Socialism is ascendant in American politics in a way it hasn’t been since the early 20th century. One of the top contenders for the leadership of the House Democrats was just ousted by a socialist candidate, a socialist won 13 million votes in the last Democratic presidential primary, and millennials are far more sympathetic to socialism than they are to capitalism. For those of us who identify as socialists, this is encouraging news! Others, however, are horrified, and think this tendency is extremely worrying. The founder of Home Depot, Ken Langone, has written a book called I Love Capitalism, in an effort to convince youngsters not to tinker with the system that made American great and Ken Langone stinking rich. (It may easier to love capitalism if you’re the billionaire in charge of Home Depot than if you’re one of the wage-workers who actually staff it.)
But socialism should not be accepted just because it’s cool now, even if it happens to be very cool indeed. Nor should it be accepted simply because so many of the greatest intellects and humanitarians of the last century were socialists or anti-capitalists (including Bertrand Russell, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, George Orwell, Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, Noam Chomsky, and Oscar Wilde). Socialism should be examined carefully, like any political proposition, and its proponents should defend their ideas carefully and rigorously.
However, in order to actually have a sensible discussion about whether, for example, the radical socialist agenda of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes sense and should be implemented (I think it should), we need to clear away a few glib critiques of socialism that pop up over and over. They are: (1) it’s vague and cagey (2) it’s a recipe for calamity, and (3) it’s hypocritical. I am certain that once we show why these criticisms fail, Current Affairs will never again receive angry correspondence from the public asking us if we have heard about a little place called Venezuela.
1. Socialists are vague about what socialism means: sometimes it’s “the abolition of profit” and sometimes it’s “Scandinavia.”
There’s incredible amounts of slippage in DSA messaging between “we should have an integrated national health care system like all other rich democracies” and “we should eliminate profit unlike any other rich democracy.” — Matthew Yglesias
“In most economic issues… the new socialist movement doesn’t look that different from a standard progressive Democratic agenda.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg Opinion
A lot of people profess confusion about socialism: Is it a radical call for the total transformation of society or a push for social democratic reforms like those already existing in many European countries? And it’s difficult to give an answer to that question, because it’s not necessarily either/or. For some, like myself, the answer is “both”: There’s a utopian element and a pragmatic element, and while in the long term I’d like to live in a stateless society in which the means of production are democratically controlled, in the immediate future I think socialists have to devise and pursue attainable, useful goals like guaranteed healthcare, de-militarizing the police, and creating a humane immigration policy.
The reason there isn’t an obvious answer to the question, though, is that it’s a tension within socialism that has existed throughout its history. But disputes over the extent to which socialism should be reformist or revolutionary do not make the word meaningless. As G.D.H. Cole notes in his History of Socialist Thought, many abstract terms have contested definitions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them intelligibly or that they’re unhelpful:
The impossibility of defining Socialism has often been emphasized, and sometimes regarded as reproach. But neither in Politics nor in Morals is any important idea or system ever capable of being exactly defined. Who can satisfactorily define democracy, or liberty, or virtue, or happiness, or the State, or, for that matter, individualism any more than Socialism?
There are, however, important common elements among nearly all socialists, just as there are among conservatives or liberals (terms whose definitions are just as debated as socialism). One is a deep dissatisfaction with the existing state of economic life, and a rejection of standard arguments for why it’s acceptable or just to have capital concentrated in the hands of a small number of rich people. Socialists believe that there ought to be a radically different distribution of wealth and power across society. This already sets them apart from the political mainstream. Socialists also tend to be believers in collective ownership, but now we’re starting to get into the debates that have divided socialists for more than a century, since there are major differences of opinion over (1) what that means and (2) how to get there.
Not all socialists are revolutionaries. Historically, there have always been “reformist” socialists like Bernie Sanders, who try to work within existing institutions. This is what the Fabian Society was, and to a great extent what the British Labour Party itself was. Labour was founded by a socialist, Keir Hardie, and for most of its history it was officially a socialist party. The National Health Service, the crown jewel of Labour’s “social democratic” policies, exists in part because the Socialist Medical Association helped make it a viable idea, and because a democratic socialist, Nye Bevan, made it a reality.
What do I mean when I say that Labour was “officially a socialist party”? I mean that until the coward and war criminal Tony Blair took it out and replaced it with mushy pap about “realizing our true potential,” there had always been a clause in the Labour Party constitution calling for popular control of industry:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
The clause, “Clause IV,” caused strong internal division in the party, between those who thought the party was taking progressive steps toward this radical end, and those, like Blair, who do not have radical ends in mind in the short-term or long-term. That is one difference between a “democratic socialist” and a “social democrat.” Even though they can look identical in their policy platforms, there’s a difference between “believing that your policies are a small step toward a utopian endpoint” and “believing that your policies are the endpoint.” The difference is well-captured in the debate over Clause IV: A democratic socialist believes in Clause IV, a social democrat does not.
