In addition to being a hot button issue for almost the entirety of the 20th and 21st centuries, socialism and communism are often used as scare tactics. But many lack a proper understanding of what these ideologies mean. In order to form legitimate opinions on these topics, it is most important to understand them. So, whether your bumper sticker says "don't tread on me" or "glory to the proletariat," let’s all hop on the magic school bus of education.
Let’s get one big issue out of the way: the falsehood of Nazism as socialism. This myth derives from the name itself. Nazi is short for National Socialist. However, Nazism is not socialism and has none of the characteristics or hallmarks of socialism. Nazism is, in fact, a form of fascism as Adolf Hitler was strongly influenced by Benito Mussolini. I will discuss fascism in further detail below.
I want to introduce this topic because it is important to understand these ideologies with regards to our current blog series about WWII. And also when these words are tossed around in our current political climate. If you leave here with a better understanding to support your Facebook arguments, then I’ve done my job. (I’m joking – arguing on Facebook is bad for your health.)
Supply and Demand: Capitalism
Capitalism was a naturally-occurring economic movement that came into power during the Industrial Revolution. It was an evolution of the economics and politics that had always been in place, an echo of former ways of life, including monarchy and feudalism. (The latter, basically, meaning the serfs working the land for a noble landowner. This landowner reaped the profits of their labor, while the serfs received little.) Capitalism is an economic policy steeped in inequality and competition.
Capitalism means that private companies or individuals own the means of production and derive their income from doing so. The free market, dictated by supply and demand, is the king of capitalism. Low demand and high supply means low prices. Low supply and high demand means high prices. This fosters a competitive economic climate, which enables rapid advancement in products and technology. It also breeds severe inequality. The negative aspect that many fail to understand about capitalism is that not everyone can become the owners of the means of production. And not everyone is afforded that opportunity. The greatest myth is the myth of the American Dream in a capitalist society. Those who are disabled or disadvantaged physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, or socially are not on a level playing field with those who have all the advantages afforded to them. This is why we see wealthy families and wealthy business owners creating a sort of "American Royal" situation. Capitalism breeds a new classist society based on inheritance (but of income rather than titles).
As you might have noticed, this description of capitalism seems overly critical. Even reading it myself, I wonder if you think I’m a communist with a poster of Karl Marx over my bed. Capitalism has to be identified through both its weaknesses and strengths. Growing up in America, we become indoctrinated to the idea that any critique of capitalism means you are a communist traitor. A particularly funny image, considering the amount of socialist aspects to our government and economy in America. (To be discussed further in the socialism section below.) You grew up hearing the positive aspects of capitalism opined by everyone within earshot. It is most important, however, to understand the negative aspects in order to understand the appearance of the new economic and political ideologies outlined below.
Seize the Means of Production: Socialism
Fascism, socialism, and communism were all ideologies that sprang forth as a response to the downfalls of capitalism. As mentioned above, capitalism was the natural evolution that came with rapid industrialization. Its pitfalls and weaknesses became clear very quickly. Philosophers, economists, politicians, and others scrambled to come up with a solution to these problems.
Socialism and communism derived from the philosophies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Both stemmed from a desire to limit worker exploitation and eliminate economic classes, thereby eliminating economic inequality. A phrase I’ve heard parroted even by staunch libertarians is “it sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality.” This might actually be true, as no socialist economy has flourished without the addition of capitalist elements. This is primarily due to the corruption at the highest levels of power.
Could it work, though? Possibly.
According to Marx and Engels, socialism is an inevitability after capitalism. They believed that the proletariat (the workers and producers, such as farmers and factory workers) would rise up against the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production). They would seize the means of production, thereby eliminating the economic inequality. The people who worked would own the results of their work. No one would get rich off the labor of others. Capitalism thrives on competition whereas in socialism, all society contributes to the best of their abilities to the greater good and all share in the profits. This takes care of the disabled and disadvantaged in our society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
However, even in theory, socialism stagnates technological and industrial progress in the interest of equality. It cannot create the same incentive that the promise of wealth within the confines of capitalism does. “The greater good,” while a nice-sounding phrase, is not as much a motivator as greed is.
We do see elements of socialism within modern capitalist societies today. This includes public schools, fire departments, police departments, social security, medicare, universal healthcare, etc.
Glory to the Proletariat: Communism
Repeat after me: THERE HAS NEVER EXISTED A COMMUNIST COUNTRY. No, the USSR was not communist. (I would add to my argument that its official title is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but names are meaningless considering National Socialism is not socialist.) China was never communist and is only so in name these days, operating under the former communist party with a capitalist economy. Communism was considered by Marx and Engels to be the ultimate goal after the stepping stone of socialism. What is the difference between communism and socialism? Well, communism is basically socialism on steroids.
Socialism advocates for the means of production to be held by the state or in the public interest. Communism advocates for a world with no private ownership, no money, and no national borders. Every individual contributes what they can and takes what they need. And everything is owned by the collective. According to Marx, communism allocates goods according to need and capitalism allocates goods according to greed.
Forcible Suppression for the Greater Good: Fascism
Finally, we have fascism – a counter-solution to communism and capitalism. Most of the sources I visited trying to get a clear definition on fascism emphasized the difficulty of defining such a thing. However, there are a few important characteristics that can be singled out: extreme nationalism often giving way to xenophobia, strict obedience to a central power at the expense of individual rights, a belief in Social Darwinism over equality.
Fascism has traditionally evolved out of fear of another group gaining power: for Nazism, it was the Jews and the communists, and for Mussolini's fascism, it was the communists. (Hitler equated Jews with communism and referred to the Bolsheviks – the communist group in Russia that succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy – as the Bolshevik Jews. In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the true enemy of the German people was the communists.) Mussolini is believed to have been the creator of fascism, or at the least was the one who popularized it. Nationalism and national security is at the heart of fascism. In fascism, individual liberties and civil rights are given up in favor of national security. The extreme nationalism and the fear of other groups gaining power leads to racism and xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Demands are made on the people for the good of the nation. Like socialism and communism, there is one central power (usually a dictator) and absolute loyalty is demanded to this person. Decisions made by the state are always the right decision. The people must submit to the will of the nation (usually represented by one person, such as Hitler or Mussolini). This is all done in the name of providing national self-sufficiency, which can lead to isolationism. In the well-known examples, this leads to violent invasion of other nations to capture resources for their own use.
Unlike communism and socialism, fascism abolishes unions and promotes private enterprise that supports the state. Foreign trade is banned so the nation does not become dependent on other countries. Ultimately, the worth of the individual is tied to the state. An individual who cannot contribute to the glory of the state is considered a burden upon it and must be eliminated.
These terms are important to understand when reading about World War II. It is important to understand that Hitler's Nazism (his own brand of fascism), and Mussolini's fascism, were diametrically opposed to the capitalism of the West, the socialism of the USSR and the socialist reforms taking place under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. (You can read more about the latter here.)