Exploring ISMs in the Modern Age.
Summary: In today’s cure for insomnia essay, we explore the origins of the ISMs the pundit class abuses each and every day. We’re focusing on the big ones. Fascism, Socialism, Communism, Marxism and Capitalism. The piece covers the theorists who created these theories, touch on the circumstances that inspired their thinking and how far from these concepts we have moved as a society. Plus, we’ll talk through how most of these theories (except Fascism) are more alike than we’ve been led to believe.
[An update from Max, 5/20/23] A while back we did first released this essay, Capitasociafascilibdemarxism. It was an expression of the confusion surrounding the casual way insults are hurled in the political sphere. You’re a Marxist and fascist! That’s socialism! Capitalist pig! I’m a libertarian. Anarcho-syndicalist. Communist. Minarchist. It’s the original form of identity politics, meant to convey a sweeping ideology to explain our worldviews or criticize others for theirs. We’re going to continue building on this for the foreseeable future because I recently found myself in a precarious position. When asked to define socialism, I realized I didn’t have all that great of an answer.
I’ve studied it to a degree. Read a bunch. Engaged in conversations and thought experiments, but when pressed to really nail it down I struggled. And for good reason. Socialism is a concept. A theory. It’s not in and of itself a practice. It’s a framework open to interpretation and constantly influenced by environmental circumstances.
So here I am with a podcast and now a video channel. Offering viewpoints and perspectives about socioeconomics and politics and yet incapable of delivering precise definitions that provide clarity on arguably the most important aspects of these disciplines. I suppose many of us suffer from imposter syndrome to an extent, but there’s something about not being schooled in the fundamentals of political science that, honestly, kind of haunts me. I know it’s true that the older we get, the less we understand. And the process of curating these shows an antidote to ignorance that I take very seriously. It’s why we painstakingly source our information and try hard to be nuanced and not reactive. There’s an inescapable emotional element to the work we do. Things that offend our sensibilities tend to elevate passion over reason and I think that’s okay. It’s empathic. But it’s also important to be critical and self aware, to constantly look for holes in our knowledge so we can make better connections. So that’s what this is about. ▪
Today we’re talking “ISMs”. Hearing the pundit class butcher the meaning behind economic and social theories is really, really frustrating. Then again, it’s understandable that they’re rarely corrected because most of us are also pretty far removed from their meanings. But hearing Ben Shapiro talk about socialism makes me throw up in my mouth, as much as reading anything by David Brooks and Thomas Friedman for that matter.
Now, the goal for today is not to provide a university level analysis of the most important social and economic systems in modern history. That would be silly. What I hope to accomplish, more than anything, is to revel together in the language and nuance of political science.
First, we must basically submit there are no absolutes and we should be wary of anyone who attempts to speak in absolute terms about the social sciences. This is art and science mixed together and influenced by politics, culture, technology and religion. Add climate to the equation, and things get even more complicated.
So understanding that this is an impossible task, here’s where I landed in terms of an approach.
First of all, we’re examining the modern systems of the so-called developed world. By modern, I mean post-Enlightenment; and by developed, I mean mostly western industrialized nations, and to an extent, Russia and China. So we won’t be touching on feudal, mercantile or monarchical systems, as an example. Second, we’ll touch on some of the influential origins of these newly developed theories, most specifically, the French, Russian and American revolutions.
Then we’ll highlight some of the more consequential thinkers and place them in context of the times in which they wrote and the prevailing structures of influence. And, as we go through them one-by-one, we’ll try to point out where our understanding of each has strayed from the original intent.
Obviously, there’s more than one rabbit hole to jump down. Sub-ISMs, if you will, like Anarcho-Capitalism, Collectivism, Despotism, and such. But we’re going to remain focused on a couple of big ones. We’ll hit fascism, Marxism, socialism and communism, which are related, but not the same, and do a quick review of capitalism. I’m going to avoid pulling other threads like democratic socialism, neoliberalism and libertarianism in the interest of time, and because I think they each deserve their own unf*cking in the future.
