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The Fear of Socialism is Irrational

I'm not a socialist, but I'm also aware that your fear of socialism is completely unwarranted. Americans hate "socialism" because they are ignorant of the subject and know absolutely nothing about it. They have been brainwashed by Cold War propagandists and Fox News into hating something they know absolutely nothing about.

Yes, Marxist-Leninism and Maoism suck, but most "socialism" isn't that! Tankies are garbage, but most "socialists" aren't tankies. If you look at libertarian socialism (Kroptokin, Proudhon, Chomsky, Graeber, Zinn, Bookchin) or market socialism (Oskar Lange, Abba Lerner, John Stuart Mill, Richard Wolff, Yanis Varoufakis), it’s actually quite sophisticated and pretty brilliant. Also, it’s worth noting that some socialists see no role for the state in socialism at all, while others see the state as playing a central role in their model. Libertarian socialism and Marxism are basically antithetical models of socialism, and some forms of democratic socialism are quite similar to neoliberalism.

Revisionist Marxism (Eduard Bernstein) and Fabian Socialism (Shaw, Webbs, et al) basically gave us European social democracy as we know it. They pushed for municipal socialism (e.g. public ownership of utilities and sewage systems) and also helped to create the modern welfare state. In reality though, the modern welfare state was more of the brainchild of conservatives. Social democrats only came to support it when they realized it made things better for the working class. It was Otto von Bismarck who first implemented so-called "social democratic" style welfare measures. He didn’t do this as a socialist though. He was a conservative and he implemented these measures to make capitalism more bearable. He realized that Marx was essentially correct: unregulated markets tend to impoverish working people, forcing wages down further and further as working conditions become worse and worse, creating a situation in which the impoverished workers have no choice but to revolt and throw off their chains. Bismarck recognized this and realized that he could prevent a Marxian-type rebellion by regulating the market in a way that makes the working class better off. Other countries, even the United States, followed suit. Thus, we were given a minimum wage, safety regulation in the workplace, unemployment insurance, social security, universal healthcare in some countries, things like Medicare and Medicaid, etc. These measures made capitalism more bearable.

When modern "democratic socialists" (or social democrats) like Bernie Sanders talk about socialism, a lot of times they really mean something more like this mixed welfare system than socialism proper. Karl Marx himself opposed the welfare state. Marx wanted to nationalize all industry, not provide social insurance. The "socialism" of Bernie Sanders has almost nothing to do with the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. And, in spite of Bernie’s misguided sympathies towards the USSR and Cuba, his vision of "democratic socialism" has almost nothing to do with Leninist varieties of socialism. He looks to the Nordic Model of social democracy as his model. These countries have a model of so-called "socialism" that is fundamentally non-Marxist. Private-ownership, rather than State-ownership, is the norm in the Nordic model. Following in the footsteps of Eduard Bernstein, the "revisionist marxist," they throw out Marx’s core idea of nationalizing industry. Instead, they accept the bulk of his critique of capitalism but see widespread distribution of property and welfare provisions as a better means of solving our problems. Additionally, these social democrats also see gradual reform through electoral politics and representative democracy as the means to achieve their goals. This is in stark contrast to Marx’s idea of violent revolution.

These watered-down "revisionist marxist" and "social democratic" models of "socialism" are really far closer to the civic republicanism of the American Founding Fathers than to the Socialism of Karl Marx.

If you’re talking about this modern social democracy version of so-called "socialism," then you’ll find it is very similar to neoliberalism in a lot of ways. Some of its proponents, like Anthony Giddens, are quite indistinguishable from neoliberals. Neoliberalism has been the predominant conservative philosophy in America for the last century. If you look at conservative intellectuals like Milton Friedman, Martin Feldstein, F. A. Hayek, and Irving Kristol, you find that they don’t actually oppose the welfare state per se. They oppose hand-outs and means-testing, which is what they refer to as "welfare." However, they generally support welfare provisions when they are done universally in a manner like we see in Nordic countries. These conservatives supported things like universal healthcare provided through a single-payer insurance scheme and universal basic income. In fact, their vision of how welfare ought to work is far closer to Bernie’s democratic socialism than it is to anything Republicans in America are proposing today.

There are, of course, genuine Marxian market socialists like Abba Lerner, Oskar Lange, Fred Taylor, Richard Wolff, and Yanis Varoufakis, who advocate some sort of nationalization (or partial nationalization) of corporations in order to fund a social dividend out of the profits of industry. This, in my estimation, is not a bad idea. The general idea is that profits are socially generated and therefore ought to be appropriated socially. This follows the logic of Friedrich Engel’s "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific." It also makes sense since the government routinely has to bail out the largest industries in America once a decade just to keep the system from collapsing. If the banks, airlines, and automobile manufacturers have to be routinely bailed out, why shouldn't a share of their profits be nationalized and placed into a permanent fund to pay for a social dividend to all American citizens? If the American citizens must pay to bail them out in the bad times, these corporations should have to pay a dividend to all Americans in the good times.

Personally, I sympathize with this "Lange-Lerner model" of socialism but prefer an alternative non-socialist model known as "property-owning democracy" or "distributism," specifically the variety associated with Rawlsian political liberalism. Property-owning democracy is also the ideal system advocated by conservative intellectuals like Noel Skelton, G. K. Chesterton, and Irving Kristol (the father of neo-conservatism). But I also recognize that my ideal system would function somewhat analogously to the way Lange-Lerner socialism would function.

If you look at libertarian socialism, you’ll find Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker who are proponents of a stateless free-market system. You’ll also find Kropotkin and Bookchin who advocate delegative/direct democracy and confederation as an alternative to the Nation State model. Socialism isn’t necessarily a statist ideology, as half of the world's socialists are anarchists. A common saying among libertarian socialists has always been: "Not all socialists are anarchists, but all anarchists are socialists."

While I firmly find myself within the liberal-republican tradition, alongside Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, I don’t think that "socialism" is our enemy. I am not an anarchist, nor am I a socialist, but I also don’t think it’s wise to look at socialists and anarchists as necessary enemies. Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Stalinists, and insurrectionary anarchists are not to be trusted, but social democrats, libertarian socialists, and market socialists aren’t necessarily evil. And while I don’t like Bernie Sanders much and have specific policy disagreements with him, I don’t think it’s wise to demonize him because of his "socialism."

Even Marxism isn’t inherently bad. As I said, Leninism and Maoism are garbage, and tankies give Marxism a bad reputation. The reality, however, is that Karl Marx himself would not have gotten along well with Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao. Their ideas, in many ways, represent a clear departure from genuine Marxism. Marx opposed the authoritarian and elitist idea of a vanguard party. He thought that the revolution had to come about spontaneously, from the people revolting, not from elitist intellectuals and instigators inciting insurrectionary sentiments. He also didn't believe that a socialist revolution could succeed in a country that wasn't already in the advanced stages of capitalism. According to Marx, Russia and China weren't ready for socialism, so the experiments of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao would have been considered complete blunders. To Marx, socialism was the culmination of a natural evolution resulting from a historical materialist dialectic, not something that can be artificially achieved by a vanguard party or authoritarian dictator. Marx would not have recognized Lenin and Mao as his disciples, he would have seen them as Blanquist imposters posing as scientific socialists.

The term "socialism" has become nothing more than a slur or rhetorical device. No one that throws it around has any clue what it means. The reality is, it doesn't mean much of anything. There's no core essence of socialism, nothing that is universally agreed upon by all socialists. If you want to know whether socialism is good or bad, you'll have to look at the actual policy details and politics being put forth under the socialist banner, which will drastically change from one "socialist" to the next. All socialists are different.

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