The many, confused American definitions of socialism (2023)

IfDonald Trump explains it"America will never be a socialist country" and Democratic presidential candidates struggling to name their progressive policies, historian John Gurda seeks to reframe our view of socialism. The term has been "ground into dust over the years," he told me when we met in his hometown of Milwaukee, and his goal is to redeem it. "Part of my self-assigned role is to provide some of the context and nuance where it makes sense again. Because it's the straw man, it's the bogeyman for a lot of people."

When the Democratic National Committee chose Milwaukee to host its 2020 convention last year, the executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin ridiculed the decision, pointing out that Milwaukee was the only American city in the 20th century to elect three socialist mayors. "With the rise of Bernie Sanders and the takeover of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle," said Mark Jefferson, the party's leader. But Gurda, who is 72 and has spent most of his years in Milwaukee, believes the socialism practiced there deserves a second look. The record, he said, reveals a "movement that calls itself socialist, that governed well, that governed sparingly, that governed creatively, serving the broader common interest." We abandon this vision at our peril. All this scaremongering about nationalizing industries and robbing the rich – the Robin Hood thing – is grossly misleading.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only self-confessed socialist in the presidential race, gave a speech Wednesday describing his brand of democratic socialism as unthreatening egalitarianism in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. He called it the "unfinished business of the New Deal" and an "economic bill" that includes the right to a living wage, health care, secure retirement and a clean environment. "'Socialism,'" Sanders quoted President Harry Truman in 1952, "is the epithet they have thrown at every advance that people have made in the last twenty years." Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism is what they called agricultural price support. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. They called socialism the growth of free and independent labor. "Socialism is her name for almost anything that helps everyone."

More than sixty years after Truman spoke those words, socialism in the United States still has strong connotations and conflicting definitions. For decades, many Americans defined it with the Cold War, equating the term with government control of the economy and, in most cases, authoritarian rule. Sanders, who first ran for governor of Vermont 47 years ago, has found a following in a new generation not steeped in Cold War ideology. The movement, embodied by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is trying to carve out a path away from a new golden age of stark inequality and rising economic anxiety. As I've spoken with dozens of Wisconsin voters and political figures over the past few weeks, it's clear from our conversations that the term conjures up vastly different images, from decency to social decay. Some equate socialism with a fair social contract based largely on a market economy, while others think of Stalin's Soviet Union - or more recently Venezuela, where the late Hugo Chávez and current leader Nicolás Maduro ran a prosperous economy on the ground under the banner of socialism . As Democrats seek to win back Wisconsin and other swing states they narrowly lost to Trump in 2016, candidates are eager to redefine the party to serve the needs of the working class, and Republicans are only too eager to support theirs to put a negative label on them.

"The understanding of that word is going to be an important part of the landscape in 2020," said Patrick Murray, Monmouth University's poll director, adding, "It's going to be messy." When he gets to the bottom of it, he encounters a number of contradictions.A Monmouth StudyThe poll, released in May, found that while only 29 percent of Americans believe that socialism is compatible with American values, fifty percent believe that socialism is "a way to make things fairer for working people."

A Gallup pollThe poll, released in May, found that 51 percent of Americans think socialism would be a "bad thing" for the country, while 43 percent think it would be a "good thing." To put it diplomatically: GallupMohamed Younisnoted that the American understanding of the term is "nuanced and complex."In a poll last yearGallup asked what socialism means. The answers could be found anywhere on the map. At 23 percent, the most common responses fell into the "no opinion" or "equality for all, all equal rights, equal distribution" category. The second most common answer was "government ownership or control" at 17 percent. Then there were the 6 percent who thought socialism meant "talking to people, being social, social media, talking to people."

In the confusion, Trump and the Republicans see an opportunity to define the terms of the 2020 election, using socialism as an epithet and warning. As Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale warmed up a crowd of more than 10,000 supporters near Green Bay on April 27, he said the president "will run against."a bunch of crazy socialists.” In late May, the Republican National Committee and Trump's presidential campaign sent an email to their supporters, urging them as "patriotic Americans" to sign an "official petition opposing socialism." "America was founded on freedom and independence - not on government coercion, domination and control," it said. "We were born free and will stay free. Stand with President Trump and tell the Democrats that America will do thisNEVERBe a socialist country!”

