Socialism. Do we really know what this word means? It certainly generates a lot of passionate debate. But why?
I grew up in the 80’s and remember watching the Berlin Wall come down on November 9, 1989. I had just turned 20 and in college. A big group of us watched on TV as the East Germans laughed, cheered and danced as the wall fell. Communism was dead and the Cold War was over. Even as a sheltered college student, I suddenly realized that not everyone was as free as we Americans were. Witnessing the raw joy of another people experiencing their first taste of freedom was amazing. I was proud to be an American that day, and even wished I was in Berlin so I could party along with them. To quote John F. Kennedy: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner).
So, as I now round the bend towards my 40th birthday, I am scratching my head as to why socialism (or whatever new word they are calling it these days) seems to be so intriguing to so many of our elected representatives. Don’t they remember? Weren’t they there? Did they ever visit East Berlin after the wall came down? I did – in December of 1993. Checkpoint Charlie was gone but parts of the wall were still up. Driving around the Brandenburg Gate into the former East Berlin was like entering into a time warp. It looked like nothing had been touched since World War II ended in 1945. I could still see the bullet holes in the buildings. Some of the bombed out buildings were never even removed. Everything was so dirty and old. I did not understand why a people were allowed to live like this for so long by their own government, and that very same government then killing them if they tried to leave. The difference between East Berlin and West Berlin was raw, but it was real. And a young woman went home very humbled, but also very glad I lived in America.
However, I am still an intellectual geek at heart, so I decided to do some research on the subject of socialism to discover for my brain what I already knew to be true in my heart. I ask you come on this 3 part journey with me, as we look into the meaning of socialism and communism, the differences with capitalism, historical references, and what, if any, spiritual implications there may be.
There are a lot of theorists out there that discuss and define socialism, but I thought that I would start at the easiest place first: the dictionary. According to the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, socialism is defined as “collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, no existence of private property, and a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done”
The definition of communism is very similar, so I think that is why the two are often used interchangeably. According to the dictionary, communism is defined as “a theory advocating elimination of private property, a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed, a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production, and a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)”
However, the definition of capitalism seems to be the exact opposite of both the above theories. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
Ok, so, now my next question was: who was this Karl Marx guy?
Karl Marx was a philosopher born in Prussia (now Germany) in 1818. His most famous work was The Communist Manifesto, which is considered the basis of socialist and communist theory. Marx believed that we should abolish all private property and that the fruit of everyone’s labor should be distributed equally “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” and that “one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour.”
So, if Marx believed that every man’s hour of work is equal to that of another man, how does this differ from the theory of capitalism? One distinguishing feature of capitalism is that each person owns his or her own labor and therefore is allowed to sell the use of it to employers (i.e. through a paycheck). That being said, is time the only measure we should use to discern the value of work, as Marx says, or should we measure the value of the work itself, as capitalism advocates? Which theory is better aligned with human nature as we know it vs. human nature as we merely wish it to be? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to first examine how these theories were put into practice. Next week, I will explore some historical examples of socialist and capitalistic societies, and their impact on the human condition in their particular community.