Evolutionary theory leads to a conception of socialism—governance for the common good—that works. It also explains why many attempts at socialism in the past and present have not worked.

Many attempts at socialism have made two gigantic mistakes. The first is the mistake of centralized planning as if a group of experts can formulate and implement the best way to run society. It turns out that societies are too complex to be governed in this way. There are almost always unforeseen consequences to a given policy, requiring a more humble and experimental approach to policy formulation.

The second is the mistake of concentrating power in the hands of an elite few. It is almost inevitable that the elites will eventually govern for their own benefit and not the benefit of society as a whole.

These two gigantic mistakes explain the failures of many socialist efforts at the national scale, from Soviet Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century to Venezuela today. They also explain the failure of socialist efforts at smaller scales, including efforts that no one associates with the word “socialism”.

It is ironic that many heads of corporations, who regard themselves as capitalists and scorn the idea of socialism, are little different than socialist nations in how they run their own organizations—command and control by a small group of elites. And the results are the same. Even a moderately sized corporation is too complex for any group of experts to formulate and implement a grand plan. Research shows that most “command and control” change efforts fail. And to the extent that they succeed, it is to enrich the elites rather than all members of the corporation or society as a whole.

The nineteenth-century socialists who were the first to seize upon Darwin’s theory of evolution (see "On the Origin of Socialist Darwinism")--took small-scale human societies as their model of what governance should be like at a larger scale. As we have seen, this model is one that demands fairness, equal participation, and bottom-up control of elites. If socialist experiments of the twentieth and twenty-first-century failed to include these features, then their failure is not a statement about socialism, properly understood.

Moreover, there are experiments at the national scale, which go by names such as “Democratic Socialism” and “Social Democracies”, that work remarkably well and rank at the top of social and economic performance indicators. The joining of the words “social” and “democratic” hints at why these nations work well—because they have succeeded at scaling up the essential ingredients of fairness, equal participation, and bottom-up control of elites that characterize small-scale societies. They are the models of socialism, rightly understood, which all nations should try to emulate and improve upon.

Just as socialism, wrongly understood, exists at the scale of corporations in addition to nations, so is socialism, rightly understood. An abundance of research shows that the best performing corporations—indeed, organizations of all sorts and sizes--have converged upon the structure of social democratic nations, by successfully implementing the ingredients of small-scale societies that were the inspiration of the original socialists.

We end this installment with a caution about labels. Labels such as “Socialism” and “Capitalism” are extremely unreliable, in large part because they are used to gain political advantage. We must look past the labels to appreciate the underlying principles that make societies succeed or fail at any scale. That is what Darwin’s theory does so well, extending even to other species in addition to all human societies.

Image: “Darwin Topples Lenin” by Julia Suits