Nobody Knows What Socialism Means


The title of this post is not meant to convey that I know what socialism means, so you should defer to me. Instead, it is meant to convey that nobody knows what socialism means. Nor will we all come to agree on what it means. Our grand national political debate over socialism is, therefore, an enormous waste of time.

Does socialism mean “Venezuela?” No. I think we can agree it does not mean that, despite the constant yelling. Academics will tell you that socialism means “public ownership of the means of production.” Is that what everyone is talking about? No. Clearly it is not. Not even the most well-known advocates of socialism in America mean that. If I were to do my level best to honestly sum up what most people here mean when they talk about socialism, I would say that people on the left tend to mean “A kinder government with a stronger social safety net,” and people on the right tend to mean “Whatever the Russian villains in a jingoistic 1980s action movie were into.”

Philosophers long ago realized that when we think we are debating ideas, what we are really debating is the meaning of words. The first step towards having a meaningful debate is to agree on what we are talking about. When it comes to “socialism” in America, this first step will never be reached. All of our talking and yelling and solemn speeches and vacuous cable news crosstalk will amount to people arguing over what a blank page says. All parties in this debate will project their own meaning onto the term before they proceed to criticize or defend it. We will all talk past one another. On the right, socialism will—out of ignorance, or fear, or calculated political strategy—be used as a boogeyman, a scare word representing anything you can think of that might upset a Fox News viewer. On the left, socialism will be used as a catch-all term for a broad set of policies representing a more humane state, though the precise contours of that definition will slip and slide from person to person.

There is a fair argument to be made that things like taxes, and public roads, and fire departments are a form of socialism. Is it a good use of time to have a knock-down drag-out debate with someone who believes that socialism means “bad Russia stuff”—or, for that matter, with a staunch Maoist—about this definition? No. It is not. Even if, after a million hours, you do settle on this tepid and mutually acceptable definition, what has been gained? What has been accomplished? There is Medicare for All to be won in a debate over health care. There is the end of inequality to be won in a debate over tax and labor policy. There are lives to be won in a debate about guns, and about racism, and about immigration. Of course we also want to be able to present an overarching theme, or philosophy, or impulse that ties all these issues together. Fortunately there are many ways to approach that that are innately understood far better than the squishy idea of socialism ever will be. Justice. Fairness. Equality. Opportunity. Uhhh, Love for Mankind? The point is not that everyone agrees about the implications of these grandiose terms either, but that they at least form a recognizable basis from which to proceed to specifics. I can promise you that the debate on socialism, on the other hand, will not proceed anywhere. A generation from now Americans will still be able to angrily yell past one another about “socialism,” without ever agreeing what they are yelling about.

Bernie Sanders is giving a speech today about socialism. Fine. I like Bernie Sanders, and I like (what I define as) socialism. But Bernie Sanders is not going to end the market economy. Nor does he advocate doing so! Nor can many people even conceptualize what such a thing would mean! Every single Democratic candidate is really discussing to what degree to impose government regulation on the market economy to curb its negative effects, while it continues its basic functions. Is this socialism? I do not care. Let us, when this speech is over, proceed to leave this particular debate behind us. What matters is what we can do. What matters is how many people you can help. If Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both support more or less the same policies, and one says that his motivation is socialism and one does not, here is the meaningful real world difference between the two: nothing. What matters is the policies. If two candidates want to create public health care and free college and tax the rich and empower organized labor and break monopolies and do all the other things that the left broadly agrees should be done, they are functionally the same. The difference between a “democratic socialist” and a “progressive capitalist” who enact the same policies is: nothing. I like arguing about things as much as anyone, and I don’t mind arguing for fun, but to imagine that defeating someone in a debate about jargon helps humans in the world is not true. If that were the case, the world would have been perfected generations ago by leftist pamphleteers.

What matters is what you do. What matters is its effect on human lives. Do you feel passionately that it is important for people to flock to the cause of socialism? Fine. Build a movement that helps people and demonstrates the power of what you believe socialism to be, and then tell them that’s socialism, and they’ll like it. Start with the deeds and not the words. Enacting a policy can change millions of lives; convincing someone, after tortured harangues, to adopt your definition of a political term does not accomplish anything except to allow you to arrive at the starting point from which you must… enact policies. Let’s just skip right to the good stuff.

If I have to spend the next 17 months listening to a Duck Dynasty guy equate Maduro and Che Guevara while Bernie and Warren supporters fight one another over t-shirt slogans and Fox News plays it all for ratings gold I am going to lose my shit.

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