Analysis | What is socialism? (2023)

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"Socialism is not about the environment, it is not about justice, it is not about virtue. Socialism is about one thing: it means power for the ruling class."

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

– Vice President Pence, speaking at CPAC on February 28

"I want you to bring socialism to justice."

- White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow, speaking at CPAC, February 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

They all have the word "socialist" in their names, and President Trump and his allies seem to have Americans believe that there was little difference between the Nazis, the Soviet Communists, the dictatorship of crumbling Venezuela, and the political organization associated with Associated with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).


But these are superficial comparisons, ignorant of history. So here's a simple guide for readers when the political rhetoric heats up. Opinion pollshowsthat since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, "socialism" has become increasingly attractive to Americans because, for many, it has evolved into "equality" rather than government control of the economy.

Now Trump is trying to make it sound scary again.


Let's start with the standarddictionary definition, derived from the original concept in the 19th century: "One of the various economic and political theories advocating collective or state ownership and management of the means of production and distribution of goods."

Or as the economic theorist Karl Marx put it more succinctly as a slogan in 1875: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."


This is the economic theory that arose in response to the harsh working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, such as 16-hour days and child labor. In reality, however, the theory has been perverted and twisted by supporters and critics. This allows politicians to label almost any ideology with the label "socialism".

Fascism, National Socialism (the Nazis) and Soviet Communism originated as dictatorships that eventually failed because they were unsustainable. The fascists prioritized the state in a kind of supranationalism, the Nazis had a strong focus on race, and the Soviets focused on class struggle, with the party in charge of economic and political life.

The causes of Venezuela's demise are complex, but include:rupture between state and society, falling oil prices (and mismanagement of the state oil company) andHyperinflation. But while socialism failed there, it has worked relatively well in other countries, such as Peru and Bolivia. Actually,Socialist presidents have been elected in every major South American country except Colombia.


Trump has occasionally tried to link the collapse of Venezuela's economy with a broad condemnation of socialism. "In other words, the socialists have done in Venezuela what socialists, communists and totalitarians have done wherever they have had the opportunity to rule," he a speech at Florida International University on February 18.

However, as in South America, socialist ideas were adopted by other countries, including capitalist ones, without dictatorships emerging. In northern Europe, social democracies have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to graft "socialist" programs such as free higher education, subsidized childcare, and universal health care into a thriving capitalist system. You can have health insurance that is single payer, but it is not free and requires payment.

So calledliberal socialismor social democracy is less a top-down governance model than one where demands arise for a bottom-up redistribution of wealth.


Trump's Council of Economic Advisers warned of the allure of socialism in an October report:arguedthat "the standard of living in the Nordic countries is still at least 15 percent lower than in the United States" - a conclusion that has been strongly disputed by the leaders in those countries.

"In contrast to the USA, in Denmark we have a good balance between freedom and community. "Yes, we pay a lot of tax, but we get so much in return," said Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.wrote on Facebook."Our children get an education - regardless of who you are and where you come from. ... And if you become unemployed, get into trouble or otherwise need help, society is ready to step in and get you back on track.”

In the US, one might assume that Social Security and Medicare have socialist roots, but democratic socialists have made it clear that they are not simply "New Deal Liberals". This distinguishes them from traditional democrats.


"Our goal is not to limit the excesses of capitalism for a few decades - we want to end the subjugation of our society 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 entire health care system." She said the Democratic Socialists would eventually want to move on to something like Britain's National Health Service.

Britain is of course still a capitalist country, with London being one of the centers of the financial markets.

TheDSA websiteSaying that no country is fully socialist, the organization suggests looking at the best examples from around the world: "We can learn from Sweden's extensive welfare state, Canada's national health system, France's nationwide childcare program and Nicaragua's." Literacy programs. Finally, we can learn from efforts undertaken here in the United States, such as the community health centers established by the government in the 1960s."


Indeed, ideas once condemned as socialist have gradually been embraced by Americans.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan spoke out against the introduction of Medicare. "One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been the use of drugs."he told the radio listenersand warned that doctors would lose their freedom. He encouraged listeners to approach lawmakers to protest the bill. "If you don't, I promise you, this program will pass as sure as the sun rises tomorrow; and besides, there will be other federal programs that will permeate every area of ​​freedom as we know it in this country. Until one day, as Norman Thomas (then leader of the Socialist Party) said: "We will wake up and find that we have socialism."

By the time Reagan became president 20 years later, Medicare was firmly established. Heeven entered into an agreement with CongressRaise taxes to implement the largest Medicare expansion in decades.


Of course, if the DSA ultimately succeeds in creating a British-style health care system, some might argue that Reagan's 1961 warning proved prescient.

The conclusion

Be wary of politicians who shout socialism. There is no one-size-fits-all brand, as a concept developed in the 19th century has varied over time and evolved in both successful and disastrous ways. Just because something contains the word "socialist" doesn't necessarily mean it leads to dictatorship or economic ruin. (Ironically, given the level of hostility toward Trump in some parts of the country, his constant attacks may backfire and make it even more appealing to some Americans.)

Partial claims about socialism fall within the realm of opinion, which is why we don't currently offer a Pinocchio rating. But we'll keep that rhetoric under review as the 2020 campaign unfolds, especially when it comes to blunt attacks that don't really fit the candidate.


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