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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

I’m interested what people make of this quote by Winston Churchill:

I don’t consider myself a communitarian, not a socialist. That means I’m not allergic to the idea of private property. I think people who work hard deserve to profit from their work, and I’m not that opposed to the idea that some people just lucked out and were born with potential society wants to reward (or were born into families that had the resources to encourage said potential). To an extent, I’m okay with that. I definitely think that by living in a certain society I take up certain obligations to look after my other community-members, and it’s wrong for me to indulge in luxury while the guy who delivers my pizza can’t even afford healthcare or whatever. But that doesn’t mean you have to go whole-hog socialist. It just means you recognize you have certain obligations you have to meet, just like you have to pay for the roads you drive on.

But even so, I find these thoughts… interesting. Socialism may come out of a certain ignorance about human nature, I’ll give you that, but the gospel of envy? As I understand it, it’s not about being jealous of the rich – it’s about recognizing that private property encourages some of the nastier quirks of our psychology. I don’t find socialism per se particularly immoral or anything, and on a small scale I can even see it working. It’s the whole national project where things break down.

I’m more interested in what other people make of this quote, though. Do you agree? Does it surprise you that Winston Churchill would say this? (Given the times, I can see him having no love of socialism.) Do you know any more of the context than I do?

(P.S. – I know I owe comments to people. I haven’t forgotten. I’ve got some time this afternoon when I plan on doing that.)


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
Does it surprise you that Winston Churchill would say this?

No. As for context: if the date I've found for when he said it is right (1948), he'd just lost an election (in 1945) to Clement Atlee, who was heading up a Labour administration that was the most socialist government the UK has had (programmes of nationalisation; setting up the NHS, etc.). Churchill will lose again in 1950, although Atlee has a much reduced majority and Labour lose power in 1951 (Churchill becomes PM again).

"Politics of envy" is a phrase often heard from Conservatives politicians here to describe redistributive Labour policies, so it's not surprising, although interesting, to discover that they're nodding to Churchill when they say it.

Edited at 2012-11-16 03:44 pm (UTC)
Nov. 17th, 2012 04:32 am (UTC)
Thanks for this reply - I really appreciated the historical context. I made a more substantive reply downthread, in case you're interested:

Nov. 17th, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
Nov. 16th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
Socialism says, "You can't. You aren't good enough to do this on your own. Here, let me do it for you."

A gigantic national government filtering the socialist message adds on, "Or better yet, let's just take it from this other person, who you have never met and never will, and give it to you 'cause he doesn't need an excess of product anyhow and you do, you poor slob."

In a tiny community, however, your best friend says, "Here, I know you couldn't pay the light bill this month, and I have a little extra from a bonus at work, so just take this and don't worry about it, okay? I know you got my back some day when I need it."

The latter evokes "from each according to ability, to each according to need." The former, on the other hand, does evoke failure, ignorance, and envy. I think you hit it on the head when you said, I don’t find socialism per se particularly immoral or anything, and on a small scale I can even see it working. It’s the whole national project where things break down.
Nov. 17th, 2012 05:20 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree with that characterization of socialism - because I don't think the rich are better people than poor are. Many wealthy people deserve their success, don't get me wrong - but many also inherited it, or for whatever reason had more advantage than others had, whereas many people who end up poor would have become successful if they had started out with more advantages. (I mean how would someone with Romney's and Bush Jr.'s intelligence/drive -- I'd describe them both as average in that department -- fare if not for the family connections?)

My instinct about socialism is it takes away the incentive to work hard, which means everyone suffers. There you and I agree - the size of the group makes so much difference! I think a lot of this comes down to what you mean by that word and I want to read some of the books Dwim suggested downthread. But even though my instinct right now is there are other, better theories - I still don't think socialism is infantilizing. If anything it's more empowering than relying on the boss or government to pay you. In my opinion, at least.
Nov. 17th, 2012 08:32 am (UTC)
I don't think rich people are better than poor people. Goodness, did anything I say imply that!? But I think that socialist structures do imply that poor people can't, and I dislike things and people that tell me I can't. The "you poor slob" is what I hear underneath all that condescension. But that of course is dependent on the theory that poor people can't become rich people, and vice versa. Direct socialism -- that is, knowing who gave according to ability and who took according to need, without a bureaucracy in between -- facilitates reciprocation and prevents some of the antagonistic us-versus-them stuff that we're seeing now.
Nov. 17th, 2012 01:30 pm (UTC)
I thought it was implied in your statement that says Socialism says, "You can't. You aren't good enough to do this on your own. Here, let me do it for you." The suggestion I saw was, that was a change from capitalism - that under capitalism, everyone (poor people included) were responsible for their own well-being, or not. Responsibility is a wonderful thing, but it cuts both ways: it implies, at least to me, that those people who aren't able to cut it and provide for themselves are blameworthy.