We’ll tie this up as neatly as we can toward the end to prove that, while it’s valuable to study such ISMs and know your history, our goal shouldn’t be to identify with one more than another, but to break free of them altogether.
Even leaving a shit ton of ISMs and information on the table, this is clearly ambitious. But if we do this right, the next time you’re at a social function and someone says something stupid like, “Democrats are turning this into a socialist country,” “Trump is a fascist,” or “Bernie wants communism,” you’ll be able to give a hearty Oscar from The Office “Actually” then explain why and how they’re stupid and beneath you.
“I do think that as long as you continue looking at things through that old patriarchal-cartesian-Newtonian lens, you’re going to miss out on what the world really is. You, me, all of us, we need a new vision for the world and we need a more comprehensive, more inclusive science to support us.”
The movie came out in 1990, the year I headed off to college. (It had a profound effect on me as I entered my studies, though admittedly my pursuit of the other earthly pleasures that college had to offer put these revelations on ice for a while.)
Mindwalk posits the central question that has haunted human existence since the creation of organized civilization. Is there a natural order to the world that aligns social, political, environmental and economic structures in such a way that it produces a balanced and healthy outcome for all?
Spoiler alert. We’re not going to answer that question. The purpose of this essay is to run through the prevailing post-Enlightenment political theories that influence modern systems of government. I also wanted to challenge my own biases as well because, as we discussed in show notes last week, there’s a danger in absolutes. Even the greatest texts of all time produce multiple outcomes and opinions depending upon one’s cultural lens, prevailing economic conditions and current political winds. No matter how objective I might attempt to be in approaching this or any unf*cking essay, every word carries bias, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Oftentimes, when we come in contact with the ISMs we’re exploring today, they’re used in broad strokes to describe multiple things. For example, we talk about America as a capitalist nation. We’ve been taught to believe that anything that restricts capitalism—which we sometimes conflate with freedom—is communist in nature. That if we give anything to anyone, we’re practicing socialism. And if a leader has a strong opinion or a heavy hand, they’re a fascist.
We cherish the freedoms that come with democracy, but are democratic nations the only ones with freedom?
How do you even define freedom?
Can you have a free market system without democracy?
Was Karl Marx a communist or a socialist?
What is the difference between communism and socialism, for that matter?
Is it okay for a libertarian to accept Social Security and Medicare?
Does the natural order produce one system or another, or do these systems produce a natural order?
To really complicate matters, ISMs themselves are different in nature, but can sometimes cross multiple states. Economic. Social. Political. Americans have a tendency to describe capitalism, for example, as all three. But it’s not a political structure. On the whole, it’s an economic framework that supports a particular social structure. It works best, in theory and as far as we know, within a democratic framework, but they aren’t the same thing.
What ISMs Run America?
Let’s pull back for a second and frame our discussion today in current American terms. That’s perhaps the best way to visualize the complexities of competing ISMs and demonstrate how impractical it is to paint with a single color.
America is a constitutional republic with democratic elections and social welfare protections for many of its citizens. It has an economy modeled on capitalism, infused with socialist programs and policies frequently guided by corporate interests. As I’ve mentioned on the show before, this unique blend was coined “inverted totalitarianism” by political theorist Sheldon Wolin. In his words, “One cannot point to any national institution that can accurately be described as democratic. Surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media.”
“Inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.”
In this passage, Hedges is giving voice to the frustration each of us feels in not being able to affect change. The hopelessness that is expressed through low voter turnout. Phrases such as, “but what can I do about it,” or “it is what it is.”
Which reminds me, fuck you Melania.
How free can we be as a nation if we feel imprisoned by our institutions and powerless to do anything about it?
