In class last week, a wrap-up slide mentioned “socialism” as a rising world trend, and when the professor offhandedly said “though I’m sure there are none in this classroom,” all eyes turned toward my co-founder and me. A chance political discussion during our section’s Fall retreat led to the formation of the Socialist Society, an aspiring student club at HBS. Reactions to our group have ranged from a surprising show of support from allies and skeptics alike to a good-natured barrage of jokes at our expense. The majority use the misconception that socialists believe everything should be free as their punchline. But the most common reaction has been curious students asking “What is Socialism?”
While the word is often used as an insult in the United States, it is actually the name of ruling parties in dozens of countries—countries far removed from the scary thoughts about Soviet times. Modern socialism is not about destroying capitalism; it is all about correcting its inefficiencies, and fighting poverty and inequality. Developed countries now produce more wealth than at any time in human history, yet many cannot afford healthcare, education, or safety. Socialism is about an extended vision of human rights that captures not only private property, but the right to not fear for the future, to not have outcomes determined by the social statuses of one’s parents, and to live in decent conditions. Socialism seeks to build a sustainable and peaceful society that benefits everyone: a society that is not able to take care of its people cannot last. To many socialists in the United States this means bringing this country closer to the European welfare model. To some socialists in Europe it may mean bringing their nations further along, whether through universal basic income, an expansion of the welfare state to marginalized refugee communities, or countless other proposals.
We started the Socialist Society with the belief that the HBS community could benefit from grappling with many of the ideas central to the socialist movement. Each of our meetings has been attended by a mix of students across a range of beliefs, from adherents to critics of the socialist model. What we aim to do is to build a space where students can discuss and question the underlying premise of the system we came to HBS to study. Where we can develop new beliefs about society through debate. The Socialist Society does not aim to be activist or to promote a vision of the world. The club seeks to ask questions rather than provide any single answer and to promote the notion that most socialist ideas are on a spectrum not far from nor incompatible with modern-day capitalism.
Take, for example, the question of whether or not the state should be responsible for providing quality healthcare to all citizens regardless of one’s ability to pay. Even in our current “free-market, capitalist” system any citizen who walks off the street into an emergency room with life threatening conditions will be provided a trained and licensed physician paid for by the state. The question at hand is whether or not this obligation of care should be extended to citizens before their life is in danger. Another question is whether providing universal comprehensive coverage could actually be more affordable to the state than the current model. Citizens in the United States spend approximately twice on a per-person basis compared to peer countries in the European Union.
Not all socialist ideas require an expansion of the state or even the tax base to be realized. They simply require a re-examination of our moral priorities as a species. The United States spends more on national defense than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France combined—more than half of all discretionary funding, and that figure does not include war appropriations. This money, appropriately reconsidered, could achieve much of what socialists in the United States are championing without taking a single private jet out of the hands of the billionaire class.
For anyone who is interested in making a positive difference in the world and thinking about the future of healthcare, education, democracy, and public policy further regardless of political orientation, it would be great if you would join us next Tuesday, March 12, at 8:00 PM in the Morris Hall common room and share some good times together around a glass of “socialist wine” and “capitalist food”—for free, of course!
Ryan Lynch (MBA ’20) is originally from Massachusetts and graduated from New York University in 2013. Prior to HBS he worked as a Logistics Officer in the United States Army in Tennessee.
Benjamin Dupays (MBA ’20) grew up in France and holds a degree from Sciences Po Paris. Prior to HBS, he started Centimeo, a social venture focused on recycling useless pennies in the economy through chewing-gum vending machines.