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.