Labels are frustrating, though, and every moment spent discussing what socialism means or whether someone does or does not qualify as a socialist is not being spent discussing their actual proposals. The right does not have good arguments against what socialists are advocating today; Ted Cruz, the champion debater, was bested when he went up against Bernie Sanders. Why? Because fundamentally, the right does not have a plausible answer to the question of how we can ensure that people aren’t using GoFundMe to pay for insulin, or sitting bleeding and begging people not to call an ambulance because they can’t afford it. (From CNN just this week: “The woman was clearly in a lot of pain, but she didn’t want anyone to call an ambulance because she said she couldn’t afford it. ‘She made it a point to say “you don’t understand, I have terrible insurance.”’”)
Personally, I consider myself both a radical and a pragmatist. I treat socialism as a basic set of principles, and because of those principles I believe there should be no borders, no prisons, and no bosses. That makes me a utopian. But I also think that the job of a moral human being is to actually accomplish things that help people, and to understand political reality even while trying to alter it. (These are essentially the political principles of Noam Chomsky, who nobody doubts is a socialist.) It’s perfectly possible to believe that the most viable political causes in the 21st century United States are paid family leave, single-payer healthcare, debt forgiveness, and prison reform (as examples), and still hold out hopes that someday, our descendants will live in blissful Star Trek communism.
We can no more hope for a perfect definition of what socialism is than what love or democracy is. But like those other terms, it suggests a value worth pursuing, one whose meaning we can debate, but which offers a valuable orienting principle.
2. History proves that socialism inevitably results in disaster. Look at the USSR! Look at Venezuela!
Inflation in Venezuela is reminiscent of Weimar Germany. Roughly 85 percent of Venezuelan companies have stopped production to one extent or another, in the most oil-rich country in the world…The disconnect between socialism’s record and its invincible appeal also stems from leftists’ denial of what it really entails. —Jonah Goldberg
Before we get to why the USSR and Venezuela tell no more about socialism than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tells us about democratic republics, I’d like to talk about a different historical example of socialism in action. If we are going to inquire into history’s lessons honestly, we have to look at all of it rather than the bits that suit our ideological purposes, and it’s strange to talk about “what history can teach us about whether socialism would be good for the United States” without looking at the history of socialism in the United States itself.
We’ve actually had socialists in public office before. Quite a few, in fact. A century ago, when socialism was at its peak in this country, the Socialist Party held 1,200 offices in 340 cities. There were two socialist members of Congress, dozens of socialist state legislators, and more than 130 socialist mayors in over half of the U.S. states. (The University of Wisconsin has maps showing just how impressive socialism’s spread across the country was.) Socialist party successes were especially concentrated in the Midwest, which makes Tammy Duckworth’s comment that you can’t go too far left and still win the Midwest somewhat ironic.
Many people are taught, mostly as a curious historical footnote, that Eugene Debs received more than a million votes when he ran for president, even when forced to campaign from a prison cell. But the socialists who actually did hold public office are rarely discussed. That’s a shame, because it could help us answer one of the most serious critical questions facing socialism: Would it be a disaster if socialists were actually put in charge? Are they impractical utopians whose ideology would crush freedom and destroy our fragile institutions? What would socialist political power look like in the United States? In fact, we had a taste of socialist political power in the United States, albeit only on the local level. Three mayors of Milwaukee were socialists! And during their tenure, did Milwaukee turn into a bleak and bloody revolutionary nightmare?
Turns out it did not. In fact:
Under the Socialists, Milwaukee gained a reputation as a well-managed municipality. They believed that government had a responsibility to promote the common good, but particularly to serve the needs of the city’s working class. They built community parks, including beautiful green spaces and recreation areas along the lakefront that are still widely-used. They increased the citywide minimum wage (28 years before the federal government adopted the idea) and established an eight-hour day standard for municipal workers. They championed public education for the city’s children, built excellent libraries and sponsored vibrant recreation programs. The city municipalized street lighting, the stone quarry, garbage disposal and water purification.
