Whatever Went Wrong With Socialism?

James L. Busey

[Reprinted from Intermountain Frontier, Summer, 1989]

Socialism, whether of the moderate social democratic or the extreme communist variety, at one time threatened to take over the hearts and minds of reformers and revolutionaries around the world.

What was the central message of socialism, whatever its variety?

It was, that private ownership of the means of production and distribution (capital) was wrong, that the private profit resulting from that ownership was the cause of human exploitation; and that therefore, the "means of production and distribution should be owned and operated by the people (or workers), for use and not for profit".

Now, the whole socialist movement, including even its most fanatic versions in the U.S.S.R. and China, seems to be unraveling. In Western Europe, socialism can hardly be distinguished from general movements of social concern, of humanitarian interest in the plight of the workers and the poor. With or without the leadership of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, nationalization of factories, banks, instrumentalities of commerce, trade and transportation has all but ceased; and in many countries, the dismantling of nationalization is now under way.

The key to the disintegration of socialism always lay incipient in its core concept- that "the people" should own and operate the means of production and distribution.

From a practical, administrative standpoint, there was never any possibility that any vague concept such as "the people" or "workers" could own or operate anything. The only instrumentality to carry such an intent into effect had to be some sort of administrative or bureaucratic apparatus.

Whether called a commune, or committee, or "dictatorship of the proletariat", or bureaucracy, or by some other title, it had to wind up as the same thing-that is, political rulers or a political class that would administer and thus in fact if not in theory, own the means of production and distribution.

Socialists would contend that monopolies (meaning private ones only) tend to be exploitive, tyrannical and inefficient, and so they may often be; but political monopolies are probably the most exploitive, tyrannical and inefficient of all. Political monopoly of all or most of the means of production, including transportation, utilities, and almost all opportunities for employment, leave citizens with no recourse, no escape from the misuse and abuse of power.

As is well known, Lord Acton (1834-1902), an advocate of individual sovereignty and an opponent of all concentrations of power, pointed out that "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely".

It is hard to imagine a power more absolute than that of a political class in control of all or most of the means of production and distribution-in addition to their usual control over the making and enforcement of law.

That is why socialism failed -- in its extreme forms, indeed, introduced tyrannies exactly the opposite of its noble ideals.