Illustrating the American political system in this way helps highlight, to me at least, how dicey it can be to ascribe a particular theory to any nation, government or philosophy. You don’t hear Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson debating the merits of inverted totalitarianism; but when you read how Wolin describes the United States, it certainly seems like they should.
So back to fascism as our first major ISM to unpack. Because this word was so loosely thrown around during the Trump years, it’s as good a starting point as any, though we won’t spend much time on it.
Fascism is a purely political construct that has enormous influence over both economic and social structures, but it is strictly political nonetheless. I can just as easily argue that Donald Trump had fascist tendencies as I can that Barack Obama did as well. But neither would be considered a true fascist, as they did not rule a fascist regime. Donald Trump tried to legislate almost exclusively through executive order and attempted to overthrow the government in his waning days. Those are fascist tendencies. Likewise, Barack Obama too legislated frequently through executive order when deliberately stymied by the legislative process and murdered tens of thousands of people abroad through drone strikes that were self-authorized without congressional approval or oversight. Fun, right?
The etymology of fascism has its roots in Roman times from the word “fasces,”—not to be confused with feces, the stuff that drips from Trump’s pie hole—fasces is defined as a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, a symbol of power carried by a lictor in ancient Rome.
As a political party and system, it was popularized by Benito Mussolini in 1919, at the end of World War One. The essential doctrine of fascism is to consolidate all power under the authoritarian rule of a single leader from whom all policies would be disseminated.
The term is often expanded to include racial power as well, as demonstrated by Adolf Hitler, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. However, it is more often a characteristic than not because the idea of consolidation requires complete assimilation of ideas, to which race and culture can certainly contribute.
Though I find some of his later work problematic and his theories increasingly erratic toward the end of his life, Christopher Hitchens succinctly describes fascism as, “A fanatical idea of mass mobilization. A cult of the leader. A cult of death. Fortunately in some ways, because it’s self destructive, which is also true of fascism. It’s irrational…as well as extremely violent.”
The complete centralization of power, restricting all forms of speech and movement, economic production and mobility, and extreme militarization are hallmarks of this ISM. It’s why I can comfortably say that Donald Trump, for example, had fascist tendencies but he lacked the acumen, wherewithal and economic circumstances that typically give rise to a fascist leader. Ultimately, the constraints of our republic kept him from seizing total power, but there can be little doubt that given the opportunity, this is how he would have preferred to rule.
The closest approximation of this today would have to be North Korea. Cult of a leader. Mass mobilization around a centralized authority. A cult of death. Complete control of economic, political and social order. Restricted movement and speech. Extreme militarism.
American politicians were keen to paint the Castro regime in Cuba and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as fascist dictatorships similarly. I actually think this is partially fair, and more so in Cuba than Venezuela under Chávez. But the key difference to me is that these Latin American dictatorships utilized fascism as a means to a socialist outcome, while fascism was the endgame to authoritarians such as Mussolini.
Karl Liked to Party
As we move to the triad of doom for conservatives—Marxism, socialism and communism—it's a good time to visit the granddaddy of all theorists, Karl Marx. Settle in, Unf*ckers, because we’re going deep on old Karl.
Karl Marx is often portrayed as a revolutionary, a characterization I’m not all that comfortable with. His ideas were revolutionary and have endured as such, but I think the better framing of the man is as a philosopher, economist and sociologist in much the way that Adam Smith is remembered.
Marx was born in 1818 in what is modern day Germany. He was born into an educated, middle class family and loved to fucking party in his younger days. He fell in love with Jenny von Westphalen, herself a brilliant critic and activist, with whom he had seven children. Marx went on to receive a doctorate in philosophy and tried his hand first at journalism, but his writings would get him thrown out of almost every newsroom and even country. During his life, he would live in Prussia (now Germany), France and eventually England where he collaborated closely with his friend old Friedrich Engels, but Marx would die penniless and very much alone.
Didn’t overthrow any governments or murder millions. Partied. Thought. Wrote. And challenged the entire world with his mind.
