Western Europe and Socialism

Why do right wing commentators refer to Western Europe as socialistic? And why wouldn’t America want a higher stanard of living like Norway or Sweden? If these countries are embracing socialism it sure isn’t hurting.

It’s not a US right-wing invention - we really do have Socialism (and even Communism a tiny bit :eek: ) over here.

For example, much of Western Europe has Universal Health care (in the UK it’s called the National Health Service).

Many of our political parties have Socialist in the name. (In the UK the Labour party is currently in Government and they describe themselves as Democratic Socialists.)

We have active Trade Unions and so on.

In order to terrify Americans away from imitating them, or discussing the virtues of their systems.

But Americans refuse to believe that other countries DO have a higher living standard, or are better in any way. It’s an article of faith that America Is The Greatest Country In The World, in all ways. Most Americans are patriotic enough to be cultish about it.

Tbh, given Norway and Sweden’s abundant natural resources, compared to the population, I don’t think that the assumption that adopting their system would give you their standard of living is valid.

What about Japan? They have limited natural resources.

Or the Netherlands: one third of the country is below sea-level; most populated in Western Europe; everybody is forced to have medical insurance; high tax-rates. Still the best place to grow up as a kid (UNICEF)http://http://extra.volkskrant.nl/bijlagen/unicefrapport.pdf

Ehm - Denmark, to take another example, has natural resources best described as cold rain, wind and poor soil. (True, there’s a modest amount of oil and natural gas in the North Sea. Then again, the per-capita oil consumption in Denmark is less than half of that off the US.)

But the two bona fide billionaires in Denmark (one per 3 million inhabitants, which isn’t all that bad) - Mærsk McKinney-Møller and Kjeld Kirk-Kristiansen - made their fortunes in shipping and manufacturing, respectively. (Mærsk Shipping is pretty well known, Kirk-Kristiansen owns Lego.)

Be that as it may, Scandinavian governments are anything but socialist in the Marxist sense. The means of production are not under collective ownership - far from it - and the proletariat hasn’t thrown off their yokes and strung up the factory owners from lampposts. Sure, taxes are high, and social security nets are fine-meshed. But the head of state is still a hereditary monarch, Denmark & Norway still have state churches, private hospitals and clinics exist right next to the public ones. Hell, publicly owned infrastructure (rail, telecommunications) has been privatized in later decades.

Well you have to distiguish between socialism as labour-orientated political identity, and socialism as a system of government and economic life.

In modern political nomenclature, the Scandinavian model of government is called Flexicurity, which means democratic capitalism modified by higher marginal taxes to support things like welfare and an active labour market policy.

The government doesn’t own the means of production, and it’s not a command and control economy, so it’s not really socialism except in terms of party-name affiliations. Then there are graduations away from this all over Europe.

Not to single you out, but I like how everyone tries to impose their own definition of socialism while ignoring how socialists themselves define it. Modern socialism has come a long way baby! It has conceded that the market is the most efficient form of distributing resources, but not necessarily that corporations and other capitalist enterprises are the most efficient, effective or fair means in regards to production or ownership.

Most socialists no longer advocate for state ownership of the means of production except in those cases where the free market has shown itself inefficient in production - namely public goods such as infrastructure, education, and IMHO healthcare. Private producers are great at creating goods and services for private consumption. They have been found lacking at providing goods and services for public consumption or benefit.

The main tenets now are a strong belief in democracy and a social welfare state which guarantees its citizens equal rights of opportunity and a strong safety net so that those that fail to achieve that opportunity can get back up again and try once more.

It also believes that business and commerce should be a tool of society, not vice versa, and so businesses have a responsibility to align their interests with society, not pursue their own self-interests at the expense of society. And that is where the major disagreement with capitalism is at now. While often those interests can align and both prosper, capitalism is still based on the individualistic belief that self-interest trumps social interest or benefit. Socialists take the opposite view. This is where the right-wing in America freaks out in their refusal to believe that anyone could possibly know what is in their better interest other than themselves (with the exception of God), even though everyone has to rely on experts in countless fields to promote common interests at the expense of some individual somewhere.

