Socialism and Reform

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932 

We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won’t let us. — Jerome Frank, a New Deal lawyer.

Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country. — President Donald Trump, State of the Union Address, February 5, 2019

President Donald Trump delivering the State of the Union Address, February 5, 2019

President Donald Trump and the Republican Party will hurl the words “socialism” and “socialist” as epithets intended to denigrate Democrats in the coming presidential election. It is an old trick intended to link major structural reform of the American capitalist system to socialism, an ideology often derided as un-American and a foreign import. Republicans will claim all Democrats believe in a socialist ideology antithetical to American values. Such smears were effective in the past but are likely to fail now.

For most of the 20th century, calling someone a “socialist” or a program “socialism” (a tool the American Medical Association effectively used for decades to kill all attempts to enact universal government-sponsored healthcare) worked because America was locked in the Cold War-struggle with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet Union provided a powerful example of state socialism, an oppressive state which controlled all the means of production and unleashed terror on its own citizens.

A forced labor camp in the Soviet gulag.

But, the Soviet Union has been gone now for nearly three decades. China, the other so-called Communist behemoth, has devolved into a cruel dictatorship practicing state capitalism. Any resemblance of the Chinese Communist Party to a Marxist political organization is merely coincidental. Where socialism suggests the gulag and purges to older Americans, younger generations see universal healthcare, free college tuition, extended family leave, high guaranteed minimum wages, a green new deal, and much more. The Soviet Union was scary; Sweden and Norway frighten no one.

A poll taken just prior to the 2018 midterm elections demonstrates the current friendlier view of socialism. A majority of Americans (54 percent) say socialism is a system that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education, while only four-in-ten (43 percent) say socialism is a system where government controls key parts of the economy.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York

To be sure, some members of the progressive left — such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — adopt the mantle of the  Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that calls for the abolition of capitalism, though the specifics of what abolishing capitalism means are open for debate among modern socialists. The DSA says, “Working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.”  After a few such bromides, the DSA’s website calls for Medicare-for-All, strengthening unions, and fairness at the ballot box.  

The point is simple: Many of the issues that move democratic socialists have now become mainstream in the United States. Surveys show that a majority of Americans now favor some sort of system of universal health insurance, often called Medicare-for-All, and there is widespread support for other progressive measures, such as a higher minimum wage and free college education. Calling someone an advocate of “big government” was once an insult — not any longer.

Reforms such as free tuition and universal healthcare once seemed utopian and unreachable. But, the advocacy of progressives, the recent failures of the capitalist economy as seen in the devastating recession of a decade ago, and the egregious income inequality of today have made the once unthinkable attainable.That is how reform has always worked in America. The abolitionists were wild-eyed radicals in the 1830s; the crucible of the Civil War turned all northerners into abolitionists. Progressives in the early 20th century favored measures far beyond what most Americans would tolerate. A generation later, virtually every measure supported by progressives had become law.

Factories were often unhealthful places in the late 19th century.

Socialism has a long history in the United States dating back to the early labor movement after the Civil War. Initially, many socialists were immigrants who learned socialism in the brutal industries of late 19th-century Europe. But, European immigrants mixed with native-born American reformers to push solutions to the problems of emerging capitalism — advocating shorter workdays, fairer pay, and better treatment of workers. The stresses of capitalism during the Great Depression led to greater reforms such as Social Security and curbs on the excesses of capitalism. President Franklin Roosevelt — as seen in the quotation at the head of this post — knew that reform — he called it experimentation — was needed to save the system. He worked with men like Jerome Frank, a socialist, “to save capitalism.” Together, they forged the New Deal.

As Frank said, “the damned capitalists” fought the New Dealers at every turn. The capitalists of the 1930s called the patrician Roosevelt “a traitor to his class.” They failed to recognize that Roosevelt knew “half a loaf is better than none.” Roosevelt understood that social and economic reform was necessary to save capitalism. No wonder Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, once said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

Posted February 12, 2019

Comments are closed.