We’ll draw directly from Marx and others as we move through the next sections, and there’s one modern theorist that I’m going to draw from in particular to contextualize Marx: Joseph Schumpeter. I’ll be relying on Noam Chomsky as well.
Schumpeter was an Austrian economist who lived from 1883 to 1950 and wrote a masterpiece called Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy between 1939 to 1942, with the final edition appearing in 1950. Schumpeter is far from a household name and is most often recognized as the economist who coined the term “Creative Destruction,” which holds that the cycle of growth and progress of a process necessitates its own destruction.
Now, I mentioned briefly in the beginning that it was important to place ideologies and their respective theorists themselves in a revolutionary context. It’s hard to appreciate the massive upheaval that occurred during the Enlightenment period that gave rise to the theories that prevail to this day.
The American Revolution was extremely consequential in that it had European nations straining to view what was happening across the ocean. The French Revolution, as if in response to the New World’s sudden independence—though that might be the most reductive thing I have ever written—truly sent shockwaves through the western world. France would remain in a revolutionary state for the next hundred years, with the revolution of 1789 being litigated ever since in terms of its legacy and effectiveness at setting the working class free. And the Russian Revolution would color the political climate for the balance of the 20th Century.
Many of the theorists whose fingerprints are all over our republic even today came from the earliest revolutionary period in America and France. Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke, who inherited their foundation from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Adam Smith and François Quesnay would influence David Ricardo. And Karl Marx would benefit from each who had come before and author some of the most influential treatises on economics, society and governance ever recorded.
The time Marx was most productive is important to his legacy because he was able to witness the political results of the revolutionary periods in Europe and the New World, the birth of the industrial era and international commerce and the fragile systems that held them all together. And when Marx was writing The Communist Manifesto with his dear friend and collaborator Engels, every nation in Europe—with the exception of Britain—was experiencing some degree of revolutionary upheaval. Imagine America in 1968, but everywhere in the known world. It was an explosive time, to say the least.
The years between the release of The Communist Manifesto and the publication of their brilliant follow up, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte marked the height of Marx and Engels’ collaboration, though it would take time for these works to impact the world in the way The Wealth of Nations did, for example. For our purposes, I’ll draw more from The Communist Manifesto than the Eighteenth Brumaire or even Das Kapital. The Manifesto is more philosophical and more clearly demonstrates Marx’s literary flair. Das Kapital is a staggering work of economic genius. And the Eighteenth Brumaire is basically a massive fucking hit piece on Louis Bonaparte and the bourgeois class as a whole and less didactic for our exercise here today.
One thing that is constantly overlooked, and contrary to the lazy beliefs of today’s pundit class, is that Marx saw the good that capitalism delivered. As Schumpeter put it:
“Marx was personally much too civilized to fall in with those vulgar professors of socialism who do not recognize a temple when they see it. In this respect, no better testimony to his broad-mindedness can be offered than the Communist Manifesto, which is an account nothing short of glowing of the achievements of capitalism; and even in pronouncing pro futuro death sentence on it, he never failed to recognize its historical necessity.”
Marx wasn’t critical of capitalism as an economic system in terms of its ability to generate surplus production and innovation. He was more critical of, “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products.” The need to constantly expand and to pillage new parts of the world in the name of profit was not as offensive to Marx as it was dangerous and wasteful. He further recognized that this constant demand for more created periods of overproduction, the overheating of economies we now associate with boom and bust cycles. Quoting from The Communist Manifesto directly, he said:
“In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary and unique this concept was at the time and how it holds true to this day. Marx was commenting on a system so preposterous that it can undo itself by being too successful. For example, a nation state could produce so much food that its economy collapses and its people go hungry. When you put it in these terms and apply it even through today’s lens, it’s hard to argue against how fucked up this is.
