Socialism is Merely Human: A Response

Richard R. Follett
Socialism is Merely Human: a response to Rick Phillips' Blog post, "Socialism is Evil"

The attraction of young voters to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has puzzled some observers. The bewilderment is often mentioned in conjunction with Sanders' declared vision of "democratic socialism," a phrase that challenges most Americans who remember the Cold War and the Soviet Union before its collapse. Soviet-style communism became the implied definition of "socialism" in American politics and still haunts our understanding of the word. Certainly it seems to haunt Rick Phillips' post of February 19, 2016, "Socialism is Evil."
Phillips presents a particular definition of socialism, which he then attacks from a biblically-informed view.  And his observations would feel compelling, but for my experience that no self-described socialist I've read or encountered would agree to the description. Some of these practitioners are devout and evangelical believers in Jesus (including some from presbyterian free churches in Scotland), so calling socialism "evil" charges them all with bad morality and a very flawed Christianity. I do not wish to "denounce capitalism" nor particularly to "laud socialism," but for the sake of brothers and sisters in Christ who believe in some form or degree of socialism, we might want a sounder sense of it. Neither "socialism" nor "capitalism" comes in only one variety; both have multiple expressions, and in most countries one finds political and economic systems that mix elements of both sets of ideas. If socialism were as simple and uniform as Phillips has asserted, it would not have attracted millions of followers over the past 200 years. Such a portrayal lays itself open to easy falsification, which will tend to undermine what is good in Phillips' criticisms.

Phillips posits three reasons why socialism is evil :
  1. Because socialism is a system based on stealing;
  2. Because socialism is an anti-work system; and
  3. Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil.
A full exploration would start from a different set of points, but for the sake of this response, we'll look at each of these in turn.

1. Because socialism is a system based on stealing
Contrary to this, socialists base their views on a recognition of human mutuality and interdependence.  Furthermore, many socialists have seen capitalism as based on stealing, arguing that because capital accumulation allows an individual or small set of individuals to exercise inordinate control over the laws and economics of a given community, they are able to force workers to accept the lowest wages they can get away with - in essence stealing the labor of the worker.   

The answers offered by early socialists argued for arrangements that allowed workers a more even negotiating situation, like legalizing trade unions. But for much of the nineteenth century, unions were not legal, and so socialism grew up as a critique of abusive wealth, but also of the ideology of liberalism that treated the autonomous "individual" as the basis of society, and of the individualistic competition of a market economy that offered few protections for average workers or their families. It argued that no one really achieved success merely on his or her abilities alone, but that in reality one was always part of a group, and that even new industrial concerns were team efforts that needed many people to make them prosper. So the "social" of socialism was put up against the "individual" of individualism before it ever became a coherent political movement or had come close to being a "system." This was a very human reaction from people accustomed to strong community ties, who were being shifted to a new economic reality that they did not fully understand. 

How we get from these early efforts to socialist systems of government is a long and winding path, but when we get there, we are confronted with variant models of socialism. Some no one wants anymore - like that of the Soviet Union. But others reflect the more gradual and democratic efforts of socialists in places like Sweden in the 1930s, with its "middle way" between revolutionary socialism and the faltering capitalism of the Depression era, or Britain's Labour Party in the late 1940s. While both versions took strong actions in the economy, in the end both left most of it in private hands. For decades their programs were very popular, and while one might question their effectiveness in the United States, they did work in parts of Europe. Most people in these countries would not have seen their social benefits as based in "theft." They would likely have defended them as a different and more just solution to provide goods everyone wanted than merely private initiatives had done up to then. 

In cases where there is widespread popular support, where taxation comes through appropriate representation, why should the provision of social services be construed as theft anymore than provision for military and security services?  One might argue about efficiency and particular arrangements, but a people freely choosing to provide healthcare for all, or inexpensive education, or help for the elderly and disabled, by paying their central government rather than a host of independent providers does not seem to meet the definition of "theft."  

2. Because socialism is an anti-work system
This assertion is most opposite to socialist theorists, all of whom have recognized that a society can only work when its people work. But more than that, socialists have often asserted the essential importance of work to being human, and have criticized those who do nothing but consume and collect their dividends from investments as being less fully developed, because they do no creative work and add nothing to the overall good of the community.  

The definition of socialism offered by William Morris in his 1894 essay, "How I became a Socialist," offers one of the most striking illustrations. After noting that even then socialism had acquired a number of meanings, Morris asserted,
Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all--the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH
For Morris and his contemporaries work was necessary for being fully human. The problem for them was that most work in industrial society reduced human beings to mere extensions of machines, depriving them of creative contribution and responsibility for the product. Morris believed that socialism could bring in a system that allowed for more engaged workers, not for less of them.  

Morris's socialist vision has not prevailed, but the assertion of mutuality and interdependence in contemporary socialist arguments still presumes people will each do their part.  Incentive comes from knowing both that to be human means to contribute to the community and that the good of one depends on adding to the good of all. For many socialists like Morris, a "wonderful life" cannot be lived without work. Morris was not religious in any conventional sense, but theistic and Christian versions of this exist. We work because we have been made to work; this side of the Fall our work is toilsome, but in Eden, Adam and Eve also had responsibilities - they had work to do, even when all good was provided to them. 

So we should object to any claim of public goods as "free." But it is more accurate to blame such claims on bad politics than simply on socialism.  More reflective socialists might talk of services being provided free of charge at point of need, but would balance this with recognition that to support it, citizens must bear the costs by their labor and their wealth. Even in socialism, the thief should no longer steal, but work and give back to the community.

3. Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil
Any highly centralized institution or corporation runs the risk of concentrating power, which can mean the power to do evil, even if intended for good.  Here we can note that the most successful democratic socialist governments have taken place in smaller states, where even central government is not far from the people. The size of a society seems to matter to what kind of system can be applied and still maintain justice with freedom; it might be that some arrangements work at lower and more local levels, that would falter at the higher. For instance, at a municipal level Americans have often accepted "water and electricity communism," where either a city provides a good (like water in my case), or grants a regulated monopoly to a small regional company (as with my electricity). The investment involved in such services requires full community support, and these have worked because of the active participation of citizens in oversight. Few would want the federal or even a state government to control these directly - because at that point, they get away from the local checks and balances that keep such services responsive to customer needs and relatively efficient. So we should be cautious with thinking that what works in the small scale will work the same in the large. 

But historically the largest concentrations of power in government hands have come not from "communist utilities" or socialist welfare programs, but from expansions of government when states have been at war or preparing for war. In the history of the USA, the largest government expenditures have been during our wars, dwarfing the spending on welfare programs. It has also been during wars or in the name of national security that the greatest curtailment of individual rights and outright government control of private property have taken place. So until we can get rid of war, we'll have concentrations of power to do evil.  Making such concentrations subject to frequent and open review is about as much as we can hope for.

How much and what aspects of socialism might be adopted in the US without undermining other things Americans value remains contested. But my Christian commitments do not oblige me to see socialism as inherently evil any more than to view capitalism as inherently good. Either can be abusive if treated exclusively and as absolute. Both approaches arise in a period when Christianity was being challenged as providing normative answers for society, and human reason alone was being elevated as the better tool. From such a context it follows that socialism offers incomplete solutions, but it seems a very human set of solutions, with all that being merely human implies. 

Richard R. Follett received his Ph.D. in British and European History from Washington University in St. Louis in 1996 and currently teaches world and European history at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Dr. Follett is working on instructional guides on the rise and history of political ideologies since the eighteenth century, and on the development and varieties of capitalism in the past three hundred years