ANALYSIS: What brand of socialism does the labour movement practice?

While there are several different forms of Socialism, in a purely socialist system, all decisions regarding the legal production and distribution of goods and services, including output and pricing levels are made by the government. Individual citizens rely on the government for everything from food to healthcare. Going back to the early 70s, when the Mintoff government took the reins of our country, perhaps the type of socialism practised back then came close to the definition I have given above.

More than 50 years later, the Malta Labour Party has been through a thorough reformation process, keeping ahead with the times and in line with modern developments.

Though the ideologies and goals of Socialism and Capitalism seem incompatible, the economy of our country, headed by the Robert Abela administration, has managed to mould a postmodern capitalist economy displaying multiple socialist aspects. In such circumstances, a free-market economy and a socialist economy have become combined into a “mixed economy,” in which both the government and private individuals influence the production and distribution of goods.

Malta’s economy has managed to mould a post-modern capitalist economy displaying multiple socialist aspects.

When, up to just a few years ago, I used to ask some die-hard Mintoffian survivors to explain their understanding of the term “socialism,” most of them defined it as government ownership of the means of production. Genuine Maltese today are most likely to define socialism as connoting equality for everyone, while others understand the term as meaning the provision of benefits and social services, a modified form of communism, or a conception of socialism as people being social and getting along with one another. Of course, there will always be those who are not able to give an answer.

Socialism has re-entered the public discourse over the past several years, in part due to the high-profile candidacy of the current Labour Movement. This increased visibility of socialism and the prevalence of candidates who in one way or the other are associated with the socialist label, makes it important to understand how this concept is understood by the average Maltese.

The biggest difference between the 70s and now in terms of our understanding of the term socialism is the drop in the percentage who define socialism as government ownership of the means of production. This drop is offset by the increased number of Maltese who say that socialism means equality and an increase in those who define socialism in terms that are closer to what might be considered more standard liberalism. Maltese today are also more likely to have an opinion than was the case in the 60s when there were many who gave no opinion due to the Church’s ex-communication threat.

Socialism historically has been associated with the concept of public or collective ownership of property and natural resources and has long been associated with Marxism and communism. In 1949, with the Chinese Communists just having taken control of China, and with the Communist Soviet Union creating fear of an aggressive effort to spread their ideology around the globe, the general view of the term embraced the classic elements bound up in these types of movements.

Now, almost 70 years later, the general views of socialism have broadened. While many still view socialism as government control of the economy, as modified communism and as embodying restrictions on freedoms in several ways, an increased percentage see it as representing equality and government provision of benefits. These results make it clear that socialism is a broad concept that can be, and is understood in a variety of ways by Maltese.

While Socialism has historically generated a vast number of differing views and theories, there are a few common characteristics defining the Labour Movement’s socialist traits. Current national economics are driven by the laws of supply and demand. As a social democratic party, the Movement won massive support by pursuing a more centrist ideology. Its ideas called for a gradual pursuit of political and social reforms, making government more responsive and efficient through the processes of democratic government within a somewhat capitalist system. There is ample room for market competition while ensuring socio-economic equality. Today, we advocate for a more equitable distribution of wealth and income within society, always ensuring the provision of basic needs.

I give a free market policy much of the credit for the explosion of human well-being that has occurred during the past two administrations. To some, this may jar or sound like a story of socialism’s failure. But it would be a big mistake to write off socialism. Even as free markets and technological progress have combined to increase the total amount of wealth in Malta, a third trend has been extremely important for making sure that that prosperity is widely shared. The last two Labour administrations have been more assertive in spreading wealth around and the results have been good.

The last two Labour administrations have been more assertive in spreading wealth around.

One big act of Mintoffian egalitarianism was a by-product of decolonisation itself, which allowed us to keep the wealth we produced instead of sending it overseas and freed us to implement both better industrial policies and more redistribution. The Labour Movement is using the government to redistribute enormous amounts of the country’s total national income, through health care, pensions, poverty assistance and other measures. True, there is still much more left to do to equalise income distribution.

This successful, effective redistribution might not be what original socialists had in mind. The government does not generally own the means of production in most industries in advanced countries. But there is no denying that national health insurance, poverty assistance and other redistributive efforts were motivated by the ideas and efforts of socialists. So even as free markets are allowed to work their magic in our country, we are ever more moving toward a more redistributive, socialistic approach.

In other words, it is wrong to think of neoliberalism and socialism as polar opposites or inveterate enemies. Malta’s recent experience shows that free markets and government redistribution can co-exist to create a thriving society where no one starves. Wealth might not have trickled down from the rich to the poor as much as many free-marketers had hoped, but the government has been effective in channelling wealth down.

Chalk this up as a victory of sorts for socialism.

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