Marx wasn’t doubting capitalism’s ability to create, to build, to innovate. In fact, he admitted that these were definitively positive outcomes of capitalism. His problem was that these conditions continually placed the proletariat in precarious positions, owning none of the means, possessing none of the property and little of the capital except in the form of wages. And the only way to push through the inevitable bust cycles was, “On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.”
It’s a vicious cycle that prevents the lower classes from acquiring physical capital and the means to grow wealth. One that requires subjugation of a class of people.
We recognize this today through language such as capitalism, left to its own devices, will ultimately cave in on itself. This is a paraphrasing of Marx’s thesis that essentially suggests that if we’re constantly exploiting new areas and having to deepen our exploitation of old ones, then by definition, labor cannot possess the means to get ahead. To maintain profits, labor must constantly be beaten back and sacrificed, thus widening the gap between classes.
Ultimately, Marx wasn’t agitating for a revolution as much as he was predicting one where the working class would rise in unison, having been united by the global and commercial trade mechanisms ironically developed by the bourgeoisie to expand their exploitative reach. This would culminate in a workers revolt that swelled beyond nationalism and placed the means of production into the hands of those who produced.
Putting this into political theory, Marx stated clearly:
“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.”
He concludes with a simple line that summarizes the manifesto:
“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
This simple, but extremely radical, idea is anathema to almost everyone living today. But it’s important to remember that property in this sense means those fixtures of economic production that produce capital on the back of labor. Machines. Factories. Utilities. Equipment. Buildings. Bridges. Roads. Railways. The means of production. That’s the property he reasoned would someday return to those who labor rather than those who profit.
In proving his logic, he turns capitalist convention on its head. We’re conditioned to believe that private property is the foundation of everything. Banks loan to people because they have capital or collateral. You can build wealth by leveraging equipment and resources. You have to have capital and private ownership of its means to function properly. But Marx simply turns this around and says, “In your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenth of the population.”
Basically, if 90% of the population already doesn’t own the means of production, then it must not be entirely necessary for production to occur. We’re not giving anything away to 90% of the people, just taking it from 10.
Marx goes on to introduce all of the potential arguments to his thesis that labor should own the means of production, and masterfully dismantles each of them. He concludes with the core tenets of the communist agenda that include rational arguments more recognizable today: Progressive taxation, the benefits of free education, centralizing communication and transportation, centralizing credit and capital, eliminating inherited wealth and the abolition of land ownership for private rents—essentially de-monetizing housing away from landlords.
Again, I’m not arguing the merits of any or all of these. The point is to cool the inflammatory rhetoric that surrounds any discussion of Marx.
Marxism: Not a Thing
Now, I’m going to say something here that might seem strange, contradictory and perhaps controversial, but I don’t believe there’s such thing as Marxism. Marx was a man. A philosopher—he literally studied and taught philosophy—who became an economist who influenced social and behavioral sciences as much as Darwin, Freud or Nietzsche. And his theories were not ideological in nature, which is why I don’t believe there can be such a thing as Marxism as an ideology.
Marx believed in the natural path of capitalism to socialism to a state of communism, a state that he leaves rather undefined, as he knew that this future state would be influenced by the natural resources, technology and the evolution of human behavior. But, to the extent that communism was an evolved form of socialism, academia has been able to theorize what this state would look like within the loose framework he provided.
To further this point, Marx believed that ideology itself was a function of class. Therefore, in a state and society in which class no longer exists, then neither can ideology.
Schumpeter refers to Marxism as more of a religion than an ideology or doctrine, and I think that’s accurate in that it’s something posthumously thrust upon the man who himself was continuing to learn, adapt and evolve until the very end of his life. In fact, I would argue that very little of Marx’s ideas of economic, political and social systems was doctrinal. Remember, he was a philosopher first and foremost. So the doctrinal elements we typically associate with Marxism today are really just observations of existing systems and conditions, and a philosopher’s prognostications of what must ultimately come next.
