Please Explain: Socialism

Friday, March 27, 2009

The term "socialist" has been tossed around in the news lately in reference to any number of Obama Administration policies. Find out what socialism really means, where it came from, and how it got such a bad wrap. Eric Foner is Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and James Surowiecki is business columnist for the New Yorker.

James Surowiecki will be leading a conversation on the economy at The New Yorker Summit on May 5th. More information here.


Eric Foner and James Surowiecki

Comments [45]

Pluto from NYC

Capitalism is more productive, sure, of crap.

Mar. 28 2009 12:56 PM
Bill from Mamaroneck

P.S. to my last post:

The best recent example of a positive outcome based on the principles I just described(despite its subsequent problems) is South Africa. And there are many others.

So totalitarian disaster is far from inevitable.

Mar. 27 2009 03:23 PM
Bill from Mamaroneck


While I truly sympathize with your experience, the fact is that North Korea has NOTHING to do with socialism, any more than Nazi Germany had anything to do with democracy.(Please see my posts above at 8, 25, & 38.)

People made the same argument about democracy (that it always ended in mob rule) before (and after) the American Revolution as a reason why people should accept the status quo.

there is no way to eliminate risk in the work to change a fundamentally unjust and immoral economic system. But it requires us to keep our minds and ears open and learn everthing we can from the mistakes and crimes of the past by all parties and constanly renew our committment to human rights.

Mar. 27 2009 03:16 PM
mgduke from hell's kitchen

Mr Surowiecki takes a shortcut off a cliff when he equates greed and self interest, which, despite some superficial similarities, are opposites, working at cross purposes, like eudaemonism and the grosser hedonism of aristippus.

Mar. 27 2009 03:06 PM
mgduke from hell's kitchen

capitalism is an addiction
drives people into crazy behavior
like rats pressing a lever 10000 times for a hit of cocaine
very good for lever pushing
for quality of life, not so much

Mar. 27 2009 02:58 PM
florion from NY

I am sorry I did not have the privilege to have a say on the air. As a person that lived in a former socialist / communist country I think would have been a good idea, but the screener maybe was not clear on the topic.
It is typical for scholars to start on profound interpretation of the terms, I think it is an interesting subject, however the western world never understood the danger of the theory. It is very appealing to the population, specially in times of crisis, when workers feel the pinch, but every bit of this beautiful theory leads to disaster. This was demonstrated in every country where it was adopted as a doctrine. There is a saying: “don’t trip twice on the same broken step.” Do we need more then 70 years of failure and hundred of millions of people dead in order to understand? Not forgetting here the danger of starting a nuclear war with USSR. I would suggest a visit to North Korea for every person in need to understand socialism and where it leads to.
Thank you guys, and sorry to bother you with the phone call.

Mar. 27 2009 02:11 PM
Michael from Long Island

Is culture still not the strongest factor on how a nation grows and develops? My grandfather escaped Zcarist Russia. In his life time Russia saw Zcarism, socialism, communism & capitialism. In all this it still remains Russia. With all the pride, intellect, paranoia and xeniphobia that goes into being Russia.

Mar. 27 2009 02:05 PM
Bill from Mamaroneck

Responding to both Diego (14) and Rick (18):

Diego said:
Can you please remind the audience of who ended both the Jacobo Arbenz and the Salvador Allende Socialist democratic experiments? It starts with a C, ends with an A, as in CIA.

This is absolutely correct and the reason for the fact that Rick cites. True socilism has not yet been achieved anywhere yet in major part (but not all) because of relentless attack by the US: Chile 1973, Guatemala 1954,Cuban embargo, Iran 1954, vietnam, etc. etc. going back to the Anglo-American invasion of the Soviet Union in 1919-21. domestically, the Palmer Raids, Red Scare, McCarthy, COINTELPRO, down to the Bush administration.

Mar. 27 2009 02:01 PM
Sheldan Collins from NJ

Might a "pure" Communist claim that a person leaning toward "Socialism" is but one step away from Capitalism?

