Myth: Liberalism is socialism, and socialism is big government.
This list may confuse some readers who have inadvertently accepted
the far right's revisionism; after all, isn't the term "anarcho-socialism"
an oxymoron? If this is your reaction, then it is an excellent
example of how successfully the far right has redefined the left.
This essay will clarify these terms using definitions drawn up
by the adherents themselves. Knowing these distinctions is vital,
because most people only embarrass themselves by attacking an
ideology, only to discover they can't even define it.
Fact: Liberals believe in private ownership of the means of production;
Modern American liberals are democratic capitalists. That is, they
believe that private capitalist individuals should own and control
the means of production, as long as they operate within the
democratic law. By contrast, socialists believe that everyone
should own and control the means of production. Socialism has
been proposed in many forms. Perhaps the most popular form is
social democracy, in which workers vote for their supervisors,
company policy, and industry representatives to regional or national
congresses. Another form of socialism is anarcho-socialism, in
which employee-owned firms would compete or cooperate on the free
market, absent any centralized government at all. As you can see,
a central planning committee is not a necessary feature of socialism;
only worker ownership of production is. Dictatorships can never
be socialist, because workers do not own or control anything when
a ruling elite is telling them what to do. For this reason, socialists
reject the claim (made by the Soviet Union itself) that the Soviet
Union was a socialist country. It was instead a brutal dictatorship
One of the main features of the Great American Debate is the
perversion of basic political terms. The far right, for instance,
has succeeded in promoting the myth that "liberalism equals
socialism equals big government." In reality, there are a
great many distinct and opposing ideologies on the left. These
Who owns the means of production?
One of the central questions of any political ideology is
"Who should own and control the means the production?"
(Means of production refers to factories, farmlands, machinery,
office space, etc.) Generally there have been three approaches
to this issue. The first was aristocracy, in which a ruling elite
owned the land and productive wealth, and peasants and serfs had
to obey their orders in return for their livelihood. The second
is capitalism, which disbanded the ruling elite and allows a much
broader range of private individuals to own the means of production.
However, this ownership is limited to those who can afford to
buy productive wealth; nearly all workers are excluded. The third
approach is socialism, which is defined as "the collective
ownership and control of the means of production." That is,
everyone owns and controls productive wealth, which is
accomplished through the vote. As you can see, there is a spectrum
here, ranging from a few people owning productive wealth at one
end, to everyone owning it at the other.
Socialism has been proposed in many forms. The most common is
social democracy, where workers vote for their supervisors, company
policy, and industry representatives to regional or national congresses.
Another proposed form is anarcho-socialism, where workers own
companies that would compete or cooperate on a free market, without
any centralized government at all. As you can see, a central planning
committee is hardly a necessary feature of socialism. The primary
feature is actually worker ownership of production.
This point is probably the most confused and misunderstood aspect
of socialism. "Collective ownership" does not necessarily
mean "government ownership," as the case of anarcho-socialism
shows. For those who automatically equate socialism with big government,
the mere existence of an ideology called "anarcho-socialism"
is a direct refutation of that belief.
And in those variations of socialism which do call for
a centralized government, that government is always a democracy
-- never a dictatorship, central planning committee, or other
form of ruling elite. Workers do not own or control anything when
a dictator is telling them what to do. "Collective ownership"
means that the group is in control; "dictatorship" means
that a single person is in control. Therefore it is a logical
impossibility to have "collective
ownership" by a dictator. It is for this reason that socialists
reject the claim (made by the Soviet Union itself) that the Soviet
Union was socialist. It was instead a brutal dictatorship over
workers. True socialism has never been tried at the national level
anywhere in the world, although some employee-owned firms have
successfully employed it in the West.
Socialism may always be democratic, but what type of socialism
depends on what type of democracy is practiced. There is actually
a spectrum of democracy, ranging from direct democracy at one
end to republicanism at the other. Let's briefly review both:
In a direct democracy, voters vote on their laws directly, without
representatives. To the extent that government
exists, its only function is to enact the decisions of the voters.
Most scholars reject strong forms of direct democracy on the grounds
that it is unworkable. Democracy only works if the people are
educated, but voters would become overwhelmed trying to educate
themselves on the best bicycle parts society should build, what
32 flavors of ice cream a store should sell, and what electronic
components should go into microwave ovens. Obviously, a lot of
ignorant votes would be cast in such a behemoth system, even if
it were possible to build it.
So most democracies are actually republics, or representative
democracies. In these systems, voters elect representatives who
legislate laws for them. Again, there are varying degrees of republicanism.
A more "direct" form of republicanism is the U.S. House
of Representatives, where legislators represent smaller districts
and serve two-year terms. A more "republican" form is
the U.S. Senate, where legislators represent entire states and
serve six-year terms. The extreme in republicanism is the U.S.
Supreme Court, where judges are nominated and voted upon by the
people's representatives, but enjoy lifetime tenure.
