The word “socialism” is used as a hot button cuss-word by conservatives in the United States, and has thus lost any meaning beyond a knee-jerk disgust.
Fifty Years of Cold War Propaganda
This is largely due to a Communist Terror hangover from fifty years of Cold War, fifty years of fear and loathing for a nation that was bent on taking over the world, bombing us into oblivion as we huddled under our school desks, and even eating my pony, as I was told when I was twelve years-old. “Godless Communism” was a marvelous enemy. They could be anywhere, they were spying on us constantly, and they lived and breathed only to take over and dominate the world. If the U.S. wanted to send troops somewhere, all they had to claim was that communism was making inroads there. They had to be stopped there or they would land on our shores, methodically subjugating us, pausing only to eat our ponies.
Socialism and U.S. Imperialism
From Cubaphobia to CIA-engineered removal of (democratically elected) socialist South American leaders, the Red Peril has been very useful. The armed “defense” of “American interests” against leftist regimes (those that insist on using national resources to benefit the people of that nation, instead of U.S. corporations) has been justified because, in the American psyche, left=socialist=communist=totalitarian.
Socialism as Communism Lite
Socialism is, according to conservative thinking, just “Communism Lite.” Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, criticized the socialism his contemporaries in France and Great Britain presented as being counter-revolutionary, reformist, and utopian. He presented his version of socialism as a historical stage through which societies would inevitably pass on their way to a stateless, classless society called pure communism. Most Americans who recoil at the word “socialism” not only cannot define it, they do not realize that Marx himself disapproved of any form of socialism other than his own, because it might make workers satisfied with their society and thus prevent revolution.
Blends of Socialism and Capitalism
Socialism is defined as “A political and economic theory that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” In practice, this almost never exists in a pure condition. Most societies are a blend of capitalist and socialist practices. For example, Japan, a fiercely capitalist society, offers universal health care to its citizens and keeps prices down by negotiating physicians’ fees and drug prices, practices regarded as too socialist for America. (Incidentally, Japan spends far less and has much a healthier population than the U.S.)
Socialist Organizations in the U.S.
In the U.S. there are 1.5 million socialist organizations called non-profits. No one owns a non-profit and they are granted tax-exempt status as long as no individual profits personally and they perform a service for the community. They are owned and managed in common, for the common good, i.e. they are socialist. Conservative churches might be horrified to realize they are socialist, and it gets even worse.
Early Christians were apparently quite socialist, if not downright communist. Acts 2:44: “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” It might also be uncomfortable for conservatives to acknowledge that Frances Bellamy, the man who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, was a Baptist pastor and a Democratic Socialist.
U.S. Socialism Past and Present
The history of socialist movements in the United States has been fairly well wiped off the pages of history books. Few have heard of the Wobblies, for example, but they were quite active around the turn of the century. Under the leadership of Eugene Debs “160 councilmen, 145 aldermen, one congressman, and 56 mayors were elected as Socialists.” Socialists published 300 newspapers, and their publication Appeal to Reason had 700,000 subscribers. Food co-ops and some businesses are also set up on socialist principles. For example, my favorite grocery store, Publix, is partly owned by the employees. Publix is a classy store, a bit more expensive, but it is also sparkly clean, well-stocked, pays employees well, seeks to hire people with disabilities, and makes a good profit.
Socialism is Not the Problem
Socialism has become a hot button cuss-word because of its association with our long-time enemy, Russia. It is doubtful that Marx would have recognized Russia as an example of anything he advocated; the popular uprising there, which initially was very democratic and socialist, appears to have been hijacked fairly early by the Bolsheviks, who were funded, surprisingly, by foreign (including American) corporations, for their own reasons having nothing to do with political ideology.
Totalitarianism is the Problem
It is not socialism per se that the average American really objects to, as much as the type of repressive totalitarian dictatorship that took hold in Russia. No one, including the Russian people, enjoys living in a totalitarian dictatorship. But totalitarian dictatorships can arise under right-wing ideologies just as easily as under left-wing ones. Life was not more pleasant under Franco and Mussolini because they were right-wing (Fascist) dictators.
Fascism: Right-Wing Totalitarianism
The knee-jerk vilification of socialism is harmful to America, since any idea that hints at holding things in common and sharing can be run into the ground at the mere mention of the word. Running from the left in panic sends people unquestioningly into the arms of the right. Who benefits? Those who own the wealth of the nation, and who also control the news media. If you think right-wing always equals freedom, you might need to listen to some of the old-timers who suffered under Fascist rule.
Mark Steel on Karl Marx (video)