To most of us, socialism conjures up many images. These range from modern American politicians, to the Social Democracy nations of the world, to communist countries such as modern-day North Korea, and then to the most famous socialist in history…Karl Marx. Undoubtedly, with so many images created by the word socialism, it’s hard to know who owns the definition of the term.
Although Marxian socialism as practiced in communist countries is probably the most famous example, Marx is hardly the last word. Throughout history, the concept of socialism has had many adherents dating back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Plato.
Over the past 200 years there have been many socialist thinkers that not only differed in impact from Marx, they also differed in their ideas about free-markets and democracy. When one looks at leaders such as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and Clement Attlee, one discovers thinkers who looked at socialism as something to be used in combination with both capitalism and democracy. These leaders were influential in the evolution of Social Democracy. At times, some advocates for Social Democracy call themselves Democratic Socialists.
What makes the practice and rhetoric of Marxian socialism different is its emphasis that capitalism is exploitive. In addition, the often tyrannical way that communism has been practiced is another way it’s differed from other forms of socialism. Although its been proven since the fall of the Soviet Union that Marxian communism is weak economically, there are many who still adhere to the Marxian premise that capitalism creates exploitation.
Therefore, although the economic premise of Marxism is problematic, the influence of Marx historically and on contemporary culture looms large. Although many people may not describe themselves as Marxists, they may agree with Marx’s theory that capitalist culture is exploitive. As a result, on many issues that address social change, a common way to challenge tradition is to claim that a certain practice is exploitive. And yes, exploitation does exist in many areas and needs to be addressed. However, it’s fair to say that the levels of exploitation some claim exist, are not always apparent to all.
Obviously, socialism and capitalism can co-exist. As many know, the products and ideas of a capitalist system enhance the creative way we lead our lives. On a daily basis, we express our freedom and make decisions about how to live based on our interactions with a free-market. Therefore, in light of these positive aspects, its obvious capitalism’s not as exploitive as some claim. Where aspects of socialism have a role in modern life is in ensuring a social safety net, regulating marketplaces to ensure equality of opportunity, and upholding common environmental standards. This ability to rely on free-market capitalism to provide most of the goods and services of society, while also ensuring a moderate level of government services for infrastructure, security, human services and defense, is the hallmark of the most successful and least radical form of socialism…Social Democracy.
In modern America there’s now a strong push for what some envision as Social Democracy. Interestingly though, the rhetoric these advocates use is sometimes similar to the rhetoric Marxian socialists use. This is shown when they infer that both capitalists and capitalism are exploitive and greedy. Hopefully, when people nowadays advocate for more Social Democracy, they’ll realize that demonizing capitalism often turns many practical people off. In reality, the ideal of Social Democracy is often best achieved by first acknowledging the useful role that capitalism plays in modern life.