Misunderstanding socialism

The Institute of Economic Affairs has just devoted a four-hundred page publication to proving that socialism doesn’t work.  But the book hardly refers to socialism at all; it’s about communism.  Their examples come from Russia, China, Albania, North Korea and so on, and as Tony Benn used to say sniffily whenever this sort of thing was repeated, “what has this got to do with us?”  Just in case they hadn’t noticed, socialism didn’t begin with Marxism, and by most lights it parted company with Marxism in the 1920s.  Socialists and communists have followed different paths, and advocated different positions, for most of the period since the Second World War.

The basic rule is simple enough.  If you want to write a book about a subject, you need to find out something about the subject first.  This one doesn’t. In my website, I give a fairly straight description of the varieties of socialism:

There are many forms of socialism. The main models, which can be found in various permutations, include representations of socialism as

  • 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).

… Marxism is irrelevant to much of the mainstream. Socialism in Europe grew from a range of religious, occupational and communal groups. Historically, socialism is strongly associated with working-class movements, and in much of Europe ‘socialist’ issues are closely linked with labour relations. The socialist group in the European Union identifies its role in terms of socialist values and principles rather than an ideal model of society.

The key socialist values are ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’. Some socialists would add to that issues of rights and democracy.

  • Liberty. Although many socialists refer to freedom as a basic right, liberty needs to be understood in social terms. Socialism calls for people to be enabled to do things through collective action, a principle sometimes referred to as empowerment‘. This principle has been central to ‘guild socialism’ and trades unionism.
  • Equality. Socialism is egalitarian, in the sense that socialists are committed to the reduction or removal of disadvantages which arise in society. The ‘Fabian’ tradition, a reformist movement, attempted to achieve greater equality through spending on social services.
  • Fraternity. Socialism is collectivist: people have to be understood in social context, rather than as individuals. Socialism is often represented in Europe in terms of ‘solidarity’, which means not just standing shoulder-to-shoulder but the creation of systems of mutual aid and support.

I’ve never had any sympathy for Marxism, but I’ve a lot of time for socialist and collectivist values.  [My next book, Thinking collectively, considers a range of collective positions – including conservative as well as socialist arguments; the proofs are done and it will be out by the summer. I’d welcome a review by the IEA.]


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