Socialism with a human face?

It’s quite a big year for anniversaries, and today is one of the most sobering. Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union and three of its satellites invaded Czechoslovakia (as it then was – now Czechia and Slovakia) to put an end to its period of liberalisation, known as the Prague Spring.

Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček had promised “socialism with a human face.” His government ended media censorship, unleashing a stream of independent commentary and criticism, and made plans for liberalisation of the economy, better relations with the west and a transition to electoral democracy.

It all came to an end with the arrival of Soviet tanks. Dubček was coerced into recanting his heresies; in due course he was expelled from the Communist Party and replaced. But he had the last laugh, returning in triumph in 1989 to lead the Czechoslovak parliament after the fall of communism.

Fifty years on, we still debate socialism, and wonder whether such a thing as a humane, democratic socialism is desirable or even possible.

It was in relation to Dubček’s supporters that David Friedman remarked that “socialism” had “become a word with positive connotations and no content.” That’s now as apt as ever, at least as regards American politics, with a number of Democrat politicians proclaiming themselves “democratic socialists” – with very little evidence of having thought much about what that means.

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Fernando Teson had a go at it last week. He distinguishes between democratic socialism – a system where economic activity is primarily state-owned and state-directed, but democratic freedoms are preserved – and social democracy, a primarily market-based system with state intervention to provide generous welfare support.

The latter, he argues, should not count as “socialism” at all:

I do not understand why social democrats would want to soil social democracy’s credentials by calling it socialism. To blend together Germany’s marvelous, thoroughly-capitalist productive machinery with the pallid efforts of the Maduros and Kirchners of this world to control their countries’ economies does a serious disservice to social democrats’ cause.

I think this is basically right; I think the debate would make more sense if we confined “socialism” to the traditional sense of collective ownership and central economic planning. But the general decay of political debate (especially in America) has become so pronounced that it’s not surprising that people are confused.

The right probably started the process, by labelling any move towards regulating business or providing social welfare as “socialism!” Once upon a time, they may have been quite genuine about this, trying to point out that these measures rested on socialist intellectual foundations and risked paving the way for full-blown socialism. (Whether or not that was correct is an interesting question, which will have to wait for another time.)

But bad faith quickly took over, and the charge of “socialism” was wielded indiscriminately. And on the other side, centre-left parties that had started out as socialist in the old-fashioned sense were abandoning those policies in favor of social democracy – but to preserve a show of continuity, they often kept up the rhetoric of socialism.

So, coming from a position further left, did Dubček in 1968. In his situation, to disclaim allegiance to socialism would have been dangerous in the extreme. Hence, “socialism with a human face.”

The reality, however, is that socialism in the traditional sense has never been successfully combined with democracy and civil liberties. Every serious move to collectivise the economy has undermined democracy; every move to liberalise an authoritarian state-run economy politically has ended (if it did not begin) with economic liberalisation as well.*

That doesn’t prove that no such combination is possible. But it constitutes weighty evidence, and should lead so-called “democratic socialists” to give some more serious thought to the practicality of what they propose.

Moreover, as Teson points out, even if we assume that democratic socialism is possible, it remains undesirable because it can’t deliver economic well-being. The record on that is abundantly clear. There are still a few real socialists who maintain that they can square the circle, but there are no real-world examples.

And I don’t think that most of those who call themselves “democratic socialists” have any particular illusions about that. Some may be arguing in bad faith, as Steven Horwitz argues, constantly moving the goalposts so that they can’t be pinned down on any particular interpretation of “socialism”.

But it strikes me that ignorance rather than deviousness is the more likely explanation. American politicians on either side know little about the rest of the world; there’s no reason they would know, for example, that Denmark has the most flexible labor market in Europe and a lower corporate tax rate than the US.

Ultimately, words can only mean what we want them to mean. If people keep using “socialism” to mean a system like that of Germany or Scandinavia (which may even have been what Dubček had in mind), then traditionalists like me will have to just learn to live with it.

Perhaps then we will be able to say, as Friedman did, “Socialism is dead. Long live socialism.”


* The converse is not true: some countries have liberalised economically without thereby introducing political freedom. But even so, the tendency is for the two to go together.

5 thoughts on “Socialism with a human face?

  1. Yes, democratic socialism is basically interchangeable with social democracy.

    As Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, in Europe the main centre-left parties tend to call themselves socialist in Latin speaking countries and social democratic (or labour) in Germanic speaking countries. Sometimes it’s the very same party: Parti socialiste suisse is also known as Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz.


