This blog is from a new feature on The Journal of a Mad Sociologist: Do Not Be Afraid. The function of this new feature is to counter the fear-mongering that passes for political discourse today. The first focus is the Socialist Bogeyman, the quintessential monster resurrected whenever the threat of progressive reforms enters the public domain.
It never fails! Whenever conservatives are being challenged, especially when they are being challenged on a popular front with legislation designed to benefit common people the very first bogeyman they embrace is socialism! Since the turn of the century the socialist threat has been attached in some way to just about every progressive program from child labor laws to our current health care and financial reforms. In about every instance the proposed legislation was defined as “the first step to socialist tyranny.” Social Security would lead to the hammer and sickle flying over the White House. In 1961 Ronald Reagan gave an impassioned speech on the perils of socialized medicine, that medicine was a common method through which to impose socialist tyranny. His speech was in anticipation of Medicare, which passed in 1965.
So there’s socialist Social Security, socialist Medicare, socialist Medicaid, socialist food-stamps, socialist welfare, unemployment compensation. There’s all these socialist laws floating around. Um…where’s the tyranny? Somehow the tyranny just didn’t materialize. Indeed, some of our most vociferous voices against socialism love their Social Security and Medicare.
Indeed, the fear of socialism in deeply ingrained in American politics. In the opening years of the 20th century socialists really were a viable political force in the United States. Eugene V. Debs was an outspoken and popular critic of American political economy. Socialists advocated for fair labor practices, redistribution of wealth, checks against the accumulation of power in the hands of the Robber Barons and turning away from war. What they never advocated for was tyranny. Regardless, socialist paradigms were considered dangerous and radical to the power elite. Progressivism rose to stem the tide of radical thought by offering more politically palatable reforms to satisfy an understandably angry populace.
Socialism remained a powerful force in American politics until World War I. Socialist organizations were harassed, raided and shut down as a result of the Espionage Act 1917. Eugene Debs was imprisoned under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. In the 1920’s A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover declared war against the radical elements, especially anarchists, communists and socialists. Thousands were rounded up and held without trial. Hundreds, including the famous social critic Emma Goldman, were deported. This without any evidence of a threat to the United States. A House Un-American Activities Committee was formed, later supplemented by Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings. These institutions blacklisted and disenfranchised some of America’s finest artists and writers. Indeed, socialism was a focus of tyranny, only it was socialists themselves who were the victims.
So scapegoating socialism is old hat to the political establishment. Socialist fear mongering is used to water down or kill any even mildly progressive reform that might possibly serve the public good. Last year the widely popular “public option” was struck from health care reform as it was linked to socialized medicine. President Obama and many other left leaning or liberal political influences are falsely accused of communism/socialism…which has somehow also been linked to Fascism through what can only be described as philosophical acrobatics performed by the likes of Glenn Beck et, al.
The reason this scapegoating is possible is due to the overall ignorance of what socialism really is and what socialists really stand for. Any attempt at an honest analysis of socialism is defined as condoning the socialist agenda…and really, who wants to do that. But if people actually knew what socialism was, they may not agree with socialist tenets, but they certainly wouldn’t fear socialist influence. Knowing what socialists stand for and strive to achieve would lay rest the absurd claim that President Obama and his administration is somehow fulfilling the feared socialist agenda. Maybe then we could actually participate in a real critique of the Obama social policy.
The crux of socialist fear mongering is centered on Joseph Stalin and the failed experiment of the Soviet Union. True, Stalin came to power on a wave of socialist/communist revolution. The formation of the Soviet Union was the ultimate expression of that power base. Reading socialist literature, however, one finds deep criticisms of Stalin and the Soviet Adventure (yes, one can also find socialist and communist apologists for Soviet tyranny as well). Stalin was power mad and brutal. He would have been power mad and brutal regardless of the premise by which he achieved power. And the Soviet system is a clear warning about the dangers of concentrated power in the hands of a few, in this case the communist party. Stalin and Soviet politics, however, is not definitive of socialist thought.