Mar. 27 2009 01:56 PM
Daniel Falgerho from Manhattan

The National Socialist (NSDAP) was somewhat socialistic in intent at originally. After it became Hitler's party the name was retained because it had sounded marketable but the Nazi mindset was anything but democratic nor tyruly socialistic (although demagogic) and relied heavily on capitalist support and appealed to traditional patriotic and patriarcal values.
The name was almost an accident

Mar. 27 2009 01:55 PM
Steve from New York

Actually, some of the most productive and innovative economies on earth, ever, have been mixed economies, such as the US during WWII and the Post-War period when we had Keynesian economic policies and a very strong union movement.

Mar. 27 2009 01:55 PM
Karen from Westchester

the reason Adam Smith is no longer applicable to our world today is that citizens of democracies would not allow the cleaning out of markets through unemployment, cleaning out that is, of redundant high-cost modes of production.

Mar. 27 2009 01:54 PM
julieann from nyc

There is no pure form of government. No one should control other people's lives. That is all that government does. People should be free to make their own choices in life. Business should have no place in government and vice versa. Government and religion just keep people down. Government has too much power. People should be able to marry who they want, take whatever drug they want, and make how much money they want without having to worry about being robbed by our government. All government and religions do is keep the power on top, rule the common man with false guilt, take the freedom that everyone should have to support their bogus livelihoods of having control of other people. People are entitled to their own individual rights as long as you're not harming or stealing from people you're good. But government and religions steal the lives of millions each and every day.

Mar. 27 2009 01:54 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

There was plenty of underground capitalism in the old USSR, mostly in places like Georgia and other Central Asian states. Were it not for the underground capitalist economy in the old USSR, it would have collapsed many decades earlier on.
They operated by bribing the NKVD or KGB, and the powers that be, and were shot from time to time, but without those Georgian and other underground capitalists, the USSR would have ground to a halt, because eventually they would have run out of slave labor as the population died off in the Gulags.

Mar. 27 2009 01:54 PM
Christopher D. from Tampa, FL

Is it only socialism in the context of government?

The early followers of Christ, in Acts ch. 4, "shared everything they had," and "no one claimed that any possession was his own." They weere not under a compulsion to sell their lands and share resources, yet "There were no needy persons among them."

Is this a kind of socialism, or is it something else? And why does the Religious Right ignore this kind of biblical example?

Thanks as always, Leonar!d

Mar. 27 2009 01:53 PM
Christopher D. from Tampa, FL

Is it only socialism in the context of government?

The early followers of Christ, in Acts ch. 4, "shared everything they had," and "no one claimed that any possession was his own." They weere not under a compulsion to sell their lands and share resources, yet "There were no needy persons among them."

Is this a kind of socialism, or is it something else? And why does the Religious Right ignore this kind of biblical example?

Thanks as always, Leonar!d

Mar. 27 2009 01:53 PM
dillen from brooklyn

Can you explain the socialist nature of Native American nations.

Mar. 27 2009 01:51 PM
julia from New Jersey

My husband has been gone from home from 6 AM until between 8 and 11 PM each day this year so far and working from home much of each weekend. If we all have "equal" lives, we will need to all put in equal effort. Who is going to be willing to work that much if there is nothing extra to be gained? If we each work an arguably more balanced amount, how much will there then be to "distributed" and will Americans be happy with the level of standard of living in the "equal lifestyle" they end up with?

Mar. 27 2009 01:50 PM

why not have someone who is actually a socialist?

Mar. 27 2009 01:50 PM
Karen from Westchester

this is meaningless talk. we need to learn about foreign currency markets and economic globalization. all the talk about the politics of "isms" goes nowhere and essentially means nothing outside of the pleasure of yakking that goes on from radio to city funded universities - the sense people get that they are learning about what really makes the world go round. In the meantime, the vital understanding of economics reaches almost no one.

Mar. 27 2009 01:50 PM
Bill from Mamaroneck

Fuller excerpt of Chomsky quote:

Q: You once pointed out how it was in the interest of both the United States and the Soviet Union to claim that what was going on there was socialism.