If you’ve never read it or it’s been a while, it’s worth revisiting, as The Communist Manifesto remains a brilliant work of theoretical rhetoric. But it’s far from the only work that sets Marx apart from other great thinkers. Das Kapital and other works place him among the all time greats in terms of economic thinking, political science and sociology. He saw the beauty and benefits of a capitalist system that could produce outputs beyond our wildest imaginations. But he believed that they would necessarily create conditions of inequality that would foster revolution and lead to a socialist state guided by the political structure of communism.
In a way, we’re working backwards from communism to socialism and then to capitalism. This is the reverse progression that Marx believed in, and it’s amazing that we’re still talking about it more than 170 years later. This elusive end game of communism was wholly theoretical, and the world has yet to see it in action.
Communism is a social, economic and political order whereby the people are in complete control of all societal levers. In this sense, it is somewhat better described as Utopian Socialism. The state would control all aspects of economic activity, but only as a mechanism to evenly and fairly distribute the outputs. Education, food, capital, shelter and so on. A state that is controlled by the people, not an authoritarian and controlling regime.
Communism, in the strictest terms, is fantastical in my opinion. It’s a lot like my criticisms of Milton Friedman and his devotion to the idea of a free market. Both of these concepts require the suspension of disbelief because they fail to incorporate the natural tendencies of greed. Greed for money. Greed for power. Greed for hoarding and subjugation. I believe these to be natural instincts of humankind rather than products of economic systems. And to prove this these I present, um, all of human fucking history.
What is more realistic and easy to wrap our heads around is socialism.
Let’s begin with a word from Chomsky:.
“As far as ‘socialism’ is concerned, that term has been so evacuated of content over the last century that it is hard even to use. I mean, the Soviet Union, for example, was called a ‘socialist society.’ And it was called that by the two major propaganda operations in the world. The U.S., the Western one, and the Soviet one. They both called it ‘socialism’, for opposite reasons. The West called it ‘socialism; in order to defame socialism by associating it with this miserable tyranny. The Soviet Union called it ‘socialism’ in order to…benefit from the moral appeal that true socialism had among large parts of the general world population. But this was about as remote from socialism as you can imagine.”
Our understanding of socialism today was cultivated in the propaganda campaigns throughout the Cold War. Remember that, in the first half of the 20th Century, figures like Eugene Debs were serious political candidates for social progress and leading intellectual figures like John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, Rosa Luxemburg and John Keynes were debating the merits of a just society—Rosa being the resident badass motherfucker of this grouping. The New Deal-era reforms and the encroaching success of these intellectual discussions were creating a backlash among the monied elite who sought to demonize socialism in America. A propaganda campaign that initiated the Cold War—a term coined by Lippmann, in fact—would later be weaponized through several conflicts around the globe.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Soviets were hard at work trying to define their totalitarian empire as a socialist state, which merits a quick reflection, as we move toward the definition of socialism.
When the next generation of revolutionary figures such as Trotsky and Lenin picked up the banner from Karl Marx and attempted to convert his philosophical doctrine into a functioning and revolutionary system, it was thought that this was the vehicle by which true socialism would be delivered in the vision Marx intended. It may have earnestly begun as such, but Russia was not Germany and Lenin and Trotsky were not Marx and Engels.
At the turn of the 20th Century, when the Bolsheviks were agitating, it was mostly from afar. From the relative safety of Germany and France, Marx’s self-styled successors would launch propaganda campaigns to stoke the flames of discontent among the working class in all countries. Their vision was to ignite a revolution among the peasantry of Russia to seed a revolution that would ultimately spread throughout Europe, and hopefully the world.
It should be noted that Russia wasn’t considered the ideal breeding ground for communism by Marx or Lenin and Trotsky because it had yet to graduate from feudalism to capitalism. Germany was thought to be a far better experiment because it had adopted a market economy and was tending toward socialist reforms during their time. But the bourgeois resistance was too entrenched in Germany and other parts of Europe, and therefore less susceptible to their revolutionary ideas.