In designing a well-functioning republic, the main goal is to
avoid making it so direct that voters become overwhelmed by its
requirements, but not so republican that representatives can operate
impervious to the will of the people. Somewhere in the middle
there is an optimal balance.
How does this apply to social democracy? Social democracy merely
takes the republican principle and applies it to the workplace.
It should be noted that the U.S. has enjoyed an increasingly successful
republic for 220 years, with no reversion to dictatorship or tyranny.
Indeed, American history shows that inherited tyrannies like slavery,
child labor and discrimination have been eliminated or greatly
reduced as democratic reforms have grown stronger. In short, the
republican system of government has a track record of success
and continuing improvement that can be well-defended. And it is
this system, not dictatorship, that social democrats would apply
to the workplace.
Socialists argue that the workplace is one of the last bastions
of dictatorship still in existence in Western society. As Noam
Chomsky points out: "There is no human institution that approaches
totalitarianism as closely as a business corporation. I mean,
power is completely top-down. You can be inside it somewhere and
you take orders from above and hand 'em down. Ultimately, it's
in the hands of owners and investors." Capitalists argue
that voluntary contracts on the free market prevent the abuse
of such totalitarian power by business executives. But this presumes
the nonexistence or nonimportance of market failure and contract
failure, in the face of widespread evidence to the contrary.
Socialism thus defined, what is the difference between socialism
and modern American liberalism? The difference is rather
profound, and lies in who owns the means of production. Liberals
are capitalists, meaning they favor a system where private individuals
can own productive wealth, choose their own management teams,
and set their own industrial policy. Liberals would prevent business
owners from abusing their powers through checks and balances like
strong labor unions and democratic government regulations. Liberalism
is a compromise between individual freedom and social responsibility:
you can do what you want, as long as it's within the law.
In general, the only thing that unites liberals and socialists
is the belief that corporate totalitarianism should be avoided.
But they differ on how to make businesses more socially responsible,
and uninformed critics who lump the two together should not be
A POLITICAL GLOSSARY
Below is a glossary of common political ideologies on both
the left and the right. Self-definitions are indicated by quotation
marks and footnotes.
"Socialism is the collective ownership by all the people
of the factories, mills, mines, railroads, land and all other
instruments of production. Socialism means production to satisfy
human needs, not, as under capitalism, for sale and profit. Socialism
means direct control and management of the industries and social
services by the workers through a democratic government based
on their nationwide economic organization.
"Under socialism, all authority will originate from the workers,
integrally united in Socialist Industrial Unions. In each workplace,
the rank and file will elect whatever committees or representatives
are needed to facilitate production. Within each shop or office
division of a plant, the rank and file will participate directly
in formulating and implementing all plans necessary for efficient
"Besides electing all necessary shop officers, the workers
will also elect representatives to a local and national council
of their industry or service and to a central congress representing
all the industries and services. This all-industrial congress
will plan and coordinate production in all areas of the economy.
All persons elected to any post in the socialist government, from
the lowest to the highest level, will be directly accountable
to the rank and file. They will be subject to removal at any time
that a majority of those who elected them decide it is necessary.
"Such a system would make possible the fullest democracy
and freedom. It would be a society based on the most primary
freedom: economic freedom.
"For individuals, socialism means an end to economic insecurity
and exploitation. It means workers cease to be commodities bought
and sold on the labor market and forced to work as appendages
to tools owned by someone else. It means a chance to develop
all individual capacities and potentials within a free community
of free individuals.
"Socialism does not mean government or state ownership. It
does not mean a state bureaucracy as in the former Soviet Union
or China, with the working class oppressed by a new bureaucratic
class. It does not mean a closed party-run system without democratic
rights. It does not mean nationalization, or labor-management
boards, or state capitalism of any kind. It means a complete end
to all capitalist social relations." (1)
The most commonly proposed form of socialism, calling for
worker ownership of the means of production and centralized democratic
government. In democratic elections, workers would vote for 1)
their supervisors, 2) their representatives to a local and national
council of their industry or service, and 3) their representatives
to a central congress representing all the industries and services.
A term which broadly refers to anarchism (social) and anarchism
(mutualist). Most anarcho-socialists deem the term redundant,
however, and prefer to be called "anarchists," not "anarcho-socialists."
This is because they believe that the only true anarchy is socialist,
and the only true socialism is anarchic. However, it remains a
useful term, because it distinguishes them from others who, right
or wrong, also consider themselves anarchists and socialists:
for example, anarcho-capitalists and social democrats.
