When You Hear ‘Socialism,’ Think ‘Control’


When someone calls themself a “socialist” or says they think “socialism” has a lot of good ideas, what do they mean? After all, most of us are not political scientists or philosophers. And terms like “socialism,” “capitalism,” “liberalism,” and “conservatism” really get tossed around. Back in 2018, Gallup updated a question it first asked in 1949: “What is your understanding of the term ‘socialism’?”

Some key differences between then and now: 23 percent of Americans today understand socialism as referring to some form of equality vs. 12 percent in 1949; 10 percent think the means something about the public provision of benefits like free healthcare vs. 2 percent in 1949; and 17 percent define socialism as government control of business and the economy vs. 34 percent in 1949. Only 6 percent, both then and now, think of socialism as actual communism or a kind of version of communism. Then again, who knows what people mean by “communism.” Again, few of us have probably sat down and perused The Communist Manifesto, or even lightly scanned its Wikipedia page or that of Marxism.

I think this idea of “control” is an interesting one. I recently read a literary criticism of the science-fiction author and futurist H.G. Wells, who referred to himself as a socialist. Yet Wells was no Marxist, no proponent of the idea of class conflict. When Wells met with Joseph Stalin in 1934, he gave an unwelcome lecture to the dictator of the Soviet Union on Marx’s many errors, writes Sarah Cole in Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century.

For Wells, socialism was about control. Humanity needed a world government to control and allocate the world’s resources to create the better future he imagined. As Wells once wrote: “Socialism for me is a common step we are all taking in the great synthesis of human purpose.” And the execution of that collectivist “synthesis of human purpose” would be performed by the technocratic planners of that global government.

The danger this view holds for human freedom and progress is obvious to us today — or should be — with our future privilege. But plenty of thinkers in Wells’ day were skeptical. Friedrich Hayek would not have been surprised to learn that real-world socialism failed to deliver sustained prosperity. George Orwell, himself a democratic socialist, would not have been surprised that the real-world application of Wells’ all-controlling government of super-planners would everywhere be a nightmare for human freedom. Again, from Inventing Tomorrow:

As George Orwell complained, in a 1941 essay in which he accuses Wells of losing touch with the genuine threats of the contemporary world, “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based.”

Of course, the lessons of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia deeply informed Orwells’ anti-totalitarian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which came out the same year as Gallup asked that socialism question. Skepticism of applied socialism — or any socioeconomic system without political freedom at its core — stemmed from harsh experience, not learned ideology. For many people, “socialism” meant “control,” with that control inevitably leading to terrible outcomes. One should hope these lessons do not need to be relearned by people whose initial interest in socialism stems from an interest in less income inequality, universal healthcare, or free tuition.

Published in Economics
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  1. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller

    We need to drop the -isms which only invite debate of definitions. If someone’s answer to every problem is more government and more organization of people, then tyranny is the inevitable result. 

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  2. Ontheleftcoast Member

    @jamespethokoukis uncritically repeats an interesting and probably erroneous assertion from the original study.


    • 23% in U.S. understand socialism as referring to some form of equality
    • 17% say socialism means government control of business and the economy
    • In 1949, 34% defined socialism as government control of business

    In actuality, the 2018 survey results has 23% of Republicans/Leaners with that view, not “Americans.:

    On the question of Socialism means “Equality – equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution”

    Democrats/Leaners 26%

    Republicans/Leaners 23%

    Either enough more Republicans/leaners than Democrat/leaners were polled to skew the results to the 23% figure and the whole thing is bogus anyway, or the socialist/communist reeducation program has clouded Republican minds even more than it has Democrats’.

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  3. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    Bob Armstrong

    Clicking through the link that James provided to see the findings by Gallup, the overall percentage of respondents selecting “Equality – equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution” in 2018 was 23%. It was coincidentally the same as the party distribution for Republicans/Leaners.

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  4. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp

    The inanity of the poll questions take one’s breath away.  The answers even more so, or more precisely: the fact that any American thought that rational answers could even be given to such incoherent babbling.

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  5. Franco Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    The inanity of the poll questions take one’s breath away. The answers even more so, or more precisely: the fact that any American thought that rational answers could even be given to such incoherent babbling.

    So true.

    I wonder how many people were hoodwinked by the first question. The word “equal” is used three times, all sounding innocuous and positive: Equality, equal standing … good, equal rights… good, equal distribution… goo… what? How many people were just responding positively to “equality” generally and didn’t stop to ponder the “distribution” part?
    And even then, distribution isn’t really defined. Distribution of government services,  or distribution of wealth? There’s no reference to who is doing the (re)distribution. Pathetic.

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  6. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge
    DonG (skeptic)

    Since the numbers add up to about 100% I assume people picked the response that “best describes” socialism.  I think I would have been in “derogatory opinion”, because that is closest to “pure evil”. 

    I am astounded that people can be so stupid to think that an economy not based on currency, won’t be based on some other form of accounting.  In prisons it is cigarettes.  In socialism it is government favors.   It is an evil idea.  Probably the worst idea humans have ever had.

    • #6