Like most revolutionaries who stoke the flames of discontent and overthrow a government, Lenin found it convenient and necessary, I suppose, to put his foot on the neck of the proletariat he so loved. You know, for their sake. Even Trotsky would have a violent turn as a revolutionary and was ultimately expelled by the even more violent Lenin, who was succeeded by the even more violent uber-asshole, Stalin. Lenin’s firm hand would lay the groundwork for Stalinism, one of the most horrific and brutal regimes that ever existed. Gradually, the government of Lenin and then of Stalin moved further away from anything that resembled the ideas of Marx and Engels, except in the way they romanticized their rule and sold it to the world.
On the surface, there appeared to be certain core tenets of Marx’s philosophy in the way Lenin approached Russia’s revolutionary renaissance. State control, equitable distribution of goods and so on. But none of it was natural. There was no evolution. No plan. Just total authoritarian centralization of power and means, leaving the people with little more than meager possessions. The people controlled nothing.
But because we were so successful in painting Russia as a socialist state and the Russian communists were equally successful in the same idea but for different reasons, we came to equate the Soviet experience with the deliberate socialist outcome. Which is why conservative media can rinse, wash and repeat the same stupid and vulgar messages about socialism over and over and over again.
So if communism is a state in which the people literally control everything from government to education to resources and capital, then what is socialism, and why did Marx consider it the bridge between capitalism and communism?
Socialism honestly has dozens of definitions and scores more interpretations. Perhaps more. The basic concept is the elimination of private property—again, not your house, the means of production—and centralization of economic interests. Without the incentive to generate wealth, what stands in for a market force in a socialist economy? Good question. Essentially, there has to be a central authority of sorts that is the arbiter of production with respect to quantity and distribution. Take away the cultish aspects of the Castro regime, as an example, and you have a small window into what it looks like. You can own a home, have a job, hustle with two jobs if you want to make more. You can be part of the decision making process in the machine that strives to innovate and grow, to meet demand and even compete. What you can’t do is reap a benefit that outweighs your personal contribution to the output.
In the United States, senior citizens have Medicare and Social Security payments. They might live in subsidized housing. Many of us have access to public sewage treatment plants. Public water systems. Bridges, tunnels, roads, highways. Public school, the postal service. You know, the stuff that works for everyone. But, the conservative class believes that the real good stuff like landing a man on the moon or the iPhone are products of capitalism, while other countries with forms of socialism are just responsible for Ikea.
Of course, this is intellectually bankrupt as well. Telephony was funded by the government, and the spectrum that it rides on is managed by the government as well. The Internet was created by the government. The government landed a man on the moon because it wanted to. Even the great Tesla was seeded with government money, the cars themselves drive on government roads and the emission standard incentives were crafted by the government. The government, in all of these cases, is the central authority that socialism speaks of.
But promoters of capitalism, or at least what they believe to be capitalism, think that innovation can only be fostered by the quest for money and profits. That’s just never been the case. Money and profits might amplify the capital flow into these innovations, but they rarely reflect the genesis of an idea. And the fact that Marx himself stated that a progressive tax was an essential element of communism means that private accumulation of capital isn’t excluded from the equation.
It implies that it’s very much a part of the economic engine, you’re just not allowed to keep all of the excess capital that is periodically generated due to market conditions. Conditions that, once again, rely on a centralized authority to guide the direction of production and distribution of goods and services to each according to their needs.
Excess capital is a condition of all economic activity, just as there are periods of deficit. It’s how these periods impact the individual as part of a society that matters. If eliminating billionaires means that everyone is educated and fed, then there’s all you really need to know about the meaning of socialism.
