Commentary | Is socialism dead?

On whether or not socialism would work in the twenty-first century

A few weeks ago at McGill’s bi-annual Activities Night, I overheard a spiel by a member of the Socialist Fightback as he explained — with admirable passion — why the capitalist system is inefficient. He criticized the fact that there exists a myriad of corporations with the exact same objectives. To make the best car, for instance, or the most accessible or advanced computer. Rather than compete and undermine each other’s efforts, he asked, wouldn’t it be more efficient if there was just no competition at all?

Intuitively, the case really does seem sound. Economically speaking, what we refer to as a “command economy,” a system in which the government decides everything about commerce, is the most ideal system. Being able to decide precisely how much to produce is the dream of any economy, and the case for one supervisory power naturally does make sense. But that the State in this role, with human nature so inclined to greed and selfishness, should know exactly how to do this — when firms concerned only with maximizing profits nevertheless still struggle—is questionable. And that it should be responsible for all production makes the skepticism all the more profound.

Is socialism dead? This question occurs to me as I look at my calendar and see that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the historical realization of Karl Marx’s indelible project. For reasons I cannot quite explain, the question is ominous. But it seems to me that its centennial year is as good a time as any to, at last, try and answer the question.

In the college setting, a debate on this question would not be hard to find. The average McGill student, even if not a determined, aspiring politico, more often than not has something to say, oftentimes, against capitalism. I should perhaps mention that this article is not meant as a defense of capitalism, but only to articulate that socialism does not work. Socialism is founded on a paradox, which when realized, makes clear not only why it does not work, but why it cannot work.

The socialist argues that in our current state of affairs — that is, a capitalist one — we as human beings are unable to actualize our true selves because the system does not work in our favor. Indeed it does not even work against it; it doesn’t care for us at all. In our current system, that migrants who work modest jobs in factories have no true control over their own lives is of no consequence, because the system does not even recognize them as human beings. Rather, they are treated merely as a means for profit, and their desires, interests, and pursuit of happiness are simply not relevant to the discussion. To this, socialism proposes the following solution: instead of allowing corporations to run themselves, the government should be given total control of society’s means of production.

But suppose that we follow that course of action — and, in fact, many parts of the world already have. To name but a few: the Leninist and Stalinist phases of the Soviet Union, Chavez’s Venezuela, and the late Fidel Castro’s Cuba. These examples make it clear that power is inherently corruptible. And this is a reality that the socialist cannot quite accept. What they have merely done is confer what was in the first place so detestable about the corporations onto a government that is only able to avoid abusing power for profit because it has no need to.

The danger here is that economic power invariably translates to political power. In our capitalist society, it is not unfamiliar to us to hear about the influence of the wealthy on politics. In their favor, the government allows for deductions on mortgage interest, tax-cuts, and even tax-exemptions. But suppose the government should have total economic power. These particular injustices will likely cease to exist, but at what cost? If we look to the twentieth-century for answers, it becomes clear that the cost is liberty. If the government controls all facets of the economy, it gains leverage over every person or group that would wish it ill. Consider Cuba, perhaps the only remaining truly socialist country today. To quote an article from the Havana Times, the government’s effort to have the country conform to one will is such that even the media does not “question decisions taken.”

In the socialist state, then, the government, having a monopoly on both political and economic power, can organize society as it sees fit, and with virtually no opposition. This cannot be the portrait of equality envisioned by the socialist. Intrinsically socialist society’s defining feature is not equality, but the government’s unrivaled capacity for coercion. And it is for this reason that societies which have descended down this path have by and large fallen into disarray, and have emerged from it bare.

The objectives of socialism—equality, efficiency, and true freedom for the working people are ones we all want to effectuate. But they are by no means exclusively socialist concepts. Although I have given only a vignette of its belying problems we see that, so from working towards their realization, socialism actually works counter to them. Its main problem is that, in its vision, it underestimates the capacity of power to corrupt even the noblest of ideals and individuals (we must remember that even the State comprises of human beings), and our limits. That is, that it does not follow from the fact that all people are altruistic some of the time, and that some people are altruistic all of the time, that all people are altruistic all of the time. But this is exactly what Socialism not only expects but requires. In these regards it turns a blind eye, and it is for this reason that not only does it not work, but also why it cannot work.

What is left, I believe, is to turn to the present, and reflect on how we can better our political and social condition, not from a socialist or capitalist, liberal or conservative perspective but from a rational, humanist one. Perhaps along the vein of a Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness, whereby some inequalities may be permissible if, and only if, they benefit the worst-off in a society. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, we must realize that there is a plurality of values and unavoidable trade-offs among them. Liberty is not equality, equality is not liberty, and the choice of either liberty or equality does not automatically make for a clear conscience. But I think we can all agree that any system founded on a paradox, that is too conducive to their negation because it is too ready to surrender too much to any government, should be — at long last — discarded.

Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.