To survive, human beings will need to drastically change how we live. Most people on the left agree with this assessment, and the prospects of climate collapse and nuclear war make it an obvious fact. Yet even among many on the left, there’s an opposition to making socialism part of this shift. Supposedly we’ll be able to keep capitalism while putting in reforms that make capitalism sustainable. I think this view is mistaken and ultimately dangerous.
It wouldn’t be useful for me to sloganeer about socialism in this essay, because I’ve found the opponents of socialism often have a lot of detailed reasons for their position. To address these concerns, I’ll list some of the most common ones and give my counter-arguments.
“Socialism leads to tyranny”
All systems of government can be turned towards despotism. But socialism is one of the least easily corruptible systems.
This is because socialism, by default, makes societies much more democratic. With its goal being to turn the means of production, distribution, and exchange over to the ownership of the community. Click To Tweet
As a whole, Socialism empowers the poor in ways the poor could never hope to be empowered under capitalism. Since corporations and billionaires are currently choking out American democracy, socialism’s goal of an egalitarian economy would immediately make the country a lot more free.
For this reason, socialism does not inherently create the risk of a tyrannical government. In the cases where socialist or communist states have turned dictatorial, factors completely unrelated to socialism have been to blame. Honest socialists, from George Orwell to the leaders of most of the modern socialist groups, have seen Soviet totalitarianism as a betrayal of Russia’s revolution. And they haven’t changed their position on socialism because they’ve known that socialism is not the cause of the rise of Stalinist tyranny.
Stalinism, as the World Socialist Website’s Peter Daniels has concluded, appeared throughout Russia and Europe in spite of the socialist movement:
“Stalinist regimes were established in Eastern Europe, but the imperialists wound up accepting these as a relatively small price to pay for the disciplining of the international working class and the squelching of its political independence and revolutionary aspirations.
No small factor in all of this, it must never be forgotten, was the fact that Trotsky had been assassinated in the first year of the Second Imperialist World War, and the ranks of the revolutionary movement emerged relatively isolated, decimated in crucial areas by the repression of both Fascism and Stalinism, and deprived of crucial leadership.”
In other words, opposition to socialism, not socialism itself, is what caused Stalinism to rise.
Socialism’s opponents might reply that while Stalinism is in opposition to socialism, Stalinism must have appeared in these countries because it had the precedent of a socialist revolution. But history has shown that this is an exception to the rule; overall, dictatorship has not been shown to result from socialism.
In numerous cases, socialist economies have been run by democratic governments, which are often overthrown by aggressive capitalist countries. The socialist Salvador Allende was running Chile democratically when the U.S. overthrew him in 1973. Haiti’s democratically elected socialist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had dramatically improved his country’s human rights before he was overthrown in the 2004 U.S.-backed coup. And after Tabaré Vázquez was elected as Uruguay’s first socialist president in 2005, democracy didn’t collapse in any way.
There are many similar examples of leftist governments that have been destroyed by the U.S. empire, and they’ve also shown that the targeted countries are not prone to drift into tyranny. In many cases, it’s been the opposite.
“Socialism means everyone is equally poor”
Socialism isn’t a catalyst for economic collapse any more than it’s a catalyst for dictatorship. Both of these arguments are based in alarmist claims that history disproves.
Just look at the vast reductions in poverty that have happened when socialism has been implemented. The socialist governments that I mentioned above, created welfare programs which shrunk poverty in their countries, and which didn’t cause economic harm.
Expanded social programs have had similarly positive results throughout history, including in the case of Venezuela; Chavez and Maduro’s social safety net expansions and industry nationalizations have pulled much of Venezuela out of poverty. Sanctions from the U.S, economic warfare from Western corporations, and oil price sabotage from Saudi Arabia are the real-and usually unmentioned-culprits behind Venezuela’s economic crisis.
In addition to the myth about socialism destroying Venezuela, East Germany is another example of an internally sustainable socialist economy that’s been sabotaged by outside capitalist forces. As the author Victor Grossman has written about the factors behind the fall of the German Democratic Republic:
“In forty years, despite the worst of odds, the little GDR was able to solve many problems now troubling so many nations. For one small tax all medical care was completely covered, so was family planning including abortions, child care, summer camps, cultural and sports activities for young and old. All education was free, scholarships covered basic living costs so no loans were needed, and post-graduation jobs were guaranteed. Women were enabled to work — at equal pay rates; well over 90 percent did. Best of all, there was no joblessness, evictions were strictly forbidden, no-one needed to fear the next day — or year. Lots still needed accomplishment, blunders were made, frequent shortages of one or the other commodity led to countless jokes — and lots of anger. And yet, poverty had been almost completely eradicated. Where else in the world was this accomplished?
But the GDR had to compete with one of the world’s most prosperous economies, West Germany. It was never able to match the swift innovation pace of competing corporations whose ups and downs may have cost many tears in lost jobs and ruined plans but meant a constant stream of chic, modern products — above all good cars. Like people elsewhere, GDR citizens thrilled at enticing advertising. But that was West German TV — GDR-TV had no commercials. Envy was widespread. It was worsened by often old-fashioned tastes of the men ruling the roost — and rule it they did, almost to the end.”
East Germany’s socialist model was able to sustainably keep the poverty rate at nearly zero, with the commodity shortages having been due to circumstantial factors like poor harvests. And despite the pro-capitalist argument that we would “run out of other people’s money” under socialism, this economy maintained a sufficient workforce. If capitalist states like West Germany hadn’t been an economic threat, this model would likely have lasted for a very long time.
Socialism isn’t some sort of economic time bomb. It’s simply a way to take the profit motive out of the functions of the economy. And, East Germany and the other examples of socialist economies show that profit is not essential.
“Socialism stifles innovation and creativity”
Even the fatal defect in East Germany’s socialist economy-that it didn’t allow for the same kind of innovation that happened in capitalist countries-isn’t really a defect when your priority is technological innovation instead of financial competition. Not only is innovation possible under socialism, but in many ways, it’s more possible than it is under capitalism.
The goal of corporations is to make money, so researchers who don’t satisfy this goal will be sabotaged by capitalism. This is a basic fact of innovation within the marketplace, and there are examples of it actively setting back the advancement of American technology. During the 1980’s, medium-to-long-term R&D was facing a crisis because neither the government nor private capital was giving it significant funding. This forced the Reagan administration to provide public funding to research in universities.
These kinds of state interventions after the failures of capitalism wouldn’t be needed if capitalism were taken away. And to take it away, we need only to carry out a bigger version of the current movement to enact single-payer healthcare; profit-oriented medicine isn’t the only private industry that needs to be abolished and nationalized. To free ourselves from this arbitrary slavery to money, we’ll also need to nationalize the internet, the banks, and the other parts of production, distribution and exchange, while creating a social safety net that ensures no one goes hungry or lives without a home.
This vision is the logical conclusion of social security, public fire departments, and the other collective goods that our society already shares. It would be the logical and easy way to get rid of poverty, stop carbon emissions, and end the rule of the military-industrial complex.
To stop this from happening, the capitalists who depend on the current system are trying to convince people that such a transition would be apocalyptic. Their arguments are based on selective historical examples, misrepresentations of the facts about what socialism has done, and other scare tactics. But we’re going to keep hearing these claims about socialism for the same reason Thomas Macaulay said:
“If the law of gravity were unfavorable to any substantial financial interest, there would soon be no lack of arguments against it.”