“Red baiting” — the process of referring to one’s opponents as “socialists,” and relying on that word alone to silence opposition — remains one of the oldest tricks in the right’s playbook. Its return to the front lines for usage against our new Democratic President was eminently predictable, but still disappointing. In the likely-futile hope that our opponents will listen to reason, and accord to words their actual meaning rather than the meaning they wish them to carry, then, consider this brief history of socialism.
Our opponents today use the term “socialist” to refer to any increase in government power. That is not strictly — or even loosely — historically accurate. “Socialism” is not a direction, and the adjective “socialistic,” as an indication of a trend towards socialism, has little meaning, unless we’re to conflate all progressive reforms with actual socialism, all increases in police power with actual fascism, etc. Historically, socialism has only one meaning: a system in which the state — or the workers directly — own the means of production.
Loosely, socialism emerged from a discontent with what remained of the feudal state after the French Revolution of 1789, and with the emergent, eminently abusive nature of pure laissez faire industry. For the peasant and working classes, there was a sense that real change had been within grasp at the turn of the 18th century, and yet slipped away. As the middle class emerged, and wealth concentrated in its hands, the industrialists responsible for 80-hour work weeks, child labor, dangerous workplaces, and inhumane working conditions substituted for displaced monarchs as the workers’ enemy. The term “socialism” emerged to express this anger, but lacked real meaning, until the failed revolutions of 1848, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which immediately preceded them.
Marx put a name, a theory, and a purpose to this loose discontent: communism, a system in which social distinctions melted away, to be replaced, following a bloody workers’ revolt and a transitional period of “socialism,” by a utopian “communist” society. Socialism — which Marx regarded as a means to an end — was a hybrid capitalist/Communist system, in which the means of production were publicly owned, but working and bourgeoisie classes remained separate, and therefore, to Marx, impermissibly unequal.
For some time, the theories coexisted, and throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th, both remained major intellectual forces. But by the 1900s, socialism stood defanged in most countries, as governments responded to workers’ needs for living wages and social security (small “s”) with reforms that terminated the worst excesses of pure laissez faire capitalism, while retaining a modified free-market system. Otto von Bismark, Chancellor of the new German Empire, famously made the connection explicit, creating various national insurance schemes out of an expressed desire to avoid socialism. It worked, and other industrial nations, the United States included, duplicated the effort. As a consequence, classic socialism vanished as a serious intellectual force in all but Russia and the newly industrialized European east.
So what does this all mean? Simply put, it means there can’t be true socialism without actual, permanent ownership of the means of production. Moves loosely in the direction of actual ownership — like regulation — may, to the modern eye, give the appearance of socialism. But historically, regulatory frameworks, worker’s compensation plans, even national health systems represented an alternative to rather than the victory of socialism, derided by both socialists and communists as inadequate half-measures. If Marx, Engels, and other socialist luminaries considered themselves to have “lost” when sensible social reforms deprived their revolutionary ideologies of a raison d’être, who are we to rewrite history and tell them they won?
Further, American history flatly rebuts the contention that regulation, or even emergency nationalization of select companies or industries constitutes, or necessarily leads to true socialism. Lincoln seized railroads and telegraphs wholesale; Truman famously attempted to nationalize the nation’s steel mills; Nixon permanently purchased failing railroads and converted them to public utilities (you know these lines as “Amtrak”); Reagan nationalized failing banks; and the one million New Yorkers who went to work today on the MTA’s subway lines did so on lines wholly owned by the government, seized by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a fierce critic of socialism, under highly dubious circumstances.
Some of these politicians nationalized companies reluctantly, like Obama, and ultimately relinquished control. Others, like Nixon and LaGuardia, took deliberate and permanent possession of private property, for the collective benefit of their constituents, and yet neither modern America nor New York City can fairly be called socialist. Simply put, the slippery slope is flat.
Socialism has a long, sordid history, and its only real triumphs come from the lengths to which statesmen will go to avoid it. But whatever else it might be, it is not subtle. Socialism is neither creeping into American politics, nor any part of President Obama’s agenda. His economic theories may have their faults, but if so, conservatives owe it to the public to meet him on the merits, rather than resorting to anti-intellectual, distortive namecalling. It’s time to start stop trying to scare independent voters with “the spectre of Communism” and, as a nation, finally make peace with the fact that America is not, nor has it been for some time, a pure laissez faire nation. And we’re probably better off for it.