Defining Socialism Down

Communism killed some 94 million people in the 20th century. It ranks alongside any other evil of that period, which is saying something. Consequently, no less than Nazism, it is not a word to be casually used or a charge to be lightly made. Both happened in response to Richard Reinsch’s eminently sensible observation in this space that Barack Obama is “not a socialist”—a clause followed hard on by another stating that Obama’s policies were incompatible with the genius of the American regime. Despite the latter clause, this set off a range of posted comments that placed “progressive,” “socialist” and “communist” on the same slippery continuum, with one commentator remarking that they were separated only by meaningless degrees, another claiming that Obama was not a socialist, he was a “radical socialist,” and still another clarifiyng that, no, he was a “fascist” instead.

It is difficult to see what purpose is served by these excesses other than to trivialize charges conservatives ought to take seriously while deflecting punches that might actually land.  Certainly no converts are going to be made by forcing choices to falsely stark extremes—either a state scaled back beyond what anyone in the mainstream of politics, Republican or Democrat, today supports on the one hand or the specter of socialism on the other—that, not incidentally, crowd 62 million Americans who voted for Obama into the same pejorative category.  A charge of communism is a charge of totalitarianism that conjures the Gulag, the collectivization of farms and the deaths by starvation or slaughter of tens of millions. It is not the same thing as socialism, and socialism is not the same thing as progressivism.

If conservatives still believe in an objective public good grounded in an objective moral order, one precondition for its political pursuit would seem to be that words retain fixed meanings. “Socialism” is one. It is not merely the extreme of “liberal.” According to our colleagues at the Library of Economics and Liberty, socialism means “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.” (emphasis added) One need not defend Obama’s policies—Reinsch certainly did not; far from it—to observe that the former has not, in point of fact, proposed this. Bailouts, yes; redistribution, certainly. Criticize away. But these are not what the word “socialism” means.

Moreover, to place progressivism on a slippery slope sliding inevitably into socialism and from there into communism is to engage in conceptual confusion at best and to trivialize grave affairs at worst.  (This is neither what Solzhenitsyn said in his Harvard Address nor how Reinsch characterized him.  That point was the inability of projects of human perfectibility unmoored from transcendent belief to resist the descent into totalitarianism.)  Progressivism—which is not the same thing as liberalism; it has more in common with the attempt at perfectibility that Solzhenitsyn feared—includes beliefs in redistributive transfer payments and an aggressive regulatory role for the state.  This does not entail state ownership of the means of production.  For its part, socialism is dumb, but it is not, contra communism, totalitarian. George Orwell, for example, whom conservatives have been known to admire, was a democratic socialist—he did not, in fairness, live to witness the fullness of socialism’s failures—but one of the century’s most eloquent exponents of totalitarian horrors.

The claim that these doctrines somehow run together before converging with progressivism is also to ignore another tradition conservatives, William F. Buckley among them, once respected: liberal anti-totalitarianism of the kind embodied by such figures as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lane Kirkland. It renders inaccessible for conversation a onetime form of liberalism that is legitimately open to criticism on any number of grounds but whose respect for Burkean premises about the complexity of society and the importance of intermediary institutions was admirable. (It might, for example, have warned about unintended consequences of certain hyper-complex laws.)

Conservatives, to be sure, have ample grounds on which to object to Obama’s policies. Reinsch’s punches landed square. It is unnecessary to take the extra step of attempting rhetorically to delegitimate him, especially if the price of doing so is to cheapen terms whose moral gravity conservatives in particular ought to respect.