The Meaning of Words

What does the word “Socialism” mean to you?  No doubt most people would say an economic system where the government runs things.  Like the USSR, or perhaps the British National Health System. Government ownership of the means of production of goods and services.  People all have their own definitions of the meaning of the word.

However, the meaning of words changes with time.  “Socialism” as a word meant something different in the past than it does now.  To Karl Marx “Socialism” did not have the same meaning it has now.  Nor did it to others around the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. Last year there was a sale on the Kindle Fire by Amazon.  I purchased one, got some free books from Amazon.  Among these were a number of books by Jack London, who wrote them more than a century ago.  Jack London believed in “Socialism”, but not the sort of “Socialism” that we think of today.  In Jack London’s time Socialism would have meant control of the means of production of goods and services by organized labor.  BTW this is the same meaning that Karl Marx used in his writings. Today we’d refer to this idea of economic organization by the term “Syndicalism”.

“Syndicalism” is the ownership of the means of production of goods and services by “labor collectives” (unions).  This what Jack London and Karl Marx called “Socialism”. I am currently reading a book by Richard D. Wolff, who is also an advocate of worker owned business. He doesn’t use the word “Syndicalism” or the word “Socialism”, but in effect both of these words at one time or another would have meant the same thing! Proof if any is needed here that words do not always retain the same meaning over a period of time.

The same thing is true of other words.  What is a “well regulated militia” as its usage in the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights.  To understand how those of the 18th Century did use the word, we have to refer to how it was used in every day life.  Perhaps you have seen or used an old alarm clock.  The kind that you wind up instead of plugging into an electric socket.  Often these clocks had a little lever on the back that was used to “regulate” the clock so it was less likely to gain or lose time than otherwise.  If the clock gained time, you could move the little lever a bit to slow it down.  The opposite if it lost time.  You “regulated” the clock.  In effect, “training” it to be more accurate. The term “regulate” back in the 18th Century referred to training.  So the Amendment said, “A well trained militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Obviously it was of importance that the militia be well trained as the militia provided not only military defense, but was also used for law enforcement in some cases.  Like in the old Western movies where the sheriff gathers together the “posse” to chase after the bank robbers…  The United States did not have a large military, and most of the military that existed served to guard the frontier.  So the militia was the real “back up force” up through the Civil War.  This is why when people claim that the ownership of firearms should be “regulated”, they are using the modern term, not the term that was used by those who wrote the Constitution.


About muskegonlibertarian

77 year old retired owner of a security guard agency. Member of the Libertarian Party.
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