And while socialism has granted (grudgingly I admit) the role of free enterprise as having a place in society, capitalism has not granted the same in regards to the role of state enterprises considering any such actor as unfair competition, even though they seek to serve different markets - private vs. public goods. Capitalism also still has the strong belief that it is capable of policing itself through the market and private institutions, and sees no need for government regulations. Socialism takes the opposite view here also, which the present climate is illustrating, that while the market may ‘police’ itself, the cure can be worse than the disease. Strong regulations can prevent market abuses and intervention can relieve the pressures that would lead to a market collapse, which could take government and society along with it.

I find it increasingly ironic though that the favorite son of capitalism is the corporation - a voluntary organization of persons who seek the same objective based on common interest, (sounds almost like a democratic socialist state) yet with a very undemocratic form of governance. Command and control hierarchies are found more often in corporations than in any modern democratic socialist state. Heh, socialism’s greatest weakness is that socialist coalitions are so fragile since they are built on the shifting sands of consensus rather than the firm bedrock of executive decisions that shall not be questioned, only implemented! But at least everyone is welcome to stay, not just those that can afford it. And when it collapses, you just have to brush the sand off your clothes, not dig through the rubble before you try again.

I’ve said before that the worst thing that ever happened to socialism was Marx. Socialism /= marxism, and never did. It is the equivalent of saying Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the same since all believe in the validity of the Torah. Marx used the foundations of socialism to create his economic philosophy, and while some socialists followed down his path, many did not, nor ever wished to. And modern socialism has pretty much left him behind.

And we’ve got a queen as head of state too :slight_smile: We’ve got a socialist party which is doing fairly well, we’ve got the “labour party” in the coalition (we’re kind of fond of coalition governments) pretty often. From an American perspective, both christian parties in the coalition right now would probably be viewed as extremely left-wing too (which is not the view here at all).

The thing is, we kind of like that everybody gets some decent amount of medical care, and most of us don’t mind paying for it (though there is some grumbling about the costs and quality of care of course). The majority view is also that welfare & social security are good ideas, though there too opinions differ about how best to sustain them.

The coalition thing may explain at least a bit of the difference in perception: there are too many popular parties here so no one party has been in power on its own since forever. This means that while left- and right-wing rhetoric does take place, the bigger parties just cannot afford to permanently alienate their opponents - chances are they’ll have to work together if not soon, then probably later. Fear-mongering like I see from these elections in the US is just not “done” and will lead to a stern talking to (though the more extreme parties don’t really mind giving it a shot). The fact that we’re all crammed up against each other here (and so may be in general more familiar with people with different political views, muslims, and other “strange and scary folk” could also help).

To me, the strangest thing about the US is the loud religiousness. The christian democrats (largest christian party here) tends to keep its faith (mostly) to itself.

I think most rational people realize that Norway and Sweden are not good bad examples of socialistic governments. However, there’s always been an undercurrent of xenophobia within the American right-wing community. Because socialism (along with Marxism and Communism) never took root in America to the degree it did in Western Europe, the term “socialism” still retains a foreign quality to many Americans. When you further consider that a good number of conservatives (especially religious ones) don’t think of countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands not as places with free democratic governments and higher standards of living but rather as godless, decadent, drug-riden, heavily-taxed hellholes whose main export is kiddie porn, it makes more sense why your typical right-wing radio ranter or politician invokes the names of those countries to scare the crap out of their loyal listeners and supporters.

If natural resources determined the wealth of nations then the Swiss would be starving and Africa and South America would be the wealthiest peoples. The wealth of nations comes first and foremost from between the ears of its citizens.

It’s not my definition, it’s the accepted definition within political nomenclature. The original idea of socialism is that of a transition state which creates a pathway towards realising international communism, whereby the socialist state could be dismantled without fear of threats from other challengers. The kernel of socialism, under this schema, is literally no less than a collectivisation of the means of productions in the name of the working class.

That isn’t some arbitrary strawman definition I plucked from the air, that’s what it means. That’s how the word was coined, and that’s its lasting meaning in history.

