There is an old saying that "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." So too, ideologues who learn political philosophy at the feet of the "professors" of Fox News, would do well to curb their enthusiasm for pointing fingers at those who, like themselves, can't explain why in fact, there is a difference between Democrats and Socialists.
Let's get one thing straight at the outset: Socialism – like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or virtually any body of tenets and beliefs – is neither monolithic nor unitary; it is fractionated. Just as there are various "branches" or "approaches" to the three major Western religions, there are also many, many "branches" or "approaches" to Socialism. Or, as one Henry Griffin noted in a letter to the New York Times published on March 6, 1906,
"There are said to be as many kinds of socialism as there are brands of pickles."
Without wishing to turn this piece into a "Poli-Sci 101" lecture, let's spend a few sentences getting down and serious.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism (lower-case "s") as "A theory or policy of social organisation which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all people." In the main, orthodox socialists hold that capitalism tends to concentrate both power and wealth among a small segment of society; that this "small segment" controls capital and tends to derive its wealth through exploitation, which in turn creates gross inequality in society. If this sounds like what Senator Sanders, Secretary Clinton and others are speaking about when they refer to "Income Inequality," you're on the right track. Of course one doesn't have to be a socialist to see how much wealth is in the hands of the top one-tenth-of-one-percent of the population.
This is, broadly speaking, socialism in theory. In practice, the individual might subscribe to:
Democratic Socialism, which seeks to further socialist ideals within the context of a democratic, capitalist society. Sweden, Finland and Norway are prime examples of a Democratic Socialist country. (This is the brand Senator Sanders has long ascribed to.)
Christian Socialism, which seeks to blend socialist ideology with the doctrine of the social gospel. Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Caesar Chavez and Paul Tillich all considered themselves "Christian Socialists."
Labor Zionism, which is a grafting of socialist ideology onto Zionist activism. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meier and Albert Einstein are prime examples of this socialist branch.
Ethnic and Regional Socialism: one can find differences in socialism as "practiced" in Africa, amongst Muslims, or, say, Irish Republicans.
(N.B.: The above is by no means meant to be either exhaustive or complete.)
Now, every Communist is a Socialist. However, only a small percentage of Socialists are Communists. Broadly speaking, Communists—some of whom advocate violence, many of whom do not – seek a classless, stateless, oppression-free society where decisions on what to produce and what policies to pursue are made democratically, with virtually every member of society having equal participation. This is "pure" Communism. It has never existed in practice, although there are those who would argue that an Israeli kibbutz comes close.
As with Socialism, there are many different approaches to Communism. Although most Socialists and all Communists consider themselves Marxists, there are different subsets:
Leninism: Named for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, father of the Russian Revolution, this approach stresses the need for a highly disciplined party structure. In practice, this led to great brutality.
Stalinism: Named for Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin. "Stalinism," strictly speaking, refers more to government structure than ideology. It is often referred to pejoratively as "Red Fascism."
Trotskyism: Named for Leon Trotsky, Lenin's co-leader. Trotskyites arose in opposition to what they saw as the betrayal of the Russian Revolution's goals. They stand for "Permanent Revolution," internationalism, and a united front against all forms of fascism.
Maoism: The Chinese version of Stalinism. Maoists believe that there is such an inherent antagonism between Capitalists and Communists, that even when the proletariat (the working class) takes over the reins of society, the class struggle must continue.
(N.B.: Once again, the above is by no means an exhaustive list; there are even more approaches to Communism. Don't worry, there's no test at the end of the piece)
America, like many countries in Western Europe and South America, has blended aspects of Democratic Socialism into an overwhelmingly capitalist system. There is a difference between Democrats and Socialists. Truth to tell, the modern Democratic Party has little to do with anything resembling what one would consider small-s socialism or social democracy. Democrats -- regardless of what conservatives and low-information folks believe -- are a centrist coalition which does include some groups that are left of center. Traditional Socialism, on the other hand, is a political-economic system that organizes the economy purely around the needs of the people.
In a recent a conversation with Vox's Ezra Klein, Senator Sanders described what it means to be a Democratic Socialist:
What it means is that one takes a hard look at countries around the world who have successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families. When you do that, you automatically go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and other countries that have had labor governments or social democratic governments, and what you find is that in virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours.
According to John Ahlquist, associate professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego who has focused on the politics of economic inequality, in Socialism, “The basic idea is that production decisions and everything else are not organized around the desire to make a profit, they’re organized by a cooperative group to produce stuff that people think they need . . . there’s no public figure in the Democratic Party who is advocating for social ownership of the means of production, Bernie Sanders included.”
We do have programs here in America which have more than a sniff of socialism attached to them: Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Insurance quickly come to mind. Then too, corporate bailouts are a form of socialism as well . . .
As Mr. Griffin noted in his long-ago letter to the Times, "When you use the word 'socialism,' you should tell what you mean by it."
Indeed, there is a difference between Democrats and Socialists. The fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz cannot spell out what the difference is in a sentence or two is no big deal. Most people -- including all those who resort to ad hominen arguments -- can't either.
Copyright©2015 Kurt F. Stone