If you’ve expressed interest in socialism at some point in your life, you’ve probably had an encounter ( it can be at a family dinner, at school, the break room at work or any number of other examples) that goes like this: You say something favorable about socialism, anything at all, and someone in the conversation dons a smug, wise-in–the-ways-of–the-world facial expression, then fires off a line of “bumper sticker wisdom.”
Some of us have heard these arguments hundreds of times; indeed many of us remember being indoctrinated with these capitalist sentiments since high school. Some can be easily dismissed, but others are so profoundly ingrained that you must examine it from every angle, engaging each layer contained with the statement. The frequency of these arguments, and the curious fact that they often originate not only from self-proclaimed conservatives but even the occasional “progressive,” strongly suggest that anti-communism is suffering from a severe lack of coherent arguments.
Why are anti-communist arguments important to examine and engage? It is because in almost every case, these common claims are straw man arguments advanced by people who do not have a knowledge of Marxism or the reality of socialist countries. This kind of debate-via-sloganeering gets tiring very quickly.
Let us examine a list of some of the most common anti-communist tropes. The following excerpts are from actual debates taking place in the website linked at the bottom of this article. The specific wording of many of these common arguments may differ radically, but they are fairly representative of anti-communist arguments.
“When you implement “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” magically, everyone starts having quite a lot of need and very little ability.”
There is no empirical evidence for this. They cannot even try to use the Soviet Union or any either socialist society as an example, since the maxim they are referring to, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” describes advanced communist society, not socialist society, which would be “…to each according to his work.” What we have here is a claim that something occurs, without any example or evidence to support it.
“People will never be motivated, without mass brain-washing, to work for the good of society despite the absence of a social mechanism compelling them to work.”
Humans are compelled to work by their own need for survival, not necessarily a social mechanism. This is a minor quibble though, compared to the key flaws of this argument. For one, we must ask why is it that a capitalist, a C.E.O., a banker, etc., requires a massive amount of money and benefits in order to work, whereas those who actually produce wealth, the workers, are to break their backs for a pittance while the threat of starvation and homelessness looms overhead at all times.
The second flaw to this argument is that it ignores the undeniable fact that under capitalism, we are working allegedly for the good of society, and we are indoctrinated to do so in schools and by the media. When we are told not to organize unions, not to engage in class warfare, to support our President, to support our troops, and our glorious job creators, are we not being told to sacrifice our own personal interests for the good of society? A worker in a capitalist system must be far more altruistic than a socialist one.
“When the wealth is redistributed only the redistributers will have wealth!”
This is demonstrably false. In fact this simply begs far too many questions. For example, it is frequently assumed that socialism entails merely “redistribution” of the wealth. In fact it is the expropriation of the wealth by those who actually create it via their own labor.
Redistribution of wealth occurs all the time; sometimes it goes from the bottom up, other times from the top down. It has little to do with socialism. But let’s take an example of a strong welfare state such as Norway. Are we to believe that in Norway, public office holders have all the wealth while private businessmen have little or no wealth?
“Young people are drawn to socialism because they are idealistic. Socialism would be nice if it worked, however it doesn’t. On the surface this sounds good. This is why young people gravitate to liberalism. However when they get older, they realize that liberalism has negative unintended consequences. For instance, how does one go about implementing the “to each according to his needs” part? To give something to someone according to their needs, you have to have it in the first place. Or steal it. And you don’t want to trust a government that has the power to take everything from someone. Power corrupts and ultimate power corrupts ultimately. And then you see a sinister lining to the “from each according to his ability.”
There is a lot wrong with this paragraph, so let’s break it down point by point.
It begins with what amounts to a patronizing insult buried within the assumption that young people are attracted to socialism because they are idealistic. Indeed, youth are idealistic, but that alone does not bring them to Marxism, which is a materialist ideology and the opposite of idealism. You never hear these types saying that youth tend to believe in religion because they are idealistic and naïve, nor do we hear that they believe in patriotism, supporting the troops, or the meritocracy of capitalism for the same reasons. On a philosophical level, Marxism is materialist and dialectical, the opposite of bourgeois ideology which is both idealist and metaphysical.
It is strange that this “argument” then goes on to say that young people gravitate towards liberalism, since liberalism and Marxism are two very different things. The assumption that youth start out as idealistic liberals and eventually turn into street-wise conservatives is also flawed. Youth are often very attracted to the idea of the meritocracy, individualism, being a self-made man or woman, blaming others for their problems, and all the other self-serving myths of conservative ideology.
