Fair Questions: How can we define socialism?

Recently, I made the observation that the way in which I came to my definition of socialism was to engage with socialists and learn about their views.  A friend pointed out that this might not be the best way to arrive at an accurate definition of socialism.  And this is a fair point.  After all, it’s often the case that self-identified socialists, capitalists, communists, Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, fascists, and so on don’t have a particularly precise or coherent understanding of the position they’re taking.

As an example, it was pointed out that asking any baptized Catholic on the street about what it means to be a Catholic is unlikely to yield an accurate answer or set of answers.  And this is true.  It is all the more true because as any group grows larger and more inclusive so as to constitute over a billion people, the more likely it is that members of the group are less committed to the group.  Small groups are more likely to be clearly defined fairly easily, and Catholics are far from a small group.

Socialists are far from a small group as well, and this perhaps makes the analogy work better than some others that could be made.  In much the same way that I don’t expect that the average self-identified Catholic at my university will have a precise and coherent understanding of Catholicism, I don’t expect that the average self-identified socialist at my university will have a precise and coherent understanding of socialism.  Depth of understanding of any social movement takes a great deal of time and effort, and I generally seek out those who have put in the time and effort.

While I will happily dialogue with the average self-identified socialist or Catholic, I do not take their views on the subject as authoritative.  I take them as suggestive in the sense that they suggest possible understandings of Catholicism or socialism which are either precise or imprecise, coherent or incoherent.  With Catholicism, it is not simple to identify the authoritative understanding of Catholic teaching, but it is much simpler than attempting to identify the authoritative understanding of socialism.

The Catholic Church has a Magisterium, and has many documents laying out the official teachings of the Catholic Church.  Socialism has no such authoritative teaching body, and so while it may be useful to read the work of Engels, Marx, Lenin, et al, reading those documents can’t help us arrive at an authoritative understanding of socialism.  All it can do is tell us definitively what major historical advocates of socialism thought it was.  Nonetheless, there is a point of convergence between Catholicism and socialism in terms of a useful way to go about understanding either one.

Many committed Catholics have read a great deal about the history of the Catholic Church, read many official documents of the Church, and have a great deal of personal experience in being part of the Catholic Church.  This makes them a valuable resource of others who want to learn about the Catholic Church.  Consulting committed Catholics is certainly not a perfect way of learning about the Catholic Church, but it is far better than just asking a few baptized Catholics on the street who attend Mass once or twice a year.

And as long as we consult with many committed Catholics and can check some of their claims for ourselves both by reading history and participating in their social group, we can develop a much better sense of the Catholic Church than we could just by asking the random baptized Catholics at the university.  We can follow this same process in the case of socialism, consulting with committed socialists who have read deeply of the history of socialism and have been participating in its various movements, checking their claims as best we can.

I’m not sure what better way there would be for a person who is not a socialist to understand socialism than the reading of the books of its major historical advocates, reading about its history, and consulting with committed socialists.  But I am open to suggestions if anyone has some.

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