Debating socialism

Spring 2023 course to empower undergrads with skills of civic discourse, fundamentals of debate and relationship between capitalism and socialism

Illustration of a closed fist.

Having a firm grasp on the practice of civil discourse is of the utmost importance when discussing difficult topics. Thankfully, Arizona State University undergraduates will have a chance to learn from experts throughout history to better understand — and debate — the pros and cons of socialism in an upcoming seminar-style course that will examine and discuss socialism from economic, moral and philosophical perspectives.

In CEL 394 Class #34798 — held during Session C from noon to 1:15 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, on the Tempe campus — students will discuss the nature of capitalism and the viability of socialism. Taught by Andrew Humphries, a postdoctoral research scholar at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, the discussions will help students from all areas of study to explore the concepts of value, economic calculation and the socialist calculation debate in relation to the viability of central planning in a modern economy. 

Guided by key texts and engagement with their classmates, they will examine the problems faced by a socialist commonwealth in assigning value to resources and whether socialism is a viable alternative to capitalism in the 21st century. From a historical perspective, they will also analyze the relationship between totalitarianism, democracy, capitalism and socialism.

ASU News spoke with Humphries about why students should consider taking this course.

Question: How will this course help students become better equipped to think deeply about and discuss socialism vs. capitalism?

Answer: At the moment, people have very strong opinions about which is better: socialism or capitalism. It’s a really hot topic again, but most people haven’t really thought through the issues; if they have, they haven’t considered what the best arguments are on the other side. It’s also often difficult to find an arena in which you can learn about and discuss these ideas with others who are going to keep a cool head while exploring the issues rationally and in a spirit of mutual respect and inquiry. So in this class, we’ll read some of the best representatives of people debating socialism from the pro-socialism and from the anti-socialism side, and try to understand and evaluate their arguments together.

Q: Which texts will students read throughout this course?

A: We’ll start reading selections from Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Menger and Bohm Bawerk about the nature of economic value. Marx argues that economic value comes from workers — what is called the labor theory of value — while Menger and Bohm Bawerk argue that the labor theory of value is mistaken. After that, we’ll move on to what is called the socialist calculation debate and look at authors who argue whether it is possible to centrally plan a modern economy while maintaining prosperity and democratic freedoms. The most important participants in this debate are the neo-classical socialists Oscar Lange and Abba Lerner, and the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

Q: How are classes taught and what is the learning environment like?

A: The class will be shared-inquiry dialogue. I will not be lecturing the students — we will all read the arguments of the authors and come to class ready to explain, ask questions and explore the implications of what the authors say. The goal is for students to take responsibility for their own understanding, and for them to learn how to better understand texts and arguments with the help of their peers.

Q: What are the main elements of this course?

A: Students will turn in brief notes and annotations of the assigned at-home readings, and we will have shared-inquiry discussions in class. There will also be one or two writing assignments. 

Q: Which intellectual or professional skills will students develop through the course that will help them prepare for careers in the private sector?

A: Students will finish the course as more independent analytical readers and thinkers. They will practice reasoning, listening, understanding and making arguments. Students will gain confidence in their civil speaking skills through discussing difficult topics in a group.

Q: How will this course benefit those interested in serving in the public sector, for example?

A: The future of our country — and the world — depends on whether people can learn to talk to one another about difficult issues reasonably and civilly. This course helps students to examine the truth and practical importance of difficult ideas together. 

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