The United States doesn’t have a familiar, established socialist history to look to for guidance on what socialism might mean in this country. But that doesn’t mean socialism is hopelessly nebulous, or that Americans who are interested in the idea are wandering dabblers. It just means that socialism, like any sophisticated term, warrants thoughtful consideration.
Socialism has meant different things to different people in different times and places, while maintaining a stable core of themes and objectives: social (as opposed to private) control of the means of production, and of all the societal, humanitarian and political-economic changes that entails, especially where the freedom and autonomy of working people are concerned.
The term itself came into being in the early decades of the 19th century and, like any good word, inspired a great deal of imagination. For the non-Marxian English socialists of the 1840s, socialism mainly meant opposition to the competitive, dehumanizing effects of liberal economics, local experiments with communitarianism and cooperatives, and demands for the privileges of freedom, autonomy and participation in government to extend to the lower classes.
Meanwhile, Marxian socialism focused on the conditions of production — who owns what, the relationships between wage-earners and owners, and how stuff gets made in a society — and the kind of politics those conditions produce. Even when “socialism” was a relatively new term, in other words, its exact meaning was disputed.
That happened at least in part because the meaning of “socialism” has always been politically contested, with different factions claiming that their vision best matches the true essence of socialism. To most English and French workers, Friedrich Engels wrote in an 1880 booklet, “Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice.” But since notions of truth, reason and justice differed, Engels observed, visions of what socialism really represented widely varied — leading to “a kind of eclectic, average Socialism.”
In contrast to Engels, Karl Marx argued for a scientific socialism, derived from careful analyses of history and economic facts — which explains why “Das Kapital” is such dry reading. Establishing the priority of one form of socialism over the other was political work.
And the politics of differing socialist visions played out over time, with different forms of socialism taking root in various countries through the years. The profusion of disparate historical examples of socialist governments can understandably cause confusion about what socialism looks like on the ground: Soviet Russia or modern-day Norway? One may as well ask if the United Arab Emirates or the United States of America is really capitalist. The answer, in both cases, has to do with varieties, degrees, democracy and methodology.
But now, as in the 19th century, confusion about what “socialism” means is stoked by political interest in clouding the issue. As Eric Levitz notes in New York magazine, conservatives tend to oscillate between arguing that successful countries such as Finland, Norway and Denmark, generally regarded as socialist, are actually as capitalist as the United States, and claiming, as Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan recently did, that socialism has made those countries stagnant and stultifying.
Clarifying exactly what “socialism” means once and for all likely won’t happen anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that voters who are attracted to democratic socialist politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t know what they’re getting into. Proposals to wipe out so-called right-to-work laws, to make college tuition-free or to provide universal health care are resonating with those supporters.
At the heart of the democratic socialist vision flowering on the American left is the recognition that more than policy tweaks will be needed to empower everyday people to participate meaningfully in society and democracy. Working Americans deserve a say in how the country’s vast wealth will be used, and that will be possible only when inequality is reduced, corporate and big-money donors are banished from politics, and lawmakers are truly accountable to the people. It’s not so much to ask. But democratic socialists are the only ones asking.