The Difference Between Socialism and Communism

and the cognitive dissonance created by Lenin and Reagan

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Recap from previous column: Liberals are people who are under the only partially mistaken impression that altering the structure of government is the best way to influence people and resources. Conservatives are people who are under the only partially mistaken impression that altering the people in power is the best way to influence other people and their culture.

To put it more simply: Liberals want the decision to be spread out among more people, preferably everyone; conservatives want the decision to be made by as few people as possible, preferably just one.

Socialism, as envisioned by Marx and Engels was, ideally, a where everyone would share the benefits of industrialization. Workers would do better than in the English system at the time (The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848) because there were more workers than bosses and the majority would rule. As a purely economic system, socialism is a lousy way to run a large scale economy. Socialism is not a political system, it's a way of distributing goods and services. At their ideal implementation, socialism and laissez faire capitalism will be identical as everyone will produce exactly what's needed for exactly who needs it. In practice, both work sometimes in microeconomic conditions but fail miserably when applied to national and international economies. And they fail for the same reason: Human pervserity. Too many people don't like to play fair, and both systems only work when everyone follow the same rules.

Socialism is liberal. More people (preferably everyone) have some say in how the economy works. Democracy is liberal. More people (preferably everyone) have some say in how the government works. "Democracy," said Marx, "is the road to socialism." He was wrong about how economics and politics interact, but he did see their similar underpinnings.

Communism is conservative. Fewer and fewer people (preferably just the Party Secretary) have any say in how the economy works. Republicans are conservative. Fewer and fewer people (preferably just people controlling the Party figurehead) have any say in how the government works. The conservatives in the US are in the same position as the communists in the 30s, and for the same reason: Their revolutions failed spectacularly but they refuse to admit what went wrong.

A common mistake is to confuse Socialism, the economic system, with Communism, the political system. Communists are "socialist" in the same way that Republicans are "compassionate conservatives". That is, they give lip service to ideals they have no intention of practicing.

Communism, or "scientific socialism", has very little to do with Marx. Communism was originally envisioned by Marx and Engels as the last stages of their socialist revolution. "The meaning of the word communism shifted after 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia. The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a repressive, single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies." (quote from Encarta.). Those socialist policies were never implemented.

Whereas Marx saw industrialized workers rising up to take over control of their means of production, the exact opposite happened. Most countries that have gone Communist have been agrarian underdeveloped nations. The prime example is the Soviet Union. The best thing to be said about the October Revolution in 1917 is that the new government was better than the Tsars. The worst thing is that they trusted the wrong people, notably Lenin, to lead this upheaval. The Soviet Union officially abandoned socialism in 1921 when Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy allowing for taxation, local trade, some state capitalism... and extreme profiteering. Later that year, he purged 259,000 from the party membership and therefore purged them from voting (shades of the US election of 2000!) and fewer and fewer people were involved in making decisions.

Marxism became Marxist-Leninism which became Stalinism. The Wikipedia entry for Stalinism: "The term Stalinism was used by anti-Soviet Marxists, particularly Trotskyists, to distinguish the policies of the Soviet Union from those they regard as more true to Marxism. Trotskyists argue that the Stalinist USSR was not socialist, but a bureaucratized degenerated workers state that is, a state in which exploitation is controlled by a ruling caste which, while it did not own the means of production and was not a social class in its own right, accrued benefits and privileges at the expense of the working class."

Communists defending Stalin were driven by Cognitive Dissonance. "The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, motivates the person to reduce the dissonance and leads to avoidance of information likely to increase the dissonance." They didn't want to hear any criticism, and would go out of their way to deny facts. The abrupt betrayal of ideals by Lenin and Marx left many socialists clinging to the Soviet Union even though they knew Stalin was a disaster. They called themselves Communist even though they espoused none of Stalin's viewpoints and very few of Lenin's revisionism. In Russia, Lenin remains a Hero of the Revolution. Despite having screwed things up in the first place, Stalin is revered by Communists for toppling the Third Reich.

Conservatives defending George W. Bush are in the same situation as Communists defending Stalin. Stalin was never a "socialist" and Bush was never a "compassionate conservative", but the conservatives just don't want to hear any criticism and will go out of their way to deny facts. The current construction of the conservative movement in the US descends through the anti-Communists during and after WWII, the George Wallace "America First" blue-collar workers, the racists that Wallace picked up that switched parties during Nixon's Southern Strategy, and the nascent libertarian movement championed by Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech for Goldwater during the 1964 Republican National Convention laid out the insistence of a balanced budget: "There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States." And yet, like Lenin revising Marx, when Reagan was governor of California he didn't practice fiscal restraint. And when he was elected president in 1980 he did the exact opposite of his campaign promise and triple the deficit and there has been "no fiscal and economic stability" since his flip-flop. Fiscal restraint was never implemented.

Abrupt betrayal of ideals of Reagan when he got into power left many conservatives clinging to the Republican party even though they espoused none of Reagan's new policies. Despite screwing things up in the first place, Reagan remains a Hero of the Revolution and is revered by conservatives for toppling the Soviet Union.

Reagan isn't Lenin and Bush isn't Stalin, but the parallels are notable. George W. Bush, like Stalin, inherits a failed revolution that relies on a cult-like worship of his predecessors and a complete denial of the facts.

Let me repeat Wikipedia's quote. "Stalinism is a state in which exploitation is controlled by a ruling caste.... at the expense of the working class." This is the exact opposite of what Marx and Engels were trying to accomplish, and is precisely what George W. Bush and the Republicans are working so hard for.

Most of the Republicans/conservatives/dittoheads I know are basically good people, but they're gullible fools who have spent more than 20 years burying themselves in lies needed to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by Reagan's betrayal. Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire", but as we've seen it wasn't much of an empire and most of the people in it aren't particularly evil. Khrushchev repudiated Stalin after he died in 1953, but wasn't strong enough to change the system or the cult worship that kept the dictatorship alive. Republicans need to repudiate Reagan, but there is no one out there who has the guts to tell the truth. The GOP is reduced to whining, flag-waving and outright lying. The shame of being a conservative has never been greater.

Despite Nader's protestation, John Kerry and the Democrats do represent a return to American values. It took the Soviet Union 40 years to rot from within before democracy took hold. Let us not wait 40 years before the Republican-controlled US rots from within. The choice is clear. To complete the circle, let me quote the last line of Reagan's 1964 speech, which has greater meaning when talking about the need to vote Democrat in 2004: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done."

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