“Working Men Of All Countries, Unite!” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. (A popularized version: Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!)
Marx’s words: How very 19th Century!
Don’t expect to find many contemporary socialists or democratic socialists manning the barricades in order to destroy all vestiges of capitalism and the free market, as they collectively bow to Big Brother. This really is an outdated view of socialism. The notion that contemporary socialists want to bury all personal freedoms in a centralized state and do away with markets is simply false. Quite the contrary. They certainly support programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as do most Americans, but they don’t want personal freedoms to disappear. They want people to have the economic security that would allow them to explore their freedoms without being hindered by poverty or illness. And they don’t want plutocrats running America. Plutocracies are oligarchies, and as any student of politics will tell you, oligarchies and democracies are like oil and water. Don’t waste your time in trying to mix them.
So why do we assume that socialism is all about Big Brother taking away our rights? One reason has to do with the terms socialism and communism. Throughout much of the 19th century and into the 20th, they were used interchangeably by certain groups and states. We associate failed communist states, like the former Soviet Union—official name: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—with socialism because these states often referred to themselves as socialist. This interchangeability was due in part to the way in which the words were first used in the 19th century.
Die-hard communists continued to use “socialism” to refer to their political philosophy in the 20th century. They had little reason to distinguish socialism from communism. This led many non-communists to assume that they were one and the same. But in the 20th century there were political figures and writers who did try to distinguish centralized command economies from states with programs like Social Security and a free market. They were more successful at distinguishing command economy communism from socialism in Western Europe than in the U.S., making Europeans more amenable to programs such as universal health care. Many Americans still believe that socialism, democratic socialism, is about command economy communism, Soviet style communism. This word confusion has been part of the reason that democratic socialism has gotten a bad and undeserved rap in the U. S.
But there is another reason. There are those on the political right in the U.S. for whom the confusion between socialism and communism is not only a fortunate accident. It is something that they regularly feed. For example, just the other day I heard a Republican senator attribute a desire for a communist command economy, like the one in the former Soviet Union, to Bernie Sanders—a supporter of gun rights, by the way. This is ludicrous. But it is a story that serves the establishment, the plutocrats, quite well. If the choice is between what we now have and the former Soviet Union, then it’s a no brainer to stick with our non-totalitarian oligarchic capitalism. But that’s not the choice. Or hopefully it’s not the choice. We can have more democracy and opportunity, but we need to be willing to say that the current centralization of power in the moneyed classes needs to change. Of course this doesn’t mean locking up all of the rich capitalists. But it does mean finding more equitable ways to distribute opportunity and resources in the U.S., for example, by making the tax code more progressive, closer to what in was in eras when the U.S. economy was expanding at a healthy pace.
Americans, especially younger Americans, are becoming aware of the fact that socialism is not a dirty word. And Americans everywhere support socialist programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Let’s not get stuck on labels. Take a look at what Bernie Sanders is actually saying. Take a look at the programs he supports. You may discover that you are a democratic socialist.