Everybody's talking about it, but they're all talking about different things. A major reason for confusion is the great partisan divide. For almost 100 years, conservatives have used the word "socialism" as an insult, attacking progressive policies and presidents as socialist although they don't fit the dictionary definition.
Socialism, strictly defined, is social ownership of the means of production which are land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship. Social welfare measures aren't means of production, but are often painted as socialist.
Or consider this: Monopolies don't serve the free market. Examples of industries where only two or three companies dominate the entire sector are the tech giants, tobacco, cell phones, cat food, and hardware stores. Generic drug manufacturers are accused of price-fixing. Yet according to libertarians, anti-trust actions are socialist.
A second source of confusion is the idea that socialism and capitalism are complete opposites. Yet virtually all countries have mixed economies; that is, they combine private and public enterprises. Public enterprises may also exist on the local rather than national scale. For instance, a majority of U.S. electric utilities are publicly owned (usually by municipalities). Cooperatives, owned by their consumers or employees, are neither socialist nor capitalist. They form a significant part of the economy in countries such as Japan, Spain, India, and Italy.
Which countries are socialist? Wikipedia lists four as Marxist-Leninist (China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam). Yet Cuba has lately introduced market reforms, while China is in a class by itself. Many economists describe China's economy as "state capitalism." Twenty-three nations are multiparty states currently governed by socialists, including Bolivia, Greece, Nepal, Spain, and Mexico. There are also a number of social democracies such as Denmark, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and New Zealand. Merriam-Webster defines social democracy as "a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices."
It is a mistake to assume that any one nation typifies an economic ideology. Several South American countries have elected socialist presidents in recent years. Some leftists were successful, greatly reducing their country's poverty rate (Peru) while others were corrupt, inept, and/or authoritarian (Venezuela): a mixed record.
Socialism did not begin with Karl Marx. Earlier in the 19th century, Utopian Socialists Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier reacted to terrible conditions during the Industrial Revolution in England. Many model communities based on their ideas set up in America and elsewhere. Other strands in early American socialism were labor activism, anarchists such as Josiah Warren, abolitionists, and advocates of women's emancipation.
American socialists founded the Socialist Labor Party in 1877. Its worldwide objective was the eight-hour day. In 1891, the era of robber barons, small farmers who were struggling economically in the Midwest and South formed the left-wing People's Party (Populists). Its platform included nationalization of the railroad, telegraph, and telephone companies. Its presidential candidate won 8.5 percent of the vote in 1892, but for various reasons including racism, the movement did not last. However, in the years just before World War I, dozens of American cities elected socialist mayors. Milwaukee had three socialist mayors, from 1910 to 1960, noted for good governance.
Lawmakers and candidates are again calling themselves socialists, often advocating ideas from past administrations For instance, in 1945 Harry Truman proposed a national, universal health insurance program. In 1955 under Dwight Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent, higher than the 70 percent marginal rate lately advanced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But since policies offered by modern candidates are not about nationalizing the means of production, they are not, strictly speaking, socialist.
Yet one more reason for public uncertainties about socialism is that there are so many versions of it: Christian socialism, eco-socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc. The basic difference between Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats is that the former would move gradually toward a greater degree of socialism, while the latter want to keep a more mixed economy.
Socialism is related to the idea of the commons: all of nature regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole, often managed by local communities. The commons includes not only forests and fisheries but also knowledge and culture (such as the Digital Commons). The idea shows up from the Vedas to the Greeks, 17th century Diggers, and Thomas Paine.
Today, social dividend systems are based on public ownership of natural resources. For instance, the Alaska Permanent Fund distributes yearly a share of royalty income from oil produced on state-owned land to each citizen of the state.
Socialism involves diverse ideas and a long history. Knowing more about it and using the word more appropriately can only improve our discussions.
Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville. Her latest book is Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans.
Editorial on 05/24/2019