Thursday, December 24, 2020


 The Sacramento Bee recently published an article by   Malik Pitchford in which he quotes Barack Obama   saying that “Socialism is still a loaded word for   some  folks.” This is so very true. I would argue,  fortiori, that to many Americans the label is still a   dirty word, an epithet used by politicians to destroy   their opponents, a strategy that Republicans often   use   successfully. 

 I grew up a socialist and I remain a socialist. My     parents were socialists, as were most of the people I knew. To me, socialism is the most sensible ideology. Growing up, I also assumed that the world was moving in the direction of socialism. I still believe this. But I could be wrong. 

In this brief article, I cannot do justice to the many different meanings of the word “Socialism.” Nor do I touch upon the different forms of socialism in the world. For example, the Soviet Union was called "Communist." However, the USSR defined itself as a socialist state (USSR = Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). 
What about the distinction between "social democracy" and "liberal democracy"?  Some say that most of the  European Union consists of Social Democracies, whereas the US is often called a Liberal Democracy. However, the distinction is not firm. It is more a matter of degree. Freedom House, for example, classifies most Western  European Countries, as well as a Australia and Canada, as both social democracies AND liberal democracies. 
The literature on “Socialism” is vast. The term means many different things. Many countries and political parties around the world have adopted varying degrees/elements of “socialism.” For example, Fried and Sanders’ Socialist Thought (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964) includes discussions of “Utopian Socialism,” “Scientific Socialism,” “Marx and Engels,” “Bolshevism,” anarcho-collectivists such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, Leninism, and much more. 
Then, too, some view Socialism as an ideology, others see it as an economic system (as well). 

At the risk of simplifying: Socialism’s bottom line is (1) the primacy of equality among all humans, (2) the public ownership and management of the means of production and distribution, and of essential but unprofitable services (e.g. health care, education, public transportation), and (3) a collectivist social organization. Furthermore, the extent to which a society depends on collective, public economic solutions, as opposed to private economic practices, is a matter of degree. The key question is: To what extent is an economy guided by the principles of Adam Smith or Karl Marx? 

An excellent discussion of Socialism is Olga Shevchenko’s article “Socialism” in the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization, (2012). Here is how she begins: “The rise and later the decline of state socialism has defined the political landscape of the twentieth century...The number of countries that claim to adhere to the state socialist model has dwindled (and the exact extent to which they embody socialist principles is questionable). 

Shevchenko succinctly traces the history and evolution of Socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Utopian Socialism, Marx, Communism, etc. 

Then, the bulk of her article discusses the implementation of Socialism in the Soviet Union. The system of State Socialism that emerged in Russia from 1917 onwards was drastically affected by the specific conditions in that country at the time. It was a backward agrarian society, it needed to modernize at a frightful pace in order to survive, etc. Thus, what evolved was an extremely repressive and in the end inefficient system. 

The Soviet failure is now universally recognized. It was the failure of the first massive realization of “socialism.” What developed was a State Socialism with the Party holding a monopoly of power. 

Today, we have a largely Capitalist world. There is one country left that still follows the Soviet state socialist model - Cuba. There are some aberrations such as North Korea, which is primarily a nuclear threat to the world. And then there is China. It calls itself “Communist,” but its system is difficult to characterize. Its two most salient features are: (1) Unlike much of the developed world (Western Europe, Canada, Australia, etc.), it is undemocratic. (2) It is economically and politically more efficient (it has enjoyed much faster economic growth, and a far more successful response to the Covid pandemic than the US and Europe). While the first of these features is not to be emulated, the second one suggests that the world may have lessons to learn from China. 

However, this is not the end of the story: Inequality has been on the rise for decades, reaching astronomical levels, especially in the US and in parts of the Third World. Dozens of billionaires in the US and elsewhere enjoy individual net worths that exceed the GNP of many dozens of entire nations! 

Nor can accelerated economic growth be the solution, as it would aggravate the already severe environmental damage being done to the planet. 

As Shevchenko notes, racism, inequality and injustice are not going away. These problems call for an alternative to BOTH the current capitalist world order AND Soviet-style socialism. There is a need for a “third way.” The failure of Soviet-style Socialism does not mean the failure of socialism per se. The third way will need to incorporate major socialist principles. Many advanced democracies - Scandinavia, Germany, Japan, the Benelux, etc.- already demonstrate the more benign and humane quality of life that is possible in “mixed” economies; that is, economies that combine elements of the free enterprise system AND Socialism. Universal single-payer not-for-profit  healthcare, vastly improved public provision of childcare, sick leave, paid parental leave, paid vacation, more generous unemployment compensation, government ownership and management of unprofitable but essential sectors of the economy, including services such as transportation (both ground and air), education, and scientific research. In sum, a much greater dose of “socialism,” particularly in the US. 

As Shevchenko writes, “...socialist (or social democratic or labor ) parties, whose policies may have little in common with those of state socialist regimes, remain important players in the political landscape of many democratic nations, from Australia to Norway.” 

It is in that sense that I consider myself a life-long socialist. Were I an Englishman, I would vote for Labor, in Holland I would vote for the PVDA (labor) or for the Socialist Party, in Germany for the Social Democrats. Being an American, I belong to the Democratic party, because that IS our “socialist” party, or at least, it is halfway there. Aren’t Social Security and Medicare socialism? Aren’t ALL government services socialism? Is progressive taxation not socialism? The question is not whether to have socialism or not, but HOW MUCH socialism is needed. 

Shevchenko’s  last words are the most important: “The future of Socialism is still largely open.” And as Pitchford notes, “Among young American adults, socialism is as popular an ideology as free-market capitalism, according to a 2019 Gallup pole.” leave comment here

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