Americans Are Still Confused About What Socialism Actually Is

Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin used the motto, "Land to the peasants, peace to the nations, bread to the starving." Sounds good, right?


Last week, this column asked: "Why are we still debating the merits of socialism?"

Based on quite a few responses, I've come up with three main answers. First, a surprising number of people still are seduced by its nice-sounding promises. Second, some politicians and activists are using the term again, which gives rise to this discussion. If you ask the public anything, including the virtues of cannibalism or self-immolation, a certain percentage will like the idea. Third, many people think wanting more social-welfare programs is the same as being socialist.

It is a good idea for people living in a self-governing democracy to have discussions about basic political philosophy even if the debates can become overheated in a world dominated by social media. As King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." The same ideas and temptations are always with us, so reprising musty old debates is healthy. Here goes.

Regarding the first answer, some readers criticized me for bringing up the suffering in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela. That's not socialism, they say, but communism. Russia was known as the United Soviet Socialist Republic and all such regimes referred to themselves as socialist, but, yes, communism is an extreme example. But both rely on the transfer of power from individuals to the state. As the saying goes, any government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have. Socialistic governments of all types obliterate the incentive to work and invest, so they end up just taking things away.

Today's democratic socialists are, quite obviously, not calling for the creation of gulags and state ownership of everything, even if some of them (see Bernie Sanders) had nice things to say about Cuba's Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. But those "bad" socialists and communists didn't call for those horrors, either. Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin used the motto, "Land to the peasants, peace to the nations, bread to the starving." Sounds good, right?

Hugo Chavez didn't promise that in 10 years people would be hunting rats out of dumpsters to feed their families, but wrote into Venezuela's constitution that, "Health is a fundamental social right, an obligation of the state." As late as 2013, prominent progressive activists were still praising the country's economic miracle. Today's democratic socialists probably emulate a Scandinavian welfare state, but those countries are not socialist and are moving in a less redistributionist direction.

There is indeed nothing new. Perhaps it's human nature to cheer politicians who make grandiose promises that don't pan out, while being overly critical of the flaws in a system that has created unparalleled wealth and opportunity. But can't we try to be a little wiser?

Regarding the second answer, the renewed and proud use of the socialist term is what I'm reacting against. Similarly, I'm also troubled by some American conservatives, including our president, who proudly use the "nationalist" term. Christian writer C.S. Lewis described patriotism as love of country, but wrote that nationalism can lead to "a devilish form of ideological thinking that propels morally destructive powers into leadership."

Left or right, terminology matters. Most of my life was set against a Cold War backdrop. My father and his family were rounded up by the Nazis. My wife's family suffered through Polish communism, so I'm more willing than many others to believe that American variants of "socialism" or "nationalism" can go too far.

In the column, I mentioned the Democratic Socialists of America website, which argues that "working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs." You don't think that idea—people apparently should vote on how other people's businesses are managed—could lead to draconian results?

Yes, early American socialists championed women's suffrage and an end to child labor. Socialists, however, weren't the only people pushing those policies, which aren't "socialism" as much as reforms that take hold as nations become more prosperous and enlightened thanks to industrialization and, yes, market capitalism.

Regarding the third answer, some critics noted that Western democracies have passed socialistic programs such as Social Security and Medicare—and that hasn't led to gulags. True enough. Wealthy, capitalistic nations have the excess wealth to afford costly entitlements. But look at the resulting debt levels. These Ponzi schemes are unsustainable and do an iffy job providing comfortable retirements and health care for the masses. They embody many flaws of socialism, even if they have not led to disaster. That could change because Democratic socialists want to expand them much further.

Polls say large percentages of Americans have a vaguely warm view about socialism. The best response is to highlight its failures in its many forms, especially as some politicians use the term in a positive way. Let the debate continue.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.