That the name has also been historically associated with labour-affiliated political movements, who’ve drawn on Marxist analysis of class consciousness, solidarity, etc., cannot be denied. But that doesn’t force us to pack everything with the name socialist into a singular definition, as if they all exist on the same continuum of political philosophy. Modern social democracy isn’t driven by Marxism, Leninism or Maoism, notwithstanding that the term socialism has a political legacy in far more benign contexts.

It’s also kind of dangerous to view history as one big morality play, where you view people through a category lens like ‘the left’ and making sweeping generalisations about how ‘they’ moderated their version of socialism from a harsher, totalitarian system to a more moderate kind. That’s not how it works. You can’t impose such a schema without distorting history, and ignoring how modern political identification is amorphous and in a constant state of flux, despite it having to co-exist with the old institutions and ideas of the past. There is a constant renewal dynamic here, especially of the inter-generational kind, which involves the new guard coming up with completely different justificatory frameworks for their values and beliefs. That’s why loose labels are so harmful to political discourse, and we need to be careful about applying them precisely.

In short, ask a modern Scandinavian person about the basis of their Flexicurity system and they’re not going to cite Marx. If they cite socialism they will no doubt do so because they are actually referring to something completely different: ie. social democracy - a capitalist system with a more holistic balance of public goods supported by taxation.

I respectfully disagree and so do most political science textbooks. It is how Marx defined socialism, but that was not the original meaning, nor the current meaning. And many socialists disagreed with Marx’s definition. The original socialist of the modern era was Robert Owen. His purpose was to establish self-contained cooperative communities that might eventually unite in a federation that would spread the globe, but it certainly was not the movements main or even ultimate purpose, but a side affect if his plans were realized. Sadly they have not been. And while he advocated for labour and better working conditions, he did not believe the working class should inherit the earth at the expense of all others, which Marx certainly did, and where communism broke with socialism.

If socialism requires a definition - and it does - then that definition should be decided by socialists. And their definition is spelled out here.
But even that was the work of compromise, and some socialists disagree with some its points, though most modern socialists subscribe to its principles - particularly freedom, justice and solidarity. And that allowing private interests to run unchecked is the greatest danger to those principles. And its ultimate goal may be to create a global socialist community, but in a federation of democratic socialist countries, not a monolithic state where everyone is a member of the proletariat and must toe the party line.

I am not quite sure what your point here is, but I think you are contradicting yourself. You are the one trying to pack socialism into a singular definition.

I guarantee you that is not my view of history. And the fact is that modern socialism has updated its vision and platform to address modern issues and the modern political framework while still acknowledging its roots. As far as justificatory frameworks - the principles espoused by Rousseau, Owen, Proudhon, et. al. are still valid. There is no need for different ones. There is the need to reject the framework that Marx built and tried to impose on all other socialists. The loose label is applying socialism as a synonym for Marxism. They were cousins, but certainly not kissing. Socialism is stronger now since Marxism did fail and will become stronger the more it goes back to its original roots, not its German offshoot.

I would be extremely disappointed if they did cite Marx. Modern socialism is social democracy. That Scandinavia still is primarily a capitalist economy is due to the inertia of history, and the recognition of modern socialism that is possible to find a balance between the two philosophies. But I would wager they would sooner give up private ownership than their welfare state. And considering that Wall Street, the most pro-capitalist area on the planet, just did so, I reckon I would win.

I think you’re losing sight of the context of this discussion - which was the appropriate discrete label for the system of economic and political life found in Europe and Scandinavian countries. The discussion was not about the historical origins and impetus of socialist ideas, their evolution through time, and whether the system of socialism as we know it, which was responsible for reshaping so much of the world’s recent history and causing countless deaths and suffering, was a distortion of this origin. That’s a completely separate debate.

My dispute here is focused on state socialism as a system - which I am claiming has an accepted meaning in political nomenclature, notwithstanding that all such ideologies are contested categories. Being able to point to protean, antecedent thinkers who’ve raised political consciousness about social inequality and irreligious critiques of the status quo, as forerunners to state socialism, doesn’t resolve the issue of what is meant by the system of state socialism.

In fact, any attempts to so divide and rescue a alternative, benign definition of state “socialism” cannot help but be expressed directly in reference to the accepted nomenclature provided so horrifically by history’s exemplars.

