Socialism has never worked It’s become a “truism”, repeated by right wingers and people who just don’t know much, about political theory It could be something someone tries to say when you tell them you voted for Bernie Sanders. “Pscht, Bernie Sanders, don’t you know that socialism has never worked.” Many don’t know much about the history of socialism or even really understand what socialism actually is. They hear the word socialism and they think of authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union or North Korea or even worse they might say “Hey, socialism doesn’t work” when they are having a conversation about someone like Barack Obama implying that Obama is himself is a Socialist. Now, it should go without saying that Obama is not a socialist but this actually has to be explained to some people this is true regardless of whether you are for or against socialism or communism or capitalism or social democracy I am not a socialist but I can only understand that if I actually know what socialism is. So, let’s begin there. Defined by a textbook: socialism is the collective ownership of a society’s means of production. Means of production could be non human resources used to produce things of economic value, like real estate or farmland natural resources, equipment buildings, infrastructure, roads and collective ownership of these things meaning workers or the public own them. Some define socialism as a system by which social equality can be achieved. In this broader way of thinking about it socialism could mean any kind of socialistic philosophies or attitudes or tendencies or a system that combines orthodox socialist practices with other constructs like capitalism For instance, you could say that some Scandinavian countries are socialistic by modern standards not because they have a system where the the government or workers own everything but because they have a system where there’s a relative greater amount of intervention by democratic government to protect socialistic ideals like egalitarianism, civil rights, equal education, environmentalism and the prevention of abuse by actors in the free market. These are capitalist societies and they’re definitely not not realizations of socialism as defined in a political science glossary but these are manifestations of socialistic inclinations, especially when compared to what goes on in many other developed countries. Socialism is an extremely broad umbrella term to describe a wide range of political, social and economic systems, movements and ideas. Let’s explore where socialism comes from, some of its variations and how they function in society. Some elements of socialism have ancient roots. Ancient buddhism taught that the individual and all other living beings are interconnected and interdependent and that all humans should be treated equally and with kindness. People often draw parallels between socialism and buddhism And many say that Plato’s republic first articulated the notion of a socialist state, a state that aims to solve social problems by government action, through higher taxes and redistribution of resources There are lots of other aspects of Plato’s Republic that don’t at all align with modern socialism. Socialistic ideals are seen being portrayed in the Hebrew bible, which in many places says that people should be treated equally and that we should be generous to the have nots. The book of Leviticus says “You shall not oppress or exploit your neighbor … love your neighbor as yourself.” Deuteronomy says “[god] enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing, that means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants” “Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers whether they are fellow israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities.” From Ecclesiastes “It is god’s gift to humankind that everyone should eat and drink.” From Psalms “Give justices to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Now this might get awkward for anti socialist christian conservatives but the new testament is also chock full of socialist themes. Jesus advocated that all people including government should provide for the poor and distribute resources according to people’s needs. Some quotes of the new testament: “All who believed were together and had all things in common and the sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.” “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own but they had all things in common.” “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.” “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.” “Distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” To take another religious example in Zoroastrianism the prophet Nasdaq the younger in 6 century persia promoted the implementation of social welfare institutions and collective ownership of property. Many ancient religions acknowledged the social nature of humans whether on purpose or by accident and promoted equality, caring for the needy and common ownership. The term socialism itself wasn’t used until the early XIX century in western Europe by philosophers and social critics like Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen. At first the word was used not to describe any one political system but as an abstraction, a philosophy that society could or should operate to serve the collective as opposed to just thinking about the individual. This was in the wake of the French revolution and in large part the reaction to the poverty and inequality that was growing out of the industrial revolution and then over the course of the XIX and XX centuries there were many, many different philosophies that branched out of this to form separate socialist intellectual movements; this is where the idea that socialism means any one thing is dispelled, when someone says socialism has never worked be suspicious that they are thinking very narrowly and really not taking into account how many different types of socialism there really are. And how different types of