was a young teacher he had a strong libertarian bent but I am sure he changed his thinking in order to climb the school ladder and having his brains sucked out by the teacher union. I wonder why I couldn’t win a school board election?

  • Reply Si April 21, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Good definitions and explanations, dearest. I’d like to make a few clarifications.

    Fascism is hard to define; they is no consensus. In his book Liberal Fascism, Goldberg describes fascism as a religion of the state. Just like Soron in LOTR drew all the powers of evil to himself to wage war on Middle Earth, so a fascist government draws all power into its arms. Fascism takes on the flavor of the society in which it resides. So Italy’s fascism looked different than Nazi Germany’s fascism, which looked different than Woodrow Wilson or FDR’s fascisms.

    Today, the term “fascist” is used as an epithet for right-wingers. This denunciation toward the Right developed from Stalin’s criticism of the Nazis, who refused to stay at peace with the USSR. Stalin used his propaganda machine to label anyone who disagreed with him “right wing.” Even though Nazi Germany and the USSR basically held the same economic and political philosophy (Socialism), the Nazis became known as hard right-wing fascists. Though false to the core–the Left lean fascist, not the Right–this right-wing label has carried over to today. So, your dad being called a fascist was actually a poor description of his conservativism.

    Regarding Keynes, he also believed (and convinced FDR) that government spending would lift a nation out of an economic depression. His big-government spending ideas also are at work around the world today.

    If at first a bad idea doesn’t succeed, try, try again.

  • Reply Kimbrah April 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    This was a very good overview/defining. I am very interested and excited for this series to get underway! 🙂


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