By Tom Robotham
Much of the discussion about socialism…is entirely pointless, because of the failure to agree on terminology. ~ Theodore Roosevelt.
In today’s political arena, no word is bandied about more carelessly than “socialism.” Diehard supporters of Bernie Sanders have embraced it enthusiastically, albeit with the word “democratic” as a qualifier. Meanwhile, across a swath of the political spectrum, from supporters of Trump to those who identify as “moderate” Democrats, the word sets off alarm bells the likes of which we haven’t heard since the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s.
Alas, in these heated debates, few people bother to acknowledge socialism’s rich and varied history. As Michael Harrington noted in his wonderful book on the subject, first published in 1972, there have been countless interpretations of the word. Indeed, in The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, examined what they called “feudal socialism,” “petty-bourgeois socialism” and many other schools of thought that embraced the term. (An interesting side note is that the pamphlet mentions the word “socialism” more than twice as often as the word “communism.”)
“If socialism is to have any meaning,” Harrington wrote, “a way must be found to distinguish between the various, and often murderously hostile, claimants to its name.”
Harrington argued that if we want to understand the theoretical roots of democratic socialism, we need to go back to Marx and Engels. Simply writing that sentence gives me pause, for in today’s climate of anti-intellectualism merely mentioning Marx in any positive light is sure to bring howls of derision—primarily from people who have never read him.
The fact is, Harrington argued, Marx and Engels were democratic to the core.
“The commitment to democracy,” Harrington wrote, “dominates Marx’s whole life. It can be found in The Communist Manifesto and above all in Das Capital, not just in the early writings.”
Marx’s vision, in other words, is as starkly different from Stalin’s brutal rule as the Gospels are from the most egregious aspects of the history of Christianity.
It’s worth noting that the theory of capitalism has been bastardized as well. Adam Smith, the first theorist of capitalism, believed that a free market would create incentives for producers to act in the general interest. Needless to say, that’s not how things turned out. Throughout modern history, workers have been brutalized in its name.
Having begun to weigh these considerations in my late teens, I gradually embraced democratic socialism. I did not come to this position simply by reading. My grandfather—who worked in granite quarries from the age of 15 onward, first in England and then in the U.S.—was an ardent supporter of Eugene Debs, arguably the strongest voice for socialism in American history. My father, in turn, greatly admired his own dad and Debs—but throughout his adult life, I don’t think he identified as a socialist. Rather, he thought socialism was a theory that had much to teach us.
THIS IS WHERE I STAND TODAY. For a variety of reasons, I stopped identifying as a socialist a long time ago, even though I continue to believe that there is much value in studying it.
For thing, I’ve come to believe that all ideologies—even those with the best of intentions in mind—are dangerous because they can become too rigid.
For another thing, they’re at odds with the realities of the world in which we live. Ever since the New Deal, at least, ours has been a hybrid economy, with socialist programs such as Social Security tempering the excesses of capitalism.
Bernie Sanders would have us believe that democratic socialism flourishes elsewhere, particularly in Scandinavian countries. But as Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a recent commentary on CNN, Sanders’ vision of those countries “seems to be stuck in the 1960s and ‘70s.”
In reality, according to Zakaria, the “experiment in Sanders-style democratic socialism tanked the Swedish economy.” It was only after economic reforms were put in place in the early ‘90s that the economy began to rebound. Today, Zakaria said, both Sweden and Norway have more billionaires per capita than the United States—a fact that flies in the face of Sanders’ utopian assertion that “billionaires should not exist.”
It is true that these countries have preserved universal healthcare and other elements of a strong social safety net. But Zakaria went on to assert that the heavy tax burden required to pay for these services falls disproportionately on the poor, middle and upper-middle class—not on the super-rich.
Sanders, of course, has promised that this won’t happen here. But he’s yet to explain how he’s going to achieve his goals. His campaign speeches are filled with promises that simply don’t sync up with the realities of our government. Face it: Even if he were to win the presidency, keep the House and sweep the Senate, he would still have to work with a largely conservative legislature made up of a sizable number of Republicans, as well as conservative and moderate Democrats.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US, as we head toward the most important election of our lifetimes?
The most valuable thing we can do, it seems to me, is to look to the history of FDR’s New Deal. At the time, right-wingers accused him of being a socialist. But he wasn’t. He was a pragmatist to the core—a believer not in any single ideology but rather in tackling individual problems with programs that could actually be implemented.
At the same time, he expressed a long-term vision for a more just society—notably in his proposed “Second Bill of Rights,” which asserted that every American should be entitled to good healthcare, housing, education and employment. But he realized that this vision could not come to fruition over night.
These were the considerations in my mind as I went to the polls on Super Tuesday. I’ve admired Sanders since he was mayor of Burlington in the early ‘80s—long before most Americans ever heard of him. In spite of the aforementioned concerns I have with his candidacy, I still think he has a lot to contribute to our political discourse. He also proved in 2016 that a powerful political movement could be funded largely by small donations. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that he has tapped into a deep yearning for progressive change, especially among young people.
That said, I came to conclude that the problems with his candidacy outweigh the pluses.
I have serious reservations about Biden as well. For one thing, unlike Sanders, he often seems old, mentally. Moreover, he’s too conservative for my tastes. In the end, I would have preferred Warren who embraces many of Sanders’ ideas but is far more rooted in realities. But that is now a moot point.
I voted for Biden both because I like much of his platform, especially his commitment to unions, education funding, environmental protection and more affordable healthcare.
But for me, choosing a candidate is not just about examining policy positions. It’s also about the candidate’s spirit. In spite of all of his merits, Sanders has become a divisive figure. This is reflected in the behavior of many fervent Sanders supporters on social media who routinely resort to personal insults in response to anyone who expresses even the mildest reservations about him.
Biden, by contrast, has more closely echoed my own feelings about the core challenge we face: We’re in desperate need of healing after four years of psychic and spiritual violence perpetrated by Trump.
In any other election year of my lifetime, I might well have voted for Sanders. I share his supporters grave concerns about the influence of big money on our political system. But this is no ordinary election year. Our nation is on the brink of disaster—and if Trump is reelected it will be a catastrophe the likes of which we cannot imagine, even after four years with this tyrant at the helm.
Yes, we need to hold onto FDR’s vision of a “Second Bill of Rights.” But first, we need immediate and urgent care. Think of it this way: When someone enters the emergency room with acute illness, the doctor doesn’t start lecturing him about the unhealthy lifestyle that got him here. He saves the person’s life, and sets aside the long-term plans for later. Biden gets that.