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Debating the “S-Word”

Is any word more over-used and misunderstood today than “socialism”?

In the United States, the “S-word” appears in almost every other sentence uttered by Republicans, who depict the Democratic Party as marching – or at least creeping – towards socialism.

“Socialist” has replaced “liberal” in their vocabulary as an insult to hurl at political opponents, while the meaning remains unchanged as a term to indicate an advocate of government intervention in production and the social infrastructure.

Everything from Keynsianism to Communism (= state capitalism) falls under this blanket definition, which means that Republicans must feel terribly outnumbered by their socialist foes. If Republicans didn’t seem to relish that paranoid feeling, which certainly helps to rally the Party faithful, we could point out to them that socialists are in fact a rather rare breed at this point in time. Although that would also require explaining how our concept of socialism has nothing in common with their understanding of the term.

Of course, if the distortion of socialism were limited to the world of Republican ideologues it would hardly matter – as their ideas are not taken all that seriously, even by themselves. But the fact is that many of the supposed proponents of socialism share that same mistaken view of what socialism means.

The controversy between the pro- and anti-socialists is just a sterile debate over the extent to which the government should “intervene” in the capitalist economy – with neither side advocating or even fathoming a post-capitalist society.

One recent example of how both sides share a common misassumption was a debate on the website of the New York Times regarding the topic: “What is Socialism in 2009?” This mouthpiece of the capitalist class solicited the opinions of a small number of supposed experts, for the most part university professors.

Without exception, these reputable figures shared the notion that “socialism” fundamentally concerns an economic system in which the government plays a key role in production. Following this line of thought, any aspect of society involving government intervention, regulation or management can be described as “socialistic”. This allowed those experts to attach that adjective to everything from public health care and education to highways and the armed forces. Stretched to this point, the concept of socialism loses all meaning – it is used to describe too much and ends up elucidating nothing.

Some participants in the on-line debate did try to offer a more essential definition of socialism as “public ownership and/or control of the major means of production (mines, mills, factories, etc.) for the benefit of the public at large” or “central economic planning and public ownership of the means of production”. But even those more precise definitions are basically descriptions of state capitalist systems – not any sort of post-capitalist society that exists beyond production for profit.

None of the debate participants describe socialism as a money-free society where production is democratically organised to meet human needs, displacing today’s production for the market. Nor did anyone even suggest that the state would have no room to exist in that class-free society of the future.

There are simply no points in common between our conception of socialism and the view of socialism that currently prevails – and with regard to the role of the state the views are in fact polar opposites.

Some might argue, then, that we should let the reformists and reactionaries twist around the word “socialism” to their heart’s content, while choosing a different term to describe the new society we are aiming to realise – some word less marked by confusion.

Karl Marx used the word “Association” to indicate the society he envisaged as replacing capitalism. And this term is useful in terms of emphasizing how the members of that society will freely enter into production relations with each other to produce social wealth. One obvious drawback, not to be overlooked, is that it would be rather awkward to describe oneself as “Associator” or “Associatist”.

But even if the World Socialist Movement comes up with the perfect word to replace “socialism” it would not necessarily bring us any closer to our ultimate goal, for our task as socialists is to convince our fellow workers that capitalism has got to go and that there is in fact an alternative. One word alone, no matter how well chosen, cannot accomplish all of that. The key point is the concept or content of the future society as the solution to the social problems we face under capitalism, not the word used to indicate that new mode of production.

It may very well happen that a word other than socialism emerges out of the movement for the new money-free society. And it would be absurd in that situation to be a word-fetishist who clings to the word “socialism” as if it were the principle or concept itself. 

But it is also quite possible that the growth of the revolutionary movement will breathe new life into the word socialism, freeing it from the connotations it has been burdened with by those who cannot see beyond capitalism.

The task is the same in either case: revealing the limits and contradictions of capitalism and explaining how socialism (or whatever it may one day be called) resolves the problems that are irresolvable as long as that capitalist system prevails.

It is certainly annoying that the word “socialism” is almost invariably misused today, but the current over-use of the term may bring unexpected results, even encouraging the curious to begin pondering what a truly post-capitalist society could look like.