ORIGINALLY CONCEIVED BY Karl Marx as a transitional stage between Capitalism and Communism, during which the working class would exercise a dictatorship over the dispossessed capitalists and their flunkeys, Socialism (said Marx) would allow certain features of Capitalism to linger-–wage-labour, inequality of earnings, profit-making (by the state) etc.-–before class divisions spontaneously disappeared and the state eventually withered away.
After constant experimentation on every continent and in every decade of the twentieth-century however, we can now say confidently that no Marxist state ever just ‘withers away,’ and nor did Mark himself ever explain the mechanism by which this delightful apparition would all of a sudden appear from the dictatorship so firmly created by his proletariat.
Conceived in its non-Marxist guises as an end-in-itself, with the state assuming a dominant role in the economy--usually by owning everything–-Socialism has come to mean the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Such an end was once the stated goal of the Labour Parties in both Britain and New Zealand. Such is the sorry history of nationalised industries, however, that the effects of nationalisation are now widely known, and nationalisation itself frequently disavowed--publicly at least. Tony Blair for example fought a courageous battle to remove the commitment to nationalisation from the the constitution of the British Labour Party, but local Labourites have shown recently with full or partial renationalisations of the rail lines, Air New Zealand and Telecom's lines (and barriers being quietly put in the way of the sale of Auckland Airport to a bidder from Dubai) that this destructive stupidity is sadly still not dead.
Blatant nationalisation is still espoused by modern-day socialists even in the face of the evidence of the poverty it creates, as can be observed with the cheerleaders for the modern-day destruction of Venezuela.
But while nationalisation of the physical means of production was once a defining characteristic of Socialism, it was not always a necessary one. Hitler’s National Socialists, it's worth noting, saw nationalisation as crude and unnecessary. “Why need we trouble to socialise industry?” Hitler asked. “We socialise human beings.” The partial nationalisation of NZ's children by the Bradford/Key anti-smacking bill would seem to be an example of this more subtle form of nationalisation.
SOCIALISM WAS ONCE promoted by its adherents as being an engine of production. The ‘Socialist Calculation Debate’ between Ludwig von Mises and Oskar Lange exposed the fallacy in this view; the final collapse of the Berlin Wall and the misery previously hidden by lies and deception showed that Mises was right: Socialism when introduced produced nothing but misery.
SOCIALISM IS OFTEN characterised as being a system that involves the ‘redistribution of wealth’ in an attempt to make everybody equal – an expression of egalitarianism perhaps best characterised as one of theft based on Envy, in which human liberty is sacrificed on a ‘Procrustean bed’ of equality. Indeed, students of envy have noted its close links with the egalitarianism of Socialism, and agree on one fascinating conclusion: the desire of the envious is not so much to have themselves raised up to the level of those whom they resent, but to bring the achievers down to their own level.
As Ayn Rand said of collectivists everywhere, they begin by trying to raise everyone to the mountaintops, and end by razing the mountains.
Whatever its guise, Socialism is a form of Collectivism, with all the denial of freedom that entails. One would like to believe that, because of its history, it is indeed history – but while collectivism remains the mind-set of most people, Socialism is never far away.
This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by New Zealand's libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993 and being progressively updated for republication now. The 'Introduction' to the series is here, and the archives for the series so far can be found here, and down there on the right-hand sidebar.