How scary is socialism? From comments on my Facebook and Twitter posts, it’s exceedingly scary. Democrats are all socialists, they say, and socialists want to strip away individual rights, nationalize industries, control all aspects of personal life, and tax people into submission as has been done in places like Cuba and Venezuela. Socialist are all Marxist, which leads to Leninism, which leads to Stalinism, and who wants that? Not only that, but Democrats, they say, secretly believe in a one world government, of which the United Nations is the camel’s nose under the tent. Who are these people who say such things? They claim to be conservatives, but are very unlike the conservatives of previous decades who were willing and able to live in creative tension with others in the public debate. Populism is a misnomer. Might as well call them tea party libertarians for lack of anything better. But I digress. Back to socialism as a convenient bogey man.
The story of socialism is well documented, with little agreement among its historians and theorists about what it is, other than concern for the well being of ordinary people, and belief that governments should be organized to have a role in seeing to it. Some are earnest capitalists, some libertarian, some old time Marxists, some more liberal, and some more conservative. If there is anything that unifies their thinking, it’s steadfast opposition to plutocracies, oligarchies, and the fascist direction they tend to go in.
American interest in socialism as an element of our democratic processes and capitalistic economy developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Evolutionary theory, developments in physics, progressive political ideas, they all contributed to various elements of socialism as it was then understood. Government was the necessary tool for assuring the safety of food and drugs, establishing and defending the rights of children, workers and their unions, and for controlling robber baron oligarchies. Many, both liberal and conservative, were concerned about an economy dependent on major corporations organized under the exclusive control of and financially benefitting a very few. Business, they believed, existed not for profit only, but also for the public good, and government was needed to make it happen.
Christian Socialism, which flourished at the same time, focused on the expectation that following in the way of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’s related teachings, could be expressed through government programs that would bring the kingdom of God a bit closer. The Great War, WWI, stripped away the illusion that godly perfection was near at hand, but the connection had been made in mainline denominations that following Jesus meant to be politically engaged, doing what one could to influence public policy in a more Christlike direction.
Yes, romantic interest in Russian communism could also be found on the fringes of socialist thinking, but was never a part of the mainstream. Yet it is that kind of dictator socialism that has captured the mind and fears of conservatives who are unwilling to comprehend it in any other way.
Against the tide of socialist thinking was an equally strong belief that American self reliant individualism was incompatible with it, and stood in the breach defending individual rights, especially the right of property. It feared that confiscatory socialist policies would replace self reliance with reliance on the government, eroding the American values of hard work and personal ambition.
Adherents of the myth of self reliant individualism have made it the lynchpin through which all political decisions must be channeled. It’s helped pave the way for tea party type movements, and has given uncritical encouragement to right wing libertarians who increasingly drift toward fascism.
They’ve become adept at picking low hanging fruit from the worst of socialism (Russia, Cuba, etc.), selling it as the secret produce of Democrats and anything liberal or progressive. “Oh, so you’re a liberal; that means you’re a socialist, and that means you want government to own and run everything, including out lives.” Isn’t that the way it goes?
At least in part, it’s a problem of vocabulary. Liberals, or progressives if you prefer, use a different vocabulary. The American form of republican democratic government isn’t the enemy, not the problem, not something other than or foreign to the American ideal. Like local and state governments, the federal government is a vehicle for bringing the American ideal into reality. It’s government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” As the people’s agency, elected by the people and accountable to them, it has a moral responsibility to enact policies that promote the general welfare without prejudice. Because individuals cannot prosper except through community, it’s government’s duty to see that the community is capable of promoting prosperity, not for some but for all. When engaged in public debate about how government can best be used to address crucial issues, socialism isn’t a word likely to come up, at least not by liberals. Oddly enough, they’re more interested in creating conditions in which business, large and small, are more likely to prosper as employees and customers prosper.
Working on important issues requires asking whether government is the right tool to use, does it have the resources, can it be effective, and how could progress be measured? Issues that flow across governmental borders may be addressed best at the federal level, in cooperation with local and state governments. Matters deemed essential to national well being need national solutions. Volunteerism, NGO programs, and individual charity can be powerful tools for good, but, as the old saying goes, “You can’t keep just your part of the pool clean.” It’s the whole pool or nothing. To keep the whole pool clean requires public policy using public resources. Keeping the whole pool clean may restrict certain kinds of individual and corporate behavior, while requiring others. For individuals to prosper in their ambitious hard work, well financed programs may be needed for public health, education, and welfare. For trade and commerce to prosper, well financed programs may be needed for infrastructure of all kinds. For the environment to sustain life in its many forms, well financed programs may be needed to regulate and manage the way the environment is used.
Conservatives are, for the most part, willing to spend without limit on national defense, but are skeptical about the need for other forms of federal government involvement in the lives of people. Liberals are, for the most part, skeptical about the need for massive spending on national security, but willing to spend what is needed for the public good. Conservatives are reluctant to give up individual rights to government control. Liberals are reluctant to allow individual rights to erode the well being of others. Conservatives tend to attract anti taxers. Liberals tend to view taxes as investments in the well being of the community. The public debate, at its best, seeks to find places where the two can agree. The right wing fright fest about the venial evil of socialism works against it. They may generate a lot of social media attention, but it’s, what’s the phrase, oh yes, Fake News, and useless in guiding the nation toward better public policy.