Debates about socialism, communism, and capitalism are often marked by rhetoric, propaganda, regurgitation of propaganda, and plain misunderstanding of what these terms mean, especially in America. Unfortunately, whenever these topics are discussed they often evoke visceral, emotionally charged argument with little discussion of the facts. Most people can’t even agree on what terms mean, and this is a serious problem, demonstrative of the effectiveness of the state propaganda from both crony capitalist empires like America’s and of self-described “communist” empires like the old Soviet Union. No fruitful discussion can occur when people can’t even agree on the facts and essentially live in different realities. This short, simple article will provide clear and concise definitions in an attempt to clear this up. Although this article has a clear bias, it is a bias rooted in historical facts.
A purely capitalist system is one in which the means of production are run for profit and owned by individuals with no ties to the government. The latter part of this definition may sound appealing for those weary of government tyranny and oppression but when capitalism is put into practice, however, the state almost always becomes involved because state officials want a piece of the business. People enter government generally for money and power and so crony capitalism, state capitalism, or corporate protectionism is the only kind of capitalism that ever comes to fruition. In such a system private corporations that are not supposed to have assistance from the government or ties to it have both in the form of government subsidies, tax breaks, billion dollar bailouts, strike breaking by police, state wars waged to extract resources for these corporations, regulatory rubber stamping of environmentally destructive projects, nepotist hiring of former corporate executes as government officials and vice versa, laws that favor corporations bought by bribes, and money flowing constantly from one side to the other to protect the corporations, state officials, and their profits. In other words, it is a general disaster. Some make arguments for “pure” capitalism but this cannot exist in a world with imperialist governments or perhaps in any scenario. Even in a society without government should corporate monopolies continue to exist, they would just replace every oppressive government institution. State and local jails would be replaced by private prisons. State armies would be replaced by private military contractors and mercenaries. Private police would replace state and local police and so on, and they would have no obligation to answer to the public. If they continued to make money, that’s all that would matter to investors and shareholders.
On the other hand, there are two vastly different kinds of socialism: state socialism and libertarian socialism. In a state socialist system the means of production are owned purely by the state for the benefit of society. The problem with this is that when state socialism is put into practice, it is often co-opted by greedy actors within governments. There are positive examples of countries that have elements of state socialism (though these countries generally identify as “welfare states” as opposed to state socialist systems) like tax-payer funded health-care, education, and social programs that work quite well in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. Although these countries are still very capitalist, there is much more government intervention in terms of collective bargaining and social programs. But there are also examples like China, which claim to be “socialist” but truly have almost no worker protections and instead employ child labor and even slave labor in some parts. That is the problem with entrusting the government to implement socialism. It truly only works when there is mass participation from the people, it is organized from the bottom up, and people implement and push for it far more than any politicians. Taxation is still theft if it applies to poorer groups and is enforced by threat of force and incarceration, even if the money may be going to productive social programs. That is where libertarian socialism comes in.
In a libertarian socialist system, the means of production are owned by the people collectively for their benefit, so this means businesses are all worker-owned cooperatives or workplace democracies wherein there are no managers, no exploitation, no profit extracted from the labor of others by higher-ups, no money-based hierarchy, and the business functions to improve the welfare of the people and (ideally) the whole planet. This is the only kind of socialism that works reliably in mass. But unfortunately this kind of socialism isn’t what is thought of when people mention socialism in this country. They think of state socialism or countries that claim to be socialist in order to gain popular support when in reality they rule as dictatorships like the Soviet Union did. They tax (steal from) citizens to “improve social and economic welfare” but in reality just pocket most of all of it and seize the best of the worker’s products for themselves while brutally repressing dissidents and anyone who dares speak against them. The same is true of communism, which in practice is often analogous to state socialism. In communist systems, the means of production are taken over by “professional revolutionaries” that are supposed to represent the people’s interests with the goal of ultimately dissolving the state. The problem with this is the same problem with state socialism. The “professional revolutionaries” or “intellectual elites” who are successful in taking over the government generally fail to represent people and the stateless society never comes into being. Instead, fascism and dictatorship generally come in their stead as greed always infects positions of such power. There is also so-called “libertarian communism” but for the reasons stated that is arguably as much of an oxymoron as so-called “anarcho-capitalism.” Because cronyism and greed can infect all types of government, a more honest dichotomy than socialist or capitalist might be non-profit (as socialist systems are supposed to be but often aren’t in practice due to corruption) vs. profit, (capitalism). Even many large “nonprofits” make considerable money as the hierarchy in them attracts greedy, venal individuals to lead and siphon as much as they can for themselves.
