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Socialism as a Spectrum?
CJay Engel comment 0 Comments access_time 3 min read

In my last series on socialism, I tried to dig deeper into its definition; too many libertarians, conservatives, and capitalists are not aware of the development of the word and how it relates to what I have expressed as the two primary forms of socialism: Orthodox Marxism and Reformism (which later became left-interventionism). If socialism means the public ownership of the means of production, Reformism and Western, Fabian socialism aren’t really socialism, as George Reisman has noted of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio—Cortez types; they are interventionists.

However, if we define socialism in a broader sense we relegate “public ownership in the means of production” to the Marxist category and distinguish it from the less rigorous, less extreme version of socialism, represented by the Reformists and modern interventionists. Definitions are not objective… and we need to be flexible when dealing with different types of self-described socialists.

Michael Rozeff has a new post at LRC interacting with the meaning of socialism and he makes a key point that I hinted at in my article on Hoppe and socialism. One of the contributions to property theory that Hoppe makes is his connection between ”ownership” and the right to determine the use of a property. Mises once said that the German system (during the pre-WWII era) was a socialist one, but it was distinguished from Russian socialism in that private entities and persons owned the means of production, nominally. But it was still socialism because these private entities did not have the final say as to the employment of this property— the government did. And since ownership includes the right to control, the reality of the system, despite the legal formalities, was socialistic.

This is a good argument that can be applied against the Marxists who deny that western countries are socialistic because there is no public ownership of the means of production.

Thus, writes, Rozeff,

“if we observe that a government doesn’t (fully) own the means of production, that does not mean that the government is not socialistic.

There need not be any ambiguity whatsoever in describing all the activities of governments as socialistic or as examples of socialism. When a government taxes (net) taxpayers as all governments do, the government people invariably decide what to do with the proceeds. These decisions necessarily involve either producing or distributing goods or both. This is socialism. If government people establish a ceiling price for apartment rent, this necessarily involves the production and distribution of goods. This is socialism occurring. If the government uses taxes to build missiles and drop them on Syria, socialism is occurring.“

This relies on the libertarian understanding of legal ownership as constituting not only the possession of title over a property, but also the authority to decide the use of the property. Thus, if we use our libertarian understanding of property ownership and apply it to the state’s decision making powers, we find that almost everything is socialistic, in this sense.

In summary, we can define socialism “for the sake of the argument” as the public ownership of the means of production and distinguish therefore between orthodox Marxism and reformism/interventionism. OR, we can do what Rozeff does:

There is no need to get into debates over whether or not a government-enacted measure of control or a government is or is not socialist. They all are, to a greater or lesser degree. There is no need to debate varieties of socialism or Marxism or obscure theories, not when what we need is a clear understanding among great masses of people as to what socialism is and is not.

I think there is a time for both approaches and it depends on the audience.