Whether some other people self-identify with the word “socialism,” and subscribe to what they would call a revived and continuous tradition of this protean egalitarian-based movement has nothing to do with it. They can use whatever label they like, but merely asserting that they are the true bearers of socialism, outside the accepted nomenclature, doesn’t tell us that we too should adopt that stance. No true Scotsman applies as well.

My argument is that looking at European-style political and economic configurations, we can clearly see they aren’t just minor departures from state socialism, as understood and accepted in political nomenclature, but indeed that their underlying unity is completely different. That is, their justificatory framework in political philosophy and political economy is quite distinct, and by definition, rejects the collectivisation of the means of production, or, state socialism. That’s why I find the attribution of that label to be inappropriate.

Just by appending “democratic” to the term socialist you’ve already changed from specifically identifiable system of government to an abstract adjectival quality, qualified significantly by democratic governance and values. That’s hugely significant. Then with each additional variation it becomes even more distinct from state socialism. Keeping the socialism label, doesn’t obscure the fact that the underlying unity of concepts is different.

No, that’s not at all what I’m doing. My argument is about the underlying unity of ideas belonging to state socialism - which I fully believe have a privileged place. I do not deny that certain conceptual ideas and putative values may overlap between state socialism and the European-style state, but I am simply asserting that such social democracies are not best described as being distinct by a variation of degree, but by variation of category.

So, you can whack the socialism label on any authentic and discrete liberal tradition, which itself differentiates from classical liberalism, in term of the threat of accumulated wealth, but it’s no longer the system of state socialism. It can be democratic socialism or social democracy, if you maintain that juxtaposition, but it ain’t state socialism.

Marx wrote very little about socialism as an implementation, except that it was a transitionary state, which is why it is defined by its actual promulgation and its historical agency.

In that context, state socialism is a revolution theory, promulgated in the name of the working class, to collectivise the means of production and throw off the oppression of privatised capital. Admitting that does not mean that all forms of egalitarian thinking through history are now tainted, or invalidated.

Social democracy is not socialism though, that’s the point. I disagree that Scandinavia or Europe has any desire, even remotely for abolishing private ownership and progressing a revolutionary theory. I also dislike you return to this idea of there being a balance. I completely reject the notion that we have this tug of war over pure socialism ethos and other values. We’re talking about a specific configuration of government - it’s either acceptable or its not. The welfare state is not a latent or moderated expression of scepticism about private property. I just think you keep indulging this false idea of a Hegelian metaphysical battle of ideas.

I’m a Brit who has visited the U.S. a lot and I would say that out standard of living is better then that in America.

We are a welfare state with UHC so that would make us Socialist in the eyes of many Americans.

We are a physically small country without a hell of a lot of natural resources but we have a hell of a lot of wealthy people and are one of the most vital financial centres in the world.

The American system seems to be to persuade the gullible who have very,very little that they are actually better off like that.

Someone once described the U.S. as a third world nation with money, and I can totally see their point of view.

Another way in which these are socialist countries is by being “unionized countries,” Spain for example.

Most of my Spanish work contracts (the immense majority of jobs require a written contract, only jobs below a certain amount of hours/wk can be verbal) indicated some things as being “per convenio.” This turns a contract from a document which could potentially be a dozen pages long into a single one-side DIN A4.

Every sector of the economy has a “convenio” at the national level. This is an agreement between workers’ representatives (generally but not necessarily unions) and industry representatives. A convenio always has the same structure as the “General Labor Law” (LGT); every point gets reviewed. For example, the LGT sets a minimum salary for everybody; the convenio sets the minimum salary for that particular sector by skill level, determines whether skill level will be based on job title, educational level required by the job or other factors, etc. There’s limits on what can be changed and how: continuing with the example, no sector can have a minimum salary lower than the general minimum salary.

Then there are other convenios at the regional level (which can be just a ratification of the national one or get further changes) and at the company level (required for companies or locations with more than 50 workers).

So basically a lot of the negotiation that would go on person-by-person in the USA is collective in Spain. If I’m being considered for a job with a company, I can obtain a copy of the applicable convenio and find out how many hours am I supposed to work per year, which days are mandatory vacation, how much will the salary be, what bonuses will apply… and if the conditions set up in the convenio are acceptable to me, that’s 90% of the negotiation off the table!

