“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it is not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: It’s called power for the ruling class.”

— President Trump, speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 2

“Under the guise of Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same, tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and have stifled the liberties of millions over the past century. That system is socialism.”

— Vice President Pence, speech at CPAC, Feb. 28

“I want you to put socialism on trial.”

— White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, speech at CPAC, Feb. 27

Quick, is there a difference?

  • National Socialist German Workers’ Party
  • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
  • United Socialist Party of Venezuela
  • Democratic Socialists of America

All have the word socialist in their names, and President Trump and his allies apparently want Americans to believe there’s virtually little difference between the Nazis, the Soviet communists, the dictatorship of a crumbling Venezuela and the political organization linked to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

But these are facile comparisons, ignorant of history. So here’s a simple guide for readers as the political rhetoric heats up. Polling indicates that, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, “socialism” increasingly sounds attractive to Americans as it has evolved for many to mean “equality” rather than state control of business.

Now, Trump is trying to make it sound scary again.

The Facts

Let’s start with the standard dictionary definition, derived from the original concept in the 19th century: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

Or as economic theorist Karl Marx put it more succinctly as a slogan in 1875: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

That’s the economic theory, which emerged in reaction to the brutal working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, such as 16-hour work days and child labor. But in reality, the theory has been perverted and distorted by advocates and detractors. This allows politicians to assign the label “socialism” to just about any ideology.

Fascism, National Socialism (the Nazis) and Soviet Communism emerged as dictatorships that eventually ran aground because they were unsustainable. Fascists prioritized the state in a type of uber-nationalism, the Nazis were highly race-focused, and the Soviets focused on the class struggle, with the party in charge of economic and political life.

The causes for Venezuela’s downfall are complex, but they include a rupturing between the state and society, falling oil prices (and mismanagement of the state-owned oil company) and hyperinflation. But even if socialism failed there, it has worked relatively well in other countries, such as Peru and Bolivia. In fact, socialist presidents have been elected in every large South American country but Colombia.

Trump, on occasion, has tried to link the collapse of the Venezuelan economy to a broad condemnation of socialism. “In other words, the socialists have done in Venezuela all of the same things that socialists, communists, totalitarians have done everywhere that they’ve had a chance to rule,” he said in a speech to Florida International University on Feb. 18.

But, as in South America, socialist ideas have been adopted by other countries, even capitalist ones, without turning into dictatorships. In northern Europe, social democracies have, with varying degrees of success, tried to graft “socialist” programs, such as free college education, subsidized child care and universal health care, onto a thriving capitalist system. They may have single-payer health insurance, but it’s not free and requires payments.

So-called liberal socialism or social democracy is less of a top-down governing model but one in which demands for redistributing wealth emerge from the bottom up.

Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, in a report in October warning against the appeal of socialism, argued that “Nordic country living standards are still at least 15 percent lower than in the U.S.” — a conclusion that was fiercely disputed by leaders in those countries.

“Unlike the United States, we have a good balance between freedom and community in Denmark. Yes, we pay a lot of tax, but we get so much back,” Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen wrote on Facebook. “Our children get an education — no matter who you are and where you come from. … And if you become unemployed, run into problems or otherwise need a helping hand, then the community is ready to seize and help one back on the right track.”

In the United States, Social Security and Medicare might be viewed as having socialist roots, but the Democratic Socialists have made it clear that they are not simply “New Deal liberals.” In that way, they distinguish themselves from traditional Democrats.

“Our goal is not to rein in the excesses of capitalism for a few decades at a time — we want to end our society’s subservience to the market,” according to DSA member Meagan Day. She described “Medicare-for-all” as not socialism because it would “only nationalize insurance, not the whole health-care system.” She said Democratic Socialists eventually would want to move toward something like the British National Health Service.

The United Kingdom, of course, is still a capitalist country, with London one of the centers of the financial markets.

The DSA website, saying no country is fully socialist, suggests the organization would borrow from the best examples from around the world: “We can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes, from Canada’s national health care system, France’s nationwide childcare program, and Nicaragua’s literacy programs. Lastly, we can learn from efforts initiated right here in the US, such as the community health centers created by the government in the 1960s.”

Indeed, ideas once decried as socialist over time have become embraced by Americans.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan spoke out against creating Medicare. “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine,” he told radio listeners, warning that doctors would lose their freedoms. He urged listeners to contact lawmakers to oppose the bill. “If you don’t, this program, I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow; and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until, one day, as [then-Socialist Party leader] Norman Thomas said, ‘We will awake to find that we have socialism.’”

By the time Reagan became president 20 years later, Medicare was firmly established. He even cut a deal with Congress to raise taxes to implement the largest Medicare expansion in decades.

Of course, if the DSA ultimately succeeds in creating a British-style health system, some might argue that Reagan’s 1961 warning turned out to be prescient.

The Bottom Line

Be wary of politicians crying socialism. There is no one-size-fits-all label, given that a concept developed in the 19th century has morphed over time and evolved in successful and disastrous ways. Just because something has the word “socialist” in it does not necessarily mean it leads to dictatorship or economic ruin. (Ironically, given the intense animosity toward Trump in some parts of the country, his constant attacks might backfire and make it seem even more appealing to some Americans.)

To some extent, assertions about socialism fall in the realm of opinion, which is why we are not offering a Pinocchio rating at this time. But we will keep an eye on this rhetoric as the 2020 campaign unfolds, especially if there are broad-brush attacks that don’t really fit the candidate.

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Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Needs history lesson
“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it is not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: It’s called power for the ruling class.”
in a speech to speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference
Saturday, March 2, 2019
Share the Facts
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Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Needs history lesson
“In other words, the socialists have done in Venezuela all of the same things that socialists, communists, totalitarians have done everywhere that they’ve had a chance to rule."
in a speech at Florida International University
Monday, February 18, 2019