"A proposed socialist economic system calling for businesses
to be owned and controlled by employees, not private capitalist
individuals. These businesses would then compete on the free market,
without a central government." (2)
"A proposed classless, stateless socialist society of
directly democratic self-governing communities and workplaces
freely united in a confederation by a system of mandated, recallable
delegates. Decisions flow from the bottom up and are based upon
intensive discussion by those affected by them. Production is
for use, not profit, and the community owns and workers control
the means of production. Anarchists think that direct democracy
within voluntary associations and the abolition of wage slavery
is the best way to maximize individual liberty. Also known as
libertarian socialism or libertarian communism." (3)
"A political philosophy that proposes that workers organise
into decentralised, self-governing workplace and community organisations
to take over and run the means of production and create a left-libertarian
society. Heavily influenced by social anarchist ideas." (4)
"1) Openness to progress or change. 2) Generosity and
willingness to give. 3) In the 18th century, a political philosophy
that advocated smaller government and greater individualism, much
as modern conservatives do today. Also known as "classical
liberalism." 4) In modern times, a political philosophy that
advocates greater public support, defense, regulation and promotion
of the private sector." (5)
"1) A political philosophy advocating change and progress,
especially as led by science. Colloquially, a "progressive"
refers to a very liberal person. 2) The U.S. Progressive Movement
between 1890 and 1920, which is also known as the Progressive
Era. This movement was responsible for introducing the campaign
primary in many states (replacing caucuses), the initiative, the
referendum, and the recall, among other reforms." (6)
The philosophies and teachings of 19th century economist Karl
Marx. Although Marx is credited with the idea of socialism and
communism, Marx did not really elaborate much on his utopian government.
The vast majority of his writings were critiques of capitalism.
However, he viewed the struggle of workers as a continuation of
historical forces that would one day lead to communism. This would
occur in three stages. The first stage was capitalism, in which
the proletariat (workers) are exploited by capitalists (business
owners). The second stage would be socialism, or a "dictatorship
of the proletariat." Marx envisioned that this stage would
be brief. In the final stage -- communism -- society would become
so classless and collectivist that the formal state would wither
away, and society could spontaneously operate as a collective
whole without government.
1) A social and economic system in which all (or nearly all)
property is public, not private. That is, resources are shared
by everyone. Not to be confused for socialism, which only grants
to everyone the ownership of the means of production -- not necessarily
all property. 2) A technically incorrect but widely used term
for the system practiced by the Soviet empire. 3) In Marxist ideology,
a utopia achieved in the third and final stage of workers' struggles.
(See Marxism, above.)
1) The type of dictatorial government practiced by Joseph
Stalin in the Soviet Union. This system was characterized by totalitarian
control not only of society, but the economy as well. Stalinism
was not socialist (if it had been, workers would have voted on
all government policy), nor was it communist (in which case the
state would have disappeared completely). However, Stalin co-opted
these terms to describe his rule, and they are still used to describe
it today. 2) The type of government practiced by all nations in
the Soviet and Red Chinese empires after Stalin.
1) The disposition to preserve tradition and resist change.
2) A political philosophy calling for reduced government
and greater individual freedom in the private sector.
An economic system in which private individuals or corporations
own and invest in the means of production.
A proposed economic system calling for an anarchic society
with sovereign individual property rights and a capitalist free
market. Any public services that are deemed valuable, such as
law enforcement, would be privatized.
"A political philosophy calling for as much self-government
for individuals as possible. Opposes all forms of hierarchical
authority (particularly those associated with capitalist companies
and the state) and social inequality in favor of group direct
democracy, individual liberty and social equality. This would
be accompanied by either no government or government reduced to
a minimal level." (7)
A political philosophy calling for very strong or even sovereign
property rights for individuals. This would be accompanied by
either no government, or government reduced to its minimalist
functions: for example, police and military defense.
One of the most common fallacies in political argument is
that a nation or leader who adopted a political label actually
practiced that ideology. However, experienced political scientists
know that misnomers abound in the history of political labels.
Here are but a few examples:
The "Social Democracies" of Northern Europe:
The Scandinavian states are actually progressively liberal. Private
capitalist individuals own the means of production, coexisting
with large labor unions and democratic governments. These states
are colloquially known as "social democracies" only
because the Social Democrats are the largest or ruling parties.
But they are only one among many.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Neither socialist
nor a republic, this was actually a dictatorship by a ruling elite
The German Democratic Republic: Neither democratic nor
a republic, East Germany was actually Stalinist.
Hitler's National Socialist Party. When Hitler first joined
the party, it was a true socialist party dedicated to the cause
of German workers. As Hitler rose through its ranks, he changed
the ideology to dictatorship, but didn't change the name.
The People's Republic of China: More like Mao's Dictatorship
Vladimir Zhirinovksy's Liberal Democrat Party: Neither
liberal nor democratic, this Russian demagogue is actually a czarist
There are countless more examples, but these should be enough to
make the following point: political ideologies should be identified
by their actual features, not their labels.
Return to Overview
1. The Socialist Labor Party. The SLP publishes a variety of literature
on Socialism. The People, Marxist bi-weekly since 1891,
is available on-line. Address correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org,
or email@example.com. Snail Mail: Socialist Labor Party, P.O.Box
70517, Sunnyvale, CA 94086-0517; (408) 245-2047; FAX (408) 245-2049.
2. Personal communication with Scottish anarchist Iain MacSoarsa,
in collaboration with several anarcho-socialists.
5. Steve Kangas.