Everyone’s talking about socialism, but what is it?

Bernie Sanders may or may not win the Democratic presidential nomination, but he has already done something stunning: put socialism into the mainstream political debate in the United States. Sixty years after McCarthyism made socialism “un-American,” Sanders has placed it back on the American agenda. I say “back” because, as others have noted, socialism has a long history in our country, with such prominent advocates as Helen Keller and Albert Einstein.

But this resurgence should not make long-time supporters of socialism feel self-satisfied. On the contrary. Even for the most dedicated believers, socialism has been a pretty abstract concept, or one defined, stereotyped and hobbled by the experiences of Russia and the Soviet Union, many of which were harsh, even cruel (and criminal), ultimately self-destructive, and inapplicable to American society and culture. For Americans new to the idea of socialism, it’s often burdened with notions of faceless bureaucracy, one-party rule, government control of every aspect of life, stifled creativity, cheesy “socialist realism” paintings, and the like.

Now, in the Sanders era, advocates of socialism are challenged to think and talk about what socialism really is, its essential promise, how it fits the American experience, what it might look like for the U.S., and how it’s a goal every American can embrace and help make a reality.

Below I offer a few ideas.

But first, here’s what Bernie Sanders had to say about socialism.

Bernie Sanders showed how socialism makes sense for America

Sanders made a powerful case for his vision of socialism in a speech at Georgetown University on Nov. 19. In the New Deal of the 1930s, Sanders said, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted “against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists”:

“Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.

“And that is what we have to do today,” said Sanders.

Both FDR and Lyndon Johnson, who enacted Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, were assailed by the right wing as socialists in their day, Sanders noted.

He did not mention the enormous mass movements of the 1930s and 1960s that pushed both Roosevelt and Johnson to act. But he acknowledged it implicitly when he declared that today, “we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation. The billionaire class cannot have it all. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the one percent.”

“A ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation” – Sanders didn’t say it specifically, but that is the essence and logic of capitalism. Defeating this ruling class, according to Sanders, means bringing about “a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money.”

Sanders cited calls by Roosevelt in 1944 and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s for an economy that serves the people. In their view, he said, you cannot have freedom without economic security – as Sanders put it, “the right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care.”

Getting to that freedom means reshaping political power in our country, Sanders said, because “today in America we not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure which protects that inequality.”

“Democratic socialism, to me,” he said, “does not just mean that we must create a nation of economic and social justice. It also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.”

Is this pie in the sky? Is it impractical? Is it socialism?

How socialism can transform our society to serve the people

Clearly, the connection between our economic and political structures is stronger than Sanders indicated. They are not two parallel systems. We have a political power structure that maintains, protects and preserves an economic system that fuels inequality and injustice. Our economic system based on greed drives (in many ways or in important ways) our political system. The right-wing-dominated Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United ruling is just one illustration of the role of Big Money – Big Capital – in politics. This is why it’s called “capital”-ism.

Socialism is simply about rebuilding our society so that working people of all kinds, all colors, all languages, all faiths – the auto worker from Mississippi, the African American nurse, the computer technician in Silicon Valley, the McDonald’s worker in Florida, the teacher in Fargo, the gay family farmer and the farm laborer from Guatemala, the Korean American musician, the Irish American truck driver, the Muslim scientist, the Catholic customer service rep, the Jewish college student, the teenager trying to land a first job, and so many others – the people who make this country run – not a tiny group of super-rich corporate profiteers – are the deciders, the planners, the policymakers. The driving force is not the ruthless quest for ever-larger individual profit, as it is under our current capitalist system, but pursuit of the common good – equality, freedom from want and fear; expanding human knowledge, culture and potential; providing a chance for everyone to lead a fulfilling life on a healthy planet.

Sanders showed how socialism is rooted in American values. Socialism is about deep and wide democracy. It is not about an all-powerful central government taking over and controlling every aspect of life. It is not about nationalizing this or that or every company. But it does mean that the public will have to take on and take over a few key “evil-doers”:

Taking on Big Oil and Big Finance

* Number one on the list will probably have to be the giant energy corporations – Big Oil, the coal companies, the frackers. This section of corporate America plays a central role in the U.S. economy, but also in its politics – and it’s a dangerous and damaging one. It’s well known that these folks not only ravage our environment and worker health and safety, and hold communities hostage with the threat of job loss if they are curbed, while at the same time blocking progress on a green economy. But they also back and fund far-right policies on a whole range of issues. (It’s not just the Koch brothers.) This sector of the economy will clearly have to be restructured in the public interest.