And I think you are now moving the goalposts. Your original statement spoke of socialism and giving it the standard Marxist definition - which again is not the valid definition of either traditional or modern socialism. It does apply to state socialism - which is a distinct philosophy from traditional socialism which always advocated democratic reform. It was not until Marx came along and lifted up the revolutionary banner that it became corrupted into state socialism and communism. And the Socialist International is the true bearer of true socialism. It is directly descended from the Second International and was created as much to oppose the Communists of the Soviet Union as to oppose unchecked capitalism.

While this may seem a hijack, I think it directly goes to the OP. He asks why the right-wingers get their panties in a bunch whenever someone mentions ‘socialism’, and the false distinction you keep making - that the only ‘true’ form of socialism is state socialism - is the main reason why. They see any step toward socialism as a step toward a totalitarian communist state. And that has never been part of the agenda of the mainstream socialist movement.

It is equivalent to saying that Catholicism is the only true Christian church - ignoring all Christian sects that existed before and after the dominance of the Catholics. While the Popes may have shaped Christianity more than any other persons or institutions, they are not the definitive voice. It is how people practice and worship that faith that determines Christianity. You would have Marx be the pope of socialism, and all others heretics. But socialism can only be determined by those that practice it, and every major current socialist party is a democratic socialist party whose aim is to create social democracies.

Can you be a bit more specific about how you go about defining standard of living? I’ve never been to Britain but I lived in Germany for 3 years in the 1980s and I never noticed a significant difference in the way they lived and the way Americans lived.

I characterize a third world nation as a place that lacks a lot of the infrastructure that we take for granted both physically and ideologically including things like roads, non-corrupt political systems, economic security, etc. In what way is the United States like a third world nation with money because I’m having a hard time seeing it.


No, I’ve been consistent the whole way through in stating that socialism does not define European-style organisation of political and economic life. But you keep retreating from this central contention to discuss tangential arguments about egalitarian movements which bear socialist labels.

Yes, the accepted definition of socialism: the one you will find in history books and companions to political philosophy.

You’re equivocating between the terminological nomenclature of state systems of organisation and ideological movements again.

It’s pretty simple: we know what socialism means as a system. There is no mystery about it; it is defined by revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class - as embodied by the nationalisation of the means of production. That is what the system of state socialism means, and as a system it has no functional or descriptive relationship to the European system of political economy and political philosophy under discussion here. That’s the end of the discussion.

No amount of further discussion about the real, authentic tradition of “socialism” or modern self-identifying socialist movements changes that. To do what you’re trying to do, you would have to explain why your special no true Scotsman definition of socialism displaces the accepted nomenclature, and crucially, why it ought to be thought to best describe and capture the European or Scandinavian model of political and economy organisation.

Simply talking about philosophical ideas in the abstract is meaningless, as your definition has no monopoly on qualities it tries to suggest are the affinities with the European system. But there is no proffered explanation why such affinities are determinative here, when they can just as easily be arbitrary.

Though there is no doubt that the kind of right-wingers who bandy around socialist as a pejorative for progressive taxation and the welfare state are ignorant, but the reasoning goes the other way. It’s not that they are wrong to regard state-socialism with antipathy, it’s that they misunderstand their category mistake in fit of hyperbole.


It is equivalent to saying that Catholicism is the only true Christian church - ignoring all Christian sects that existed before and after the dominance of the Catholics. While the Popes may have shaped Christianity more than any other persons or institutions, they are not the definitive voice. It is how people practice and worship that faith that determines Christianity. You would have Marx be the pope of socialism, and all others heretics.


This is irrelevant. I’ve never said Christianity ought to be defined by one sect or Church. My argument is actually the equivalent of referring to Catholicism by way of the institution of the Church, against a competing claim to the heart and soul of Catholicism, based in some reformation offshoot.

Which is again, you admitting my point without realising it. Social democracies aren’t state socialism. You simply want to rescue the word socialism by purging it of any negative connotations through an act of Herculean will, but it doesn’t work like that.