No True Scotsman theory of socialism

After posting my last article I got the following comment from Marco Procaccini:

The term “socialism,” as defined by Marxist and pre-Marxist, as well as anarchist activists going back to the French Revolution, has always been applied to any economic practice or development generally based on:

democratic control of the means of production and governance by working people and their communities, free association, production for practical use, mutual satisfaction of self-interest via cooperation, etc.–essentially a stateless classless free cooperative society based on “the free development of each as the free development of all.”. This is why socialist economists, including Marx and Engels, often used terms like “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably.

At NO TIME in history has the term defined corporate central planning or state capitalism of any kind.

This is a pretty classic example of the Alibi or No True Scotsman(NTS)1 theory of socialism popular with the American and European far left. Perhaps it is my being a true Scotsman that means I have little truck with it. The problem is that it involves a whole series of falsehoods. Marco’s version of the NTS theory has the advantage of being a reductio ad absurdam of the whole approach.

Firstly he says that at no time in history has socialism refered to central planning or state capitalism. The problem with this is that this is exactly what it has meant for almost the entire history of the socialist movement – provided that is that we assume that his derogatory term ‘state capitalism’ is intended by him to refer to nationalised industry.

He is exhibiting an extraordinary historical amnesia if he has forgotten that throughout the period from the Russian revolution down to the present, the Communist Parties world wide have used the term Socialism to refer to nationalisation of the means of production along with greater or lesser degrees of central planning. But apparently the Communist movement did not exist in historical time, or perhaps for him, history does not include the history of China, India, Vietnam, Korea etc?

Even if we take his implicit Euro-centrism seriously his claims are unfounded. It is impossible to support Marco’s view if we make reference to the programmes of real socialist parties. Let’s ignore the 20th century Communist Parties there and just look at 19th century Communism and 19th and 20th century Socialist Parties, we see that nationalisation and central planning actually represent a relatively extreme position within these parties. Many, like the Scandinavian ones, saw socialism almost exclusively in terms of providing comprehensive welfare systems, and a solidaristic wages policy[4] – ie, setting national wage rates that applied irrespective of company situation.

If we look at Socialism in Britain and France, the Labour Party and French Socialists had as explicit policies the nationalisation of industry. Each Labour Party member had the following written on their card as the party’s aim:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.2

There is some ambiguity of the card as to what the best obtainable system of public administration would be, the practical policy of the party was to set up national boards to run industries, and these boards were answerable to what was taken to be a democratically elected Labour government. The French Socialists also advocated extensive nationalisation[5, Part II, Chap II].

Dans le secteur bancaire et financier, la nationalisation concernera l’ensemble du secteur

Dans l’industrie, un seuil minimum d’extension du sectur public et nationalise sera atteint par les mesures suivantes :

—La nationalisation des secturs suivants:

a) Dans leur ensemble: resources du sous-sol, armament, industrie spatiale et aéronautique, industrie nucléarie, industrie pharmaceutique;

b) Danls leur plus grande partie : industrie électronique (ordinateurs), industrie chimique.

And if we go right back into the 19th century we find that the very first communist programme[2] had the nationalisation of industry as one of its immediate objectives:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

The policies of both socialist and communist parties in the 20th century with respect to nationalisation were probably strongly influenced by this early document.

So we have established that both 19th and 20th century communism and 20th century socialism advocated state ownership in their party programmes. What about taxation?

Marco writes :

Finally, it needs to be pointed out specifically that tradition state ownership and taxation have NOTHING to do with Marxism–as Marx, Engels and legions of their contemporaries wrote.

The problem is that when Marx wrote party programmes, or commented on them, he said exactly the opposite. He consistently advocated an income tax [213]. When one reads how people like Marco so misrepresent him, one understands why he remarked he himself was ’pas marxiste’.


[1]   K. Marx. Marginal Notes to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party [Critique of the Gotha Programme]. Marx and Engels Selected Works, 3, 1970.

[2]   Karl Marx and Friederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party, trans. S. Moore. Moscow: Progress.(First published 1848.), 1977.

[3]   Karl Marx and Jules Guesde. The programme of the parti ouvrier, 1880.

[4]   Rudolf Meidner. Why did the swedish model fail? Socialist Register, 29(29), 1993.

[5]   Parti Socialiste and François Mitterrand. Changer la vie: programme de gouvernement du Parti Socialiste. Flammarion, 1972.


One Comment

  1. Easy to see the no true scotsman applied by one’s chosen opponents.

    – It’s not capitalism, it’s corporatism.
    – It’s not capitalism, it’s crony capitalism.
    – It’s not capitalism, until it’s unregulated.

    Might as well complain about the state?


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