The term “socialism” is gaining prominence in mainstream politics once again. As its use becomes widespread, so do more popular assumptions and interpretations of what it means to be a socialist. As a result, opponents of socialism have come up with ideas of what a socialist is, are finding behaviours of individual socialists that ostensibly contradict these ideas and then claiming socialists are inconsistent and hypocritical.
One of these constructed ideas is that wealthy people cannot be socialists, or that socialists cannot own any “expensive” items. Opponents of United States Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, invoke his net worth and ownership of multiple houses against any opinion he espouses — an ostensible trump card.
However, socialists have also participated in this discourse in good faith by attaching egalitarian moralism to socialism. Recently, for example, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson criticized Sanders for keeping his millions, arguing he’d be better off giving them away. After all, Robinson argues, Sanders’ politics are based on the notion that holding exorbitant wealth is immoral, and giving money away can make a difference to some on a personal level.
This discussion about the wealth and expenditures of socialists has been happening among leftists for decades.
In 2001, analytic Marxist G.A. Cohen wrote If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? to discuss the discrepancy between what he saw as peoples’ public political beliefs and their private practices. Why is it, Cohen ponders, that people who preach egalitarian ideals — including socialist ones — spend little on charity?
One objection to spending money on charity Cohen considers is that doing so is useless without the establishment of robust institutions that restructure our relationships. For example, one may say, ‘If I give $10,000 to a charity of my choice, that doesn’t necessarily achieve my egalitarian ideal. Instead, it temporarily alleviates a burden imposed by inequality, which I feel is simply not worth it.’ Another objection Cohen considers is somewhat of a collective action problem: ‘If I give $10,000 to charity and my peers don’t, I’m poorer than them without making a meaningful difference.’
But Cohen doesn’t find these objections convincing, because we still supposedly enact our other political ethics in our private lives, and still vote despite the fact that doing so likely will not achieve our ideals. So, Cohen asks, if a socialist possesses wealth and thinks it’s undeserved or can be better used elsewhere, why not give it up regardless of what systemic change it may motivate?
This is a genuine ethical question that deserves de-mystification, both for conversations among socialists and to the odd onlooker with questions.
Socialism: The Ethic And The Social Theory
Some think of socialism as an all-encompassing ethic. Typically, on this interpretation, one is a socialist because they morally value fairness and equality, while opposing greed and exploitation. Naturally, a socialist obliges herself to refrain from greed. What “greed” entails is a moral debate in itself, but it does make socialists vulnerable to critique when they possess more than the necessary amount of resources.
Some notable socialist revolutionaries have held strongly ascetic positions when it comes to personal wealth. For instance, biographer Jon Lee Anderson emphasized Che Guevara’s minimalism and disdain for excess in his personal lifestyle. Guevara enforced this on his family, taking actions such as stopping his previously affluent wife from obtaining unnecessary items, including a nicer car, as he saw the fight for socialism as a moralized struggle one had to personally embody.
Socialism is thought by others, however, not to be a personalized moral prescription, but a systems model. Because capitalism is a means of socially organizing ourselves, socialism is often thought of as a scientific counter model to capitalism, not a mode of moralizing.
On this account, capitalism isn’t a mere matter of a boss exploiting or abusing his workers, but a system — or in Karl Marx’s terms, “an ensemble of social relations” — under which workers are systematically vulnerable to the boss’s whim, which is in turn vulnerable to impersonal and sometimes volatile market forces and surrounding capitalist actors.
The moralistic account of socialism that aligns it with egalitarian ethics has a greater presence in political discourse because it’s more intuitive, particularly in the rhetoric of political representatives.
This makes sense: A moralist explanation is simpler than systemic analyses that are, at times, abstract. We all have moral intuitions and inclinations, and appealing to peoples’ personal feelings about greed and inequality works. Robinson’s article, for instance, partly concerns the optics of Sanders holding onto his millions because he knows people react immediately and viscerally to large displays of wealth.
Further, for the Americas and parts of Europe, Christianity — as a dominant faith and influence on our political systems — is often a social heuristic; we think of figures like Jesus of Nazareth or Francis of Assisi who emphasized giving to the poor and living minimally. Some have even weaponized the pervasiveness of Christian morality to make the case for socialism.
These approaches, however, are somewhat misguided, and ultimately limited.
The Limitations Of Charity
Jesus and St. Francis, as they’re portrayed, never advocated for a system resembling socialism, and instead preached and compelled people to help alleviate the burdens the poor experienced as a result of their economic systems at the time. In other words, they advocated charity.
