In the current political cycle, a word which at one time was an anathema to most Americans has become acceptable, maybe even respectable. That word is “socialism.” The S -word is no longer just used on college campuses anymore, it is used at the dinner table, at the office, and at the health club. A “socialist” can come freely out of the closet and affirm his true identity, even run for POTUS.
But how many Americans really understand what socialism is? How does a socialist economic system differ from a free market capitalist system? Is socialism something to be embraced? Why do many still oppose socialism?
Before I begin my attempt to address some of these things allow me to make a full disclosure. I am not, nor have I ever been an economist. I am not an authority on economic philosophies. I do not have a degree in economics (though I have friends who do). In fact, I don’t have a college degree. I do have a high school diploma (and some people think that ought to be investigated). I say all that in order to let you know my limitations on the subject matter. Nevertheless, I can read, and I have done some reading on economics over the years. Hopefully, I can bring some understanding from my perspective on the subject.
A simple definition of socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” It calls for public (state) ownership rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. In socialism the needs of the community supersede the needs or wants of the individual.
Your initial reaction to this definition of socialism maybe that it “sounds good.” Therefore, many are attracted to the idea. It appeals to our recognition of the value of sharing. Most of us have been taught since childhood to share with others, to not be greedy with our possessions, to consider the needs of others. In fact do we not read in Acts 4, concerning the first Christians that, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:35). It has been suggested that this was an example of “socialism” in the first century Church.
But we must bear in mind that what was taking place in the Jerusalem church was totally voluntary as Peter affirmed (Acts 5:4). It was not an imposed socialism by a governmental regime, it was an expression of charitable love that they had for each other. As Oswald Chambers said, that we as Christians should “out-social the socialists.”
Not all socialists are motivated by the same reason. I believe that there are socialists who sincerely have a concern for the poor and disadvantaged. They view socialism as a means of “leveling the playing field.” I would describe these as the “compassionate socialists.” Though I disagree with their solution to the problem of poverty, I can commend their compassion for the poor. It must be acknowledged that capitalism has at times been oppressive. The Bible tells us that “the love of money is the root of much evil” (I Tim. 6:10). In the early part of the 1900’s, within our nation there was a strong labor movement that supported socialism due to the “robber barons” that controlled much of industry creating the “monopolies” that made the poor poorer. Likewise, in Latin America, socialism has always found “fertile soil” where wealthy landowners oppress the peasants.
But I also believe that there are those who subscribe to socialism more out of their disdain for the rich than their concern for the poor. They are motivated out of envy. They cloak themselves with phrases of support for the “common man,” but, harbor a resentment for those who are industrious and prosperous.
All socialism is not the same. Therefore, you often find a pre-fix attached to the term such as Democratic socialism, Marxist socialism, Fascist socialism, Christian socialism, Islamic socialism, Utopian socialism etc. There are numerous types of socialist expressions. Not all socialists think alike, because it is an economic, social, and political philosophy that has variations.
Not all socialist nations are the same. The socialism one finds in the European nations is certainly distinctly different than that found for instance in Venezuela or Cuba. Which brings us to another point of discussion, and ultimately the question of the implementation of the socialist system within a nation. Socialism as an economic philosophy is merely an idea that one may espouse, which dwells in the realm of theory. Theories, in and of themselves, do not threaten anyone.
But ideas do have consequences. Theories do not like to be simply conceptual; they want to take on human flesh and enter the real world. For socialism to pass from the realm of theory to the realm of reality, it must be forced upon a nation. In other words, the implementation of socialism necessitates a totalitarian government. It is only by government decree that private ownership and the means of production are transferred to the state.
But wait a minute, what about the European nations that are not totalitarian? They have free elections; they are not dictatorships but democracies. True, they are not totalitarian, but neither are they truly socialist. Their governing parties may espouse socialism as their philosophy and their goal, but socialism is not what they have implemented as their economic system. Their actual economic system is that of a “hampered free market economy”. While more hampered than our own in important respects, their economic system is essentially similar to our own, in that the characteristic driving force of production and economic activity is not government decree, but the initiative of private owners motivated by the prospect of private profit.
Winston Churchill made an oft-quoted comment in distinguishing socialism from communism. He said, “Capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth, Socialism is the equal distribution of poverty, and Communism is socialism with a gun in your back.” In his rather humorous and pithy way, Churchill shows the inherent link and the distinction between socialism and communism. The link is that both are the same basic economic philosophy. The distinction lies in the use of force. What Sir Winston is wisely telling us is that socialism when implemented by the power of the state is communism.
I trust that you can see why I view socialism as an economic philosophy that should not be embraced. I view it as an initial step on the road toward totalitarianism. A capitalistic free market system has its imperfections, as everything does in this fallen world. Until Christ’s Kingdom has come in its fullness, we must live in a world that has its limitations. Until then let us live as free men not slaves of a totalitarian state.