But then I seem to have a first-class ability to mishear what people mean on this topic. So I may just have misread you. I'm really sorry if that's the case.
Nov. 20th, 2012 04:42 pm (UTC)
Aha! I think that was a sarcasm fail on my part. :) I feel that the socialism machine condescends to me, purportedly for my own good and all that, and that it's endorsed by, primarily, overeducated people who don't want to make me feel bad but really believe I can't function (implied: as well as they can) without all their help. When I was little and we had to go stand in line to ask for government cheese because my dad hadn't worked in months, I definitely felt the paternal pat on the head from the government. In my experience, it is the paternalistic government, which socialism seeks to expand, that tells me I'm not good enough and never can be.
Nov. 16th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
Your definition of private property is the definition of personal property. Marxist understandings of private property = ownership for private interest of the products that are the means of producing profit and, on a practical level, the vast majority of the wealth of the nation. This reaction is as old as the Communist Manifesto - in fact, it's older, because the CM actually takes it on and responds to it.

As for the quotation, it in no way surprises me Churchill says this; he is the author of the "Iron Curtain" metaphor, and a major propagandist for western capitalism. He was the head of the Conservative Party in Britain - pro-empire, pro-capitalist, anti-labor, pro-free market ideology.

Socialism may come out of a certain ignorance about human nature

I'm sorry, I'm going to have to say something here. In my experience, people who say this haven't considered seriously the critique of human nature leveled by Marx and Marxian theorists, which is a critique against philosophical notions that simply reify the dominant behavior of people without looking at what promotes and causes those behaviors to be dominant. For a socialist who wasn't sidetracked by Fourier, St. Simon, or anarchism, it's not a question of eliminating evil in the hearts of men and remaking human nature absolutely, but of determining what causes the potential in all of us for massively anti-social behavior to become a dominant force in society. There will of course always be people who are morally bankrupt; that potential always exists, but even four hundred morally bankrupt people, the number of people who currently own as much wealth as half the planet - literally - if they are not in control of production and distribution are not going to be able to have such a significant impact on society as they do when they have power thanks to money.

That's the socialist bet.
Nov. 16th, 2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
I think one thing to remember is that socialism is a different animal from communism. Socialism espouses a more equitable division of property, where Communism dictates State ownership of all property. Socialism advocates "From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need." It teaches a form of community awareness and responsiblity, not only to self, but to one's neighbors.

Mind you, we already practice a certain level of democratic socialism, both in the US as well as other Western nations. We have public police departments and fire departments. We use tax dollars, put them in a common pool and then provide these services to the public at large regardless of ability to pay for such services privately.

I think democratic socialism is a good answer to many of the problems that people deal with on an everyday level. Public health care - where everybody pays a certain amount in taxes, and then enjoys the benefits of being able to go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy - would be another area into which I'd like to see the principle extended.

Of course, people with lots of money don't like any kind of socialism - because of the tendency in the human animal for greed. Capitalism caters to greed, to the point now that our entire democratic system of elections is bought and sold, won or lost, depending on how much money a candidate or proposition has behind it. Far too many well-heeled are of the opinion that "I've got mine, to Hell with everybody else."

Churchill was reacting to the mistaken idea that Socialism = Communism. However, that said, Socialism, as a human construct, is not perfect. NO system of governance is without its flaws. Pure Socialism isn't the answer. Pure Capitalism isn't either (as we're all now becoming aware of.) Democratic Socialism, however, mixes two ideas in a responsible manner, so that one is both encouraged and rewarded for doing well, but those who fail for whatever reason aren't left without any resources at all.

