Capitalism may not be crumbling around us just yet, but it has been shaken. Those countries most aligned capitalism, such as the UK and America, which embrace the deregulated free market model, now confront declining social mobility and deep-rooted inequality. To quote a recent speech by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England: “we simply cannot take the capitalist system, which produces such plenty and so many solutions, for granted.” Within this context, it is clear to see why socialist theory is becoming more relevant.
Avoiding the debate about whether the decline of capitalism is inevitable or not, it is important that we have a better idea about the diversity and breadth of socialist thought. At the moment, people sympathetic to socialist ideas are generally stereotyped and dismissed. This is understandable; not everyone has the time to read radical political theory. However, there are number misconceptions about socialism that we need to draw a line under.
1. Being a socialist doesn’t mean you miss the Soviet Union…
This is a confusing one because a lot of socialists do actually miss the Soviet Union. Stalin is still considered by many in Russia to have been their greatest leader and many anti-capitalist parties such as the Socialist Workers Party are openly Leninist.
However, it is important to note that many socialists in 1917 opposed the Soviet takeover of Russia. The Mensheviks were a socialist group, after all, and they were gutted by Lenin for helping to prop-up the reformist government which preceded the October revolution. Meanwhile, anarchist socialists have opposed the tactic of seizing state power since Joseph Proudhon wrote to Karl Marx in 1846 begging him to abandon revolutionary violence.
To summarize, a lot of socialists fought the rise of the Soviet dictatorship both theoretically and on the battlefield. So it is wrong to assume that all socialist miss the Soviet Union.
2. Being a socialist doesn’t mean you hate success…
Too often when talking to people about social mobility or privilege, you hear the story of someone they know who started with nothing and became rich. This misses the point. Socialists don’t deny that a lot of people work hard and do very well out of capitalism. The point socialists are trying to make is that even more people work very hard and live in poverty despite the fact they work hard. So, when socialists talk about a society that distributes resources more evenly, it doesn’t mean they hate success. Rather, they see redistribution, and the elimination of inherited privilege, as a route to making more people successful. It is fair to disagree with these policy recommendations, but it isn’t correct to say that socialists hate aspiration.
3. Being a socialist doesn’t mean you hate middle-class people…
Socialists traditionally talk a lot about working-class exploitation, although this narrative in recent times has become more flexible. Indeed, just look at Occupy with their slogan “We are the 99%” or Antonio Negri, who describes the oppressed less in term of class, but rather as a global multitude. Nonetheless, socialist theory’s emphasis on working-class solidarity leads many to brand socialists as middle-class haters. It is also employed to suggest that middle-class socialists are a bit silly.
While a lot of middle class socialists are a bit silly, the idea that socialism is anti-middle class doesn’t stand up to reason. To start with, many of the great socialist thinkers ranging from George Orwell to Fredric Engles were born into privilege. Indeed, Orwell studied at Eton, while Engles was a great fan of Fox Hunting.
More importantly, socialism as a theory is all about social structures. Privileged people are therefore just as much a product of capitalist structures as poverty and the working class. For this reason, it doesn’t make sense to hate any individual. According to socialist theory every individual is a product of historical, ideological and class circumstances that they have no control over. Therefore, hate of anyone, let alone of a whole class, through a socialist lens is counter-productive.
4. Being a socialist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t benefit from capitalism…
Much like how wanting everyone to be able to eat doesn’t mean you should go without food, it is not a hypocritical for someone to call for economic redistribution while also wanting to survive and prosper within capitalist society. Socialists acknowledge that capitalism is a dominant and inescapable global system. By this very definition you can’t individually just opt-out. It isn’t therefore hypocritical for socialists to have jobs, own cars and live comfortably. They living in a capitalist world… what do you expect them to do?
5. Being a socialist doesn’t mean you can’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Socialism isn’t a religion. You don’t need to go to church on Sunday. If you enjoy a movie in which a giant muscular embodiment of the American Dream blows up robots, then you can watch it. Socialism is a way of analysing the world; a dream and on occasions a political programme. It isn’t a list of things that you can and can’t like because they are too bourgeois. Socialists can do, like and think about other things than socialism.
Well rounded individuals of the world (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) unite!