As a recent article in the The New Republic notes, the word “socialism” has become virtually meaningless in American politics. President Trump throws the word around as a scare tactic , Kamala Harris disavows it, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Octavio Cortes celebrate it, while others use it as a euphemism for National Health Insurance. It is not surprising that words are often used recklessly in public discourse, much less words such as “capitalism” and “socialism” whose precise meanings are debated by academics and entwined with history, emotion and ideology. Nevertheless, their current usage is emblematic in many ways of the difficulties inherent in realizing the kind of public discourse that theorists such as Jurgen Habermas and John Dewey thought necessary to make democracy work. A better understanding can help us define our goals and relate our ends to our means.
While many today lack historical understanding of the 19th century socialist movement and its deformation via Lenin and Stalin, there is no major figure in U.S. politics today who advocates what used to be called “Real Socialism” (for a slightly more rigorous discussion, I suggest De Long’s mainstream view and this Marxist Critique of Stalinism). Nor for that matter, is there any major political voice advocating a Non-Stalinist version of revolutionary socialism. In the interest of keeping this entry relatively short, I will forego that analysis.
Instead, at least as far as what is up for what the mass media deem to be admissable public debate (i.e. the contest between Republicans and Democrats) the issue appears to be does the word socialism simply mean a restoration of the ideals of The New Deal , a modest and tamed version of Social Democracy , or is it an argument for Democratic Socialism . That the words “Social Democracy” and “Democratic Socialism” , at least today (though not in the 19th century) have different meanings may strike some as odd. But today’s European Socialist Parties in practice and governance, have often positioned themselves to the right the New Deal. But the ideal of Democratic Socialism is that a mixed market economy with a strong welfare state is a step towards a society in which production is brought under collective and truly democratic control-rather than bureaucratic and statist control. Whether politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn can pull their parties back to the left remains to be seen.
It is impossible of course, that even a Sanders’ Presidency in the U.S. could achieve that kind of breakthrough. For the most part, Democratic Socialists have argued that such a transition will take at least decades: Even Sweden’s SDP was unable to accomplish such a task despite having a strong, mass party organization and it has been losing ground for some time. A Sanders’ administration, that was “serious” about moving towards Democratic Socialism, would face immense opposition from inside his own party. Even achieving a relatively moderate task such as taming the vicissitudes of the market and re-invigorating a system of social protection, will face significant odds. But if in four years time we were to achieve truly affordable medical care for everyone, that alone would be a substantive improvement for many in our society. There seems little point however, in identifying that goal with socialism.
This is the dilemma facing the non-utopian left today. Even the ideal of Democratic Socialism, appealing as it is on face value, is a kind of utopian dream. It could not be brought into existence save through continuous, constant support of a decisive majority of the population and never instantaneously. It would indeed require a radical transformation of our structures and institutions. I remain agnostic that we can know ahead of time what the future of a just society may look like, or that we can achieve perfect justice. This is not to argue however, that it is wrong to have a social ideal. Such ideals at least provide a counterweight to the kind of one dimensional thinking noted and criticized by Herbert Marcuse that continues to press on our politics today as we are so often told that there is no alternative to a corrupt, crony corporate neo-liberal order, or worse, that the alternative is the pseudo-populism of Trump. Serious discussion of the meaning of the word “socialism” might actually be a good start.