Fun With Political Theory: Socialism

Socialism. It’s a word that gets many a Tea Partier’s panties in a twist, but what does it really mean? Let’s untangle the complexities of this bull of a word.

First of all, there are many breeds of socialism: Christian socialism, Fabian socialism, Marxist socialism, among many others. As we are learning, ideologies are often plural in and of themselves, which is why they can be so confusing.

The first thing to understand about socialism is that it didn’t start with Marx. Ideas similar to what Marx describes have been tackled by political philosophers for centuries. Thomas More, in Utopia, says, “Wherever men have private property and money is the measure of everything, there it is hardly possible for the commonwealth to be governed justly or to flourish in prosperity.” That said, Marx probably had the greatest influence on socialism. We’ll talk about him next week.

The main unifying point for socialists is that people are connected to each other and not atomistic individuals. What’s more, socialists explain social conditions in terms of economic and class relations (rather, than say, tradition as a conservative might, or rational individuals, as a liberal might).

When social conditions are sharply divided, an individual has less choice. In other words, when you are born into a certain class, you really don’t have the freedom to do as you would like. As a result, socialists think of individuals in terms their position in the class and economic structure.

Because class is so destructive to the choices anyone can make, socialist political programs should seek to eliminate class. Wealth and resources must be shared so as to avoid a government not by the people, but by the wealthy.

Socialism gets a bad rap because of the failed projects of the mid-twentieth century. No one wants to imagine themselves living on communist Russia or communist China. This is why many people fear the word ““ it is associated with terrible violence and un-democratic systems.

That said, there are many democratic forms of socialism, characterized by social programs that seek to level-off people’s position in society and that often have government-managed industries.

The example of this in the minds of Americans lately is a government-run healthcare system, which is seen in many European countries with socialist leanings. In terms of socialism, the burden of health care is seen as a a way of keeping the classes separate. As such, it is worthwhile for socialists to offer healthcare so as to eliminate that as a barrier to forming a classless society.

Contrary to what many Republican presidential candidates propose, socialism and its social programs do not necessarily mean that we’re suddenly living in communist Russia. Yes, socialist programs have gone terribly wrong, but there are plenty of socialist-leaning social programs that do a lot of good. It is irritating when certain people conflate one meaning of a word to mean the whole. That’s like saying all apples are bad just because you once had a single bad apple.

Next week, we’ll talk about Marx. I feel like I need to cue some ominous music.

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[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

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