Daniel Hoan, the longest-serving of the three socialist Milwaukee mayors, was so popular among the city’s residents that he served in office for 24 years. (The socialist mayor of Bridgeport, CT was also re-elected continuously for a quarter century.) In 1936, Hoan was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, which said that under his administration, “Milwaukee has become perhaps the best governed city in the U.S.” The city “won many awards for being among the safest and healthiest cities in the country,” and “regularly had among the lowest rates of infant mortality and epidemic diseases of any American city.” Hoan “experimented with the municipal marketing of food, backed city-built housing, and in providing public markets, city harbor improvements, and purging graft from Milwaukee politics.” The Midwestern socialist mayors were pejoratively known as “sewer socialists,” because of their tendency to boast about their new public sewer systems. But sewers are important! Sewer socialists cared about getting things done, even seemingly mundane things, because they wanted to improve the lives of people in their communities.
In fact, we’ve had a more recent example of a socialist becoming a mayor, a person many more people have heard of. Bernie Sanders served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont for eight years, being re-elected three times. How did it go? Did he create a little Leningrad on Lake Champlain?
No, it was fine. Sanders was regarded as “a hardworking, pragmatic, effective mayor who helped transform Vermont’s largest city (population: 38,000) into a thriving town.” And furthermore:
Burlington is now widely heralded as an environmentally friendly, lively, and livable city with a thriving economy, including one of the lowest jobless rates in the country. Burlingtonians give Sanders credit for steering the city in a new direction that, despite early skepticism, proved to be broadly popular with voters.
During the heyday of the Socialist Party in the early 1900s, socialists were not only mayors but also served in a number of state legislatures. And while they were always in the minority and usually outvoted, they also did have genuine accomplishments. The Party’s 1914 report on its legislative activities makes for fascinating reading, and documents a series of low-key socialist policy successes across different states. In Wisconsin, for example, after a while “both major parties had adopted parts of the Socialist platform, and the legislature was passing bills that a decade before would never have been reported out of committee.” What sort of measures were these? Well:
In 1907, the socialist measures were typical and serve to illustrate the nature and extent of the work. The socialists introduced 72 different bills during one session. Fifteen were finally carried. Among the successful measures were the following: (1) A bill which provided for the erection of guards and railings over dangerous machinery in factories. (2) A bill which provided that all metal polishing machines shall be equipped with blowers and sufficient draft to remove the metallic dust. (3) A bill requiring railway companies to equip all trains with sufficient men to handle the work without overburdening the train men, known as the Full Crew Bill. (4) An eight-hour telegraphers’ law. (5) A greatly improved child labor law. (6) Certain measures securing a greater degree of justice to labor through court processes. Thus it will be seen that as early as 1907 the socialist legislatures were beginning to force considerable concessions from the legislatures. By the time the 1911 legislature closed its session, the number of successful socialist measures had increased rapidly.
Alright, but here I’m going to encounter the inevitable objection: This isn’t socialism! Bernie Sanders did not govern Burlington “as a socialist,” therefore his tenure tells us nothing about socialism. I think this is mistaken, for a simple reason: There is nothing inherent in the basic principles of socialism that precludes pragmatic governance. There is a distinction between “a socialized economy” and “socialist values,” and Bernie Sanders did govern in accordance with his socialist values. He took on developers, fighting to ensure that the Lake Champlain waterfront would be a “people’s waterfront” that everyone could enjoy rather than containing nothing but luxury condos for the rich. The bills passed by the socialists in the Wisconsin legislature may not have been particularly radical, since they had to have support of non-socialists. But they flowed directly from the socialists’ fundamental convictions: that the way economic life functions is deeply dysfunctional in a way that harms ordinary workers. So: the eight-hour day, ending child labor, workplace safety regulations, etc. Today, these may seem standard-issue “liberal” policies. It was radicals, though, who made those issues mainstream. Today’s capitalists like to give Henry Ford credit for creating the eight-hour-workday and the two-day weekend. But Ford adopted them after labor radicals had been campaigning for more than 60 years to get the workday reduced. The eight-hour workday was suggested by the socialist Robert Owen all the way back in 1817. The job of socialists is to put radical ideas in people’s heads. Then they become mainstream, then they get taken for granted, and finally everybody insists they believed them all along.
Alright: the USSR and Venezuela. I always find people’s invocation of the USSR as “socialism” funny, because it’s about as logical as saying that the “R” in USSR made the country a republic. Socialism means worker control, and there was not even the barest effort to institute worker control in the Soviet Union. The harshest critics of the Soviet government were socialists themselves, and it’s worth reading Bertrand Russell’s book on Bolshevism and the travelogues of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to understand why we can only call the country “socialist” if the word is drained of all substantive meaning. Since that would mean Kim Jong Un runs a “democratic” country, though, we should avoid this way of thinking if we’re to have real debates over whether socialism and democracy and democratic socialism are good ideas.