Capitalism: Quick Recap
And a final end note to refer back to our capitalism essay. As we pointed out then, closer reading of Adam Smith reveals some irrefutable similarities between capitalism and socialism. Remember that Smith believed that a free market economy can only function within a properly regulated market. And that the excesses of production should be delivered back into the system to provide welfare and education, fund the arts and sciences, minimize inequality and prevent suffering. The difference is that his theory relies exclusively on private property and the concept of capital accumulation through monetary incentives to produce these outputs, whereas Marx believed that these outputs themselves are the incentives.
Schumpeter lands in an interesting place when talking about capitalism as a precursor to socialism.
“The thesis I shall endeavor to establish is that the actual and prospective performance of the capitalist system is such as to negative the idea of its breaking down under the weight of economic failure, but that its very success undermines the social institutions which protect it, and ‘inevitably’ creates conditions in which it will not be able to live and which strongly point to socialism as the heir apparent.”
This encapsulates my bias toward Schumpeter. Like Marx, he believed that capitalism is a successful economic model in terms of production and gains. But where Marx believed that it would collapse as a system, which would lead to a revolt, Schumpeter posits that capitalism doesn’t collapse, it consumes. It consumes resources and capital and uses them to purchase influence that then weakens and consumes the very structures that made it successful. That’s what we’re seeing right now.
Every bridge that collapses. Every child left homeless and hungry. Every billionaire that’s created. Every tax loophole. Every regulation and protection that is destroyed in the name of profit will eventually lead to a circumstance where the mother economy is unable to support the structure that gave birth to innovation. The laborer who toils for less and less will be unable to consume the very product or service they produce. The haves will have taken all from the have nots, until there’s nothing left to have.
One common thread from Smith to Marx, as our main protagonists here, is that both believed that a central authority was necessary to maintain an economic equilibrium, and that excess capital should be sent back through the system. And both were of the belief that the ideal economic system was one that cared for people. In this way, their measurements of failure and of success were the same. They just took different paths to get there.
What ISM are you?
So when you’re asked about a particular ISM. Are you a socialist? Why don’t you like capitalism? Are you some sort of Marxist? Clearly rehashing everything we went through today is impractical, especially considering we left so much on the table. Here’s how I think we can talk about it. With the exception of fascism—which is a power grab of bloodlust—capitalists, socialists, Marxists, democratic socialists, pretty much everyone has more in common than not.
First, each of the great theorists associated with these ISMs did so with the best available information. Smith had only an agrarian lens through which to view the world. Marx saw the ugliness in the rise of industrialism as it related to the subjugation of the working class. And so on. Each would continue to learn and evolve until the end. Just as John Maynard Keynes viewed the world differently in the span of just the two great wars. And every single theorist in history, even Uncle Fucknipple, believed that their theories were designed to produce an outcome that benefitted all.
Adam Smith believed capitalism in its purest form would produce an excess of capital that should be used to support the arts and sciences, provide education to all and take care of the poorest among us. Marx simply believed that the people themselves were capable of producing that which provided the excess, a shorter path to the same outcome. Milton Friedman believed that the free market was rational and inherently good and that it, too, was capable of delivering positive outcomes to all.
But the one thing that they all possessed, was the belief that human progress was inevitable. In the end, each great philosopher and economist throughout history was attempting to harness the power and potential of progress in a way that provided the greatest benefit to the largest number of people.
That’s why I don’t believe in a so-called Progressive Party or even in the concept of progressivism. But I do believe in progress, and therefore identify as a progressive. Progress, by definition, means that we are moving forward and improving. This, in and of itself, should free us from the shackles of Smith and Marx and allow us to think bigger, with the available resources, information and data at our disposal. Those things that they could not possess in their times.
Imagine if our elected leaders shared the desire to serve humanity through the excesses of production, refused to be boxed in by ISMs of the past and merely argued about the best path forward. Then maybe none of these ISMs would really matter to anyone. Because the real lesson here is that they don’t.
You are more than an ISM.
Here endeth the lesson.