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On “Real” Socialism

Summary:
As children die of hunger in Venezuela, an old line is making a comeback: it’s not real socialism! One version of this reply alleges that socialism requires that workers directly control the means of production. So even though the Venezuelan government has placed over 500 companies under state control, this system qualifies “state capitalism” rather than socialism. I won’t address this move except to mention that there are plenty of cases where socialists are happy to identify socialism with state control—see, for instance, the Democrat Socialists of America’s explicit endorsement of “government-run healthcare.” The version of the “not real socialism” argument that I’m interested in is the one that claims Venezuela isn’t socialist because it doesn’t live up to the stated goals

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As children die of hunger in Venezuela, an old line is making a comeback: it’s not real socialism!

One version of this reply alleges that socialism requires that workers directly control the means of production. So even though the Venezuelan government has placed over 500 companies under state control, this system qualifies “state capitalism” rather than socialism. I won’t address this move except to mention that there are plenty of cases where socialists are happy to identify socialism with state control—see, for instance, the Democrat Socialists of America’s explicit endorsement of “government-run healthcare.”

The version of the “not real socialism” argument that I’m interested in is the one that claims Venezuela isn’t socialist because it doesn’t live up to the stated goals of socialism. Here’s an example, picked more or less at random, from Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs:

“Like many other examples of radically authoritarian “socialist” regimes, the collapse of Venezuela tells us a lot more about the problems of dictatorship, corruption, and incompetence than it does about “socialism” . . . Venezuelan “socialism” is socialistic in name only. In fact, the government is comprised of corrupt elites who have barely pretended to be socialists, and have recently been abandoning even the label . . . They are wealthy and self-interested, with no real concern for equality.”

On Robinson’s view, generosity and equality are baked right into the definition of socialism. Indeed, he is refreshingly explicit about this: “If there isn’t equality, there isn’t socialism, no matter what the country’s leaders may choose to call themselves. Dictatorships are profoundly unequal, and since my politics demand equality, you can’t indict my politics by pointing to a highly unequal society.”

If we define socialism in terms of a moral ideal, then a greedy political regime with little concern for equality and the common good can never, by definition, qualify as socialist. But as Jason has pointed out, we shouldn’t build moral principles into the very concept of socialism. For one, this move makes arguments about the moral status of socialist institutions completely uninteresting. To evaluate socialism, we need not look at the real-world outcomes produced by (ostensibly) socialist regimes; we need only check the words Merriam-Webster uses in its entry titled “socialism.”

But I want to make a different point. Socialists who play the “not real socialism” card when real-world regimes fail to produce a worker’s paradise are thereby deprived of their right to criticize fascism. After all, consider these descriptions of fascism from Mussolini:

“Fascism establishes the real equality of individuals before the nation […] The object of the regime in the economic field is to ensure higher social justice for the whole of the Italian people.”

“When the war is over, in the world’s social revolution that will be followed by a more equitable distribution of the earth’s riches, due account must be kept of the sacrifices and of the discipline maintained by the Italian workers. The Fascist revolution will make another decisive step to shorten social distances.”

“We are fighting to impose a higher social justice. The others are fighting to maintain the privileges of caste and class. We are proletarian nations that rise up against the plutocrats.”

If one judges socialism in terms of its stated ideals rather than its real-world results, then why not do the same for fascism? Sure, Italy actually produced a police state, caused widespread poverty, “murdered many thousands of civilians, bombed the Red Cross, dropped poison gas, starved infants in concentration camps and tried to annihilate cultures deemed inferior.” But a fascist could simply respond in exactly the same way that Robinson does, namely by saying, “If there isn’t social justice, real equality of individuals, and a fight against privilege, there isn’t fascism, no matter what the country’s leaders may choose to call themselves.” Few would take the “not real fascism” reply seriously; I see no reason why we should treat socialism any differently.

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