Likewise Venezuela, which even the Wall Street Journal’s Venezuela correspondent doesn’t think is “socialism” of any kind. Of course, at this point we get a favorite conservative response: “Oh, so nothing is ever socialism. Every time we point out how socialism works in practice, we just hear that it’s not ‘real’ socialism. Our point is that socialism will never exist because it inevitably leads to catastrophe.” I think this response can only be given by someone uninterested in history, fairness, and honesty. Calling totalitarian Marxist regimes the inevitable result of “socialism” means ignoring that many socialists are anarchists who detest all forms of state power and opposed the creation of these governments from the beginning. The socialist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin predicted the dire course of the Soviet Union’s history decades before it was founded. There is a libertarian socialist tradition that has always been strongly opposed to the authoritarian “socialism” that many governments have espoused.
Would libertarian socialism lead to mass misery? Of course not, because it is vigorously opposed to those features that made life miserable in communist countries: top-down control, capital punishment, state bureaucracy, faux egalitarianism, small cabals of leaders, secret police. George Orwell was this kind of socialist: He believed that socialism itself was so obvious that no reasonable person could oppose it (“From one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed it has not established itself already”), but he loathed any efforts at policing thought and making people less free in the name of the common good. Orwell was a champion of both economic and political freedom, but he understood that what capitalists call “economic freedom” is a cruel lie: It’s the freedom to take orders from a terrible boss, the freedom to die of a preventable disease because your crowdfunding campaign didn’t work. In the free market utopia, it would even be the freedom to send one of your children down a mine so that you could afford to send the other one to school.
Now, say we think Venezuela’s ruin had nothing to do with its being governed by incompetent kleptocrats who do not care about their people and have contempt for democracy. Instead, it was entirely attributable to “socialist economics,” like instituting price controls and expropriating resources and scaring off business. Nothing about socialist principles, though, requires you to institute economic policies that would create shortages. Evo Morales is a socialist, but he has actually tried to govern Bolivia carefully and pragmatically. His policies “have transformed Bolivia from an ‘economic basket case’ into a country that receives praise from such unlikely contenders as the World Bank and the IMF – an irony considering the country’s success is the result of the socialist administration casting off the recommendations of the IMF in the first place.” Likewise, the Labour government that introduced the NHS in the postwar period was introducing a socialistic policy: placing a large sector of the economy mostly under state control. The result was the creation of an institution that Britons take immense pride in, even as a decade of conservative governance has threatened to destroy it.
One can only treat socialism as synonymous with the USSR or Venezuela if one deletes countless socialists from the pages of history. What about Kropotkin or Goldman or Luxemburg or Benn? What about the great European socialists like August Bebel or Jean Jaurès? These men were not moderates, they were radical dissidents who stood up against the consensus of the day. Bebel led the only political faction to oppose Germany’s brutal genocide in West Africa, and abominated racism. Jaurès was murdered for his anti-militarist stance against a pointless war that killed millions. In our own country, what about Eugene Debs, who bravely defied the law in order to oppose that same war, and was sent to prison for it? What about Victor Berger, the first socialist congressman, who was denied his seat in the House of Representatives because he dared to oppose needless nationalistic slaughter? What about the socialists who fought Nazis in the streets of Berlin, who died trying to prevent Francoism from coming to Spain, who tried desperately to stop the Vietnam War? Some of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century, like King and Gandhi, and the strongest opponents of state repression and totalitarianism, like Orwell, were staunch critics of capitalism. If we’re going to discuss socialism’s “record,” then, we can’t limit ourselves to the brutal dictators who have claimed to rule in the name of the people, and waved the word “socialism” around to justify whatever brutality they cared to pursue. We have to give credit to those who have consistently been humane voices for the downtrodden, and who have improved the world by expanding our moral imagination.
3. Socialists are hypocrites. They take the benefits of capitalism while denouncing the very system that allowed them the luxury to criticize it!
Ocasio-Cortez can rant about capitalism from her iPhone while wearing her Sephora lipstick, but she should realize that she’s a beneficiary of the capitalism she so despises. It’s easy to rip on capitalism’s shortcomings while living amidst its benefits. — Ben Shapiro
This is the least persuasive of the three criticisms, because it doesn’t actually tell us anything about how workplaces ought to operate, what healthcare ought to look like, or whether nuclear arms should be eliminated. It’s mostly an attack on people rather than on their ideas. If you want a good way to distract attention away from the question of whether, say, the Black Lives Matter policy agenda is sound and justifiable, or whether child agricultural labor is an outrage, you can just go “Oh yeah, well look at your fancy lipstick.”
