The ‘S’ Word

Why the socialist entrepreneur? Given all the negative associations that come with it, why even mention socialism when discussing worker ownership?

The 20th century was full of blood and horror. Human beings did unspeakable things to each other in the name of virtually every major religion and ideology, and while it would be crass to tally up and compare all the bloodshed and killing, it is fair to say that more blood was spilled in the name of socialism than in the name of almost any other political idea. Socialism is deeply tarnished by this history. Authoritarian communism was, at best, a grim, miserable failure; and at worst, it was outright genocidal. It is both unsettling and depressing to think that socialism — an idea born of an aspiration to free humanity — was the inspiration for a long wave of bloody political movements that ultimately murdered millions of people around the world, but of course, that is exactly what happened.

This history poses a problem for advocates of worker ownership.  Broadly understood, worker ownership is a form of socialism, but given how socialism is associated now with so much brutality and oppression, is it wise to use the word when talking about worker-ownership? In his introduction to a classic collection of essays on the cooperative economy published back in 1975, Jaroslav Vanek argued that it would be counterproductive to discuss worker self-management in terms of socialism vs. capitalism:

To use the traditional platforms and categories of socialism-communism-capitalism can be most divisive and can frustrate efforts for democratization in the economic sphere for many years. It is not good to pour new wine into old skins.
(Vanek 1975: 36)

Most folk working today on cooperatives and worker-ownership seem to follow this advice and avoid using the word socialism altogether when discussing the cooperative economy, but I would question both the efficacy and the honesty of this approach. I believe that in order to build a better world we will have to rethink and indeed rehabilitate the idea of socialism. All of that awfulness and bloodshed in the 20th century did not change the fact that the only real alternative to the injustices of capitalism is socialism of one kind or another.

So worker-owned businesses are a form of basic economic democracy, and therefore, a form of socialism, but given how socialism has been redefined and narrowed over the past hundred years — in the wake of both the global Cold War and two red scares in the United States — when most people hear the word socialism now, particularly in the US, they probably first think of top-down state communism. Indeed, in many peoples’ minds, socialism has been reduced to just another word for communism, but this was not at all how the idea was originally understood. In the 19th century, socialism was a broad and lively church that included a range of different visions of anarchism, syndicalism, mutualism, social democracy, communalism and cooperativism.  If we want to build an alternative to capitalism, we will need to return to this broader understanding of socialism and advance the idea that there is more than one way to build a collectively-owned economy, that socialism can be open, innovative, democratic and diverse.

All this is to say that vision and ideology matter, and this is particularly true when it comes to founding and running a worker-owned business. In this blog, I plan to examine examples of successful worker-owned businesses and I believe that I will be able to show that these businesses are almost always started by socialist entrepreneurs with a clear ideological vision of how worker-ownership can be a fairer way to organize the economy. Whatever we call it, the founding vision of a successful worker-owned business will be some form of economic democracy, and in other words, some form of socialism.

We could try to find another word for socialism, but as soon as we began to succeed on a large scale in building a cooperative economy under this new banner, as soon as our alternative model (with its new name) started to grow to the point where it was substantially threatening the dominance of corporate capitalism, ideological capitalists would undoubtedly wage a campaign to tarnish that new name too. This is not paranoia, but a clear lesson from history. During the 20th century, ideological capitalists organized themselves into think-tanks, bought newspapers, ran for public office, and spent untold sums of money to vilify, not just authoritarian communism, but any kind of socialism, from pacifist anarchism to staid, respectable social democracy. Well-funded ideological capitalists will do the same thing again if worker-ownership ever grows out of its small niche and starts to challenge corporate capitalism as the dominant economic model. We can bet the farm on it. It really wont matter what name we use.

And further, this question is also about the ethics and efficacy of being forthright. People can’t be tricked into fighting for a new idea. If socialism is what we want, then we should be honest and say that, and then explain what we mean by socialism. We should make the argument that real socialism is always democratic and bottom-up and show how a socialist society built on worker ownership would be far fairer and freer than a society governed by corporate capitalists. The success of worker-ownership depends on building a clear ideological vision of the value of this alternative type of organization. It is a huge mistake to think that one can side-step these difficult ideological questions for the sake of expediency. Without a clear ideological focus, no organization can succeed, least of all an organization like a worker-owned business that is sailing directly against the current of the dominant capitalist ideology in our society.

And while I understand that many people involved in promoting the development of the cooperative economy are wary about using the word socialism to describe what they are doing, as it turns out, socialism is not quite as controversial as some might think. Even in the United States of America, after a century of red scares and Cold War propaganda, socialism remains surprisingly popular, particularly among younger people. A recent Pew Research Center study (2011) found that 31% of Americans view socialism positively versus 60% that view it negatively. While it is true that this means that the overall majority of Americans view socialism negatively, it is nonetheless quite surprising that in the United States, possibly the most ideologically capitalist country in the world, as many as 31% of its citizens still think of socialism as a desirable alternative to capitalism.

And the percentage of Americans who view socialism positively rises substantially when we look specifically at younger adults, Americans aged 18-29. In the same Pew study, it was found that 49% of Americans aged 18-29 view socialism positively versus 43% who view socialism negatively. According to this survey, almost half of young American adults have a positive view of socialism, and amazingly, slightly more young adults view socialism positively than view capitalism positively. The research also found that in this age group, 46% view capitalism positively versus 47% that view it negatively. So in this age group in the US, more people view socialism positively than capitalism.


Data from the Pew Research Center (2011)

Support for socialism is even more clear in the UK, where when recently asked if a socialist government would make the country better or worse, 43% said better compared to 36% that said worse.

UK support for socialism

So advancing the idea of worker-ownership as a democratic and bottom-up version of socialism might not be as difficult or as self-defeating as some suspect, and I believe that discussing worker ownership as a form of socialism is an important move to make. How we frame the discussion of worker ownership and what names we use are not just technical questions or arcane semantic issues. Vision and ideology profoundly influence all aspects of our lives; ideas do matter, and language matters too. In the end, using the word socialism in this context is clear and honest. We cannot build and sustain a cooperative economy without advancing our vision of economic democracy at the same time, and that vision is, to be honest, socialist.

Pew Research Center (2011) Little Change in Public’s Response to ‘Capitalism,’ ‘Socialism.

Vanek, Jaroslav (1975) “Introduction,” In: Jaroslav Vanek (Ed.), Self-Management: Economic Liberation of Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

YouGov (2017) What if we had a socialist government.

2 Responses to The ‘S’ Word

  1. George Pór says:

    Tim, I resonate with your ideas and wanted to call your attention to Kevin Kelly, who also resonates with the ‘S’ word in his book, The Inevitable, on page 136-139.

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