Perhaps, if Churchill had lived to this decade of the 21st Century, his statement would read a bit differently. He was a wise man otherwise...
Nov. 17th, 2012 01:42 pm (UTC)
You'll get no argument for me that pure capitalism isn't the answer. I've been reading, and enjoying, Michael Sandel's book What Money Can't Buy which is about the way we tend to use the market to settle too wide a variety of things these days - allocating lifesaving healthcare, access to elected officials, etc. His point is that there are some things that when you use the market to distribute them, it changes the value and "cheapens" the good in question. (It's not just that the poor don't have enough money to buy what they need; it's that when you put a money-value on some things you take away part of what makes them valuable.) I think he's on to something, but then I'm sympathetic to his line of thought.

As for the rest - I do know there's a difference between communism and socialism, and tried to flesh out what I mean by those terms in the comment just below this. But one thing Dwim convinced me of was that I don't understand the theory behind all this nearly well enough, and I need to read up before I really defend any opinion on it. So perhaps I should keep my mouth shut on a lot of this for now. :-)
Nov. 16th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks to everyone for the comments. I think I need a better understanding of socialism, and some of you (Dwim particularly) brought up some really good points.

I've never really studied socialism academically - never read a word of Marx or (to my knowledge) even about him. I don't wear that as a mark of pride or anything; actually, I'm more than a bit embarrassed by that. I also wrote this post in a rush and was more than a bit frustrated by what I thought was an idiotic take by someone who had lots of historical reason to hate the communism/socialism of his day (I wasn't sure how sharp a distinction Churchill would draw), being passed around as a vague appeal to authority for why modern socialism was wrong. I may have come down more harshly on socialism than I meant to, simply because I was trying to preempt a particular argument. Maybe this election has me paranoid, or maybe writing something for two very different groups (here and FB) has made me hedge my bets more than I like. I think I was mad at the quote which struck me as so obviously wrong, but was afraid if I said anything and didn't undercut the argument that you had to be a fan of the national government owning all industries in order to disagree with Churchill, I'd come home to exactly the wrong kind of reactions. I don't think I laid that out well, mainly because I don't understand Marxism well enough to really speak with confidence. (Also because I was rushed.) So I'm sorry if I misrepresented the theory.

Altariel, thanks so much for the historical background. That's precisely what I was looking for. Dwim, thanks for the philosophical critique. I'm sorry I got so much of it wrong. I'd like to understand the theory better than I do - do you have any suggestions on good starting points, offline or on?

It's also possible that when I think of socialism, it's simply not what you guys think the word means. Or how it's used by people working with the philosophy much more than I am. So maybe that's part of the problem? When I think of "socialism," I think of a situation where the factories and companies and any other goods-producing institution is owned by everyone. Usually it's equally owned - meaning that however gifted you are or hard you work, your share won't increase. (I suppose in theory you could help society as a whole generate more goods to go around, which would help you indirectly.) Communism on the other hand is the situation where the government owns everything on behalf of all the citizens. Are those definitions off-base?

Here's my problem with socialism defined this way: we are more driven to help those closest to us (and particularly myself). I'll go the extra mile and be more self-motivated if I know there's some benefit to me or those I care most about (my family, my friends, and more generally my community). This is why I said socialism might work on a small scale. If the grad students in my department open a food coop and we all own it equally, I'm still motivated to work hard to make sure the coop goes well, since I know them and want them to benefit from that work. Also because it's small that benefit will affect me more directly. But if this coop gets bigger and includes all the grad students at my school (including MBA's and engineering students and law students I've never met), or if we even include all grad students at any school in NYC, I have less of a drive to help those other people because I don't know them. So working hard to make the coop run well becomes less and less important me - and to everyone. If it doesn't benefit you or those you care most about, it becomes harder to get people to go the extra drive.
Nov. 16th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC)

This isn't an issue on a small scale, because your sacrifices do help those you care about most. But the larger the scale gets, the less motivated people would seem to get. This is why I think some income inequality is okay and even a good idea (since we're better off when certain professionals drive themselves to be the best they can be). But this inequality needs to be low and only be used once everyone's needs are met. We also need to emphasize that when a rich person helps a poor person out they aren't extra good, don't get any control over how said money is spent. There are no "strings attached" here. And the wealth levels should be reset from time to time, so people are benefiting from their own hard work, not their grandfathers.

That's my starting point, in any event. I'm definitely convinceable that I'm wrong on any of this.
Nov. 17th, 2012 02:53 am (UTC)
A quick note, dashed off
Marxists.org = free source of translated writings by many major figures. Woot!