Many times the only way they ever give this up is by experience; they get laid off several times, they get to know people who live in poverty or find themselves in poverty, they travel to other countries to see how the rest of the world does things. Conservatism may seem like a natural destination when one gives up one’s youthful ideals, but in fact it requires what amounts to a childlike perspective on life. It preaches “personal responsibility,” except when a conservative politician gets called on the carpet for saying something indisputably stupid. It means making ridiculous claims and then alleging a media or academic conspiracy when the evidence contradicts them. It means purposely not checking information so as not to upset one’s world view. It means deliberately avoiding anything which might force one to re-think his or her beliefs. All of these represent child-like behavior.
Now as this paragraph moves on to the “unintended consequences” of “to each according to his needs” (not a tenet of liberalism). “To each according to his need,” a concept describing distribution in a theoretical, future communist society, is not a difficult concept. In fact, this idea has been implemented throughout human history and it is one of the reasons why we are still here after all these thousands of years.
Let’s look at the full phrase broken into two parts. First, “From each according to his ability,” referring to production. Everyone does the best they can. Second, “…to each according to his needs,” this refers to distribution. Now it is important to note that this describes production and distribution in a communist society, not a socialist society. This is a type of society which emerges when socialism has evolved to a point past that which it achieved in the early 20th century, when it has spread over most of the world and defeated the major imperialist powers. Capitalism paves the way for socialism, which develops into full fledged communism.
The slogan Marx used to describe socialist society (which he referred to as a lower stage of communism) was “from each according to his ability and to each according to his work.” The difference may appear small, but it is crucial. It a fully-functioning socialist society, you receive the equivalent of that which you put into society in terms of value, minus deductions for social services and reinvestment. Since the means of production are social, and not private, the latter still benefits you in an indirect way, while social services represent things you would have to pay for individually were it not for a deduction from your pay. This idea of getting compensation more closely resembling the value you are producing may be put into money terms, or in terms of labor time. In familiar money expressions, the general idea would be that if one produces $500 of value in one week, they would be entitled to the rough equivalent of $500 from shops, stores, and so on. One thing which becomes apparent, even from this simple example, is that all one individual worker needs to do in order to increase his or her compensation, assuming this is what is most important to them, is to simply work harder or longer so as to produce more value. In that case, society gets more value and the individual gets more compensation.
Now that is socialist society, but how does that evolve into communist society? Let’s imagine for a moment a simple model, very similar to a common trope used by economists. Say that we are shipwrecked on an island with a group of people. Unlike the economics models of Robinson Crusoe, this model takes into account that prior to our ship sinking we were all citizens of a developed capitalist society. In order to survive, we would obviously have to do labor, and since we don’t have any money or markets on the island, our little economy wouldn’t be capitalist. We would probably create some kind of division of labor as well as a system of distribution of the value we produce, most of which would be in the form of food. Of course coming from a capitalist society, we would inevitably get into disputes over who is slacking off, who isn’t pulling their fair share, and who seems to be carrying the weight of several others. There would be disputes over whether some people were actually slacking off or whether their abilities are just limited. We might decide to shift certain people into other tasks which are more suited to them. We eventually develop a way to measure one’s contribution to our little society, and declare that nobody is entitled to more than they put in, barring some sort of disability, illness, and so forth. Eventually people realize that the best thing to do is simply work to the best of one’s ability instead of bickering over whose work is truly harder, or who worked half an hour longer than someone else. Now let’s imagine this society manages to survive several generations on the island. A child is born into this island civilization and from the time they are able to understand, they see a society in which those who work the hardest get the most, and those who do not work to the best of their ability get less.
Now let’s move back from this abstraction, because it is limited in some ways. It’s hard for us to imagine some kind of formal education system on this island, much less the development of the means of production so as to virtually eliminate scarcity, even if we imagine that this island society has lasted several generations. In the real world, we have schools and a host of other institutions which indoctrinate youth as to how to function in capitalist society, and we do have advanced means of production which theoretically could eliminate scarcity in many goods were it not for the profit motive acting as a fetter on production. So let us now imagine a socialist society, after several generations, where young people can not only see that working to the best of one’s ability it highly beneficial, but they are also taught this in schools. And let us imagine that at this time, more and more industries gain the capability of providing an abundance of goods. Eventually, paying for these goods, whether via money or some kind of labor-time credit, becomes irrelevant. In fact, “money” as we know it would disappear. You need some food, you go to a shop and take what you need, it gets scanned for accounting purposes, and that’s it. The details are not for communists living now to decide; our responsibility is establishing a socialist society first and foremost. The rest is out of our hands.
