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.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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  1. gabe says

    Nice piece – well stated!
    It appears as if you are asserting a “bright-line” difference between socialism and progressivism and that this should be apparent to an impartial observer if one considers the totality, or at least, the impulse towards totality of control over the economy.
    I am no longer certain that there is a ‘bright-line” difference between the two “isms” and have within the last number of years become more apprehensive of the “impulse” toward control that our Progressive friends have demonstrated / manifested.
    As an example, I do not recall reading the the Soviets ever considered banning trans-fats, taxing sugary drinks, etc. etc. These may seem trivial when contrasted with gulags, The Committee on State Security and other wonders of the Soviet system; however, when combined with such Progressive benefits as O-Care, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, government restructuring of General Motors and the concomitant closing of dealerships and a major auto brand (Pontiac), one begins to question whether there is a clear line of demarcation.
    Would you concede that the impulse to “totalitarianism” is at least present amongst our Proggie friends? – or is it just totalitarian-lite?
    Also, while the initial impetus of the Proggies and others may have been “perfectability,” any rational political actor with such predispositions cannot help but conclude that such perfectability is not attainable without ultimate control.
    (See Hayek, Strauss, Burke, etc.etc.)

    Take care

  2. Greg Weiner says

    Gabe–Thanks as always for a thoughtful contribution. I would not concede that what we are seeing today entails an impulse to totalitarianism but would agree that human perfectibility ultimately requires total control especially if, as Solzhenitsyn (and Richard) emphasized, it is divorced from transcendence. In this regard I think a distinction between liberalism and Progressivism is helpful. Liberalism is ameliorative; I take Progressivism in its early 20th century form to be more oriented toward perfectionism. I think some of the policies you mentioned have less to do with perfectibility than with excessive understandings of what the state can and ought to achieve. These seem to me better understood as prudential (albeit serious and philosophical) disagreements, but I take your point that differences of degree can become differences in kind.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says


      I much agree with you that early 20th century Progressive rhetoric was tinged with perfectionism.

      When I examine the actual policies, however, I do not see it as clearly. For example, where do we find perfectionism in the Federal Reserve Act of 1912? Or the Pure Food Act of 1906 (I think–writing from memory here)? or the Jones Seaman Act of 1920?

      In what sense does the claim that the Federal Government has an obligation to ensure an acceptable and healthy quality of foodstuffs for American consumers entail the claim that human nature is perfectible? I think we can argue the merits of this on grounds of economic policy or political prudence–but I don’t see the larger theological claim in play in the policy.

      I take perfectionism to mean, theologically, Pelagianism (or its more recent incarnation, Arminianism). It is in the end an argument about the capacity of the unredeemed human will to choose God. That entire argument seems to me to be a very far distance away from the arguments over, say, the prudence of creation of the Federal Reserve.

      Help–I find myself befuddled by this part of the argument . . .



      • gabe says


        No disputing your factual recitation nor your conclusion(s). I would agree. However, i believe that Greg’s reference to perfectibility has more to do with political perfectibility or utopianism as opposed to a Thomistic perfectibility. Consequently, the argument does appear, at least to me, to have much merit as it is concerned not simply with prudential or non-prudential actions but rather the accepted scope of such state actions and the role of such actions in perfecting human society.

        take care

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says


          I don’t see the utopian qualities either. Indeed (back to the religious metaphor), when I read the justifications for the various progressive acts, I see more evidence of Augustine than I do Pelagius. As I read the early progressives (but not the later), I see a strong nod towards the following extended syllogism: all men are inclined to evil and must be restrained if human society is to be orderly; the development of corporate capitalism has created a class of men who are dramatically empowered to act, and thus to do ill; these men are just like all others–inclined to do ill; therefore ordered liberty must be extended to encompass the kinds of acts that corporate capitalism empowers ill-disposed men to do.

          There are multiple entirely plausible ways to criticize this kind of reasoning. But I don’t think that perfectionism is one of them.

          Note too that this is only one species of argument advanced by the progressives. In other facets of reform, I do think we see genuine evidence of utopian thought. But I think the core extensions of the regulatory power of the federal government, the actual arguments the progressives made fall much more plausibly in the intellectual tradition of ordered liberty–and that is Augustinian and Calvinist, not Pelagian and Arminian.

          All best,

          • gabe says


            another well reasoned and well stated piece!

            Perhaps, i have been unduly influenced by such latter day Progressive “ordering” of liberty as the proposed banning of trans-fats, obsession with cola & other soft drinks, smoking prohibitions, etc and an undisguised disdain for the preferences of average citizens.
            It is difficult for me, at least, to reconcile this with a belief that the Proggies aims are as limited as a simple “ordered liberty.” ( I am being only partially facetious here).

