Socialism Defined

Last February, I wrote an NTD News commentary describing how Democratic leaders as far back as President Harry Truman have tried to establish an affordable healthcare system available to every American. I summed things up by saying, “As you can see, working toward universal health care is not a new concept, nor is it radical. America has been inching toward it for 75 years. It’s now possible we could be in the final push before this long-overdue reform becomes an American reality. But we’ve already begun to hear accusations from the right of, “Socialism!” “Communism!” “Radicalism!” 

Since I wrote that essay, the noise coming from the right wing, led by Donald Trump, has only increased. Every Democrat supporting a progressive initiative is being labeled a “socialist.” And the more we Democrats succeed in generating public enthusiasm for our progressive ideas, the more Republicans are going to double down with their ominous warnings of “creeping socialism.” — Fear and the distortion of facts are always a right wing go-to tactic. 

Now, you and I may understand that their accusations are false. I’m all for some form of universal healthcare. I believe we desperately need a national initiative to address climate change. I think a federally supported program to put a college education within the reach of every American who wants one is a good idea. But this does not mean my dream is to see the United States become some sort of centralized “socialist utopia.” 

I’m a Progressive Democrat, and I like the sound of that. 

I reject the label of “socialist.” — Not because I’m concerned about what the right might say about me. I simply don’t believe America should have a socialist society in the way socialism is formally defined. — And by “defined” I mean as in a dictionary.  

Here’s what three major dictionaries I checked all pretty much say: “A Socialist is an advocate or supporter of Socialism” which is…:“The theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of capital, land etc. in the community as a whole.”And one dictionary went on to say, “in Marxist theory, Socialism is the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to Communism , characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.” 

Those are not descriptions of an American society I yearn to see take shape. And those dictionaries leave little room for giving “socialist” and “socialism” a less hardline interpretation. (What a handy campaign weapon for Republicans.) The power of this pejorative in 2020 worries me. 

I do realize there is a “softer” form of socialism called “Democratic Socialism.” One professor called it “anti-authoritarian socialism” or “socialism from below.” The Scandinavian countries are best known for this type of governance. The quality of life they have achieved is admirable and for millions of Americans it is enviable. But our United States is not like any of those nations. Our history, and diversity, our societal sensibilities are quite different. However, the one thing we definitely do share is a belief in basic democratic principles. (By the way, Scandinavia presently has 58 billionaires. So apparently Democratic Socialism in that region is not headed in the direction the political philosophers Marx and Engels intended!) 

One of our party’s leading candidates for President, Bernie Sanders, does insist on identifying himself as a Democratic Socialist. And it’s true, the major programs he advocates do involve federal involvement on the broadest scale, as they might in Scandinavia. However, there are goals Senator Sanders champions that do not differ that radically from plans proposed by several other progressive Democrats running for president or serving in Congress. 

We are entering what is sure to be a brutal battle to unseat Donald Trump. It seems to me that a leading Democratic presidential candidate bragging that he’s is proud to be a socialist, no matter how gently that word is modified, does not help our cause. We are not trying to win votes in Europe. We are trying to win votes in our purple states. I know it’s probably too late for Bernie to modify his preferred identity but I’d sure like to hear him use the word “progressive” a lot more and maybe “socialist” not at all. 

Logically, a label shouldn’t hold that much power over thoughtful voters. Unfortunately, labels too often do. So to wrap up this monologue, here are some more dictionary defined labels that you may find especially enlightening. 

Liberal : Favoring reform, open to new ideas, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; not bound by traditional thinking; broad-minded.

Progressive : Favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters….A person who is open to or favors new ideas, policies or methods.

Conservative: Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change. 

Those first two definitions fill me with hope. And that third one says all you need to know about what we are up against.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973