And how to respond to them.
Anybody on the left has likely encountered these arguments before. That is because the right basically relies on the same dozen or so anticommunist arguments over and over. Working-class people are indoctrinated with these anticommunist talking points from a young age, by schools, popular culture, parents, employers, and politicians. After a while, this anticommunist propaganda just seems like “common sense,” to most people. Indeed, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels encountered some of these very arguments themselves — nearly 200 years ago!
If people have thoughtful, carefully considered questions or criticisms concerning socialism (its history, its implementation, its various tendencies, etc.), I am more than happy to engage them in comradely debate. And yes — socialists should be relentlessly self-critical. But, if you are just going to spew out some recycled diatribe about Animal Farm or “Stalinism” (whatever that is…) that you got from Jordan Peterson … well, I am honestly not even sure why you are reading this.
Myth #1: “Socialism is when the government does stuff.”
This is a common misconception, particularly among older Americans who — one would think — should know better. These right-wingers reflexively decry any sort of government action whatsoever as “socialism.”
The federal government raises the minimum wage…? “Socialism!” The Federal Reserve raises interest rates in order to (ostensibly) combat inflation…? “Socialism!” The government issues stimulus packages during an unprecedented global pandemic that left thousands dead and hundreds unemployed…? “Socialism!” The government — in response to mass working-class protests and mobilizations — establishes a tepid, woefully inadequate social safety net to ensure the poorest citizens can (barely) meet their most basic economic needs…? “Definitely socialism!” The government uses taxpayer money to plow the highways and roads in the winter after a snowstorm…? “Authoritarian, tyrannical socialism!”
Socialism is a system in which the means of production are socially owned and controlled by the working class. Karl Marx defined socialism as “a society which permits the actualization of man’s essence by overcoming his alienation [from his own labor at the capitalist workplace]. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active, and independent man…”
And, while the terms tend to be used interchangeably, socialism is technically the first stage toward communism — a classless, stateless society. If the criteria for a socialist country was merely one in which the government “does stuff,” then the United States — along with virtually every industrialized country in the world — would already be considered “socialist.” If only it were that simple!
Likewise, institutions like the post office, libraries, public schools, the fire department, and the U.S. military are in no way socialist organizations. These institutions are all publicly funded through taxes, yes. So what? Lots of for-profit corporations are also propped up with government subsidies or receive generous tax breaks. (And by “generous,” I mean that in most cases, these corporations do not pay any taxes at all.) Are you seriously going to tell me that the fossil fuel industry — the private industry responsible for nearly 70 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that are destroying the biosphere and making the planet unhabitable for human life — is “socialist”?
Suffice to say, if your understanding of socialism merely amounts to any instance in which the federal government “does stuff,” then you really need to do some elementary research on the topic. (Furthermore, are there governments in existence that do not engage in any action whatsoever…? I mean, outside of libertarians’ wet dreams.)
Myth #2: “Socialism is authoritarian and inevitably leads to dictatorship.”
File this one under, “Communism killed 100 bazillion trillion people!” Decades of anticommunist propaganda have convinced even left-leaning Americans that figures like Stalin, Mao, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh were little more than ruthless, cold-blooded killers who seized power merely for power’s sake.
This propaganda, of course, conveniently ignores the significant material improvements these leaders oversaw in their nations’ working-classes. Countries like the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, and China under Mao virtually eliminated poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy.
Yet this anticommunist propaganda has proven so successful, that even (nominally) socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) feel compelled to qualify their particular brand of social-democracy as “democratic socialism,” as if to distance the organization from those evil, dictatorial socialists. And this was, to be certain, no accident. DSA founder, Michael Harrington, was an ardent “cold warrior.”
Furthermore, this “socialism=dictatorship” argument also implies that capitalism, in contrast, is free and democratic. The average American worker does not need to study Marx to know that nothing could be further from the truth. She intuitively knows from her own lived experience that the United States is in reality a form of bourgeois democracy — or a democracy for the rich.
Anticommunists are correct about one aspect of this argument, however. Socialists do aim to achieve a certain form of dictatorship: The dictatorship of the proletariat, or the working class. Marx and Engels viewed the history of class struggle as inevitably resulting in one form of dictatorship or another — i.e. the suppression of one class over another. Thus, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — despite having the, perhaps misleading, word “dictatorship” in the phrase — is merely the next, logical stage of socialism.
This is the initial phase after a revolution in which the working class has seized state power and control over the means of production, but has not yet completely implemented communism. During this phase, the socialist party in power may still face opposition from both domestic dissidents and foreign saboteurs, attempting to overthrow the revolutionary government. (The Soviet Union, for example, was invaded by 14 Western capitalists nations — including the United States — intent on overthrowing the Bolshevik government.) Thus, these dissidents and right-wing terrorists may need to be imprisoned — or worse — in order to protect the revolution’s gains. These necessary actions are what anticommunists deem to be “authoritarian,” and “dictatorial.”