            What say you?

            take care

  3. gabe says

    Thanks for the reply. You may very well be correct. Perhaps, I and others, are doing what we so often criticize the Court for – “divining penumbras and emanations” from the slather of Progressive Political philosophy and practices.

    take care

    • Greg Weiner says

      Kevin offers a useful corrective to what may be my misuse of language in the very midst of a piece warning against the misuse of language. I don’t see the regulatory features of the Progressive movement, whatever one thinks of them, as perfectionist or utopian. I do see the theory of history in, say, FDR’s Commonwealth Club Address more in those terms (“democracy … is a quest, a never-ending seeking for better things,” etc.). But little is gained by escalating policy disputes to this level. This having been my initial point, I ought to be careful not to engage in that practice myself. I do think a useful distinction can be drawn between ameliorative and transformative liberalism (Lowi does this in distinguishing between the New Deal and Great Society, for example), but perhaps progressivism vs. liberalism is the wrong axis for making that point. Gabe’s concerns about the micromanagement of behavior, however, might be seen in terms of this contrast.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      I respectfully must disagree. The United States has, for a brief time, implemented a full-bore socialist regime. From 1917 to 1920, the United States industrial, agricultural, and transportation economy was managed centrally by the Federal Government in order to achieve purposes conducive to the public good. This was fully supported by the will of a non-trivial majority of the American people, including, ironically, most corporate leaders. If you compare this regime to the kind of programs instituted by Woodrow Wilson prior to 1917, you will find a dramatic contrast. It is a difference of quality, not just degree.

      None of this should be construed as an argument in favor of progressivism. Here, I am only asserting (in what I take to be agreement with Greg’s thoughtful post) that they are two different things. This matters, because if we wish to argue intelligently against something, it is important to characterize that which we oppose honestly and accurately. When we claim that Progressivism is the same as Socialism, and then employ arguments against Socialism to attack it, we fail to engage properly with Progressivism. This makes it fairly trivial for the defenders of Progressivism to dismiss our arguments.

      • gabe says


        I agree that we who seek to conserve liberty, etc should stop “conjuring up” (my term not yours) a more nefarious intent on the part of the Proggies than is due them. It is counter productive and leads to easy rebuttals and great fun in the media.

        However, here is an interesting question. Yes, Woody’s policies pre 1917 were distinctly different than the latter peiord. Let us remember that the latter policies were implemented in pursuit of a “war” aim and consequently would be expected to receive the overwhelming support of the populace. But let us consider, whether or not Woody presaged Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
        I think an argument can be made for such an assertion and indeed may be supported by the fact that “war aim” policies did not soon, nor completely leave the American political scene. (See also WWII & FDR for similar phenomenon). Moreover, these actions / policies tended to shift the expectations of the populace such that they were more “receptive” to increased government intervention in areas of our lives that heretofore were considered off-limits.

        take care

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says

    What remarkable commentary!

    But Kevin probably comes closest with his implications.

    In the references to religious convictions, Kevin points to individuality.

    The Progressive, the Socialist, the Communist, the Totalitarian, the Political Positivist (Obama?) are each and all “anti-individual.”

    Burke’s “little platoons” are comprised of individuals determining how to interact with one another and what to derive from those interactions.

    Most of the “isms” (notably excepting Capitalism) are processes of one kind or another, which, while they may differ in degree or scope, generally require constraints upon, or even suppression of, individuality, in order to attain objectives, or even carry out activities.

    Capitalism, is a condition and not a process. It is the result of a process, generally based upon inter-actions of individuality. Those interactions are commonly defined as “markets.” Those interactions are not always unconstrained. Many of the processes of the “isms” are principally concerned with the design and implementation of those constraints. Thus, they are “anti-individual.”

    Insofar as the impact on individuality is concerned, little has changed, other than the labels, of the Political Positivism of Comte in the early 19th century.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says


      I wonder if you would consider the possibility (if not probability) that Woodrow Wilson actively sought America’s engagement in World War I as an instrumentality for creating the conditions that would make possible the forwarding of his agenda for the structure of government and its role in the social order of this country?

      Such an instrumentality had become useful if not necessary in the hiatus following 1913 when the original agenda had begun to lose momentum.

      • gabe says


        Thank you for reminding me of that – I was actually going to mention it in my earlier commentary.
        To my mind, it is now absolutely clear the Woody did in fact seek entry into the “War to End All Wars.” Much recent scholarship has emerged to support this contention (my memory at present fails me on the several books and essays i have read on this). Indeed, I believe he had a two fold purpose in gaining entry: one was domestic and the second was international.
        In the first, it would prove rather fertile ground for implementing his new conception of american government; in the second, it would allow him to “persuade” the rest of humanity, by example, as to the superiority of the American Way (of course, this was to be defined by Woody). In both instances, this, i believe was reflective of a messianic impulse. thus, we are back to the question of utopianism vs prudentialism.

        What say you, richard?

        take care

  5. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Wilson, like Comte, was convicted of the “universality” of his concepts.

    So far as reading discloses, he was aloof, self-differentiating. That seems to be a commonality of those followed by “mass-man.”

    Most Positivists are. Perhaps they have to be.

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