The specter of socialism is again haunting the minds of the corporate elite, from the Americas to Europe and beyond. This, after decades of pro-capitalist campaigning from the corporate media, which has always confused "capitalism" with "freedom." But of course freedom and democracy cannot exist alongside tremendous inequalities of wealth -- or next to corporations wielding absolute power over elections and governments.
These facts helped form the social movements in Latin America that now advocate 21st Century Socialism, a name that implies the prior century's experiments needed either updating or improving, while also implying that the general socialist "project" was progressive.
What are the progressive aspects of last century's socialism? And from where did the original ideas come? These are extremely relevant questions in light of the international economic and political upheavals.
The "utopian socialists" in the early 1800s tried to correct these social inequities by proposing grand schemes that, if adopted by governments, would help harmonize society. These reformers, however, soon learned that those in power wanted little to do with their ideas. They also learned that "alternative economic models" set up next to the large capitalist enterprises were soon crushed by these corporations, due to the superior wealth encapsulated in the giant machines the capitalists owned, as well as the state machinery that the corporate elite controlled.
The Utopian's failure was partially due to a lack of understanding. At the time, people were attempting to grasp what was happening to society; capitalist industrialization was happening at a lightning pace, with little preparedness or understanding from the majority of people. Blind economic forces seemed to be advancing uncontrollably.
In fact, modern socialism can be theoretically reduced to correcting the economic contradictions that inherently exist in capitalism. Marx listed these contradictions in his Capital; the "socialist solution" is merely the correction of these fundamental problems of capitalism.
For example, in capitalism's embryonic stage, the capitalist ran a small shop, where perhaps he sold wagon wheels. But as capitalism evolved, a thousand times more goods were produced after the whole town was organized to make wagon wheels, each person performing a different, very small task, but all working cooperatively to produce the final product. The profit, however, went to one person -- the owner, or owners. The result was that wagon wheels were immensely cheaper, and those who could not afford the high cost of the factory-approach of production -- machines, labor costs, and raw materials -- were pushed out of the market.
Eventually, those capitalists unable to compete evolved into workers, while more and more money was needed to purchase the giant machinery and infrastructure needed to stay a competitive capitalist; through this dynamic wealth increased at one pole and decreased at the other.
This shows a fundamental contradiction of capitalism: all of society is organized to produce goods and services; workers work "collectively" to build products, i.e., they work "socialistically," but the vast majority of the wealth produced goes to a small minority of non-working, very wealthy shareholders. Thus, to correct this problem, the wealth produced by society should be distributed to those who create it, not funneled into the pockets of the rich. This would require transferring the vast majority of the productive machinery from private ownership of a few to the control of vast majority.
But the capitalists may argue that, without these wealthy capitalists, there would be no wealth-producing enterprises, and everybody would be consequently poorer. This argument may have been true 250 years ago, but no longer.