socialism and how different types of socialism have manifested or they might be completely clueless about history too. Many of the different flavors of socialism have some overlap and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive movements. One of the first schools of socialist thought was utopian socialism which in itself is sort of an umbrella of different theories but in this way of thinking socialists supposed that capitalist, factory owners and others would voluntarily hand over the means of productions to workers. They believed that this would be accomplished by way of education and conversation between socialists and capitalists until all the means of production were controlled by the collective and decentralized democracies. Many utopian socialist drew from christianity to form the rationales for their views. Utopian socialism has often been criticized for focusing too much on theoretical models on how the socialism might work and not enough on how it would be achieved, hence the name: utopian. Then there’s marxism. Now many people refer to marxism colloquially as communism even though communism can actually describe an array of different systems, some of which don’t even involve a state, which I’ll touch on in a second, but marxism is definitely not merely synonymous with socialism the way many people think. Marxism is a type of socialism or a type of communism, something very specific, and it’s not just an economic system it’s an entire philosophical worldview and a way of analyzing politics, and society, economics, history, religion, art, whatever; and there’s much, much more that can be explained about marxism than I’m able to cover in this video but as an ultra simplified overview political marxism is centered around class struggle, revolution and marxist historical theory of materialism. Marxism advocates a revolution wherein a society means of production are taken by force, rather than by reform or negotiation or slower forms of transition; the means of production would then be controlled by a proletarian state which in theory would lead to an egalitarian, stateless society that governs itself without coercive institutions. Really important point here: This is not what the Soviet Union or its quote “communist” successors achieved or were working toward, despite their pretenses Bolshevism, Maoism and the like are inherently right wing totalitarian perversions of Marxism. In direct contrast to marxism and other forms of state socialism is libertarian socialism where there’s an emphasis on having an state that’s either small and decentralized or completely non existent; one version of libertarian socialism is anarchism, which is a set of socialist movements that generally oppose the idea of hierarchies and authority altogether, especially the state really no variation or stage of anarchism involves government by definition and almost all schools of anarchism see any type of hierarchy as either unnecessary or unethical in any kind of human interaction, a boss at the workplace a leader in a social movement, whatever the case might be. Now, within anarchism, there is anarchist communism which seeks to abolish not only the state but all markets, money and private property in exchange for communal ownership of the means of production and decentralized grassroots direct democracies. There’s anarcho syndicalism which can be thought of as a sort of extension of anarchist communism where the means of production are controlled by confederated trade unions called syndicates, this type of anarchism actually manifested in Catalonia, Spain, right before world war 2; in this instance socialism worked. Almost all industries and aspects of the economy were collectivized and society functioned efficiently without capitalism or money. Catalonia was able to provide quality healthcare for its 2.5 million inhabitants. Under anarcho syndicalism Catalonia saw a growth in wealth and production and absence of poverty, more schools were built all around objectively better public services were provided and they had a highly effective military which they constantly used to protect themselves against the Spanish nationalist forces during the Spanish civil war. George Orwell described what he saw when he visited Catalonia in the 1930’s. “It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. [This] shows you what human beings are like when they are trying to behave as humans beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” Anarcho syndicalist communities also existed in Chiapas, Mexico which first developed in the 1990 under the Zapatista movement, today they successfully provide adequate education and healthcare services for themselves. They have sustainable and ecologically sound agricultural practices which provide more than enough food and they’re champions of women’s right and the rights of indigenous mexicans. And they are many other types of socialist anarchism. By the way socialist anarchism should be redundant because things like anarcho capitalism present oppressive economic hierarchies of authority that are inherently non anarchistic but with all the “ancaps” running around on the internet these days it’s worth just clarifying that point. Beyond anarchism there’s democratic socialism and social democracy which seek to implement the principles of socialism in the context of a democratic and sometimes capitalist state. Principles like equality, social justice, environmentalism, civil liberties, free speach Democratic socialism and social democracy differ from anarchism obviously because there is a state, They differ from Marxism because they are frequently thought of as systems that are thought of as achieved through reform, as opposed to revolution, or they’re thought of as vehicles for reform to something else, and they also don’t carry many of the other characteristics of Marxism. Democratic Socialism and Social democracy are oftenconsidered more centrist than Marxism or anarchism, and according to many, are even compatible with capitalism