The Muddle Over Socialism (It’s Not Benign)

After Bernie Sanders unabashedly announced, during the recent presidential campaign, that he is a socialist, the term experienced a whole new lease on life. A spate of articles appeared—and they are appearing still—chronicling the disaffection of millennials with “capitalism” and their embrace of the “s-word.” With the New York Times asking the rhetorical question, “Why Are So Many Young Voters Falling for Old Socialists?” the Washington Post revealed that “Millennials Have a Higher Opinion of Socialism than of Capitalism.” Helpful explanations, such as “This is Why Millennials Favor Socialism,” or “Why Millennials Aren’t Afraid of Socialism,” came from the Huffington Post and The Nation.

The August convention of the Democratic Socialists of America brought a whole new surge of commentary on the topic, with the Post claiming “The Socialist Movement is Getting Younger and Turning into a Left-Wing Force,” and The Guardian weighing in with “The S-Word: How Young Americans Fell in Love with Socialism.”

 Apparently legions of young adults are marching behind the banner of revolution, not the least worried about lingering suspicions regarding the hammer and sickle on their battle standard. The only problem is, for those of us who care about words, and clear communication, no one seems to know, care, or at least to agree on what the word “socialist” means to its latest adherents.

Some will consider this overly fastidious of me—perhaps downright petty—but as a writer and trained copyeditor, my first instinct when dealing with a word is to go to a recognized authority. So permit me this indulgence. Let’s take a look at what Merriam Webster’s Dictionary (Collegiate, 11th Edition) has to say about socialism:

1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods;

2(a). a system of society or group living in which there is no private property;

2(b). a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state;

3. a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.

Taking Merriam Webster as our guide, then, we might conclude that the current young generation of Americans has turned en masse away from our chiefly private enterprise based economic system and are prepared at any moment to turn over the “means of production” (Webster’s definitions 1 and 2b) and perhaps all private property (definition 2a) to the state.

This reading of affairs, however, would be a mistake. Why? Because many of those calling themselves “socialists” clearly do not subscribe to Merriam Webster’s definition of the term.

Quoted in the Guardian article, Nick Caleb, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, tried to explain the situation. The Occupy Wall Street movement, Caleb says, led to an “articulation of what capitalism was” (never mind that professional political scientists have been extensively articulating what capitalism is for over one hundred years now) . . . “and then,” Caleb continues, “it meant someone had to define what socialism means” (just as exhaustively defined over the course of the last century by professional political scientists) . . . “and,” Caleb concludes, “we sort of left that space open.”

That space is open indeed. The writer of the New York Times piece, Sarah Leonard, writes that, within her generation, “certain universal programs—single-payer health care, public education, free college—and making the rich pay are just common sense.” Common sense, perhaps. Socialism, not so much. A Los Angeles Times article chronicling the expanding membership of the Democratic Socialists of America and their recent convention, tells us that convention attendees demanded “social and economic equality for women” and “protested outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s election party on Tuesday, demanding the city take a tougher stand against deportation.” Noble efforts all, but not a hint of anything resembling a state takeover of the economy. In her Washington Post piece, Christine Emba seems to place even Barack Obama within the socialist camp: “A young president with a multicultural background touting hope, change and unity?” she recalls. “If that was socialism, it didn’t sound bad.”

Only problem: it wasn’t socialism.

If you look at enough of this genre of newspaper article, you begin to understand that for most millennials who profess a favorable view of socialism, what they are referring to is either overlapping sets of “progressive” policy positions (equal rights for women, support for the LGBT community and undocumented  immigrants, free college) or, more coherently, warm feelings toward what is properly called social democracy: the kind of highly regulated market systems, with social insurance programs more comprehensive than those of the U.S., characteristic of Western European nations—and especially epitomized by Scandinavia’s “Nordic Model.”

In many cases the identification is explicit. The author of the Huffington Post piece, Sean Vazquez, writes that many in the millennial “socialist” camp “cast an eye towards Europe and see how universal health care in countries like Norway and Scandinavia [for the record, Scandinavia is not a country!] actually work, and wonder why health care in the U.S. is so messed-up [sic].” Similarly Emba, in her Washington Post piece, says that “for many millennials, ‘socialism’ is simply shorthand for ‘vaguely Scandinavian in the best way—free health care, free education and subsidized child care.’”