The root of the problem is that no one is qualified or can be trusted with the power governments wield, which is why state socialist and communist systems are always doomed to fail. The means of production must be taken over directly by the people and run directly by the people without any intermediaries whether they be politicians, managers, “intellectuals,” or any one else. Of course, there can still be leaders who help educate the public and guide and inspire individuals but no rulers. There can be legitimate leaders if they have the merit to lead and no formal power but none who attain a leadership position solely by force. Arguably, the Soviet Union and other states that have or do call themselves communist or socialist have revealed the fundamental problem of the state itself. Without removing the state and giving workers and citizens direct control, representatives almost always become corrupt, (if they aren’t already) and as modern states are so large it is nearly impossible to have removed representatives who can represent millions in an enormous state. As the great anarchist thinker, Mikhail Bakunin, said in Statism and Anarchy, “No state, however democratic — not even the reddest republic — can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…But the people will not feel better if the stick they are being beaten with is called the ‘People’s Stick'” Voline similarly remarked in La Révolution Inconnue, 1917-1921, “Any attempt to carry out the social Revolution with the aid of a state, a government and political action, even should that attempt be very sincere, very vigorous, attended by favorable circumstances and buttressed by the masses, will necessarily result in state capitalism, the worst sort of capitalism, which has absolutely nothing to do with humanity’s march towards a socialist society.”
These immense differences between these philosophies have to be made clear when discussing state socialism, libertarian socialism, communism, state capitalism, and capitalism. The debate is so often reduced to false dichotomies, straw-man arguments, isolated historical examples, and boot-licking of people’s favorite dictators. In reality large economies will likely always be mixed. They will have elements of different systems as even the US has socialist elements like tax-payer funded libraries, fire departments, and public schools. Common people can’t be forced into any one economic system. We have to decide for ourselves. However, despotic billionaire CEOs, monopolists, plutocrats, dictators, warlords, war criminals, and other such types who are pulling all the strings and ensuring the world remains dominated by crony capitalism in some places disguised as “state socialism” can and must be forced to let us decide our fate ourselves. We must take back their stolen and ill-gotten gains and free our comrades in economic bondage. If common people had there way the world would be a mix of gift economies, cryptocurrencies, barter, and resource based economies in tandem with (ideally money-less) libertarian socialist elements and there would be some minor capitalism but it would die out as more people begin to understand money is not the root of happiness and is more often the root of evil and that survival via cooperation is much easier, more rewarding, and happier than survival via constant, ruthless, life-and-death competition based on inherited privilege, superstition, hate, ubiquitous, omnipotent institutions, and feudal hierarchy. Borders must be broken down. Communities, businesses, and broader economies must be voluntarily formed instead of calling a billion people with vastly different beliefs a unified “country” with a single flawed human being at the helm. That is always doomed to fail. What terms we use to describe the kinds of lives we want to live are less important than their definitions, especially when these terms are loaded with historical baggage, revisionism, and egregious propaganda. If we can’t agree on what they mean, we may consider abandoning them and say specifically (in simple terms) what kind of a world we want to live in because the world as it is now, fractured, broken, subject to constant exploitation, extraction, and destruction to satisfy the insatiable greed of our economic “masters” is not sustainable or beneficial to anyone but the 1%. And arguably it’s not even good for them as true happiness comes not from riding the backs of the less fortunate but from lifting each other up and we all need a habitable planet with clean air, water, soil, and biodiversity.
(Left picture: Prisoners work at Belbaltlag, a Gulag camp. Right picture: Women’s militia in the Spanish Revolution of 1936. )