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Socialism, Communism, and Other Big Scary Words
Your school didn’t teach you this stuff because they don’t want you to know.
August 12, 2022
During political campaigns, Republicans fling vile charges of SOCIALISM!!!! COMMUNISM!!! MARXISM!!! against Democrats, who don’t know how to respond. Then social media erupts again. Most Americans don’t know what those terms mean. But that never stops them.
Republicans hurl these accusations to scare you into voting for them, and against Democrats.
Sadly, it often works.
The American midterm election will occur on November 8. It’s called the midterm because it falls in the middle of the president’s term of office. Our last presidential election was in November 2020; the next will be in 2024, so 2022 is the midterm. Americans will elect every US House member and one-third of the Senators – those in Class III.*
Most people think that all of these words define types of government. They do not.
Some are economic terms; some are political.
Economics studies the ways in which people use their resources – primarily money – to produce, distribute, and obtain goods and services. The field makes many assumptions about people when trying to predict how they will act. In my experience, most of those assumptions are wrong. An old economics joke claims that if you line up all the economists in the world end-to-end, they’ll point in every direction. It’s true.
Politics refers to the ways in which governments are organized and the ways that people interact with their governments. The word comes from the Greek word polis, which means “community”.
Each country has a political system and an economic system.
- Capitalism is an economic system based on entirely private ownership of all property and all productive facilities – factories, farms, and service entities. It demands a laissez-faire approach from government, meaning that government is not involved in any way with the production, sale, consumption, or use of any products or services. The company is always right. The company always has all of the power.
Capitalism arose during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Adam Smith defined and explained its principles in Wealth of Nations in 1776.
In a truly capitalist system, there is no government involvement of any kind. There are no public schools, libraries, police departments, sidewalks, hospitals, or charities. There is no social security program, unemployment compensation, or public assistance system. The “market” controls the economy and all financial dealings.
Most Americans can’t define capitalism, but believe that our Constitution requires the government to support it as the official national economic system. It doesn’t, but they believe so because our schools produce politically and economically illiterate citizens. Capitalists are bullies and pure capitalism is a monumental failure.
- Under a Communist structure, the people own all property – factories, farms, businesses, land, etc. – in common, in a classless society. A central authority – a committee or a dictator – makes production, distribution, and management decisions. That authority is supposed to make those decisions in the best interests of the public.
Communism is usually associated with Karl Marx and the Soviet Union. However, most of the indigenous cultures throughout the world practiced communism for thousands of years prior to the modern era. They just didn't have a name for it.
- If you can picture capitalism as one extreme and communism as the other, then socialism is the range of options between the two. Assets can be held in common by the people, under the government, or are privately owned. There is usually a blend of the two alternatives. Government, citizens, and business owners all have some control over the decisions.
There is no purely capitalist country. Even people who call themselves “capitalists” want some government involvement in their businesses. They don’t want limits on their business activities or their relations with employees, competitors, or customers. They do want protection in copyright, patent, trademark, international trade, and bankruptcy issues – all of which are guaranteed by our constitution. They want exemptions from many laws. They certainly want tax breaks and government bailouts. None of them really want competition.
The public wants minimum wage, fair labor practices, environmental, health and safety, child labor, income security, and consumer protections – all of which working people had to fight for.
Conservatives excoriate socialism with all the scorn and venom they can muster. But they can’t wait to avail themselves of its benefits.
Socialism is about charity, generosity, kindness, sharing, justice, fairness, decency, compassion, and the Golden Rule. Gee. That sounds familiar.
- A mixed economy incorporates some aspects of capitalism and socialism. This is what the United States has now, and has had since at least 1933. A responsible and responsive government tries to balance the needs and wants of the two groups. That’s why every nation in the world sits at one point or another on that socialist range. Political activities and social culture determine a country’s place on the scale. Most countries move around on that scale over the years.
- In a democracy, every adult citizen has a personal vote in every decision affecting the community. It’s a nice idea, but impractical in real life.
- In a republic, the citizens choose representatives to make most decisions for them.
It’s accurate to refer to the United States as both a democracy and a republic. Our representatives make most administrative decisions. Yet we are democratic in that we vote for those representatives and have the right and a strong tradition of personally participating in public debate on issues through lobbying, demonstrating, and other means.
It’s entirely possible to have communism in a democracy or a republic.
- A dictatorship exists when all aspects of a nation’s government and economy are controlled by one person, usually supported by a small group of others.
- A fascist state is a dictatorship with complete control over every aspect of national life. The elite class of society controls the government. It opposes any attempt at political, social, and economic equality. It is obsessed with national security, protects corporate power, suppresses organized labor, and censors the media because it fears the “lower classes”.
- Marxism refers to the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis for the theory and practice of communism.
- Totalitarianism is a centralized and dictatorial system of government and requires complete subservience to the state.
- There are two types of monarchies - absolute and constitutional. In both cases, the monarchs inherit their positions through family. An absolute monarch can rule alone, with no restrictions. A constitutional monarch is the head of state, but most government power rests with an elected parliament or other form of legislature.
Not all socialist and communist countries are dictatorships. Many European countries have very strong socialist and communist parties and policies, and most of them are republics. The indigenous societies were usually democracies.
Right now, American political conservatives and liberals are debating – and often battling – these economic issues and it’s gotten nasty. Socialism is not a big scary monster that’s coming to get you. It’s an economic principle. And whatever your politics, there are some aspects of it that you want.
Just like the big old monster in your childhood closet, these words lose their power when you look them in the eyes and don’t back down.
* The Constitution’s Article III divides the Senate into three groups, or classes.
Senators serve six-year terms. One group is elected every two years.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read the Constitution
English Poor Laws: Historical Precedents of Tax-Supported Relief for the Poor
Reimagining Capitalism: From the Ground Up
Who Should Provide Social Services
Democratic Socialists of America
Marxism: Theory, Effects, and Examples
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