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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?

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  • RBear
    November 20, 2017 at 7:54 a.m.

    Ramble, ramble. Neat column Gitz, but you didn’t really provide any valuable content other than to vent about your old codger view of Democrats. Sorry, but the socialist view is something folks like you want to dump on progressives and then attempt, as you do in this column, to equate them with communists. Old play, but not done very well here.
    Of course we’ll get the usual characters proclaiming “great column” without any real analysis of their own. They are oft as ignorant on the issues as you like to paint young people today as in this column.

  • Delta123
    November 20, 2017 at 8:32 a.m.

    Great column

  • TimberTopper
    November 20, 2017 at 8:40 a.m.

    Bradley Bradley, where is your mind. You must have forgotten the great socialist benefit that has been going on in America for many years now. You know the one, the one where corporate America pays less than livable wages to the working class, and therefore other Americans have to shoulder the load for help with their food, medical, and other living expenses, so that the corporations can be more successful, pay the executives more, and their stockowners more. And what about all the give "me's". You know the ones, the ones where the corporation says "if you want us to have a factory or business in your city, county, or state. Just what is the largest value you are going to give me to come there? Ah yes, socialism is alive and well in America, and has been for years. It's like the newly proposed tax cuts, Robin Hood in reverse, yet tell the average American what a good deal it is for them. Because, they are not very smart and will listen to just about anything, and a certain percentage will believe the lies of some rather than the truth, if they are expected to study the situation for themselves.

  • RBear
    November 20, 2017 at 9:17 a.m.

    Delta123, you always say that but can’t offer analysis on why you like it. Can you elaborate?

  • Delta123
    November 20, 2017 at 9:24 a.m.

    Or, as a citizen of a capitalist nation, one can choose to leave a lesser paying job for a higher pay job without government approval. Often times this only requires additional effort and/or additional education/training. In other words, no one in this society is compelled to work for a certain wage. And the United States Government has been handing out freebies to it citizens for a period of time now approaching 100 years. See The New Deal and The Great Society. This is certainly not a new development in response to what some consider non "living wage" jobs, (whatever that means).

  • Dontsufferfools
    November 20, 2017 at 9:48 a.m.

    Gitz won't provide information on the benefits the socialist-inspired early labor movements in the U.S., which were violently opposed by capitalists, had on our standard of living. The 40-hour workweek, OT pay, child-labor laws, workplace safety and unemployment insurance all evolved from these movements. Even early writers on capitalism and free markets were aware of the downsides of such unregulated economies, such as monopolies and treating labor as just another commodity. We know now that ungoverned capitalism works no better than undemocratic socialism; both systems will be harnessed to benefit only elites. Capitalists will pay the environment no mind, ravage finite resources, attempt to corner markets and destroy unions. There is nothing that is inherently democratic about capitalism or socialism. Socialism only got a foothold because of the depravities of early industrial societies. Go reread The Jungle. That is why Sanders is careful to label himself a democratic socialist, to distinguish himself from the totalitarian monsters that unfortunately evolved from Marx's actually quite humane philosophy, if you bother to read it. Meanwhile, as Hannah Arendt once pointed out, Gitz is now one of the multitude of mediocre minds making a living trashing Marx through the lens of hindsight.

  • RBear
    November 20, 2017 at 11:28 a.m.

    I had to do some digging to find Gitz's "array of survey results." It turns out the most recent survey was produced by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a federally supported group whose sole purpose is to denounce communism. As such, it's survey is somewhat tainted in how it frames issues. Looking at another survey by Harvard, 51% of millennials support socialism and 42% support capitalism.
    The issue that Gitz and others on the right seem to ignore is that just as socialism and communism don't have the same meaning as they used to, capitalism suffers from the same problem. Millennials today view it in light of corporate greed, scandals, and wage suppression based on gender and race. They see a system that might have started with lofty goals, but has devolved into one that has created an informal caste system.
    It's hard to argue with their position when you see a nation that will not support livable wages as a norm. While the rate of inflation has risen over time, the federal minimum wage has lost 9.6% of its buying power. A more accurately adjusted minimum wage would be $12. (Source: Pew Research) Millennials have also felt the pinch of affordable housing and some have seen their parents squeezed out of housing markets due to inflated housing prices.
    So, Gitz paints a picture fueled by data from a group focused solely on communism with a very slanted view. But Gitz uses that data as a springboard to his how twisted view of the issues, attacking Democrats as socialists who really should be labeled communists. The problem is that it's an inaccurate portrayal.

  • WhododueDiligence
    November 20, 2017 at 11:42 a.m.

    Gitz tells us that the generation of young people has difficulty distinguishing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Gitz tells us that young people are profoundly ignorant of concepts like socialism and communism and just about everything else.
    Condescending hyperbole, much?
    Gitz then informs us that he's consoled by his personal experience that young people are educable on these and other matters even if nobody else in our educational system has had much luck trying to educate them about much of anything.
    Delusions of grandeur, much?
    And what does this say about the younger generation's parents?

  • Dontsufferfools
    November 20, 2017 at 11:53 a.m.

    By the way, Delta, it's not capitalism that gives you the freedom to move about. It's the Constitution.

  • PopMom
    November 20, 2017 at 12:12 p.m.

    While Timber Topper does make some astute observations, Delta and Gitz' concerns are not totally without merit. There are reasons that the Soviet Union and other communist countries failed. While there are plus sides to some of the countries which are more socialist than us, there are downsides as well. An American friend of mine is a doctor in Germany married to another German doctor. They enjoy many benefits such as great family leave and medical coverage etc., but they live in a two bedroom apartment. Bernie scares me with some of his talk of "free college." Can't we just agree that we need to more heavily subsidize education and have better student loans and benefits without just giving it away for free? Gitz is correct that taking an Economics class and studying life in communist countries can dissuade youth of their communist ideals. However, one need only look at the poor, red states which tend to spend little on education and benefits for the poor to educate one's self as to the benefits of living in a blue state with better schools and better economies. There is much to be said for just good old moderation. While pure communism does not work, neither does unregulated capitalism. Without controls on capitalism, you have sweatshops catching fire and billionaires dumping wastes from paper mills, steel mills, and farms into our once pure waterways.