Misunderstanding socialism (and capitalism)

I’ve heard a conservative trope three times recently:  that socialism has failed.  Two of the contributors to Any Questions have said it in successive weeks, and it’s just cropped up again on a Conservative Home blog:

“socialism is well past its sell-by date, having failed wherever it’s been tried.”

In my website, I outline six competing understandings of socialism:

  • a movement for the improvement of society by collective action (for example, in Fabianism)
  • a set of methods and approaches linked with collective action, such as cooperatives, mutual aid, planning and social welfare services (e.g. the co-operative movement);
  • a set of arguments for social and economic organisation based on ownership and control by the community (e.g. in syndicalism, guild socialism and anarchism)
  • an ideal model of society based on cooperation and equality (e.g. Owenism and utopian socialism);
  • a critique of industrial society, opposing selfish individualism (e.g. Christian socialism), and
  • a range of values, rather than a particular view of how society works (e.g. the position of the Parti socialiste européen in the European Union).

The first problem with the idea that ‘socialism has failed’ is then, a conceptual one.  The idea that socialism has been ‘tried’ only makes any sense if you think of socialism as a system or a method.  If socialism is a movement, a set of values or a critique, it can be applied, but it can’t be “tried” and tested, any more than liberty, equality and fraternity can be.

What do the critics mean when they say it’s ‘failed’?  They’re probably not thinking of mainstream applications of socialist methods, such as mutual insurance, social enterprises, state education, the NHS, public transport or the Workers Educational Assocation.   Every organisation, public, private or voluntary, has successes and failures, but as organisations go, communal and non-profit services have a pretty good track record – so good that they have been adopted wholesale by governments of different political hues throughout the developed world.   The usual rider which follows  the criticism is to talk about communism, which is a different kettle of fish – so different, that it usually travels under a different name and is mainly  supported by different political parties.  (Tony Benn’s standard response to comments about Russia was to reply, “What has that got to do with me?” )  The only people who think that socialism and communism are the same thing are either communists or conservative critics, but it’s got almost nothing to do with the socialist mainstream in Europe.

Many of the same arguments apply equally to  ‘capitalism’.   If you judge ‘capitalism’ as an economic system, then you could equally argue that it’s been tried and succeeded or failed, depending on your taste – but what does that mean?  Is ‘capitalism’ in that context supposed to refer to Dickensian England, Argentina or modern Denmark?   What, all of them?  Capitalism is usually thought of as an economic system, but in fact it’s lots of systems all at the same time.  The initial problem with the assessment, like the description of ‘socialism’, is that capitalism is not just a word for a set of arrangements; it’s also a method (usually referred to as the ‘market’) and a set of values.     The New Right, people like Hayek and Friedman, were concerned with the principle of laissez faire, not just the application of an ideal model.

That, Crosland argued about socialism, is the way it’s got to be.  Whatever our ideals, there’s no practical way of moving overnight to a new world; the conditions change with every step of the process, and we’ve no way of knowing where we’re going to end up.  What we have to do instead is  to apply our values, making things a little better tomorrow than they are today.  For Crosland, that meant that society needed to become more equal.  When Hayek argued for a free market society, he took the same approach in a different direction: he knew that markets did not work in an ideal way, but he believed that life would be better if they were more free than they are now, and to achieve that government had to act differently.  The debate between capitalism and socialism is about principles, not about the pursuit of utopia.

Leave a Reply