    1. Yes, that’s a good point. The connotations of “social democrat” have changed a lot over the years, as party brand names often do. It would be good if we could retain “socialist” as a separate concept, but perhaps that’s a lost cause.


  2. 54.6% of Norway’s wealth is socially owned (76% once you exclude people’s homes). Partly thanks to the nation’s oil revenues. One could therefore argue that Norway is an example of a successful, market-based, democratic socialism. For context, 32% of the wealth in Finland is socially owned and 24% in Sweden.

    Democratic socialists today desire a market socialist system in the long-term. Favouring a combination of worker co-operatives (where suitable) and gradually socialising the ownership of major companies using wage-earner sovereign wealth funds. Similar to the manner proposed in the 1970’s by the Swedish economists who designed the Nordic model, the Meidner Plan. Unfortunately, the Swedish Social Democrats 40 years of continuous rule ended in 1976, in the midst of the rise of neoliberalism and before the Meidner Plan could ever be attempted.

    Such a market socialist system would allow individual citizens to be able to vote as shareholders on the direction of the commanding heights of the economy, for example by voting on the board membership of individual companies or on the direction of whole industries. Dividends from the sovereign wealth funds could then even be used to fund a Universal Basic Income. An intermediary step could be adopting the co-determination laws currently in place in Germany, where all companies with over 500 employees must have half their board of directors elected by their workers.

    The reason you do not hear figures in the U.S like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez discuss this long-term vision today is the political necessity of achieving basic social democratic policies like Medicare For All and free/cheap college tuition first. Corbyn and McDonnell in the U.K meanwhile have much more to say publicly (and in their 2017 election manifesto) about the democratic socialisation of the economy, which reflects the more advanced state of the welfare state in their country.

    If you are interested in reading more about market socialism I would recommend this long but illuminating article from Jacobin, the most popular and influential socialist publication today: If you are short on time feel free to skip down to the section beginning “But what about the other alternative?”


    1. Thanks PinP, that’s a really interesting perspective. My view is that the founders of socialism would not have recognised “market socialism” as socialism: they would have said that central economic planning was one of the fundamentals. And I don’t think they worried so much about the social ownership of wealth; the key thing was social ownership of capital, of the means of production. The interesting question is whether “democratic socialists” are really still aiming at that, or whether they think their goals can be achieved without it – or whether perhaps, at some level, they’re just not sure. But I enjoy Jacobin; I’ll add that article to my reading list.


      1. The history of market socialism actually predates Marx, going back at least to Ricardian socialism in the early 1800’s. The Soviet Union under Lenin was run under a type of market socialist system called the New Economic Policy (NEP) from the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921 until Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in 1928. This was back in a time when it was still debatable whether a market or command economy was better. Albert Einstein for example publicly called for a socialist command economy in a pamphlet he wrote in 1949 titled “Why Socialism?”. Deng Xiaoping later took the NEP as an inspiration for his market-oriented reforms in China in the 1980’s, while Hungary, Czechoslovakia and especially Yugoslavia experimented with different kinds of market socialism during the Cold War and Gorbachev wanted to introduce a market socialist system based in part on the Nordic model before the fall of the Soviet Union.

        Contemporary market socialists however generally prefer a more decentralized mode of decision-making than the variants tried in the 20th century. The Jacobin article explains the shortcomings of the Hungarian system as an example, particularly how the lack of independence granted to its lending institutions led to it’s downfall as their state-owned banks propped up underperforming firms.

        I think the average democratic socialist today is focused on defeating the politics of the far-right, neoliberalism and austerity first and foremost. A majority of Millenials in the U.S and Australia (and most likely the U.K too) now approve of socialism. More Americans under 30 voted for Bernie Sanders than all candidates in the primaries of both parties combined. However I suspect many of them could not actually define socialism. All they know is they hate capitalism.

        The policy wonks however are particularly interested in the future of work with automation and AI. There is considerable disagreement over UBI’s, some believe it would create a serf-like class without any stake in society, although history has shown us this is in fact the actual revolutionary class as they have nothing to lose but everything to gain, unlike the so-called proletariat which depend on capitalist firms for their jobs.

        The long-term, utopian vision for many socialists today is called Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism, similar to what Gene Rodenberry (a socialist) envisioned in Star Trek, where the means of production are socially owned and facilitate a post-work society. This is exactly what Marx envisioned when he wrote his critiques of capitalism in the heyday of the industrial revolution in Germany, but he severely underestimated how long it would actually take for the technological innovations spurred by capitalism to provide the material basis for such a society.


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