Melanesian Socialism vs. Capitalism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You may have heard of socialism, but Melanesian socialism? In this lesson, we'll explore this concept and compare it to another economic system in the world: capitalism.

Socialism and Capitalism Around the World

Socialism or capitalism? Which is better? This question has rocked the foundations of countries around the world over the last several decades. Some countries firmly believe in socialism, in which the means of production and benefits of wealth are regulated by the government on behalf of the people. Others believe fervently in capitalism, in which a free market determines the value of labor and products with minimal government intervention. So, which is better?

This debate has raged on all across the world, but that doesn't mean that it's looked the same in all parts of the world. In fact, both socialism and capitalism in their most codified forms are European inventions, a fact not lost on some people outside of Europe. In particular, the Melanesian nation of Vanuatu has contributed to the debate not by siding firmly with a European system, but by suggesting its own. It's called Melanesian socialism.

Map of Vanuatu

Melanesian Socialism

To understand Melanesian socialism, we have to understand a bit about its history. In 1980, the colony of New Hebrides finally achieved its independence, becoming the Republic of Vanuatu. Vanuatu is an island nation of Melanesia, a region that's situated between Australia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. As it became independent, it was forced to ask questions posed to all new countries, like: What kind of government should we have? What sort of economy should we have? What's our place in the world?

Vanuatu's first prime minister, Walter Lini, had some history to draw on. Back in the 1960s, several African politicians embraced a concept they called African socialism, in which they planned to build upon their recent independence by leaning on traditional African political and economic structures that just happened to most closely resemble socialism. Later, in 1970, Fiji's prime minister (Ratu Sir Kamasee Mara) proposed something he called the Polynesian Way, which encouraged Polynesian societies to reject colonially imposed European systems and build upon their historic traditions.

The importance of traditional heritage on Vanuatu can be seen in its coat of arms

In 1981, Walter Lini added his voice to the conversation. Rather than formally align with any existing political structure, Vanuatu would attempt to implement a system of Melanesian socialism. Like African socialism, Melanesian socialism was not meant to be simply an imported European-style of socialism. Instead, Lini envisioned an indigenous socialism, built upon the historic traditions and customs of the Melanesian people.

So, what did that mean? Historic Melanesian societies embraced a large degree of communalism, in which resources were shared between people and the distribution of those resources was often overseen by a strong leader, such as a village chief. Those who had more gave more, and those who needed more were supplied with more. According to Lini, these basic structures could be applied through a socialist-like model to national governance, with a centralized power regulating the production and distribution of wealth.

Melanesian Socialism versus Capitalism

Melanesian socialism appeared in a world where communism and capitalism were battling for supremacy, and in which capitalism would soon become dominant as the USSR began to crumble. So, how did Melanesian socialism compare to capitalism?

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