Now some people might be skeptical about whether people can be trusted to take simply what they need. In response to this there are two arguments. The first is that such systems of distribution have and still do exist throughout society. Let me provide an example of the latter from personal experience. Coming from a very large family, we often had reunions which involved no less than thirty people. Things like soft drinks, condiments, snacks, were bought in common by the parents, usually in bulk at low prices. We kids, who did not work, were free to partake of the snacks, sodas, fruit, etc. Now occasionally in this situation, and anyone who has lived in a house with several siblings can agree, one individual takes a bit more than is reasonably necessary. Usually this is rectified by a little criticism from one of the parents, or some of the other siblings. What is far more important is what doesn’t happen in this situation, which is to say that when a new 30-pack of Dr. Pepper is introduced to the fridge, you won’t see the first kid taking half the pack and stashing the soda cans in some private fridge. This seems to go against followers of mainstream economics who would see the free soda as “money on the table.” And yet all the time we see examples of “the honor system” where people take only what they need (sometimes paying for it without any compulsion). In a society without money, what would be the use of trying to clean out a couple shelves of a supermarket? You wouldn’t derive any advantage from the extra goods, and you couldn’t sell them.
“The free market leads to better quality.”
It didn’t lead to Toyota or Nokia, just two of many successful companies which exist due to government subsidies and trade policies. Had the free market been left in charge, Japan would probably be doing little more than exporting textiles, and Nokia would still be providing lumber and manufacturing rubber boots. See Ha Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism and 23 Things they Don’t Tell you About Capitalism for more examples.
“This system requires someone to have the power to determine how much someone else needs. Because governments are made up of men, and men are by nature evil, those in power will always determine that they need much more than others.”
Nope. Individuals determine their own needs when it comes to “to each according to his needs,” which is a slogan roughly describing production and distribution in communist society, not socialist society. This argument contains a particularly disturbing variation on the “human nature” argument. Typically it is claimed that humans are by nature self-seeking, but here the author goes one step further and says that humans are evil by nature. Many of these same conservatives allege that communism was evil, in fact, the worst evil in human history. That means that according to this author, communism is inherently compatible with human nature. Or, if the opposite is true, meaning that capitalism is most compatible with human nature, we must then conclude that capitalism is evil.
“When it comes to “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” who gets to decide what those abilities and needs are?”
Simple — the individual decides what their own abilities and needs are.
“Socialism works fine as long as there is Capitalism to pay for it, but sooner or later, Socialism runs out of other people’s money.”
This is based on a smug quip from the neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher. As with most politicians’ sound bites, this one makes absolutely no sense and has nothing to do with why any nominally socialist regime failed.
“The Founding Fathers created government to provide Justice, not fairness.”
This one’s easy. First of all, what the Founding Fathers wanted doesn’t matter. They lived in the 18th century. If they created the government to provide justice they seriously messed up, because the government of their era was far less just than it is today.
“Socialism is based on the premise that all people are good at heart. One look at the prison population in any country will prove that wrong.”
This is a very commons traw man argument made against socialism. In reality, not only does socialism not base itself on any premise that humans are “good at heart,” it does not base itself on the premise that humans are inherently anything at all — good, bad, evil or otherwise.
“If people think they can make socialism work in a better way, they should only do it with their money. They shouldn’t try to take money from people who are not interested in their experiments.”
Socialism is not established via “other people’s money.”
“You can agree that we don’t have equality of opportunity, and want to try and fix that, but still not support government control of business. For instance, if we remove the property tax funding of education, that way you can give all kids the same amount of money for their education. If we work really hard to try and give each kid a fair start, and say they have equal opportunities, then we can treat adults like grown ups, and keep capitalism that rewards those who really want to work hard, or are smarter, or lucky, and not just those who got a good start in life. Scholarships for the poor, Harvard charging you based on what you parents made, all of these things are good things that we can do to make capitalism more fair, without resorting to socialism, which is too inefficient, and harms people’s character by making them lazy.”
Ironically, somewhere there’s a libertarian who would accuse the author of that argument of being a socialist for supporting public education. That notwithstanding, socialism is not “government control of business,” and if capitalism truly rewarded those who worked the hardest, the richest people in the United States would most likely be immigrant laborers. Education is worth very little if you can’t get a job with your degree. Lastly, the argument ends with yet another unfounded assumption that socialism makes people lazy.
So there you have it — a brief list of arguments that any socialist is likely to hear repeated endlessly. Seriously, anti-communists, you can do better than this. You have think tanks with multi-million dollar endowments. You have journalists, academics, and a whole host of intellectuals whose theories are coddled simply because they support the status quo. Please get some new arguments.
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