Gurda, the historian, likens Republican tactics to the anti-red baiting first used against Milwaukee socialists more than a century ago and perfected in the 1950s by Wisconsin's own Sen. Joseph McCarthy, later to become Sen.rebuked by the senatefor his unscrupulous manner. The city had three socialist mayors: Emil Seidel, who sat in office for two years from 1910; Daniel Hoan, in office 1916-1940; and Frank Zeidler, who served three terms between 1948 and 1960. They were known for clean government, sound financial management, a focus on public health, including vaccination campaigns and improved sanitation, and stricter safety standards in city workplaces and hiring practices, and valued merit over connections. They were evolutionary rather than revolutionary and avoided what Gurda called "a dense ideological thicket that lurked on other leftists". Garden Homes was completed in 1923the first municipally funded public housing project in the country. A key to her popularity was her ability to convince voters that the government was "a cooperative".os", said Gurda, not "a predatordem."

"The word 'public' is used over and over again," Gurda told me as we sat at a weather-beaten picnic table on Lake Michigan near Bradford Beach. "Public parks, that's why I invited you here. Public libraries, public schools, a public harbor, public housing. The term Frank Zeidler used constantly was 'public enterprise'. It's important to emphasize 'enterprise' because they were equally creative as any capitalist and as aggressive as any capitalist in trying to create a system that worked for the common man and woman." Seidel, a model maker by trade, was derided by ideological purists as a "canal socialist" for building what today would be called infrastructure. Looking back on his tenure in the 1930s, Seidel responded to critics he called "Eastern Smarties".

"Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers' housing"Seidel wrote. "But we wanted much, oh, so much more than just sewers. We wanted our workers to have clean air; we wanted them to have sunshine; we wanted planned houses; we wanted a living wage; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational training; we wanted to give every person a chance to be strong and have a happy life." To achieve this, Seidel said, he and his allies sought to create parks and playgrounds, swimming pools and beaches, reading rooms and "pure fun." He called the action the "Milwaukee Social Democratic Movement".

When Gurda compares today's reformers, who call themselves democratic socialists, to previous generations of Milwaukee socialists, he sees different problems but "the same driving force: the glaring differences in American life." This is also the origin of his own mission as he observes what he calls "the operation of society". Gurda says he is neither a socialist nor a Sanders supporter, but it bothers him that Republican critics "identify socialism as all they care about, while the reality of what it was, especially at the local level, not once, but completely forgotten.” , when the G.O.P. Democrats who favor measures like Medicare for All, free college tuition and an ambitious government-driven climate change agenda called the Green New Deal are trying to figure out how to use the term.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who so far has barely gotten a turn in the polls, is warning Democrats to stay away from it. On June 1, at the California Democratic National Convention, he said, "If we're going to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer." To boos from the crowd, he said, "You know, if we're not careful, we're going to end up helping to re-elect the worst president in American history."

Rep. Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat who has represented a largely rural western Wisconsin county since 1997, raised similar alarms when I asked what kind of Democrat Wisconsin might win after Trump's victory in 2016. Kind favors a pragmatic, non-ideological candidate who "doesn't push buttons to polarize either side." For tactical reasons, he told me, "it would be a mistake to fall into the socialism trap the Republicans laid." In fact, Kind says, Trump is the candidate who favors government intervention in the economy in ways most often associated with hardline socialism. He described the president's approach as "authoritarian socialism" and said the president's supporters "don't seem to realize when they look at him."

That is it. There is no uniform definition of socialism - and any attempt at commentary risks proving the campaign adage that you lose if you explain it. "People don't vote on objective definitions. They vote on their emotional response to what they think the term means," said Murray, the Monmouth Electoral Officer. He sees a divide by age and political party. In itPoll released in MayOnly 6 percent of young Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents expressed negative feelings toward socialism, compared to 76 percent of Republicans. As time went on, Murray predicted, "We will likely continue to see the negative use of the term 'socialism' become less relevant in the political context."