or at least some elements of capitalism. In other words, in democratic socialism and social democracies, you can have markets, but the state provides a great deal of regulation and social welfare. Distinctions are sometimes made between democratic socialism and social democracy. in that democratic socialist states will ensure that major factions of industry are publicly owned, while social democracies tend to exist within more capitalist frameworks. Currently, no counties in the world really for the description for democratic socialism, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez claimed to be democratic socialist, but it was, and still is by the way, just another right wing, oppressive, authoritarian type of socialism. There are a handful of countries today that can be accurately described as social democracies. Modern social democracies allow egalitarianism, Things like social welfare, universal healthcare, and representative democracy to flourish with in the context of capitalism. Think of countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Modern social democracy is sometimes referred to as the Nordic model. These countries have free college, free graduate school, free or inexpensive world class health care, paid through taxes. Compared to other developed countries, generally speaking. they have lower rates of crime and a higher quality of life. Socialism has been used to solve economic problems for millennia, in a wide variety of places and in different forms. Sumeria circa 2100 BC, had a state planned economy. Food was directly distributed through the state. Evidence of their bureaucracies can be found written on tens of thousands of clay tablets, excavated in modern day Iraq. The code of Hammurabi in Babylonia, around 1750 BC, fixed the wages of workers and capped how much physicians were allowed to charge their patients. In Egypt, during the Ptolemaic dynasty from 323 to 30 BC, the state controlled the means of production and every aspect of commerce. The government owned all of the land, and decided what crops should be grown and where. It controlled the mines, the production of oil, salt, paper, textiles, and everything was funded through an intricate taxation system. Under emperor Diocletian during the third century BC, Rome responded to harmful monopolies and widespread poverty and unemployment, by nationalizing all major industries and creating tons of public works projects. The Chinese emperor Wu of Han in the second and first centuries BC, to combat growing monopolies and wealth inequality, established an income tax, nationalized natural resources, regulated trade, fixed prices, and established public works. The longest lasting use of socialism is thought to be the Incan economic system between the 13 and 16 centuries, Everyone in the society collectively organized every aspect of agriculture, labor, trade, and transportation, and a census kept track of materials, individuals, and income. The Incan people graciously participated in this system, in exchange for security and food. And it worked, despite the massive size of the Incan territory. And it only fell apart because of the arrival of the Spanish in 1533. Responding to someone claiming that socialism has never worked, I would remind them that, to the extent that socialism has been tried, Where ideas and tendencies of democratic, egalitarian, left-wing socialism, have been woven into political and economic life, and haven’t been nullified by right-wing phenomena like totalitarianism, police states, and oligarchy, the results have been good. The right-wing, or conservative, or classical liberal dogma in the US, is that higher taxes and a strong public sector are just awful. They say these things inhibit economic growth and innovation, or that the welfare state and thorough regulation of markets, is unsustainable, or even that these things endanger individual liberty. As progressives, we know that’s not true, or really anyone who has looked at the data or studied truly democratic applications of socialism, would know, that’s not true. Look at Scandinavian countries today, Or even countries like France, Ireland, Canada, or New Zealand, which share some of the same characteristics. No matter what lens you look at these systems through, they are the best game in town. And again, these are capitalist societies, but they borrow from socialism. In terms of economics, these societies see economic growth at higher rates, lower unemployment, higher rates of job creation, better productivity per work hour, lower poverty, less homelessness. In terms of social issues, there’s greater gender equality, better education, better education equality, more social mobility, better healthcare, better quality of life in general. Socialism doesn’t necessarily mean Marxism or communism, and it doesn’t have to mean abandoning things like individual rights. Entire branches of socialism are centered around individualism as their highest value. In many of its manifestations, socialism just means, allowing government to more efficiently do what we already called upon it to do: protect people’s rights, protect people from abuses of the free market, and provide social safety nets. And neither I, nor any reasonable person, want to achieve those things through the power of one authoritarian person, or small group of people. It should be done democratically, through representative government, or genuine communal ownership, like it’s done on every place on earth where socialism has worked. Socialism, when combined with democratic values, which countries like the US, in principle, hold dear, can give us something desirable, in terms of preventing the working class from being exploited by the rich and corporations, preventing devastating wealth inequality, and providing basic human needs like healthcare and education. Many other societies have shown us that these things can be accomplished without anything reminiscent of the extreme examples often pointed to for people to claim that socialism doesn’t work.