Misunderstanding socialism (again)

An article in the Daily Telegraph by Priti Patel, a former Home Secretary, has been given a preposterous headline: Britain can still escape the OECD’s radical plan for permanent worldwide socialism.  What she’s actually writing about is a proposal for to level the playing field in relation to Corporation Tax.  I think it’s likely that the identification of this proposal with ‘socialism’ has been made by a Telegraph sub-editor – I’m sure that Patel would be more eager to get us to engage with her argument. I’m not going to do that, but I am concerned about the lazy insult, and I want to clarify two things about the terminology.

The first is the supposition that state regulation or ‘intervention’ is a form of socialism, implicitly opposed to the operation of free markets.  By this test, just about every country in the world would be ‘socialist’.  There isn’t a government anywhere that doesn’t have some form of expenditure on health education.  Nearly all (just not quite all) spend on education.  Something like three quarters of all countries now have some kind of national scheme for cash benefits.  This isn’t  worldwide socialism – it’s just what contemporary states do.  Grown-up politics needs to be concerned with how policies like this work.

The second misconception concerns the nature of socialism.   Wikipedia  reflects a common confusion when it writes that ‘socialism refers to economic and social systems which are characterised by social ownership of the means of production … social ownership is the one common element’.  This is plainly wrong. Social ownership is not necessarily socialist (roads? parks?) and many socialists are concerned less with ownership than with public welfare.

The terminology used in the Wikpedia article is marxist, once dominant but now at best a minor branch of socialism. Marxists  like to claim that their beliefs are the only real and true form of socialism, ignoring the simple fact that socialism developed some time before marxism and the political movements parted company about a hundred years ago.  Right-wingers (such as Kristian Niemitz, writing for the IEA) also like to think that ‘socialism’ means the same thing as ‘communism’.   It doesn’t: that’s why we have different words for the two.

Socialism is complicated, but here is a short summary from my website:

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).


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