What Is Socialism?

by John Samuel Tieman

When I hear, “Obama is a socialist”, I want to hand that person a dictionary.

I am a democratic socialist. When I say that here, in St. Louis, folks are mystified. Were I to say to someone in Europe, “My mother supported us on her secretary’s salary — I’m Catholic — I teach in an inner city high school — so yea, I vote socialist”, were I to say that to someone in Europe, they’d likely reply, “That figures.” Then yawn. Here, it’s a big mystery.

First of all, when someone says “socialist”, the immediate follow-up should be, what kind of socialist? As near as I can tell, when folks say “Obama is a socialist”, they refer to democratic socialism, a socialism exemplified by Tony Blair and the British Labour Party.

Social democracy, also referred to as democratic socialism, is by far the most common form of socialism in the west. It rejects the authoritarianism of Soviet communism, and favors democratic reform. Democratic socialist parties have, at one time or another, had ruling coalitions in almost all western democracies. In the United States, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran several notable, if futile, campaigns for president. At present, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is our only socialist senator.

In addition to the politicians mentioned above, prominent social democrats in the United States, past and present, include Helen Keller, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Dewey, Howard Zinn, Michael Harrington, Dolores Huerta, Sidney Hook, Rosemary Ruether and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few.

Encapsulating what democrat socialists believe is like herding rabbits. Take war and peace, for example. Eugene Debs was a pacifist. Shimon Peres was Israel’s Minister Of Defense. There are socialists of every religious persuasion. Most are anti-communist.

Social background is no predictor of socialism. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an Oxford don. Member Of Parliament James Kier Hardie was a Welsh coal miner. Nor is education a predictor. Gloria Steinem went to Smith College. Helen Keller was famously homeschooled.

With all that in mind, in general social democrats support:

  • A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;
  • An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;
  • A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;
  • Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to combat global warming;
  • A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;
  • Fair trade, not free trade;
  • Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;
  • A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;
  • Advocacy of social justice, human rights, civil rights and civil liberties.
  • Democratic socialism should not be confused with such anti-democratic movements as Stalinism. It is worth emphasizing that social democrats see democracy as both a process and an end unto itself. The vision of democratic socialism is one in which there is a decrease in the power of money in politics, and an increase in the voices of ordinary workers. This vision is of a society in which everyone, rich, middle class and poor, shapes society.

A word about capitalism. Democratic socialism stands for a continual reappraisal of capitalism. One problem with the United States is that there is no persistent critique of the Gordon Gekkos. Beyond that, the relationship between capitalism and socialism is something of a debate.

On the socialist right is the “Third Way”, a synthesis of or right-wing economics and left-wing social policy. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, is an advocate of the Third Way.

Other social democrats feel the Third Way is a betrayal of basic socialist principals. These folks would say that socialism and capitalism must be in constant dialogue. This dialogue stems from fixed ideological positions, which include loyal opposition, but do not include a “Third Way” synthesis.

On the far left are those social democrats who are true to their vision of Karl Marx. These folks feel that democratic socialism is transitional. The end point is the communist utopia.

The overwhelming majority of democratic socialists today are in the camps represented by the “Third Way” and the center-left.

And Obama is not a socialist. But I am.


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