A friend of mine recently recommended the film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). Even though I’d already seen it years ago, and in spite of his insistence that I give it a re-watch, I simply had to pass. The ensuing discussion led to my friend saying, “if only socialism didn’t have to be so repressive toward the people who live under it.”
For regular readers, you likely already know the argument I’m about to make, but unfortunately this argument remains necessary to delineate due to its hegemonic saturation of cultural, political, and academic discourses in the United States and Western Europe. The common claim that critics are taught to echo is that in spite of any positive thing a government calling itself socialist achieved, those factors are nullified by secret polices breaking down doors at 3 AM, by dictators with sycophantic cults of personality, and by unresponsive and inept system of allocation that left people waiting five years to receive a refrigerator.
Socialism is, in short, a terrible system that led to bloody results. It’s been tried and it failed at an enormous human cost. Let’s move on. So went every history and economics class I ever sat through from middle school to high school to college. But is it accurate?
Varieties of Capitalism
There is no doubt that capitalism is the dominant system of the 21st Century. With even the so-called Communist Party of China pursuing a system of private, for-profit industry, the casual observer could be forgiven in concluding that the days of socialism are over, and that the dreams of Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman have become a cozy reality and humanity is a race of billionaires in waiting.
Within the capitalist system there are many different varieties of organizing a market economy. The Untied States practices a devolved version of laissez-faire capitalism, in which (though Friedman would disagree), the bulk of allocation is left to private, for-profit markets subject to some regulation from the state. Thus, healthcare, education, elder care, and daycares become for-profit industries.
Germany practices a mixed system some might describe as social-democratic. The above services are largely provided by the state or regulated so that they are affordable and obtainable by the bulk of the citizenry. Russia takes a very different approach, in which its government is ruled by a clique of oligarchs who extract enormous material benefit by virtue of their lofty positions atop favored national champions.
All three of these are among the many varieties of capitalism that have existed and currently exist. But which one of these is the real capitalism? Arguments could be made that each of them is more representative of a capitalist economic system: the US model is true(er) to Friedman’s neoliberalism; the German model tames capitalism’s worse effects; the Russian model is the logical conclusion of the brute force capitalism facilitates. But can any one of them truly be said to represent capitalism as a whole?
Varieties of Socialism
Just as there are multiple varieties of capitalism that fit under the umbrella of the term, there are multiple varieties of socialism that have existed, currently exist, and are theorized. The authoritarian variety of socialism practiced in the Eastern Bloc states between 1948 and 1989, which featured repressive police mechanisms and limitations on individuals’ civil liberties, also featured universal access to public health, high-quality education, childcare, and maternity leave.
The varieties of socialism continue. Martin Luther King advanced a socialist doctrine in the vanguard of the US Civil Rights Movement that made no mention of using a secret police (or violence for that matter) to achieve its political goals. Socialist politicians turned the industrial hellscape of turn of the century Milwaukee into a livable place for working families while creating a legacy of honesty and efficiency in city politics that lasts to this day. No secret police were involved in the project.
Similarly, the socialism that is advocated for in many academic and political circles today, from mainstream politicians such as Bernie Sanders to economists like Richard Wolff, is a devolved, democratic organization of the state and economy. It centers on worker’s self-management, democratic allocation of resources and critical services (i.e. healthcare), and a bottom-up method of data-driven planning that Leigh Phillips And Michal Rozworski advocate for in their outstanding book The People’s Republic of Walmart. And (though many Republicans will disagree), none of these socialists have plans for violence or repression.
There are as many socialisms as there are capitalisms in human history and philosophy, and to take one example and uphold it as universal is not only logically fallacious, but it is intellectually dishonest and rhetorically lazy. The critique of capitalism has a long history going back to Karl Marx himself, and to attempt to defuse it by cherry-picking the most egregious examples of abuse committed by individuals pursuing a socialist project is the sort of intellectual sloth that a declining global capitalism is likely to spew out.
The End and the Beginning
The intellectual feebleness of using the Stasi as an example of why socialism is a bad idea is as omnipresent as it is lazy. From my college economics professor who told me “socialism is great for the guy holding the gun” to Margret Thatcher herself who said that “socialism is great until you run out of other people’s money,” this myopic critique of an entire philosophy of economics as it surfaces in North America and Western Europe remains political shorthand for capitalists, their benefactors, and their apologists to defeat and defuse rational critiques of the system from which they benefit.
Socialism remains today as potent a force as it ever has been, and to an increasing number of the young and dispossessed who lack memories of Cold War era tensions, the old arguments fail to inspire the unquestioning fear and revulsion they once did. A growing number of malcontents like myself are asking our economics professors why Marx is not included on the list of required reading, and more and more of us refuse to patronize socially (and morally) irresponsible businesses (ahem, I’m looking at you, Amazon).
On our current trajectory, it is simply a question of time until worker’s parties are elected to national legislatures and policy at the national level shifts away from profits toward a moralistic and humane incarnation of government action. Such a change will not come automatically, however, and it is both complacent and dangerous to think otherwise.
Such change requires action of the kind that shifts societies out of their sleep and inspires the masses to raise their fists, their pens, their voices, and every other creative instrument at their disposal to bring about an economic and political reality in which every voice is respected, every voice is heard, and every voice can join together for a higher purpose.
It is to that end that we must oppose the false narrative capitalism has created about socialism. We must acknowledge the failures and the abuses committed by people calling themselves socialists while embracing a commitment to do better, to be kinder, to be a force for humanity and for goodness as we build our egalitarian project. We must learn from the past as we build the future while arming ourselves with the rhetorical tools to fight false narratives and oversimplified and propagandistic misrepresentations of our aims.
Socialism is a humane project. At its core, our goal is to uplift all of humanity so that we all can reach our potential as creative and productive people, whose individual aspirations and dreams can be met, honored, and respected by the mass of society. We are all alike in this hope, and through honesty and clarity, we can rise above assaults on our good name and advocate for what we truly believe in. So no, dear capitalists, “yeah, but Stasi” just won’t work anymore.