What is the American definition of socialism? ›

Socialism is a political philosophy and movement encompassing a wide range of economic and social systems which are characterised by social ownership of the means of production, as opposed to private ownership.

What do many Americans think about socialism? ›

Six-in-ten today say they view socialism negatively, including one-third who view it very negatively. And while a majority of the public (57%) continues to view capitalism favorably, that is 8 percentage points lower than in 2019 (65%), according to a national survey from Pew Research Center conducted Aug.

What is the best definition of socialism? ›

What is socialism? Socialism is a social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another.

How many versions of socialism are there? ›

There have been numerous political movements such as anarchism, communism, the labour movement, Marxism, social democracy and syndicalism, whose members called themselves socialists under some definition of the term—some of these interpretations are mutually exclusive and all of them have generated debates over the ...

What is a simple example of socialism? ›

Public infrastructure—bridges, roads, electricity, water and sewer systems, and other government infrastructure—is considered socialist. It is usually owned and operated by the government and paid for by a mix of taxation and user fees.

Do taxes exist under socialism? ›

In socialist society, unlike capitalism, taxes are a very small part of the income of working people, and are used for public needs. In 1954 they amounted to only 8.3 per cent of the total revenue of the U.S.S.R.

What is the biggest criticism of socialism? ›

Socialism Some of the primary criticisms of socialism are claims that it creates distorted or absent price signals, results in reduced incentives, causes reduced prosperity, has low feasibility, and that it has negative social and political effects.

Why is socialism for the rich? ›

Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor is a classical political-economic argument asserting that, in advanced capitalist societies, state policies assure that more resources flow to the rich than to the poor, for example in the form of transfer payments.

What is 1 major benefit of socialism? ›

Advantages of Socialism

According to the socialistic system, each person is guaranteed access to basic goods, even those who are not able to contribute. As a result, the system helps to minimize poverty levels in the society.

What is wrong socialism? ›

One criticism of socialism is that, in any society where everyone holds equal wealth, there can be no material incentive to work because one does not receive rewards for a work well done. They further argue that incentives increase productivity for all people and that the loss of those effects would lead to stagnation.

Who benefits from socialism? ›

Pros of socialism

A welfare state which provides a minimum basic income for those who are unemployed, sick or unable to work maintains a basic living standard for the poorest in society and helps to reduce relative poverty.

What defines a socialist country? ›

A socialist country is a sovereign state in which everyone in society equally owns the factors of production. The four factors of production are labor, capital goods, natural resources and entrepreneurship. In a socialist country, people account for individual needs and social needs.

Was Elon Musk a socialist? ›

Political parties and the US in general

In 2014, Musk described himself politically as "half Democrat, half Republican" and "I'm somewhere in the middle, socially liberal and fiscally conservative." In 2018, he stated that he was "not a conservative. I'm registered independent [and] politically moderate."

What two terms are confused with socialism? ›

Communism and socialism are political and economic systems that are related but often confused with each other. Both of them reject capitalism in favor of greater equality and granting economic power to the working class.

Is communism and socialism the same thing? ›

The main difference is that under communism, most property and economic resources are owned and controlled by the state (rather than individual citizens); under socialism, all citizens share equally in economic resources as allocated by a democratically-elected government.

Is Communism and socialism the same thing? ›

The main difference is that under communism, most property and economic resources are owned and controlled by the state (rather than individual citizens); under socialism, all citizens share equally in economic resources as allocated by a democratically-elected government.

Which political party is socialist? ›

The Socialist Party USA, officially the Socialist Party of the United States of America, is a socialist political party in the United States.

What governments are socialist? ›

Marxist–Leninist states
People's Republic of China1 October 1949Communist Party of China
Republic of Cuba24 February 1976Communist Party of Cuba
Lao People's Democratic Republic2 December 1975Lao People's Revolutionary Party
Socialist Republic of Vietnam2 September 1945Communist Party of Vietnam
1 more row

What is socialism vs capitalism? ›

Capitalism is based on individual initiative and favors market mechanisms over government intervention, while socialism is based on government planning and limitations on private control of resources. Left to themselves, economies tend to combine elements of both systems.


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