Chomsky: Oh, yeah. very much in their interest. for the US it had the obvious purpose of defaming alternatives to capitalist autocracy. And for the Soviet Union it had the benefit of giving the moral appeal of socialism , which was enormous. so for both power systems, it was very utilitarian to propagate this outlandish lie that the Bolshevik revolution was socialist.

If socialism means anything, it means worker control over the means of production and decision making. That's the minimum."

Noam Chomsky, Rolling Stone, 2/28/92

Mar. 27 2009 01:49 PM
Tom from Williamsburg

How to maintain the balance between capitalism and social equality? By identifying what segments of the market should not be controlled by the bottom line, i.e. health care, education and a few other.

Mar. 27 2009 01:47 PM
Alex from Brooklyn

the reason the european system can't work here is because our tax system is so corrupt. Out income tax is not apportioned (not legal) and we don't see much of our overall tax money actually come back to us in terms of services. Why should i be paying to ride the train when i already pay so many taxes for seemingly nothing. The country only continues to accrue debts beyond its means.

Mar. 27 2009 01:47 PM
Bonnie Erbe from Manhattan

As a staunch feminist, I welcome socialism as the only real means of capturing the labor (value add) of men; that is, through taxation rather than through the dependancy of marriage.

In other words, shift dependancy from men directly to the government.

What does your guest think of the relationship between feminism and socialism?

Mar. 27 2009 01:47 PM
tps12 from Crown Heights

Sorry, I left out part of my sentence.

I meant to ask whether a free market were compatible with capitalism, which as Bill from Mamaroneck points out is inherently un-free.

Gary from UWS, a completely laissez faire economy (which is NOT capitalism) might indeed be an improvement over the status quo. But lets move in that direction by first getting rid of corporate welfare and all the other laws that favor the wealthy owning classes over everybody else, rather than pulling the rug out from under the people struggling to feed and clothe themselves.

Mar. 27 2009 01:46 PM
julia from New Jersey

But which comes first -- does capitalism CREATE the self serving frame of mind, or does is that frame of mind a core part of the human condition? When government takes control, THEY end up becoming self serving. It seems that until this reality of human nature is acknowledged (which it seems socialism tends not to do) nothing can "work."

Mar. 27 2009 01:43 PM
nick from brooklyn

can you discuss how ideas of socialism mix, or rather don't mix, with basic aspect of american culture, the shared american psyche? no matter the circumstance, or the historical moment, it seems like socialism and the collective american person don't mix.

Mar. 27 2009 01:43 PM

what capitalist state is "truly democratic'?

I agree with most of what mr. Foner is saying but Marx would say that the whole system goes- or not at all. thus we have a capitalist system that encomnpasses the whole world. the soviet union was really a state capitalist system- that was not true socialism.

by marx's strict definition socialism is when workers control the means of production. this has never been achieved. democratic socialism or modified capitlaism is really something different.

in short we have not seen socialism yet- it is part of the future, not the past.

Mar. 27 2009 01:43 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

We did have laissez faire capitalism in the 19th century, with no income tax and high tariffs, but in those days most people lived on farms, had no money, and produced most of their own food, built their own house with their own hands, and made their own clothes. And women, of course, worked on the farm along with their husbands.
But when manufacturing and services became the main employer, and people left the land, and the nuclear family shrunk, it became apparent that a social security system and some help for the indigent would be required. The churches and philantrophies alone were not up to the job especially when we had another of these periodic cyclical busts. People had no farms anymore to go back to. So some degree of "socialism" and a higher tax rate was deemed necessary. It started under Bismarck in Germany, and we only got to it with the New Deal.

Mar. 27 2009 01:41 PM
Eric from B'klyn

Capitalism w a human face. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000.

And Mohamed Yunus' idea of "social business", corporations which are set up to provide a service at cost, not at a profit. Harvard now has a Dept of Social Business... what do your guests think?

