Defining terms: What is socialism?

A Liberal Dose

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 About four years or so ago, I was curious about something, so I decided to test it out in my modern U.S. history classes. I had three sections of the class at that time, so around 150 students. Before we discussed the Cold War, I asked this question: During that Cold War, whose side do you think Denmark and Norway were on, the Soviet Union or the United States? Half the students had no idea and were afraid to guess. Of the ones who were willing to raise their hands, three or four said the U.S., and all the rest said the Soviet Union. Then I asked the same question about France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain… and almost as many students guessed the Soviet Union for them, as well. There was genuine surprise, even shock, when I told the room that all those countries were on the same side as the United States.

That experiment verified my fears. There had been so much rhetoric on the media for the past decade about the insidious dangers of “European-style socialism” that, as I suspected, young people were growing up believing that the liberal governments of western and northern Europe were exactly the same as communist Russia. Any hint of the words “socialism” or even “the left” had come to personify evil incarnate to many Americans. This is because most Americans do not really know what socialism means or that there are major differences between socialism, communism, and democratic socialism as practiced to some degree by many (if not most) of our longstanding European allies.

Defining these things is more challenging than defining fascism, as I did last week, because there are nuances involved… but I’m going to give it a shot. As I have a word limit, I can only give very basic definitions and will no doubt miss a lot, but here goes.

“Socialism” essentially means social control of the means of production. How this looks varies depending on the type of socialism. Democratic socialism, also called the Nordic Model (as in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland), is compatible with (and dependent on) democracy and liberty. The government is put in place by fair elections, and there are multiple political parties (not just the far left). Britain, France, and Germany are very similar. All these countries have a “mixed market” or “hybrid” economic system that is still capitalism. In such countries, the government controls vital goods and services (electricity, water, healthcare, transportation, etc.), whereas consumer goods are still sold on a free market basis. All those services (free to everybody) are financed by high taxes. You can still get rich in such countries. Doctors still make much more money than cafeteria workers - but doctors are not as wealthy, nor cafeteria workers as poor, as in the U.S. This actually describes most countries in the world - not just in Europe, but to varying degrees also Japan, Australia, and Canada - none of which are Communist. That sort of socialism in not pure socialism, it is a mixture of socialism and capitalism… one might say, a halfway point between capitalism and communism.

Revolutionary socialism, on the other hand, posits that you can’t have true socialism unless you get rid of capitalism completely. When a revolution like that happens, you end up with a Communist government that almost always is authoritarian and controls everything. This does not mean, however, that all communists are authoritarian (though all fascists are). There are other types, as well: libertarian socialism (remove capitalism and people will naturally become more cooperative), market socialism (workers’ co-ops and public ownership of goods and resources), and more - none of which are communism. Did you know that the Green Bay Packers is a publicly owned non-profit organization and that you can only buy a limited amount of stock, which only gives you voting rights on major decisions? Did you know that if you live in Alaska you receive an annual dividend (last year it was $1,600) from oil sales? Did you know that these are forms of socialism?

“Social net” programs like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc., may not officially be socialism, but they are definitely socialism-adjacent. And they were all introduced by liberal democratic administrations, and were all opposed by conservatives who called them “communism.” This has been a conservative tactic for 100 years, and has resulted in Americans thinking anything left-of-center, or benefiting labor, or promoting the general welfare, is communism and therefore sinister and anti-American.

I keep referring back to the Progressive Era (1900-1920), so I probably need to devote a whole column to it soon. I mention it because during that era, Progressives, which included Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party, called for an end to unfettered, unregulated, Gilded Age, robber baron capitalism. In most cases, what they wanted instead was capitalism with a human heart, regulated by the government. The Socialist Party of America had a surprising amount of support: Eugene Debs received almost a million votes for president in 1912 (6 percent of the popular vote), and the party won two senate seats, several governorships, and something like a hundred state legislative seats in the 1910s. Socialists at that time tended to be either labor organizers, populist farmers, or progressive reformers who called for things like an eight-hour workday, child labor laws, workplace safety laws, direct election of U.S. senators, and a graduated income tax, all of which eventually came to pass.

The popularity of that party changed by the end of the 1910s. This was partly because the Socialists opposed U.S. involvement in WWI and were considered unpatriotic by many  - but an even bigger factor was the Russian Revolution. A major world player was brought down and replaced with a Communist government, which led to global paranoia about anything that smacked of “the left.” Fascists in Germany, Italy, and fascistic elements in Japan took advantage of citizens’ fear of the left to sweep into power via promises to fight socialism. That has been a far right strategy ever since.

Allow me to reiterate. Not everything on the political left is automatically socialism, and even socialism is not automatically communism. There is a spectrum. We have problems as a country when everyone on the right says anyone left of center is a Socialist or a communist, and everyone on the left says anyone right of center is a fascist. Fascists and Communists are only the radical extreme of each wing. Of course, if that radical extreme gets political control, it can be disastrous. It is worth repeating, though, that not all Communists are authoritarian, whereas fascists almost always are.

There is nothing wrong with people having different philosophies or different approaches to our common problems. It is OK to come down more on one side than the other. So let’s stop demonizing each other. Let’s all pull together - this country can do great things when we do.

That sounds like a leftist thing to say. And it is. But the people on the other side of the aisle can say it, too. Don’t we all equally love “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Let’s try that a while instead of “The Hunger Games.”

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.  

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