* Number two: the giant banking and financial companies – commonly known as “Wall Street” although they are sprinkled around the country. We’ve seen how they wrecked our economy and destroyed lives and livelihoods. For what? Simple greed. They will need to be returned to their socially needed function: to protect ordinary people’s savings and to fund investment in the social good, driving a thriving economy and society: new technologies to save our planet from climate change disaster, flood protection for example;  a 21st century public education system rich in resources to enable the next generations to flourish; expanded medical research and a national health system that serves every American with top quality, humane, state of the art care from one end of life to the other; exploration of space and our own planet to enrich human society; and so many more.

You may have a few others to add to the list of key evil-doers that will probably be on top of the list to be challenged and taken over.

But aside from that, socialism can mean a mix of:

* Worker- and community-owned co-ops.

* Companies democratically owned and run by local or state entities. This is not new: we already have, for example, more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, serving more than 48 million people or about 14 percent of the nation’s electricity consumers. Then there’s the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

* Privately run companies.

* Individually owned small businesses.

For socialism to work, public expression and participation will have to be mobilized and expanded, in the economy and in all other areas of life, for example by measures like:

* Strengthening and enlarging worker-employee representation and decision-making.

* Expanding the New England town hall meeting concept.

* Implementing proportional representation and other measures to enable a wide range of views to be represented in our government at every level.

* Taking money out of political campaigns.

* Making voting easy.

Obviously there’s a lot more to think about and figure out – these are just a few suggestions.

Shedding stereotypes about socialism

Bernie Sanders and others take pains to call themselves democratic socialists. That’s because the concept of socialism – in essence, a society based on the “social” good – has been tainted by much of what happened in the Soviet Union and some other countries. But there’s nothing in socialism that equates to dictatorship, political repression, bureaucracy, over-centralization and commandism, and so on. Those features of Soviet society arose out of particular circumstances and personalities. But they were not “socialist.” As events have shown, in fact, socialism requires expanded democracy to grow and flourish.

Socialism does not mean a small group “seizing power.” It doesn’t mean radical slogans either. Red flags and images of Che or Lenin not required, nor relevant. Socialism means an energized, inspired, mobilized vast majority from all walks of life, from “red” state and “blue,” coming together to make changes, probably one step at a time.

Socialism is not a “thing” that will “happen” on one day, in one month, one year or even one decade. History shows that vast and lasting social change hasn’t happened that way. I expect it will be a process of events, small steps and some big ones – and elections will play a big and vital role – creating transformations that perhaps we won’t even recognize as “socialism.” Perhaps it will only be in hindsight that we will look back and say, “Oh yes, we’ve got something new.” And it’s not an end product. There is no “end of history.”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels became famous for analyzing capitalism and how it exploits and oppresses the 99 percent – OK they didn’t use that term, but that’s what they were talking about. Capitalism started out as a productive and creative force, they wrote, but it contained the seeds of its own decline. It has created a massive and ever-widening working class but most of the wealth this class produces and sustains goes into the pockets of an ever-smaller group of capitalists: that’s called exploitation. It creates so many problems that eventually it will have to be replaced. Change is on the agenda.

Thank you Bernie Sanders.

You can watch Bernie Sanders’ Georgetown speech and his responses to questions from students here (about 1-½ hours). The text of his prepared remarks is here.

P.S.: What others are saying: a sampling

Tim Egan, a columnist at the New York Times whose writing I generally admire, suggests that socialism equates to nationalizing corporations. He suggests Sanders would have nationalized General Motors rather than bail it out in 2008-2009. But socialism really isn’t about nationalizing things, as I discuss above.

The Washington Post has a quiz: “Are you a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders?” None of the 10 quiz questions actually have to do with transforming the economy in any fundamental way.

Then there’s “Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist.”

Historian Eric Foner advises: “How Bernie Sanders should talk about democratic socialism.”

Sociologist Staughton Lynd disagrees with Foner.

Political economist Gar Alperovitz has a different take in “Socialism with an American face.”

And so does Rand Paul … “There’s nothing sexy and there’s nothing cool about socialism,” he told Glenn Beck.

Meanwhile, “A high school teacher helps clarify ‘socialism’ for Donald Trump (and you!).” But he doesn’t!

If you read through these, you’ll find there’s a raft of confusion out there! As writer Jonathan Chait aptly notes about much of it: “[F]or a term so freighted with the capacity to inspire its supporters and terrorize everybody else, ‘socialism’ is oddly bereft of any specific meaning.”

On the other hand, this article does offer some more precise definitions.

I hope I’ve added something useful to the discussion.

Photo: Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, in July. Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.