In fact, socialists eschew tyranny, promoting democratic principles. Socialists, however, recognize that economic oppression is no different than political oppression. The socialist believes that so long as the factors of production are concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people then those who must trade their labor in exchange for wages cannot experience true freedom. Overall, the socialist believe that the factors of production, or key market areas, should be a public trust and directly benefit the community or society, especially those who actually do the work. Socialism is a response to the existence of poverty in otherwise wealthy societies, where that wealth disproportionately benefits the few at the expense of the many. This is not an uncommon complaint.
Socialists also identify certain mechanisms that serve the interests of the elite to maintain their non-egalitarian control of the factors of production. Such mechanisms include police state tactics and warfare, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly as well as the perpetuation of myths like racism, ethnocentrism, sexism and nationalism that serve to keep working people antagonistic toward each other rather than turning their anger toward their real enemies, free market capitalists. Consequently, socialists have a long history of standing up for justice, peace, freedom of thought, expression and association. Socialists have been active in the civil rights movement, women’s movement and environmental movements. They have a long record of standing up for human rights.
Socialists believe that mitigating the negative effects of the market requires that the ownership of the factors of production, capital, should reside in the hands of people as a whole, not in the hands of individuals or shareholders. This is a central principle of socialism, but there are many different perspectives on how such a system can be achieved and administered. Most socialists believe that the factors of production should be regulated democratically. That any capital enterprise should be owned by the people of the community in which the enterprise exists. Others support cooperatives in which the workers own the enterprise itself. There are those socialists who believe that the state should nationalize all capital endeavors in the interests of the citizens. Then there are the less radical socialists who offer that perhaps not all business should be centrally controlled, but rather certain key industries should be held in the public trust, such as medicine, power or central production industries. Other socialists, like Social Democrats, or not necessarily antagonistic about private ownership of capital, but demand certain rights and social safety nets for the working class. And yes, there are Leninist socialists who suggest that a single party, working in the interests of the working class, should decide how fruits of production are distributed.
Communists, overall, distinguish themselves from socialists. The communists see socialism as an incomplete idea. According to Karl Marx socialism is a crucial step toward the collective consciousness that will ultimately lead to a classless society. Again, communists represent an ideological spectrum rather than a central, cohesive belief system. Though communists see their ends as ultimately democratic they recognize that their ultimate revolution will be violent and the dispossession of the capitalist class will be done “despotically.” To many communists (though not all) this bloody process will be necessary to liberate the working class and institute a true democracy. This is not a belief shared by most socialists.
What we do not have is a cohesive, sinister strategy to institute an oppressive regime by providing health care and minimum wages. Socialists believe that their goals are democratic and that achieving their goals can be done through democratic means. They believe that a truly responsive, democratic state should serve the interests of all its citizens, not just the elite few. So the confusion of socialism with fascism perpetuated by conservative talking heads is inaccurate. The socialist believes that the state should serve the needs of the citizen. Many socialists believe that the state should extend no further than a regional community. This is a clear contrast with fascists who believe that the individual should serve the state, and the elite few possessed of the superior qualities that legitimize their rule. Fascism is an idea that socialists find abhorrent, which is why socialists and communists were, in fact, among the first to resist the rise of fascism before World War II.
The above description is meant to wash the fear of socialism from the contemporary political discourse. It is not, as the conservative mouthpieces are sure insinuate, a defense of socialism. Indeed, it is the position of this website that an economy or a society cannot be effectively run via the use of dogma, whether that dogma is free market capitalism or socialism. There are many weaknesses in the socialist discourse. For instance, it is unlikely that a socialist society would be immune to the very same power dynamics that corrupt the free market, namely the accumulation of power in the hands of a few. However, socialists do have very legitimate concerns about economic inequality and instability that negatively impacts the working class disproportionately.
Simply using “socialism” as a scary fable to frighten uninformed citizens away from otherwise popular reforms demeans the democratic process. Why not have a discussion in which socialists and free market capitalists and the many and varied ideas that don’t necessarily conform to this dichotomy construct expound on their ideas, present their policies and let the people decide the direction they want to go. What represents a democratic society more, one in which opposing viewpoints can hash out their differences in an open political arena, or one in which certain ideas are vilified without discussion?
You don’t have to accept the socialist agenda in whole or in part. But you should not be afraid of the socialists.