Mar. 27 2009 01:41 PM
daniel from manhattan

Just wanted to clarify to the program.
Pinochet was the far right dictator of Chile who assassinated the socialist president Allende.

Mar. 27 2009 01:40 PM

Can you please remind the audience of who ended both the Jacobo Arbenz and the Salvador Allende Socialist democratic experiments? It starts with a C, ends with an A, as in CIA.

Mar. 27 2009 01:39 PM
jeanette from Manhattan

Yesterday you had David harvey, can you please explain the difference between marxism and socialism?

Mar. 27 2009 01:39 PM
florion from NY

Democratic socialism????? Please where did this happened????

Mar. 27 2009 01:38 PM
florion from NY

Maybe we need to explain the origin of 'left' and 'right' this way we can tell everybody that in socialism even if you buy 2 cars with the maney you made working hard..., you have to give one up because the party wants so, and you maybe even go to jail...

Mar. 27 2009 01:37 PM
Joe Mirsky from Pomtpon Lakes, NJ

It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that propor-tion.
— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776.

Mar. 27 2009 01:36 PM
JT from LI

All students should take at least one course in economics and they should all study some Marx, Adam Smith, etc so that they really understand what's going on in the world. I'm getting tired of hearing people spout off on Obama being a Marxist and try to argue the point when they're obviously repeating the talking points they read in an article or heard on TV.

Mar. 27 2009 01:34 PM
Bill from Mamaroneck

"If socialism means anything, it means worker control over the means of production and decision making. That's the minimum."

Noam Chomsky, Rolling Stone, 2/28/92

The issue is democracy: socialism is democracy (if it's not democratic, it's not socialism, i.e. Communism); capitalism is inherently, undemocratic, ruled by privately held corporate Stalinist bureacracies.

Here's the alternative:

If we have the right to vote for our Congressman, we should have the right to vote for our boss.

Wal-mart and all corporations should be owned and managed democrtically by their employees.


mc in Brooklyn:

"That is an intriguing idea. Where would the employees get the capital necessary to start a business like Wal-Mart?"

Good question there are a number of possibilities. Two examples/sources of info I can personally recommend:


This is a fund started to help workers in Argentina who took over their workplaces when the owners abandoned them after the 2001 economic collapse. See also the Avi Lewis/Naomi Klein documentary on the subject, "The Take."


This is the homepage of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives

Mar. 27 2009 01:33 PM

Ask has there ever been a society that didn't have any socialism? Are there any today?

Mar. 27 2009 01:33 PM
florion from NY

Gentlemen, it may be tru that capitalism is not doing a good job on distribution of goods, but you forget that in socialism everybody becomes poor...

Mar. 27 2009 01:32 PM
tps12 from Crown Heights

What I would like to see addressed is whether *capitalism*.

There's nothing "free" about a market dominated by giant corporations propped up by government legislation.

Mar. 27 2009 01:29 PM
Gary from UWS

WE ALREADY LIVE IN A SOCIALIST SOCIETY. The government takes care of the very poor (e.g., food stamps, Section 8 housing, etc.) and the very rich (e.g., off-shore tax havens, trillion-dollar bailouts). And then the government spreads the cost to the middle class so they get screwed with the bill.

What we need is true, unbridled, lazaire faire capitalism (no bailouts, no food stamps, nothing) where people are rewarded because of their talents and abilities--not because their race or their country club.

Mar. 27 2009 01:28 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Socialism has cannot work for very long. It's mostly for kids. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, and while it was all beautiful in the beginning, it didn't take too long to discern the hidden truths, that most people do want to be able to run their own lives, and not have some Central Committee decide whether they go to college or work in the chicken coop.

Mar. 27 2009 01:27 PM
Enrique from Elizabeth, NJ

Has the hysteria around it
caused the success of today's crisis, witch hunts, immigration and, world calamity?

I'm from Honduras... Therefore, I wonder.

Mar. 27 2009 12:16 PM
George from Bay Ridge

Please discuss the differences between socialism, social democracy and communism.

Mar. 27 2009 02:22 AM

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