Even if we assume that wearing nice lipstick renders your beliefs on social justice invalid, we haven’t actually come up with an intellectual response to someone who wasn’t wearing lipstick, or “receiving the benefits of capitalism.” Since, however, we all live in the economy, using the goods and services provided by “capitalism” (actually, mostly by wage workers), there isn’t anybody who doesn’t “receive the benefits.” That means capitalism is immune to criticism, which seems awfully convenient.
I never quite understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold, and advocate for changing them. Under any other system, we can see instantly that this objection would be absurd. If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education at the state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, that wouldn’t make them a hypocrite for criticizing the way these institutions were run, or the structure of the Soviet economy. And this wonderful little cartoon by Matt Bors captures how ridiculous the critique would seem under feudalism:
We can imagine countless other scenarios in which such a criticism is made, and each time it sounds ludicrous. A father rules like a tyrant over his family, and they are terrified of him. Whenever one of them criticizes him, he replies: “How can you stand there in clothes I bought you and tell me there’s something ‘fundamentally wrong with the way this family operates’? Without me, you’d have nothing.” Note that this is a bad defense even if it’s factually true that without this man, the family would have nothing. Being “better than some other horrible alternative in some way” is not license to freely abuse people. Similarly, the fact that living under Stalin is worse than having to do the Walmart cheer does not justify making people do the Walmart cheer.
Yet this criticism can be formulated in a slightly more sophisticated way than Ben Shapiro types tend to articulate it: Those who criticize capitalism while using iPhones are failing to actually understand how wondrous the achievements of capitalism are. They are taking them for granted, which is objectionable not because it makes them hypocrites, but because they are oblivious to the bounties our economic system is yielding. But even in this much stronger version, the criticism doesn’t work. I am just as impressed with supermarkets and iPhones and the 11 different kinds of poop emoji pool floats you can get on Amazon as any member of the American Enterprise Institute. Yet I still believe that workplaces should be democratic, hedge fund managers produce nothing of social worth, and extreme wealth is immoral. We are supposed to believe that capitalism must be accepted or rejected as a package, that there is no conceivable way you can have Amazon’s speedy delivery service without the colossally unjust compensation difference between Jeff Bezos and his workers, or that there is simply no way to have basic labor standards across the globe without destroying international commerce. There is no reason to believe that.
Finally, it’s just worth discussing the basic question: Are you a hypocrite if you profess socialist values but do not live as an ascetic? I do not think you are, or at least I think that by this standard, it’s very hard not to be a bit of a hypocrite. But it’s a difficult moral question. Socialism shouldn’t require people to give up their ordinary comforts, because a central point of the idea is that there are plenty of comforts to go around, and there’s no reason anyone should be deprived of them. Joy and pleasure and indulgence are crucial parts of life; everyone deserves good lipstick and nice clothes. From a pure utilitarian perspective, one should personally redistribute one’s goods and never have any more than is strictly necessary for subsistence (if even subsistence can be justified). But socialism can’t be purely utilitarian; that’s what gets you dreary worker housing and a diet of gruel, a world in which nobody would want to live.
And yet I also realize that colossal wealth is indefensible, and that I have more than I truly need. To what extent should the value of egalitarianism entail self-sacrifice? What do we owe one another? I think it’s fine for Bernie Sanders to own a cute little vacation cottage by a lake, because a hard-working old man should get to have a little cottage he can visit! Yet I think it’s a huge waste for Elon Musk to fire a sports car into space, or for Jeff Bezos to build a 10,000-year clock in the desert. Am I being inconsistent? I don’t think I am, because I do think we can draw lines between reasonable luxury and unreasonable luxury, and that it’s possible to have a world in which everyone can go on lakeside vacations, but not possible to have a world in which everyone gets to build gigantic pointless clocks. “Live as you think everyone should reasonably be able to live if we distribute resources equitably” is the principle I try to follow, but admittedly I haven’t done the calculations to determine whether I’m exceeding my share.
Once again, though, we’re drifting away from the actual issues. The real question is whether the principles of socialism, that human beings should care about one another and share their resources fairly in a way that ensures nobody is deprived, make sense. I say they do, others say they don’t. But most of the arguments they make are cruel, silly, and/or beside the point. They distract us from the serious questions: What kind of world should we live in? What is the difference between that kind of world and the world we live in now? How do we get from one to the other?
Above: A map of socialist officeholders in the U.S., none of whom caused the country’s institutions to crumble or imposed a proletarian dictatorship.
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