The term socialism has emerged from its ideological cocoon and burst into the headlines. Media-savvy politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proudly label themselves democratic socialists. But there is confusion over what the term actually means. What is socialism? And whose definition of socialism can you trust?
Let’s cut to the chase. What is the most reliable and nonpartisan source of information on words? The people who devote their careers to helping us understand the true meanings of words are not politicians, journalists, or talking heads. They are lexicographers — the people who study words and organize knowledge about them into dictionaries.
So how do dictionaries define socialism? Let’s start with Merriam-Webster, the most popular dictionary publisher in the U.S. I grew up with the print edition of M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary though nowadays I rely on the online edition.
M-W defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” A secondary definition mentions a system “in which there is no private property.” All that sounds strikingly like M-W’s definition of communism, and indeed, M-W’s third definition of socialism describes it as a “stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism.”
An old joke calls the United States and the United Kingdom two countries divided by a common language. Would our British friends agree with the American definition of socialism? In the U.K. the dictionary of choice is the Oxford English Dictionary. Its definitions of socialism are roughly the same as Merriam-Webster’s. However, it does not mention the abolition of private property. Presumably that connotation applies only in America.
I must admit that the dictionary definitions of socialism came as a surprise to me. All my life I have been referring to socialism as any service provided by the government — and I have lots of company. How many times have you heard people say: “The fire department is socialism. If you don’t want socialism, who do you turn to when your house is on fire?”
I’ve employed that argument myself. But I was wrong. My local fire department has nothing to do with government ownership of the means of production or the abolition of private property. It is a taxpayer-supported government service, nothing more and nothing less.
Self-styled socialists also like to point to Scandinavian countries as exemplars of socialism that works. But while it’s true that these nations have higher taxes and a more extensive safety net than we have in the U.S. — diverting more resources from the private sector into the public sector — they are actually capitalist countries where individuals, not the government, own the means of production. There are many things we might learn from them, including how to run a more just and humane society, but socialism is not among them.
Today’s American socialists align themselves with the legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. If FDR were alive today, he might remind us that his political adversaries called him a socialist to undermine his construction of the social safety net, not to celebrate it. How ironic — and historically tone deaf— to see today’s left adopting a longtime talking point of the right by referring to the New Deal as socialism. It’s like handing Republicans a mallet and saying “hit me.”
The current attempt to revive socialism by rebranding it as democratic socialism — with a small d, not necessarily pertaining to the Democratic party — ignores the dictionary definition of socialism entirely. I have no doubt that most advocates of democratic socialism are well-intentioned people who support a stronger safety net, reasonable regulation of business, and other progressive policies — not a Marxist nationalizing of the means of production or the abolition of private property.
But the fact remains that most of these people have never read the dictionary definition of socialism. Once you know what the word really means, you realize that any attempt to rebrand it as democratic socialism is futile. A turd is a turd. You can stir-fry it, roast it, bake it, or slice it thin to make turd carpaccio. But no matter how you prepare it, a turd is still a turd, and socialism is still socialism.
Real socialism is not necessarily democratic. But it is political poison to a democratic electorate. Try convincing a hardware store owner in the midwest that he should vote for a government takeover of his business. Try telling people who are just breaking even that private property, even their few meager possessions, should be abolished. Embracing even rebranded socialism is a surefire way to trigger fears that lose elections for Democrats.
Rather than trying to force some kind of misguided socialist awakening, Democrats should instead remind voters that our economy is the strongest in the world because it is a brilliant mix of private sector and public sector, capitalism modified by common sense and mercy. There are things the private sector does better, such as provide the most jobs and foster economic growth. There are things the public sector does better, like support the elderly and help the sick.
People might reasonably disagree about the correct balance of private and public, where free enterprise should give way to the public interest. And so — yes! — let’s talk about achieving universal health coverage, fighting climate change, ensuring quality public education for all, fighting opiate addiction, finding a cure for AIDS, reforming campaign finance, legalizing weed, housing the homeless, preventing gun violence, and protecting the rights of women and minorities.
Let’s talk about not just preserving the safety net but about expanding and strengthening it. Let’s make everyone pay their fair share in taxes to support a robust public sector and a just society. Oh yes, Mr. One Percent. That does include you.
But let’s also recognize that the surest way to defeat all those things is to categorize them as socialism. Republicans would love to see Democrats vanish down that rabbit hole. It’s long past time to send this contentious and corrosive term to the boneyard of failed ideas and failed nations.