In a way, egalitarian moralism and Christian asceticism can easily serve as a supplement or even a motivator toward socialism: Socialists such as Guevara were moved by ascetic ethics and solidarity with the poor, and many who care about protecting the life and dignity of the impoverished can probably be persuaded to advocate for socialism as a system that can realize these ethics.
Moreover, I work for a charitable organization, and would never discourage a socialist from donating to one provided they have ethically sound practices. If you have income to spare, it would be morally good to donate money to causes that alleviate the burdens of racism and gendered and colonial violence.
But to see that — or refraining from spending money on oneself — as a requirement of all socialists fundamentally misses the point of a socialism that seeks to enact systemic change. It also obscures the path to a systems-change oriented goal that would actually permit a functionally socialist society.
Attempting to mend inequalities via individual charitable giving is logistically improbable, and will also fail to prevent inequalities of the same kind continuing to arise so long as the current system stays in place. Making it so that individual socialists must give their money away or be deemed hypocrites seems to centre more on their personal salvation and reputations as good people than it does on achieving a socialist system.
It was never Guevara’s asceticism, for instance, that contributed to Cuban socialism. His asceticism was a gesture of solidarity, but socialism emerged from a change in institutions and in the ensemble of Cuban social relations. It didn’t happen because a handful of economically privileged people decided to be more conscious about how their money was spent. Guevara’s lifestyle may have continued to emotionally propel him forward, but I doubt that if he’d permitted his wife to get a new car, the system would become less socialist than it was.
While someone like Sanders is probably less of a socialist than Guevara, his net worth and home ownership also doesn’t make a difference in the realization of his goals, because they don’t pertain to a personal lifestyle. Eventually, privileged people who are socialists will have to give up some of their privileges. Those like Sanders, who are advocating to heavily tax themselves, acknowledge this.
It’s important not to confuse fighting for structural change with individual generosity or personal lifestyles, even if giving away a house would make someone like Sanders seem like a better person. At the end of the day, Sanders was running to impact the structure of American social relations, not to be a personal character exemplar.
Socialism Isn’t A Condemnation Of Having Or Spending Money
Some may point out that Sanders having wealth while attacking others with wealth is hypocritical. Aside from the fact that “billionaire” and “millionaire” are considerably different social positions, these charges of hypocrisy are not particularly weighty. Sanders’ rhetoric points to the exorbitant wealth of his opponents not to claim that having things is bad, but to condemn either the causes of this wealth via unfair labour conditions, or the hoarding of said wealth through tax evasion and re-allocating the tax burden to those with less disposable income.
The idea that socialism is a condemnation of simply having money, without any qualifiers or further explanation, arises from the false notion that public recognition of inequality is meant to shame and categorize people into virtuous and non-virtuous actors, the way Jesus praised the poor and condemned the rich.
But this is a needlessly crude understanding of socialism. Socialism doesn’t allude to inequality to make moral judgments based on one’s social positionality. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. Rather, socialism ought to provide an explanation of inequality and explain how it is continuously and systematically — not incidentally — detrimental to human freedom. A socialist framework must identify the underlying causes here and show how we can shift to a different set of social relations that eliminate these causes.
Major inequality — the kind where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small enough group that can capture and dictate peoples’ fates — is undesirable because it inhibits human freedom, not simply because inequality is wrong. The more concentrated wealth and capital becomes, and the more corporate monopolies begin to occur, the more difficult the lives of ordinary people become: prices increase, and wages go down, while politicians become swayed by major industries that, in turn, will help influence policy greatly impacting peoples’ lives.
Socialists should be interested in democratizing the economy and political influence, which will involve changing the way we regulate and organize ourselves around ownership of capital and our political institutions.
As such, the personal wealth of individuals is relevant to socialists in the way that it’s acquired, such as through the appropriation of labourers’ surplus value, monopolization of finance capital, imperialism and neocolonialism. This is the kind of wealth accumulation that socialists are fixated on because of how it pertains to capitalism. That making or saving money at all would be hypocrisy on a socialist’s part is mythical thinking.
The individual expenditures of socialists can make them better people morally, but it’s unclear whether they can make them better socialists, save a few exceptions such as donating to a strike fund.
There is also obviously a line here: If your spending — or lack thereof — is actively detrimental to the realization of socialism, criticism of it makes more sense. If a self-proclaimed socialist like Sanders didn’t pay his staffers fairly or let them unionize, in order to hoard his wealth, that would be a cause for concern.
However, while socialists buying nice clothes or even a new house may upset our intuitive feelings about social inequality, our goals involve long term systems change instead of short term satisfactions of our moral intuitions.
Rather than have a socialism that scrutinizes and categorizes people into virtuous and evil, socialists ought to focus on explaining how peoples’ existing grievances are situated in a larger system of social relations that we wish to fundamentally transform.