Chris McGreal, in his Guardian piece, suggests that “deepening inequality is breathing new life into the old idea that the government is there to control capitalism, rather than capitalism controlling the government.” As a matter of fact, the idea of government controlling capitalism is exactly what social democrats like myself believe in. Along with an extensive safety net, active labor market policies to insure employment opportunities, family support promoting gender equality and strong support for worker representation, this is what has made social democratic (not socialist) nations like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands world leaders in the satisfaction level of their citizens. A famous aphorism of Taje Erlander, who as prime minister of Sweden from 1946-1969 was the principle architect of Swedish social democracy, summed it up wonderfully: “The market is a useful servant, but it is an intolerable master.”

Government taking over the “means of production,” however, is something else entirely. Here, instead of a record of highly successful societies, we find a long string of failed states: the ex-Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics); Soviet-era East Germany, Poland and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact; China (converted now to private enterprise); North Vietnam (ditto); two of the current poorest nations on earth, Cuba and North Korea; and the most recent poster child for socialist states: Venezuela, with its food riots and fleeing citizens. To lump those who believe in “more traditional socialism,” and those advocating “Scandinavian-style social democracy,” into one political movement, as McGreal and other promoters of the millennial-socialism romance attempt to do, is absurd. We are not talking about minor modifications within an otherwise unified political ideology, but two mutually exclusive conceptions of political-economic organization.

 As it happens, government regulation of capitalism has a long history within our own Democratic Party—and is embodied in manifold current U.S. laws which do exactly that. Starting with FDR’s New Deal, gaining a major filip during LBJ’s Great Society program, an incipient, if restricted, social democracy has long been in the making in America. The latest such addition, if it can survive Trump and the 115th Congress, is Obamacare.

Many of the new millennial “socialists” seem to recognize this. After her reference to Scandivanian nations, Emba writes that “the socialism that millennials want is simply a return to a more muscular form of traditional liberalism, one that would have felt right at home in the administration of FDR.” Frances Fox Piven, established left-of-center spokesperson and professor of economics and sociology at CUNY, seconds Emba’s remarks. “Young people who say that they’re socialists, or look favourably on socialism,” Emba quotes Piven as saying, “they’re thinking about a kind of New Deal government or democracy against markets.”

Polls support this analysis. The breathless, mainly millennial commentators who herald the dawn of the coming utopia like to quote studies showing favorable attitudes toward “socialism” among majorities of Americans under 30. Ignored by these writers, however, is a Reason-Ruppert survey which found that only 32% of millennials actually favor “an economy managed by the government,” with 64% preferring a “free-market economy.” Emily Ekins, who reported the Reason-Ruppert study in her Washington Post article entitled “Millennials Like Socialism—Until They Get Jobs,” agrees with Piven. “So what does socialism actually mean to millennials?” Ekins asks rhetorically. Drilling into survey responses regarding specific government policies, like universal healthcare, free college and expanded government services, she comes up with a simple answer: “Scandinavia.”

In other words, social democracy.

What are we to make of this conceptual muddle? Commentators on the topic like to point out that the current crop of young adults came of age during the Great Recession era, a time when the faultlines of improperly regulated capitalism, under Republican-controlled government, have been on keen display. Indeed, many of the millennials writing on the topic recognize their cohort’s cozying to what they call “socialism” as more a reaction against “capitalism”—which they identify with Wall Street excess, rampant home foreclosures and high college debt—than an adherence to any well-defined socio-economic ideology. If we factor in youthful exuberance, and a life overflowing with distractions more compelling than reading political science textbooks, we might conclude that no harm will come of some young folks calling their political beliefs by a technically incorrect term.

There are several factors, however, which render such complacency unwise. One is the harm done to our public dialogue by the intellectual confusion itself. No society can function properly if people cannot speak to one another in terms that are mutually intelligible. The term “socialist” has been in the English language for generations, and as noted, is precisely defined by Merriam Webster. I, for one, see no reason why it needs to be redefined. If it were only an issue of young adults not having taken the trouble to understand their terms properly, it would be one thing. But major press organs, including newspapers of record like the New York Times and the Washington Post, seem content to pay the confusion forward. The title of Christine Emba’s Post piece begins, for example, “Our Socialist Youth,” even though the a chief take-away from the article is that, for the most part, youth are not “socialists,” but “social democrats.” The press, which should help to inform the public, educating us when necessary, is in this matter aiding and abetting in a de-education about the proper terms for politcal-economic systems. Perhaps the (false) story line is just too tempting for today’s click-bait driven editors to resist.

