Setting the record straight about socialism

People’s World Series on Socialism

Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here

In every age, scientific reasoning takes a beating from entrenched prejudices, fears, and hatreds. In the most extreme cases, life itself has been the price: the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, lynchings, etc. Of recent vintage we have the vilification of socialism.

It predates Senator Joe McCarthy, but that period – which gave us another “ism” – etched into the heart of our body politic the idea that socialism is the epitome of evil. Such was to be expected. There has never been a socio-economic system in which those in power passively and peacefully surrendered that power to a more equitable system.

Yes, I believe that socialism is more equitable than capitalism. You may ask, “What about the failure of the Soviet Union and those other Eastern European countries, and the atrocities committed under Joseph Stalin?” Good questions. But you may also ask why China and Cuba, both socialist countries with leading Communist Parties, have survived.

The setbacks in Eastern Europe can’t be adequately analyzed here, but they don’t prove the invalidity of socialism. They only show that socio-economic change, whenever it’s on history’s agenda, must contend with human fallibility as well as the power of the established system.

In any case, socialism ought to be considered for what it actually is, not for what we are told it is by those who would be out of business if we went in that direction. While the classical definition of socialism is public ownership of the basic means of production, it also includes aspects we already enjoy, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the many federal departments established for the betterment of the entire population.

Fortunately, today’s world is not the one of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Recent polls show that some 20 percent of Americans now view socialism favorably.

Witness the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist. The word democratic is well-chosen, whether or not Sanders favors an all-out socialist state, because the intent of socialism is to advance democracy, not curtail it.

How far he will go toward the Democratic nomination for president is unknown, but that he has come this far is an indication that the American people are fed up with current economic and political conditions and are ready to entertain “democratic socialist” ideas.

I don’t mean to suggest that socialism is a panacea – all milk and honey, instant peace, and happiness. The economic and social complexities in modern society, including human fallibility, will be negative factors in whatever social system is established.

Cynics would have us believe that greed is endemic in humans, and that it will undermine any socio-economic structure. History tells a different story. Wasn’t the overthrow of the monarchy in France an advance toward democracy and equality? Wasn’t our own revolution a defeat for colonialism? Wasn’t our Civil War a defeat for slavery? Didn’t the Bolshevik revolution bring an end to Czarism?

True, as I noted earlier, none of these historic events brought an end to injustice. But they were steps forward. Greed and oppression have always been forced to give way to greater equality and justice. So it will be in the future. As humans change society, so society changes humans. No one has been burned at the stake in a long time.

We’re not close to taking that qualitative leap to becoming a socialist state, but the economic catastrophes through which we’re now struggling should at least give us pause to question the inequities of capitalism, and wonder whether this system is the last and best system possible. I’m sure that’s what King Louis XVI and King George III thought about their systems.

Seymour Joseph, now retired, was a longtime editor, writer, and graphic artist for People’s World’s predecessor publications. He is also a poet and blogger on current events. This article originally appeared at his blog.


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