What is socialism?

Last weekend, the Star Tribune carried a story titled – ‘New state senator’s Socialist ambitions will face reality at Minnesota State Capitol‘ – which described newly elected state Senator Omar Fateh (DFL) as “the only self-identified Democratic socialist in the Minnesota Legislature’. What does this mean?

The ends and means of socialism

In 2018, Gallup asked Americans:

What Is Your Understanding of the Term “Socialism”?

The leading response, with 23%, was:

Equality – equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution

But these are aims – and aims which, in the first two especially, are not particular to socialists. This definition does not reveal the means by which these aims are to be achieved. After all, a libertarian, say, is not defined solely by his or her aims – people free to do what they wish as long as it doesn’t harm others – but also by their proposed means of achieving them – drastically reducing the size and scope of the federal government, legalizing weed, ending foreign wars etc. Why is socialism the only political ideology defined solely by its aims – and woolly, widely shared aims at that?

What do the dictionaries say?

This is something of a mystery because dictionary definitions of socialism are all about the means.

Merriam-Webster offers:

1any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2aa system of society or group living in which there is no private property
ba system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

According to Dictionary.com:

1) a theory or system of social organization that advocates the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, capital, land, etc., by the community as a whole, usually through a centralized government.

2) procedure or practice in accordance with this theory.

3) (in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.

My old Penguin Dictionary of Politics says:

At its simplest, the core meaning of socialism is that it is a politico-economic system where the state controls, either through planning or more directly, and may legally own, the basic means of production.  

Whatever the aims of the socialists – and my Dictionary offers “In so controlling industrial, and sometimes agricultural, assets the aim is to produce what is needed by the society without regard to what may be the most profitable to produce” – the means which they mean to employ to achieve them are consistent and clear: extensive government ownership and control of the economy.

The greatest trick the socialists ever pulled…

Interestingly, when Gallup asked Americans to define socialism in 1949, the leading answer with 34% was:

Government ownership or control, government ownership of utilities, everything controlled by the government, state control of business

This is pretty close to the dictionary definition. Somewhere between 1949 and 2018, Americans or 23% of them anyway, adopted a definition unconnected with the actual dictionary definition. Socialism became simply a list of noble aims shared, in fact, by almost everybody. Hidden behind this flim flam was the reality of socialism, its means: the extensive government ownership and control of the economy. Given the 100% track record of spectacular failure of such policies, one can understand why socialists might want to downplay them. As rebranding exercises go, a capitalist could only imagine such success.

There is much more to be said about socialism: that its means never achieve the ends the socialists claim to seek and that there is an irresolvable tension in a world of diverse individuals between the aims of treating all equally and ensuring that all end up equally well off. But any examination must begin by being clear about what exactly socialism is.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.