Boomer Opinion: Is Any Candidate a Socialist?

The first contests in next year’s presidential campaign are less than two months away, and both sides have pulled out their long knives. Arguably longer than we baby boomers have seen before. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes about the argument coming from the Right… and what he believes is disingenuously wrong about it.

Let me tell you what socialism is.

It is the shoe shine man I used to see on the steps of the National Hotel in Moscow, who didn’t even own the kit or the brushes or the polishes he used on his customers’ shoes. Consistent with the real definition of socialism, the state— in this case, the Soviet Union— owned the means of production. Including the supplies the man used on the steps to shine my shoes.

Greg Dobbs

Or, socialism is symbolized by the long line of customers I saw one cold grey snowy morning winding around the corner outside an appliance store in Warsaw when Poland was still under the yoke of the Soviets. As it turned out, word had spread the day before that a truckload of washing machines was about to be delivered. The line began to form that night. Appliances like that always were in short supply, because with the state owning the means of production, it tended to produce fewer appliances than demand would dictate. That way, no one took the rap if any were ever left over. Sure enough, by the time the last washer was sold, the last customer was still waiting.

Or you could look at the whole Soviet space program, and the Russian program that followed. In many ways, they were as advanced as ours. But I covered the last six years of America’s manned space flights, and learned that everything from our best fire retardant materials to our most effective insulation to polarized sunglasses to the iconic Black & Decker Dustbuster— and hundreds of other products we take for granted today— were derivatives of tools that private industry created so NASA could operate in outer space. By contrast, in our rival’s space program, because the socialist state never got into the habit of thinking about what’s best for the consumer, it never got into the habit of translating its technology in space into comforts for its citizens down on the ground.

As I’ve seen it in practice, socialism is designed only to equalize people’s lives, not enhance them. So citizens of the Soviet state never got the Dustbuster.

That’s why the argument of some on the Right, amplified by the upcoming presidential election, that the Left would turn our society into a socialist state, is empty. Socialism means a planned economy. Almost nothing that any of today’s Democratic presidential candidates proposes— even the most left-leaning candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders— comes even close to real socialism. They want more government regulation for sure. But that’s a far cry from total government ownership. Anyway, when it comes to some forms of government regulation, it’s hardly an insufferable horror even to conservatives.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist David Brooks cited this phrase as the best definition of socialism: “What touches all should be decided by all.” It was coined by Princeton professor Michael Walzer who, according to Brooks, meant that “the great economic enterprises should be owned by all of us in common. Decisions should be based on what benefits all, not the maximization of profit.” Not to take issue with Brooks, but I think socialism is even better defined by one of its own founders, Karl Marx, who described it this way: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

That definition— actually, either definition— also is a far cry from what even the leftmost Democratic candidates propose to pull off.

Not that that matters to some on the Right. For many years, they have used “socialism” as a cudgel. The gist of their polemic is, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Sounds sensible on the surface, but dig only skin deep and you’ll see, the premise itself is imperfect. Many Americans need to be fed a fish only for a figurative day, long enough to get back on their feet and become productive again. They are the ones who even conservative economist Thomas Sewell sympathetically concedes have been “struck by unforeseeable misfortunes.” Do some take advantage of the rest of us and want to be fed for a lifetime? Sure, but either we lift the deserving at the cost of lifting the undeserving too, or we ignore them all. And have higher rates of hunger and homelessness.

What’s worse, the crooked cudgel some are beginning to swing in this presidential election is to equate socialism with communism. They know that across the spectrum of politics in America, communism is a dirty word. I could cite the characteristics of communism in nations where I’ve covered news on several continents and it’s not pretty. But although both systems have been practiced in tandem in some countries over the years, socialism is not inseparable from communism. Exhibit A, as columnist Brooks pointed out: the nations of Scandinavia.

Still, I’ll go with the system we’ve got in this country. Economic capitalism, not socialism, but with a dose of regulation to ensure that everyone can get a foot on the ladder and keep it there.

Those who characterize Democratic White House aspirants as “socialists”— even Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” but not in the historical spirit of socialism— don’t know what they’re talking about. Or what’s worse, they do, but they’re willing to exploit the ignorance of some Americans by using words loaded with historical hostility. They’re willing to paint Democrats— including the most centrist Democrats by the way— as socialists and even, as we’ve already begun to see, as communists.

If someone rightly warns me that a candidate undeniably wants a truly socialist, let alone a communist state, I’m going to run for my life. But if they don’t know what that word actually means, or they just don’t care, I’ll do my best to send them running for theirs.

2 Comments

  1. Great post, enjoyable read and the issue is very well expressed. A big issue, really. Because the elections could turn on this kind of empty insults. As you say, this is “exploit[ing] the ignorance of some Americans by using words loaded with historical hostility.”

    Indeed.

    Voter ignorance and disinformation has become the order of the day in the digital age. It was a problem before, in the days of paper and TV journalism. Now with social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, it’s a disaster!

  2. Item: None of the “Scandinavian countries” are Socialist. In a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen addressed the American misconception that the Nordic model is a form of socialism, stating: “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy”
    George Lakey, author of Viking Economics, asserts that Americans generally misunderstand the nature of the Nordic “welfare state”.

    Item: From Wikipedia, “History of Socialism”: “socialism or, as Marx termed it, the first phase of communist society, can be viewed as a transitional stage”. Popularly paraphrased as “socialism is the intermediate step between capitalism and communism”. I completely agree; we do not need nor want a true socialist society here. The goals are mostly admirable, where it fails is the human factor. Too many individuals, and too many bad actors. Every socialist/communist society has been ruined by the leaders.

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