Written by Lawrence Wittner and published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
In recent weeks, Donald Trump and other Republicans have begun to tar their Democratic opponents with the “socialist” brush
, contending that the adoption of socialist policies will transform the United States into a land of dictatorship and poverty. In fact, though, like many of Trump’s other claims
, there’s no reason to believe it.
The ideal of socialism goes back deep into human history and, at its
core, is based on the notion that wealth should be shared more equitably
between the rich and the poor. Numerous major religions have
emphasized this point, criticizing greed
and preaching the necessity for “all God’s children” to share in the
world’s abundance. The goal of increased economic equality has also
mobilized numerous social movements and rebellions.
But how was this sharing of wealth to be achieved? Religious leaders
often emphasized charity. Social movements developed communitarian
living experiments. Revolutions seized the property of the rich and
redistributed it. And governments began to set aside portions of the
economy to enhance the welfare of the public, rather than the profits of
the wealthy few.
In the United States, governments created a public sector alongside
private enterprise. The American Constitution, drafted by the Founding
Fathers, provided for the establishment of a U.S. postal service, which
quickly took root in American life. Other public enterprises followed,
including publicly-owned and operated lands, roads, bridges, canals,
ports, schools, police forces, water departments, fire departments, mass
transit systems, sewers, sanitation services, dams, libraries, parks,
hospitals, food and nutrition services, and colleges and universities.
Although many of these operated on a local level, others were
nationwide in scope and became very substantial enterprises, including
Social Security, Medicare, National Public Radio, the National
Institutes of Health, and the U.S. armed forces. In short, over the
centuries the United States has developed what is often termed “a mixed economy,” as have many other countries.
Nations also found additional ways to socialize (or share) the
wealth. These included facilitating the organization of unions and
cooperatives, as well as establishing a minimum wage, unemployment
insurance, and a progressive tax policy―one with the highest levies on
the wealthy and their corporations.
Over the course of U.S. history, these policies, sometimes termed “social democracy,”
have enriched the lives of most Americans and have certainly not led to
dictatorship and economic collapse. They are also the kind championed
by Bernie Sanders and other democratic socialists.
Why, then, does a significant portion of the American population view socialism as a dirty word?
One reason is that many (though not all) of the wealthy fiercely
object to sharing their wealth and possess the vast financial resources
that enable them to manipulate public opinion and pull American politics
rightward. After all, they own the corporate television and radio
networks, control most of the major newspapers, dominate the governing
boards of major institutions, and can easily afford to launch vast
public relations campaigns to support their economic interests. In
addition, as the largest source of campaign funding in the United
States, the wealthy have disproportionate power in politics. So it’s
only natural that their values are over-represented in public opinion
and in election results.
But there’s another major reason that socialism has acquired a bad
name: the policies of Communist governments. In the late 19th and early
20th centuries, socialist parties were making major gains in
economically advanced nations. This included the United States,
where the Socialist Party of America, between 1904 and 1920, elected
socialists to office in 353 towns and cities, and governed major urban
centers such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But, in Czarist Russia, an
economically backward country suffering under a harsh dictatorship, one
wing of the small, underground socialist movement, the Bolsheviks, used
the chaos and demoralization caused by Russia’s disastrous participation
in World War I to seize power. Given their utter lack of democratic
experience, the Bolsheviks (who soon called themselves Communists)
repressed their rivals (including democratic socialists) and established
a one-party dictatorship. They also created a worldwide body, the
Communist International, to compete with the established socialist
movement, which they denounced fiercely for its insistence on democratic
norms and civil liberties.
In the following decades, the Communists, championing their model of
authoritarian socialism, made a terrible mess of it in the new Soviet
Union, as well as in most other lands where they seized power or, in
Eastern Europe, took command thanks to post-World War II occupation by
the Red Army. Establishing brutal dictatorships with stagnating
economies, these Communist regimes alienated their populations and drew
worldwide opprobrium. In China, to be sure, the economy has boomed in
recent decades, but at the cost of supplementing political dictatorship
with the heightened economic inequality accompanying corporate-style capitalism.
By contrast, the democratic socialists―those denounced and spurned by the Communists―did a remarkably good job
of governing their countries. In the advanced industrial democracies,
where they were elected to office on numerous occasions and defeated on
others, they fostered greater economic and social equality, substantial
economic growth, and political freedom.
Their impact was particularly impressive in the Scandinavian nations. For example, about a quarter of Sweden’s vibrant economy is publicly-owned. In addition,
Sweden has free undergraduate college/university tuition, monthly
stipends to undergraduate students, free postgraduate education (e.g.
medical and law school), free medical care until age 20 and nearly free
medical care thereafter, paid sick leave, 480 days of paid leave when a
child is born or adopted, and nearly free day-care and preschool
programs. Furthermore, Sweden has 70 percent union membership, high
wages, four to seven weeks of vacation a year, and an 82-year life
expectancy. It can also boast the ninth most competitive economy in the
world. Democratic socialism has produced similar results in Norway and Denmark.
Of course, democratic socialism might not be what you want. But let’s not pretend that it’s something that it’s not.
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