Posts Tagged ‘dictionaries’

On the Meaning of Socialism

Monday, 7 March 2011

In a previous entry, I discussed the meaning — or lack of meaning — of the word capitalism. With an eye towards future entries, I want to write now about the word socialism.

The OED (and the New SOED) provide the original definition of socialism:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.
It's pretty straight-forward: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. But there's at least three points to be raised here. First, and most important, is that different conceptions of the community are possible. The community in question might be the whole world; it might be every human being within a particular jurisdiction; it might be a particular religious community; or it might be members of some sort of ethnic group. Second, the definition here does not intrinsically entail comprehensive communal ownership; that is to say that it doesn't declare that all means of production must be communally owned for a system to be socialistic. Third, those who indeed advocate a comprehensive communal ownership of the means of production often fail to note that labor is an important means of production, so that such ownership would mean that an individual must work when, where, and how the community or its representatives told him or her to work.

Merriam-Webster gives us set of definitions, each somewhat different from that original definition:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done
The first three M-W definitions here (1, 2a, and 2b) all ignore the issue of for whose benefit the means of production are employed. Definition 1 is additionally broader than the original, in that it includes state ownership as possiby different from collective ownership. Definitions 2a and 2b are each otherwise narrower, as one precludes any private property, and the other insists upon state ownership. The final definition is introduced because Marxism, an important school of thought, made peculiar use of the term. Jointly, this set of definitions illustrate how a word can lose usefulness when popular use is uncritically accepted.

My 1975 copy of the AHD defines socialism as

1. A social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods. 2. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 3. In Marxist-Leninist theory, the building, under dictatorship of the proletariat, of the material base for communism.
In the case of the first definition, one might begin by asking why the system should be called socialism; there is no mention of society or of community here, except in-so-far as this is a social order (as would be many in which producers would not have ownership or political power). Even if we regard the relevant community as that of the producers, the definition says nothing of them owning qua community; all property could be private, so long as the producers had means of production and distribution! Frankly, the author was so swept-up in his or her theory of socialism (recall the definition of capitalism that appears in the same edition) that he or she lost sight of its essential structure. (And perhaps the author was too enraptured to note that different folk would have different ideas about whom one should take to be a producer.) The second definition is purely derivative of the first. The third definition pushes-aside Marxism more generally in favor of Marxist-Leninism in particular, but is roughly a reïteration of the same notion, for about the same reason.

The 1993 version of the AHD defines it thus

1.a. A social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. b. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 2. The building of the material base for communism under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist theory.
The first definition here has nearly restored the original sense: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. (The three points that I raised in response remain germane.) But now there's an insistence that political power is exercised by the whole community. This is a response to the great embarrassment of decidedly undemocratic regimes claiming to represent the community in the administration of the means of production. (The reference to political power in the earlier edition was probably an ineffectual attempt to deal with that embarrassment.) The second definition is again purely derivative of the first. The third that from the earlier edition, with a non-substantive reördering of words.

All right now. When someone else has introduced the word socialism into the discourse, I've tried to respond to it based upon how that someone else is or at least seems to be using it, Or I've explicitly asked what he or she means by it; but when I've introduced or will introduce the word socialism into the discourse, what I've meant is

collective, communal ownership of the means of production and administration for the collective benefit
And I do plan to be writing again about socialism, very soon.

A Capitalist Manifesto

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

In a foot-note to a previous entry, I mentioned that, when people use the word capitalism, I want a definition.

The word capitalism, when first introduced, meant a condition of possessing capital, and the coördinate term capitalist identified one who possesses capital.

At some point, a new definition for the former was introduced. The word capitalism was used derogatorially, for a system that favors capitalists. The reason that this definition doesn't much work except for disparagement is that, under any system that has capital, there are capitalists (possessors of capital). For example, a system that declares a present or former proletariat to be the rightful owners (collectively or otherwise) of the means of production has declared them to be the rightful capitalists, and would favor their interests.

(At some further point, capitalist acquired the additional meaning of one who favors capitalism. But, if we replace the definition of capitalist within capitalism to use this later meaning, then we just have an idiotic loop-de-loop, within which capitalism is defined as a system that favors the interests of those who favor the system, which definition wouldn't do much to exclude all sorts of systems.)

In the OED, one finds basically the original two definitions of capitalism:

The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists.
But my copy of the New SOED (1993) instead defines the term thus:
The possession of capital or wealth; a system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.
It's a bit troublesome to find the historically second definition seemingly shoved-down a memory hole;[1] but, in any case, one now finds two new definitions, one in terms of how capital is used, the second in terms of some sort of dominance by private capitalists, and of production for profit.[2] (That definition in terms of dominance might actually be an attempt to capture the sense of the historically second definition.)

Meanwhile, though, Merriam-Webster had its own thoughts on the subject. They define capitalism as

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market
Well, it's probably worth noting that free market is a bit of a redundancy, in that, to the extent that prices or quantities are bounded by law, one isn't really talking about a market. But, in any case, the main thing to note is that this definition differs markèdly from the previous definitions, as corporate as well as private[3] ownership is allowed, and as a reliance upon markets has been introduced into the definition.

My 1975 copy of the AHD gives a remarkable definition:

1. An economic system characterized by freedom of the market with increasing concentration of private and corporate ownership of production and distribution means, proportionate to increasing accumulation and reinvestment of profits. 2. A political or social system regarded as being based on this.
That's kind-of like the Merriam-Webster definition, but with a theory of increasing concentration grafted onto it; and, not only increasing concentration, but proportionate increase. Huh. So, in other words, capitalism, at least under the definition labelled 1., refers to a system that not only has never existed, but couldn't ever exist; 'cause, as I guarantee you, economic processes don't typically follow nice lineär laws (nor simple arithmetic functions more generally). And one wonders what one is supposed to call a system in which there is a market, but not increasing concentration of wealth, or at least one in which wealth is not increased proportionately. Really, of course, what's going on with this definition is some attempt to impose a theory and to advance a social prescription.

But wait! My 1993 copy of the AHD tells us something else! It defines capitalism thus:

An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.
Uhh… it's more of that proportionality stuff; another system that never has and never could exist. But, now, instead of investment increasing concentration of ownership, it's producing growth. Another attempt to grind an ideological axe, just a different axe. (I guess that versions of the AHD are kind-of like versions of Wikipedia, except that the changes are effected more slowly.)

Okay, so that's — what? three? five? — very standard sources, and how many definitions? And what is one to think when someone uses the term state capitalism, and defines it to mean an economy controlled by the state in a capitalist manner?

I once responded to an essay by asking the author what he meant by capitalism. His reply was that he'd used it with the standard definition. Well, there is no standard definition.[4] As far as I'm concerned, the word capitalism is practically useless, unless what one wants to practice is confusion, or unless one defines it before or immediately after first using it.


[1] The SOED is supposed to be complete for terms and definitions found after 1700.

[2] An unclarified notion of profit appears here; there's no point in doing anything under any system, unless it actually improves things somehow; one suspects that the author has some narrower notion in mind.

[3] Some people loosely use the term corporation to refer simply to an association of some sort, but that would be just another sort of private ownership; legal corporations, on the other hand, are creatures of the state. They can be formed by license to a single person, rather than to an association. Corporations are treated by law largely as themselves persons. And they insulate those to whom they are licensed from liability, not merely to those with whom they contract (to whom liability could anyway have been limited by overt contractual terms) but to third parties who may be injured by the actions of the corporation.

[4] I cited some of these dictionary entries to make that point to him, and reïterated my question; he lapsed into silence.