I'll also pimp an author who had a major influence on me: Schweickart: After Capitalism. Short, sweet, clearly written - yes, market socialism, which I understand is a controversial theory, but he's really good at explanation and he is of your clan: he did his Ph.D. in mathematics first, then jumped ship to do a second one (o.0) in philosophy at Ohio State University. :-D
Nov. 17th, 2012 03:29 am (UTC)
Re: A quick note, dashed off
Thanks, Dwim. I'll definitely look into him. Economic justice is such an important topic these days, and I do want to understand it better. (I actually attended Cleveland State, not Ohio, but I won't hold that against him, and the shared math background is promising.)
Nov. 16th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
That is so much a message of the Cold War era. Back then there was only "us" and "them", and there was much terror on the part of "us" about the threat "them" posed to our way of life.

God's honest truth: In Florida in the mid-60s, a required Social Studies course in high school was called "Americanism vs. Communism". This was not a class about citizenship, nor about how the Capitalist system worked and how the Communist system worked. Nope, it was how the big bad evil Socialists (who were "pinkos" back then, while "commies" were "red") were sneaking Communist ideas into our government. But if we were ever vigilant, they could not overcome the "American Way" which naturally is better than any other "way". The only thing I really took away from that class was a vague memory of a b/w film about people being dragged off to prison because the gov't had been infiltrated by Socialists, enabling the Commies to invade and take over. Think "Red Dawn" with worse acting and production values. Now this was years AFTER the McCarthy Era had ended! (Though a couple of years BEFORE Woodstock and hippies and such.)

Personally? I do believe in private property, and I do believe in capitalism--but a regulated capitalism, because unregulated, it turns into nothing but pure unbridled greed, in which people and companies that have amassed more material wealth than they will ever be able to use feel the need to amass even more and to avoid if they can, using up any of it on anyone besides themselves unless it will in some way benefit them.

Without regulation, they will consider the safety and well-being of ordinary people (the very people who enable them to make their riches) as not their problem--even when they harm or kill people. (BP? Massey Energy? Enron?)

I think there are certain things that the gov't does better than private business: armies, police, protection from fire and disaster relief are a few of them. Others are seeing to the education of the young, incarcerating criminals, taking care of commonly used facilities such as roads and bridges AND seeing to the health of the citizens.

Also keeping people with lots of money from taking advantage of people with less money.

While I was thrilled with Obamacare, and am pleased it will not be going away anytime soon, I think that it does not go nearly far enough. I DO think we need a nationalized health care system, and I would have been thrilled if they had gone much further in that direction. Of course, that would NEVER have gotten anywhere in Washington.
Nov. 18th, 2012 01:54 am (UTC)
It's a bit of a culture-shock to think that just a generation ago (less than that, actually) people took courses like that as a matter of course. I'm kind of glad I was born when I was because if I wasn't I do think I might have ended up testifying in front of a committee somewhere, with my mouth. :-)

I completely agree with you on a lot of this, particularly about national healthcare. Like you, I think we need at least a public option and I'd really like an increased in taxation/spending on free health clinics and other basic services. Whenever I've gotten sick or injured in countries that had national health services I've gotten so much better of coverage and less redtape than I get in America.
Nov. 18th, 2012 02:50 am (UTC)
Sweetie, lots of us grew up thinking that it was always going to be the Communists (which meant Russia and China) against the "Free World". If you have ever watched ST:TOS, there are certain episodes and references that reflect that idea--look at the attitude Chekov displays in some episodes, and then there was "The Omega Glory" featuring the Yangs and the Kohms! This was supposed to be the Federation, and Earth was supposed to have moved past all that--yet at the same time there are more than a few hints that the political/cultural divide had lingered on Earth much longer than it did in "real history"!

Even people whose job was to imagine a different future had trouble wrapping their minds around such a different world.

I remember a feeling of culture shock myself when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union failed. I was elated, and yet at the same time, shocked and confused that a state of affairs I had thought was more or less permanent had simply vanished away. I remember wondering what would happen now, and thinking maybe we were on our way to a much more enlightened and less dangerous world. Little did I know...
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 18th, 2012 07:45 am (UTC)
Well, even I don't think socialism/communism have to be violent. The violence comes from trying to force people into the system, not the system itself.

Ah, well. Funny that the meme should put you that way. I'm sure it was pointing to something other than a lack of control. ;-)
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