In fashionable intellectual circles, it is still common that educated people refer to themselves as socialists. But then they quickly clarify that they're not talking about the Soviet Union. At this point, they expect a knowing laugh, as if only a simpleton could possibly believe that the Soviet Union represented socialism.
What is the best strategy for dealing with such thinkers? The first priority is asking them what they mean by socialism? If they mean common ownership of the means of production, as tradition dictates, that is not technically possible. Everyone cannot own a steel mill any more than everyone can own a potted plant. Ownership implies the right to control and sell the good, which cannot be done if everyone is said to own something.
With individuals forbidden from owning, the de facto owner of all things under socialism is the state. The state then becomes all powerful, controlling not only lives but also people. Another trait of socialism is the absence of money. Under the Leninist experiment in the early years of Soviet socialism, the attempt to abolish money led to a calamity so horrible that even Lenin had to back away and declare the "New Economic Policy," which amounted to permits in some markets. The socialists of the West called him a traitor. So yes, it is true that the Soviet Union abandoned true socialism rather early and collapsed into a bureaucratized and regimented system that kept its people at subsistence level. And yet if true socialism had been sustained, the country would have been ruined much sooner.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his new encyclical on the topic of Christian hope, reflects on the abysmal failure of socialism and asks why people continue to believe in such a hopeless cause. They believe that if they succeed in changing the social environment, the nature of the human person will change as well. This is false hope that leads to disaster.
We should not place our hope in socialism, the state, or any political system that denies human freedom. Our hope should be in God and the freedom that the creator gave us to choose. By supporting the Acton Institute, you are assisting in enlivening true hope.