The right-wing mot du jour seems to be "socialist." Sometimes, confusingly, it is combined with "communist" or with the communistic honorific "comrade," especially to make use of the appealing internal rhyme in "comrade Obama." All this has left me, as a notoriously poor student of politics and history, wondering, "What is socialism, why is the word popping up now, and how should I react to it?" This post is something of an experiment, a sort of thinking aloud, where I try to work through (hopefully with readers' assistance) some confusing and ambiguous political labels.
First, let me get it out of the way: I know Obama isn't a socialist. If you're here as an Obama rallyist, you can spare me. I got the message. You like Obama. Awesome. I'm with you. Now let's move on, and consider what socialism is, what it isn't, and whether we as progressive Democrats should embrace the label, scorn it, or ignore it. Everything I write here is going to be a summary of things I just googled up. Treat this post as an open thread for thoughts or references on the topic.
My approach was to read, in order, a Democracy Now! interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described Socialist holding the highest office in US politics today; a brief AFL-CIO biography of Eugene Debs, a Socialist giant back when such a thing could exist, in the early 20th century; and an essay titled "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" written by Frederick Engels in the late 19th century. Again, I knew close to zilch on this topic when I began, and I now feel like I know zilch + 1.
The title of this post comes from a line in Engels's essay, describing earlier Enlightment conceptions of socialism in the late 18th century, particularly around the French Revolution and development of industry. Of these earlier Socialist attempts, Engels wrote:
One thing is common to all three ["Utopians" (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen)]. Not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat which historical development had, in the meantime, produced. Like the French philosophers, they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once. Like them, they wish to bring in the kingdom of reason and eternal justice, but this kingdom, as they see it, is as far as Heaven from Earth, from that of the French philosophers.
Engels's underlying beef here, as I read it, is that previous Socialists had attempted to reform society from first principles, using Enlightment ideals of reason conquering all, and basing their plans on their own assumptions about equality, justice, and righteousness. Since few people ever agree on such things, these attempts descended into unresolvable conflicts or else what we would today call watered-down compromises.
Hold that thought, and let me jump to modern-day Socialism. Here's what Sanders said about what Socialism means to him, during his 2006 campaign, when he left his House seat to run for the Senate:
In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe. In countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have healthcare as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free. I have been very aggressive in trying to move to sustainable energy. They have a lot of political participation, high voter turnouts. I think there is a lot to be learned from countries that have created more egalitarian societies than has the United States of America.
One might be forgiven for thinking that today's Socialism is more of a health-care policy (or collection of policies) than a fundamental political ideology. The Socialist Party USA says that Socialism is "a new social and economic order in which workers and consumers control production and community residents control their neighborhoods, homes, and schools," and further defines it in terms of not being capitalism or communism.
It is confusing to me whether Socialism means a locally-controlled system run by workers and consumers (isn't that everyone?), or, as Sanders says, a centralized government system that provides healthcare and education. The two seem diametrically opposed to me -- again, I am naive here -- and it is baffling to try to bring them together. Perhaps the answer lies in Sanders's "democratic socialism," an ideology that the Democratic Socialists of America describe, in typo-ridden prose, as the belief that "the economy and society should be run democratically -- to meet the needs of the whole community, not to make profits for a few." Perhaps both flavors of Socialism are based on providing for the individual by the group, with the SPUSA putting the responsibility in the hands of the local community and Democratic Socialists like Sanders putting the responsibility in the hands of government.
The roots of American Socialism seem entwined with Debs, who organized a Social Democratic Party in the late 1890s that merged with another Socialist party in 1901 to form the Socialist Party of America. Debs got his start working with railroad unions, and went on to serve in local government and counseled unions against using confrontational approaches like strikes. In his mid-30s, his views changed to the point where he thought unions needed to take a harder stand against corporations and be reorganized along broader lines, such that actions by any one trade would be supported by those in other trades. This belief seems, to me, to underlie the modern Socialist view of a "union" of individuals stretching across professional and class boundaries. Debs went on to become a serial presidential candidate, which perhaps led into the Social Democratic view that change may best be achieved through government policy rather than the collective action of local unions. In fact, according to the AFL-CIO biography of Debs, much of the 1930s' New Deal was prefigured by the Socialist Party platform of 1912.
What does any of this background tell us about what "socialist" means in Obama's post-partisan universe? Is it an empty label, interchangeable with "Democrat," "liberal," and "progressive", or do the terms encapsulate useful distinctions -- are there some progressives who are not socialists? Finally, what does any of this have to do with health care policy?
Engels writes that the key to what he calls Historical Socialism is replacing the appeal to "rational" ideas of justice -- the "kingdom of reason," as he calls it -- with historical study of the causes of social inequality and an analysis of the system's inherent instability; to show not morally why it should fall but mechanistically why it will fall, why it is doomed to fall. The Enlightment's Utopian Socialism, he writes, "criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad." By contrast, Historical Socialism must "present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall." He compares this approach to Darwin's recently published natural selection and, in his day, emerging ideas in cosmology suggesting that solar systems are born, exist, then collapse. In each field, he suggests, a scientific approach identifies underlying fundamental mechanisms which, themselves, explain the emergence and disappearance of a given form, without arguing subjectively for the properness or rightness of any one state.
Likewise, he argues, the current economic system in which capitalists control production in such a way as to increase the value of goods to their own benefit beyond the value of the labor that went into them is doomed to fall. I am going to diverge slightly from Engels here and add my own conclusion, simply that it is inevitable for the forces of labor to find a way to reclaim for themselves the surplus value which the factory owners pad onto their efforts.
I wonder, then, if a fairly straight line may be drawn from Engels's esssay to today's proposals for health care policy. Health care insurance providers have found a way to extract surplus value from the efforts of doctors. At their heart, I suppose, the idea of government-administered health care is to remove as much of this surplus value as possible; that is, to make the price you pay for health care as close as possible to the value of the doctors' work, without the added cost introduced by insurance providers to generate their profit.
It seems that this answer should be a fairly straightforward response to the inevitable question "Who pays?" For example, as one right-wing blogger, named Russell Page, wrote "So tell me this Obama. If citizens are the ones paying for it now, who is going to pay for it under your plan? Citizen taxpayers? Oh wait... that's still the citizens." And of course, that's true. The answer, simply, would be the differnece between the value of the doctors' work being inflated by a for-profit corporate middleman, or having prices kept flat, essentially, by a sort of government union where the doctors and patients own their own services.
As both Engels and Obama would probably agree, the best way to argue this point is surely to be to present it something like I've attempted just now, not as as a socially just or righteous end that ought to be fulfilled, but as the inevitable result of an understanding of the workings of the current system which, once grasped, leads to its own defeat.