What is Socialism? (2018 edition)

April 23, 2018

Farah Stockman at the New York Times has the story of the emergence of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a force within the Democratic Party. Ten years after "socialist" became a slur with which to paint Barack Obama, many Democratic candidates are embracing the label—a consequence, no doubt, of Bernie Sanders' strong showing in the Democratic nomination race. But what does "socialism" mean in 2018?

Socialism, as historically practiced, prioritizes state ownership of the means of production, with an emphasis on bureaucratic rather than market coordination of the economy. Softer versions might allow for worker rather than state ownership, with a concomitant lessening of bureaucratic control. As far as I can tell, the DSA's normative ideal lies toward the Menshevik end of the spectrum—at a minimum, they reject Soviet-style central planning. The organization is, nonetheless, more than just a proponent of Scandinavian-style social democracy, even if it often endorses policies that would move the United States in that direction.

Democratic socialists are socialists, and they would be recognized as such by an older generation of voters raised during the ideological conflict of the Cold War. But much of the electoral energy behind "democratic socialism" comes from younger voters (a substantial share of millennials express a preference for "socialism" over "capitalism"), some of whom would likely be surprised by what the term means to others.

I teach a course in "Socialism and Transitions to the Market"—basically, what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe between 1917 (1945) and 2000. On the first day of class, we define terms, beginning with the big one. What is socialism, I ask? To a person, students respond by emphasizing equality of distribution and a social safety net—in short, Sweden. Ownership of the means of production never comes up until I propose that, for purposes of this course, we define socialism as the political-economic system of countries that called themselves socialist. (János Kornai is our guide for the first part of the semester.) In that system, the state (typically) owns the means of production and economic coordination is (predominantly) bureaucratic.

Here's the thing: Most young Americans know "socialism" only from Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders didn't run on a platform of nationalization. (Medicare for All is not the British National Health Service.) As a consequence, I believe, there are many "socialists" today who are little aware of the historical meaning of the term.

Traditional socialists likely find themselves in the position of Protestant clergy who discover that their congregants believe in salvation by good works—grateful that the pews are full, but wondering if anybody is listening to the sermon. Meanwhile, many older citizens must be aghast at the rise of "socialism" at home, thirty years after it was vanquished abroad. All the while, young people are going their own way, as young people do—lending new meaning to an old term as "socialism" enters the 21st century.