What is Socialism? (Hint, its not deathsquads, being a Nazi or being unemployed)

Dr Ben Janaway MBChB  // @drjanaway

Politics is confusing, and that’s before the lying. Allegiance to a certain ‘movement’ is often fraught with ambiguity, with terms like ‘communist, fascist and liberalist’ often used more as insults than rationale. History teaches us that politics is divisive, with more focus on a person’s overall ideation than their views on particular policies. Or worse, on the actions of ancient leaders sharing that ideology.

I have been described as both a ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ within the same sentence. I’m not sure exactly how that would work, answers on a postcard.  I note that I was defending Britains national health service at the time. #facism

Often, old names and old ideas get mixed up in the new. For example, Stalin’s communism is often used as a standard for all of those believing in shared resource allocation. But I doubt most modern-day communists would advocate death squads. Adolf Hitler is sometimes described as a ‘socialist’, but I don’t think Bernie Sanders would advocate concentration camps.  A quick review of twitter will demonstrate how these terms have become diluted. People have bones to pick, and words can become their tools.

These tools are often blunt, inappropriate or downright stupid (See above.)

In order to help make sense of the madness, I will do my best to define socialism, and explain in some way its stellar rise to significance. Like it or not, most western societies are socialistic, or use many systems based on socialist principles.

What is Socialism

In socialist approaches, the ownership of resources generated and used by the population is owned by that same population.  Production and allocation of resource is limited to need only; no profit or surplus is desired or warranted. Decisions about resource allocation are made democratically, through discussion. This means that no one has any great power to manage any resource greater than their personal possessions. So if we all make cheese, we share the cheese.

This means simply that any resource you generate by work is for use by all. Similarly, any resource generated by your neighbor by his or her work, is for them, you and everyone else. Owning possessions for personal use, such as clothes, does not undermine the system, but is a practical limitation of the ethos. So you can have my cheese, and I yours, but as much as you need. You can use your own fork.

Democratic management of resource allocation and means of production is fundamental to a ‘fair’ society based on socialistic principles. Any dictatorship quickly undermines the system, as it poses significant risk of personal gain at global expense. Often the idea of democracy in socialism is described as a different movement of ‘Democratic socialism’, depending on whether the management system is centralized through government or not. The government makes sure there is enough cheese for everyone, and that no one has too much.

Regardless of the nuance, socialist approaches aim to ‘reduce societal inequality’ through ‘need based’ allocation of ‘fair production’.  Cheese or not.

Strengths and limitations

Political ideologies are often described in terms of their limitations. Socialism carries many moral trophies, with its aims of reducing social inequality, promoting fair use and democracy at the forefront. However, fair criticism has been made of potential limitations in societal progression. A lack of financial incentive to produce, a cornerstone of capitalism, has been suggested to hinder and social, technological or economic progress within the society or on the world stage.

It is worth noting that the incentive to progress is a human faculty, not a limitation of the ideology. However, in understanding why socialist approaches have failed in the past we cannot ignore human nature. How do progress without financial incentive is indeed a good question and suggests a change in global conscience rather than just policy.

How does Socialism differ from Communism?

 It is easy to conflate socialist and communist ideals.  In both systems, resource allocation is based on need only. There is no financial incentive to work harder or produce more, as a worker’s rewards are the same regardless.  The crucial difference between the two systems is that in communism, the management of resource is owned by the workers alone, whereas in socialism there is recognition of a need for centralized democratic management.

Socialists are often mislabeled as ‘communist’s due to the stark contrast both ideologies share against Capitalism. It is important to note that the two are different, and historical examples of failed societies, such as Soviet Russia in the case of communism, reflect the people and not the approach. Stalin was a communist and a murderer, you can be both, either or neither.

 What socialism is not

 Socialism is not ‘doing nothing’, ‘overthrowing the government’ or ‘being a commie’. Although I see no moral issues with communism, I do have concern with misattribution of ideology. It is clear that socialist perspectives value work for the greater good and recognise the value of democratic government in fair allocation.  Being a socialist is not the same as being an ‘anarchist’ or ‘communist’, it is often perceived as a moral decision based on valuing the fair work of all.

Im not even sure how being a socialist is equivocal with being  a ‘facist’, ‘Nazi’ or ‘Ultra right Zionist’ (thanks Twitter.) I suggest that if you encounter these terms, send the perpetrators this article.

Next week Communism

Sources 

http://www.worldsocialism.org/english/what-socialism

http://www.dsausa.org/what_is_democratic_socialism

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrei-markovits/on-socialism-social-democ_b_8399576.html

http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/100214/what-difference-between-communism-and-socialism.asp

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