Hand-wringing is taking place over an array of survey results suggesting that young people have an increasingly positive view of "socialism" and a correspondingly negative view of "capitalism."
This probably isn't quite as alarming as it seems, for a number of reasons.
First, to expect a generation which, according to other research, has difficulty distinguishing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to have somehow been fruitfully immersed in the collected works of Karl Kautsky or Rosa Luxemburg is surely to expect too much.
Most high school and college students these days don't know what the Cold War was or who our enemy in it happened to be. Mention of "dekulakization" or the Cultural Revolution brings on only looks of utter incomprehension.
So the bad news really isn't that young people are embracing socialism so much as that they are profoundly ignorant of concepts like socialism and communism and just about everything else. Personal experience also consoles by suggesting that once such knowledge is acquired, those hazy political infatuations are rather quickly dispelled.
In short, young people are educable on these and other matters, even if our educational system and mass media haven't been doing much educating.
A second source of consolation comes in realizing that the word "socialist" and its relationship to the word "communist" have undergone considerable transformation over time, to the point of producing empty vessels filled with whatever dreamy things are demanded at the moment.
Socialism originally meant public ownership of the means of production (as opposed to private ownership under capitalism). The most important philosopher of socialism, Karl Marx, in a fashion similar to predecessors like Henri de Saint-Simon and Mikhail Bakunin, tended to use the terms socialist and communist casually and thus often interchangeably. On some occasions he paired the two in sequential fashion, with the socialism part something of a post-revolutionary halfway house on the road to the real thing.
The broader point is that the labor movements which developed in European politics during Marx's time didn't precisely distinguish between socialism and communism--to support one was to support the other, and even then on a purely theoretical level since no real-world examples had yet emerged, Marx's "scientific" prognostication to the contrary.
No clear distinction between socialism and communism would be established until factional disputes emerged in European socialist parties in the early 20th century, with "revolutionary socialists" like Vladimir Lenin hewing to the original Marxist vision of violent overthrow of capitalism as prelude to the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" and "revisionary socialists" like Eduard Bernstein advocating a peaceful transition to socialism through ballots instead of bullets in tandem with "unionism."
The onset of the Great War permanently split those factions into separate parties, with the communists embracing the Bolshevik Revolution and sheltering thereafter securely under the wings of the Soviet-led Comintern (Communist International), and the revisionary socialists trundling further down the path of moderation and becoming mainstream left-of center parties no longer interested in revolution or even public ownership so much (although the urge to "nationalize" certain major industries, the "commanding heights" of the economy, so to speak, sometimes remained).
Thus we arrive at the "social democracy" of the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party, and the French Socialist Party, with their commitment to expanding "cradle to grave" social welfare programs, regulating labor and capital markets, and soaking the rich in ever more progressive taxation systems.
In America, the progressive movement and the New Deal would combine to push the Democratic Party in the same direction, making it our sort of, kind of, somewhat socialist/social democratic party, albeit without the Marxist origins or the actual label.
It wasn't difficult for Bernie Sanders to force the Democrats out of the closet on this score because there had long ceased to any difference between what their party stood for and what European social democratic parties did.
Given this history, communism can probably be best defined as socialism in practice, with the practice having largely disappeared outside dreary outposts like North Korea and Cuba.
For its part, socialism without communism is an essentially meaningless concept, amounting as it now does to little more than a mush of minimum-wage laws, government-run pension programs and single-payer health care.
Contrary to popular misconception, there are no advanced countries with socialist economies, not in North America or the Far East or even Scandinavia. There are only market-based economies with welfare states of varying size and generosity tacked on.
Socialism no longer means revolution, the classless society and utopia on earth; rather, simply the lure of "free stuff" that is free only because other people pay for it.
It now exists (once again) purely at the theoretical level, and survives only to the extent it stays there.
Belief in socialism has thus become little more than the steady handmaiden of ignorance; the kind of theoretical make-believe consistent with fan-boy superhero movies and midnight dorm-room bull sessions.
We all like Santa Claus, at least until we grow old enough to know he doesn't exist.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 11/20/2017
Print Headline: What is socialism?