A more serious concern is the harm that will come to the American left if it cannot get its ideological house in order. Whether one seeks a chiefly private enterprise based economy, closely regulated and provided with an ample social safety net à la Nordic model of social democracy, or whether one wishes to scrap private enterprise in favor of the state owning and managing the economy, are not minor disagreements on the order of whether the minimum wage should be $14 or $15. This is instead  an existential choice about what kind of society we wish to be. A defense of private enterprise, and a discussion of its many advantages over state-owned and managed economies, is the subject of another article. But suffice to say here that most Americans  (or Swedes, for that matter) do not feel the need to reboot an experiment which was played out in myriad ways throughout the 20th century, one which has never come out in benefit of state-run economies.

There is a small segment of the population, however, who still cling to the visions of Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and, yes, even Vladmir Lenin. Many of them can be found among the Democratic Socialists of America, whose August convention received such outsized interest in the press—the new “left-wing force” heralded in the Washington Post headline. The big story was that, since Sanders’ White House run, membership had tripled from 6,000-some to 19,000 members! (A little perspective: the Democratic Party currently has 51 million members on its rolls.)

From the looks of things, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) membership, particularly among its recent millennial surge of recruits, is rife with social democrats calling themselves socialists. But, importantly, the group also harbors a core of the real, Castro-worshipping, Che-tee-shirt wearing thing: particularly among its leadership and longer-term members. According to Post reporter David Weigel, DSA was “founded in 1982 to create a political foothold for Marxists.” It’s platform, Weigel continues, “calls for a worker-owned economy and the end of traditional capitalism.” Their magazine of choice appears to be Jacobin (named after the faction of the French Revolution responsible for the reign of terror) and they affectionately quote Marx (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) and other communist icons, such as mid-century Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci.

Digging deeper on DSA’s website, in the “Socialist Strategy Articles” section, we find a thorough description of DSA’s program in a workmanlike article by William Thompson (“Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution”). “Very large, strategically important sectors of the economy — such as housing, utilities and heavy industry — would be subject to democratic planning outside the market,” Thompson writes, “while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods.” How such firms are to come about—absence any apparent incentive for entrepreneurs to create businesses—is left an open question.

It speaks well of Thompson’s—and others in the DSA leadership’s—objectivity that they recognize that Americans are unlikely to elect self-proclaimed Marxists to office anytime soon. In his article on the DSA website, Thompson writes: “The nature of our electoral activism will vary based on local political conditions . . . but it will include supporting progressive and socialist candidates running for office, usually in Democratic primaries or as Democrats in general elections.” Other statements from the DSA confirm the group’s strategy  to increase its clout: to run “socialist candidates,” but “in Democratic primaries, or as Democrats in general elections [italics mine].” As Los Angeles Times  reporter Matt Pearce wrote in his article on the DSA convention, “They hope to either pull the Democratic Party leftward or shove it out of the way.”

One cannot help think of Lenin returning to Moscow in 1917—having given lip-service to democracy and Kerensky’s reformist government, the Party was only awaiting the proper moment to show its true colors. Now, I do not mean to suggest that the DSA is interested in establishing a communist dictatorship, but it is certainly a matter of amazement that a group advocating taking housing and heavy industry “outside the market,” or a “market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms,” proposes to find a congenial home within the Democratic Party. Going back to Lenin, one detects here a sort of cold-blooded, end-justifies-the-means tactical planning—as well as a certain inauthenticity.

As a committed social democratic, I shrink in horror neither at the word “socialism” nor at the mention of state involvement—including ownership positions in certain industries—in the economy. Social democracy grew out of socialism in the mid-twentieth century, and we social democrats share many of the goals, and even many policy positions, with socialists and the DSA itself. Where we part definite company with socialists is in our belief that entrepreneurialism and private enterprise are not only superior to government-run economies in producing material prosperity, but that these elements are vital for the psychological, social and cultural well-being of human beings living in complex modern societies.

To state the obvious, the Democratic Party is not a socialist party. For socialists to attempt to use the party for their quite different ideas is intellectually dishonest, politically and socially devious and morally sketchy. As I said, we social democrats do not hold up the sign of the cross at the mention of “socialism.” But if socialists wish to advocate the end of private enterprise, they should do it cleanly and openly—running for office as socialists in a socialist party. To do otherwise is a form of a lie. It would also be a great disservice to the American people, who deserve a conceptually clear debate about the merits and demerits of these strongly divergent  visions of socio-economic organization.

W. E. Smith, Editor, The Social Democrat