Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

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  • philipfinn  On June 17, 2019 at 10:05 am

    It’s not just a semantic problem. We’re wasting time arguing the relative demerits of socialism versus capitalism when neither is meeting human needs adequately. We need to let go of the Calvinistic presentism that assumes a linear progression of human events (based upon an artificial biblical model) and that all present time is the result of some sort of ever-continuing zenith of human advancement, triumphing through good-versus-evil. We ignore that there are some things as regressions, declines, and lost generations.

    There may not BE a functional economic system possible, economics may not be merely a “dismal science”, but a futile one.
    And future generations, if any, may mock us.

  • Guest  On June 17, 2019 at 11:10 am

    On the question of what is socialism I think we can do a lot worse for a starting point than Dr Dick Wolf. Tons of free accessible videos are easily found online, but his basic framing of classic socialism is “democracy in the workplace.” Sort of like the opposite of slavery, instead of a small group of elite masters controlling places of business, control is shared by those who work there.

    Thanks in large part to status-quo defenders in Russia (trying to co-opt it) and the US (trying to vilify it) socialism has come to mean the government doing anything. The US status-quo elites are perfectly fine with this sort of socialism serving their own interests as they have done since at least Reagan, such that having that sort of socialism serve working people probably does seem revolutionary.

    I agree with Noam Chomsky and others who better label Bernie as a New Dealer.

    But, if you believe, Doug, that the balance has shifted too far towards capitalism/away from socialism as you have defined it, then who would make the best leader to make that corrective push back? Someone hoping to half-step and compromise with Republicans and corporate masters covering both aisles, or someone boldly pushing for actual change? Because the track record of the former has largely failed to energize presidential voters and has left us stagnant or further to the right, more inequality, more disparities, on a host of issues.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On June 17, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    One difficulty in discussing socialism is the refusal of conservatives to recognize that anything in the public sector – the military, law enforcement, roads, etc. are all examples of socialism. When I bring this up, the response is either deflection (“the Constitution mandates a military, and law enforcement is a legitimate government function”) or libertarian trolling (“then maybe the roads should be privatized because my city won’t fix the potholes”). It’s impossible to have a reasonable discussion with someone who can’t admit that the military is socialist, because “socialism is always bad” and since the military is a good thing, it can’t possibly be socialist.

    If we are going to have any hope of winning these people over, we have to accommodate them by avoiding the word “socialism” since they shut down as soon as they hear it.

    • weeklysift  On June 18, 2019 at 8:39 am

      I nearly included a discussion of word choice in the article. All kinds of groups have tried to reclaim negative words, with varying degrees of success. The pagan community has tried to reclaim “witch”, for example.

      The gay community very successfully rebranded itself as “gay” rather than “homosexual”. Some gays have tried to reclaim negative labels like “fairy” and “faggot”, but the general public still sees those words as insults.

      I can only imagine what would have happened if gays had decided to rebrand themselves by reclaiming a reviled label like “cocksucker”. I don’t think it would have worked.

    • Guest  On June 18, 2019 at 11:28 am

      I can sympathize, George Washington, but my hunch is that even if we avoided the word altogether it would still be lobbed as a epithet by conservatives regardless of context, so I’m skeptical much would be gained. In support of going against your advice, “socialism” as a derogatory term has lost some of its venom, certainly compared with 20 years ago, thanks to folks on the left embracing it rather than running from it.

      However, while I like proper, classic, academic socialism (democracy in the workplace), I also like the contemporary, bastardized socialism that you and Bernie seem to be espousing, which is maybe more accurately described as New Deal liberalism or Social Democracy, as a step in the right direction. Good old fashioned New Deal politics, the kind that saved America from the Great Depression and laid the foundation to win WW2 and become the undisputed global super power, might be more palatable than “socialism” with your conservative friends, even if you find them equivalent.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On August 5, 2020 at 12:07 pm

        It’s annoying that Sanders insists on calling himself a “Democratic Socialist” or a “Social Democrat” (I forget which). He’s actually a regulatory capitalist who favors a robust welfare state – as I’ve pointed out here before, basically Boris Johnson minus the nationalism. In many European countries, Sanders would be considered a right-winger. There aren’t any mainstream politicians in the US who advocate for the nationalization of private industry.

  • Kim Cooper  On June 18, 2019 at 4:04 am

    Doug — Have you read Umair Haque’s essay entitled “America’s Invisible Depression”?
    It says the bottom 98% of us have been in a real depression since the late 1970s. We just can’t seem to see it because things are going so well for the top 1 or 2%. I was really glad to find it, since I have been saying our economy is doing badly — why does everyone say it’s so good?

  • Cheimison  On August 5, 2020 at 11:39 am

    Anyone who believes in socialism is a cunt, since socialism is nonsense. I don’t long for it at all, in fact if all you jungle ape retards who yearn for equality died of Rona Plague I’d throw a fucking party.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On August 5, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      So you think the military and law enforcement should be privatized and paid for by voluntary user fees? Because since the U.S. was founded, we’ve had a socialized military, same as every other country in the world. In case you haven’t noticed, the U.S. military is paid for by taxes, making it a “socialist” organization.


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