What is socialism – and do you have a semester to discuss the topic?
First published in March 2020.
Bernie Sanders is a communist. So is the Democratic Party, especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Or so I am told by the right wing and, I am sorry to say, by Democrats in the political center, at least in regard to Sanders. Political terms are often applied – whatever position the recipient may hold – by opponents, and in the present era, “communist” or “socialist” essentially means “whatever a Republican doesn’t like.” Or whatever feels like too much progress.
Calling Obama red when his economic team in a time of crisis came straight out of Wall Street and his healthcare proposal found its first life in the Heritage Foundation is to drain language of logical meaning, leaving only emotion behind.
I often see socialism explained by the right wing in an analogy of allowances: Have a child mow the lawn on the promise of being paid five dollars, then take – it is always take, standing in for tax – three of those dollars to give to the kid’s brother who did no work. If we are trading simplistic formulations of political theory, I could counter here by saying that capitalism is the equivalent of giving one child all the money before any work is done and then telling all the other children of the neighborhood that wealth must be earned.
Which is to say, the right loves handouts right up to the point that the check is deposited in their accounts. Then, as with immigration, they smugly declare that the next generation is just too late. Ben Fountain reminds us in Beautiful Country Burn Again that much of rural America lacked electricity prior to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and it was a government program that brought this element of the modern world to them when corporations saw no profits to be earned. These beneficiaries of collective action now use the power that they enjoy to shout about the evils of government.
But what is socialism – and do you have a semester to discuss the topic? As a child of the latter years of the Cold War, I grew up under the threat of Russian missiles and the declarations that socialism – illustrated by the bearded wonder, Comrade Marx – was a godless abomination. This is the sort of thing that tells people where to stand, but gives no instruction about why. The reality is that this theory of the left is a multifarious set of philosophies, and all points along the political spectrum would do well to know what it is that they support or oppose.
The core tenet in common across the varieties of socialism is the expression of the people’s will in matters both political and economic. For Marx, this was to be achieved by a revolution that would establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. In this sense, would-be violent radicals on the left and the right can understand each other, as enemies often have much in common. By comparison, the platform of Bernie Sanders is willfully tame, calling for adjustments here and innovations there, with nothing particularly disruptive and little that many of our neighbors to the north and across the Atlantic and Pacific have not tried and found successful. The right hears this and shouts, “Mene mene tekel upharsin,” but the facts by and large disagree.
What many Americans on the right are doing is demanding that the left remain ossified in whatever ideology we were understood to have in the days of Republicans’ youth, but I reserve for the left the moral authority to learn and grow.
The old notion of central planning, for example, has been discredited, and despite what Republicans tell me almost daily, one key progressive goal understands this. Medicare for All would not be the government takeover of the provision of healthcare that it is accused of being, but would instead allow the market to work. Medical providers would have to compete for patients, the latter being the entire population rather than the skewed sample that they are now. Marx and his ilk sought for the means of production to be under the control of the People, and that has been attempted by nationalizations of industries, but the same thing can be achieved if we strengthen the power of consumers. When buyers know more and have greater ability to buy, they shape production by their purchasing choices. College for All is a means of bringing this out of the purely theoretical.
Modern socialism is not exclusively the doctrine that existed back when America was great in the view of Trump’s supporters. Under the reign of the Third Way Democrats, the right wing has been allowed to define who we on the left are, and if we wish to see social progress, we must retake the ideological field to demonstrate that we are not a mere parody or straw man of a political movement. What we live with in the present is the central control of society’s resources for the benefit of the few, and this is exactly the central planning that we have to break up.🔷
Check their Voting Record: