In recent weeks, President Donald Trump and other Republicans have begun to tar their Democratic opponents with the “socialist” brush, contending that the adoption of socialist policies will transform the United States into a land of dictatorship and poverty.
There’s no reason to believe it.
The ideal of socialism goes back deep into human history and, at its core, is based on the notion that wealth should be shared more equitably between the rich and the poor. Numerous major religions have emphasized this point, criticizing greed and preaching the necessity for “all God’s children” to share in the world’s abundance The goal of increased economic equality has also mobilized numerous social movements and rebellions.
But how was this sharing of wealth to be achieved? Religious leaders often emphasized charity. Social movements developed communitarian living experiments. Revolutions seized the property of the rich and redistributed it. And governments began to set aside portions of the economy to enhance the welfare of the public.
In the United States, governments created a public sector alongside private enterprise. The American constitution, drafted by the Founding Fathers, provided for the establishment of a U.S. Postal Service, which quickly took root in American life. Other public enterprises followed, including publicly-owned and operated lands, roads, bridges, canals, ports, schools, police forces, water departments, fire departments, mass transit systems, sewers, sanitation services, dams, libraries, parks, hospitals, food and nutrition services and colleges and universities. Then there is Social Security, Medicare, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. armed forces. Over the centuries the United States has developed what is often termed a mixed economy.
Over the course of U.S. history, these policies, sometimes termed social democracy, have enriched the lives of most Americans and have certainly not led to dictatorship and economic collapse.
Why, then, do some Americans view socialism as a dirty word?
One reason is that many (though not all) of the wealthy fiercely object to sharing their wealth and possess the vast financial resources that enable them to manipulate public opinion. After all, they own the corporate television and radio networks, control most of the major newspapers and dominate the governing boards of major institutions. In addition, as the largest source of campaign funding in the United States, the wealthy have disproportionate power in politics.
But there’s another major reason that socialism has acquired a bad name: the policies of Communist governments. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialist parties were making major gains in economically advanced nations. This included the U.S.where the Socialist Party of America, between 1904 and 1920, elected socialists to office in 353 towns and cities. Russia, an economically backward country suffering under a harsh dictatorship, used the chaos. Given their utter lack of democratic experience, the Communists repressed their rivals and established a one-party dictatorship.
In the following decades, the Communists, championing their model of authoritarian socialism, made a terrible mess of it in the new Soviet Union.
By contrast, the democratic socialists did a remarkably good job of governing their countries. In the advanced industrial democracies, where they were elected to office on numerous occasions and defeated on others, they fostered greater economic and social equality, substantial economic growth, and political freedom.
Their impact was particularly impressive. Sweden’s vibrant economy is publicly-owned. Sweden has free undergraduate college/university tuition, monthly stipends to undergraduate students, free postgraduate education (e.g. medical and law school), free medical care until age 20 and nearly free medical care thereafter, paid sick leave, 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted and nearly free day-care and preschool programs. It can also boast the ninth most competitive economy in the world. Of course, democratic socialism might not be what you want. But let’s not pretend that it’s something that it’s not.
Dr. Wittner writes for PeaceVoice and is professor of history emeritus at the State University of New York in Albany.