And before you start moralizing about how, for socialists, the “ends justify the means,” consider that the U.S. ruling-class routinely engages in these very actions against left-wing dissidents in order to protect capitalism. (COINTELPRO, anyone…?) Indeed, the federal government deliberately targeted Black Lives Matter activists in the wake of the 2020 uprisings against police brutality — the largest civil rights protests since the 1960s. And, contrary to what your Fox News-addicted uncle Bill insists, BLM is not even an explicitly socialist organization.
But please, tell me more about American “democracy.”
Myth #3: “Socialism would lead to a dystopian conformity where everybody is the same.”
The irony of this argument is never lost one me. Whenever I encounter it, I immediately think of the meme below:
If anything, it is capitalism that inspires such hivemind conformity. Socialism, however, would free working-class people from the “9–5” grind of work, granting us more leisure time to engage in hobbies, sports, art, or other recreational activities. Citizens would actually have the time to discover untapped skills, talents or interests. They would be free to spend time with their children and families, and create stronger bonds with their spouses.
Case in point, the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks saw a flourishing of art, cinema, and culture. Under the communist government, women gained greater rights, homosexuality was decriminalized, and working-class people were granted democratic influence within the government.
Nonetheless, decades of Cold War propaganda have convinced the average working-class person that socialism and communism would turn us all into a brainwashed, unthinking herd of lemmings, thoughtlessly repeating the same Marxist mottos and maxims. Meanwhile, under capitalism, people are encouraged to express their “individuality” through consumer choices — a practice cynically exploited by advertisers for decades. “Freedom of choice,” indeed.
Myth #4: “Socialism and fascism are two sides of the same coin.”
This argument is also known as the so-called “horseshoe theory,” which posits that the far left is “no different from,” or “no better than” the far right. You know, because the “far left” advocates for social, racial, and economic equality under a classless, moneyless society, while the far right desires a white supremacist ethno-state. I mean, they are basically the exact same thing!
This is a popular talking point among self-described “centrists” or “moderates.” Essentially these so-called “centrists” lump socialism and fascism together because “both” ideologies advocate the use of violence. (It’s not so much that socialists “advocate” violent means or engage in violence for the sake of violence. Rather, socialists understand that the ruling class — which has the combined forces of the military, the police, the FBI, CIA, and hordes of “useful idiot” white supremacists at its disposal — will not willingly, passively relinquish its power.)
Yet, when push comes to shove, these “centrists” are far more likely to embrace fascism than socialism. (As a general rule of thumb, whenever somebody tells you they are “apolitical,” or “neither on the Left, nor the Right,” it is safe to assume they are, in fact, on the right — and usually the far right, at that.)
It should go without saying that fascism is the complete inverse of socialism. And yes — the full-name of the Nazi Party was the “National Socialist Party.” So what…? All this proves is how savvy the Nazis were in branding their party to appeal to the working-class. What is profoundly sad is just how many working-class people, to this day, still fall for this shallow, completely unsophisticated bit of propaganda.
The irony of this “argument,” is that it was the Soviet Union (you know, the communists) who ultimately defeated the Nazis in the Second World War — though the U.S. likes to take credit for doing so.
Myth #5: Socialism can never work because it goes against human nature.”
I wrote a longer piece dedicated entirely to this talking point. “Human nature” is essentially a vague canvass which anticommunists can define however they want. I do not doubt there is such a thing as “human nature.” But, unlike the right, I do not believe it is fixed, static, and unchanging. Humans are a mix of both good and bad. They can be capable of horrendous acts of cruelty, but also valorous acts of love, kindness, and selflessness.
For thousands of years — long before capitalism — humans lived communally in hunter-gatherer tribes. These tribes did not engage in warfare, shared their food and goods, and knew nothing of class hierarchies. Women in these “primitive” societies often held higher status and enjoyed greater rights than they do today. The entire point of the “human nature” argument is to make capitalism seem “natural” or to portray it as the system “best suited” for humans’ “natural” proclivity for competition and greed.
A common corollary to this argument is that humans are “naturally lazy,” and would not work without a monetary incentive. “Capitalism,” proponents of this view argue with a straight face, “rewards hard work.” I will allow the reader to pause here and allow that last sentence to sink in…
Capitalism has only existed for some 400 years. If humans need a “monetary incentive” to work, how in the holy hell has our species survived this long? This argument also overlooks the fact that the wealthiest people in the world do not work. Their wealth is completely stolen from the surplus value of the people who do the actual laboring for them.
“It has been objected,” Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, “that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work.”
Human beings are naturally social, productive creatures. And we all want to engage in work that is both meaningful to us or to others, that utilizes our bodies, brains or other talents, and that ultimately serves some greater purpose than filling the pockets of some wealthy CEO. During the pandemic, many working-class Americans finally had the time and space to realize just how meaningless their jobs actually were.
That is enough myth-busting for one essay. Stay tuned. And as always, no war but the class war!