Your turn: Misrepresentation of socialism is a classic straw man fallacy

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Michael Hinz

Rich Lowry, in his article (March 26) denouncing Bernie Sanders’ proposal to establish a four-day workweek, sums up his point at the end by saying, “Sanders’ idea is a frank expression of economic illiteracy” and “baldly ludicrous.” But Lowry’s reasons for thinking this are themselves, frankly, an expression of historical and philosophical illiteracy. I say this not to defend Sanders, who can ably defend himself, but to point out briefly that Lowry has severely misrepresented the view he is attacking. He presents a caricature of key features of socialism and Karl Marx’s position. By doing so, his criticisms become largely irrelevant since they do not address what socialism and Marx’s account of it are really about.

Lowry claims that socialism/communism holds that “work is…unnatural and bad for people.” This claim is untrue. Marx held that work, or labor, is not only natural, but, moreover, the feature of human beings that makes them distinctly human and self-creative, since through work people are the producers of the means of their own subsistence, and thereby the producers/creators of the forms of life they lead. Indeed, Marx would agree with the quotation Lowry cites from David Bahnsen that “work is part of the human condition.”

What Marx emphasizes, however, is that people’s labor, throughout much of human history, has been dominated and controlled by class structures arising from economic forces and relations of production that have never been freely chosen or adopted, and this has forced human beings to work under conditions that have alienated them from their own labor power. Thus, the forms of life they have produced and led have not been freely chosen but rather determined by economic conditions under which they have been compelled to work. In the case of a capitalist system, the economic structures force human beings to sell their labor for wages or salaries and to seek greater profits doing work that keeps them alienated, unfree and unfulfilled.

Lowry’s discussion focuses on “making money,” which is the primary object of work in a capitalist system because in it people are necessarily compelled to work for wages and to seek profits. This is not, however, the main object of a socialist system since it would not operate according to the economic conditions required by capitalism. The aim in socialism is free labor, but this does not mean either freedom from labor or a “free breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In effect, Lowry caricatures socialism by trying to evaluate it according to capitalist criteria of value, and this completely misrepresents what socialism is primarily about. In this respect the main difference between socialism and capitalism is a difference in what it really means for human beings to be free. This is an essential difference that Lowry’s discussion misses altogether. What he provides, instead, is an example of the “straw man” fallacy which is committed when one attacks a position that one disagrees with by misrepresenting and distorting it and thus making it look, as he says, “ludicrous.”

In a democratic society when one is concerned with truth and accuracy rather than with scoring points against an opponent, such fallacies ought to be avoided, and it should be an important social aim that citizens be educated against them.

— Michael Hinz, of Lawrence, is pr​ofessor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University.


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