For a long time, socialism has been considered a dirty word in the American political discourse. The poisoning of the label by corporate interests over the years has turned an ideological position with a rich and storied tradition into little more than an empty slur hurled at anyone even remotely to the left of the Republican Party. However, in recent years there has been a marked shift regarding the reception of socialism by the American public, especially among the nation’s youth.
Like it or not, socialism as an ideology is gaining ground across the country. A Reason-Rupe poll found that 53 percent of people aged 18 to 29 have a favorable view of socialism. Thanks in part to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hammering the phrase “democratic socialism” into our heads, and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America gaining significant momentum in left-wing grassroots organizing efforts, public opinion about socialism has changed drastically.
Despite this, the state of public knowledge about socialism is quite lacking. Many of socialism’s biggest detractors (and even some of its self-professed supporters) lack any sort of knowledge about what socialism means. Such misunderstanding ranges from fear-mongering talking heads on Fox News that insist life under socialism will mean that you have to share your toothbrush with your immigrant neighbors, to well-meaning liberal columnists who think that socialism both begins and ends with universal health care. The public discourse on the topic is dominated by those who either are themselves ignorant or fail to properly articulate the central thrust of the ideology.
What many think of as socialism is not socialism. Socialism is not simply the mere presence of a public sector. It is not defined as, “When the government does things.” Moreover, socialism is not a blanket term you can attach to anything left of center. Socialism is not welfare, nor is it a progressive system of taxation.
Rather, socialism is a political and economic theory calling for workers’ control of the means of production. This means the abolition of private property and the creation of a system that allows for public control of the economy. Many often take the “abolition of private property” to mean that you cannot own things — nonsense!
Chalk this up to a simple misunderstanding of terminology. In the socialist lexicon, private property refers to privately-owned facilities used to produce goods and services (factories, infrastructure, etc.). One’s belongings (computer, car, backpack, etc.) are referred to as “personal property.”
Anything added to that definition, any qualification about how a socialist government organizes or how its economy is structured, is not intrinsic to socialism and is not universal among all schools of socialism. There are many flavors of socialism and they at times endorse very different schools of socialist thought. Thusly, socialism can present itself in various forms. This can, understandably, cause some confusion.
For example, socialists often disagree about the role of state power. While some advocate for a centrally-planned economy through a strong state apparatus, others are explicitly anti-statist, favoring communal solutions rather than consolidated control. Another point of contention among socialists is the role of religion in regards to their ideology. While Christian socialists, such as civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., cite a religious basis for their economic beliefs, other socialists adopt a more secular tone. With disputes as large as these, it is no surprise that the socialist movement is rather fractured.
Clearly, there is more to learn about socialism beyond a simple definition. Luckily, there is a plethora of great resources out there to help you further your education.
Professor and economist Richard D. Wolff is one of the leading voices championing the cause of socialism in the United States. Despite being a prolific author on the subject, Wolff has gained the most fame, particularly among the younger demographic, for his rants and lectures uploaded to YouTube. He also hosts a weekly podcast called “Economic Update” in which he analyzes current events from a left-wing perspective.
Another commonly cited starting point for those interested in learning more about socialism is an essay titled “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein — yes, that Albert Einstein. While politics and economics are not his areas of expertise, he offers valuable insights as to what he believes to be the virtues of a publicly-administered economic system. Einstein also offers up points of critique for the capitalist structure under which he was living.
For a lighter indulgence, “Chapo Trap House” is a biweekly podcast that combines a socialist worldview with raucous, subversive comedy. Hosts Matt Christman, Will Menaker, Amber A’Lee Frost, Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman brilliantly balance nuanced analyses of world news with witty humor in what amounts to a skilled tightrope walk of educational entertainment. In listening, one can expect to gain a firmer grasp on not just socialism and politics generally, but the vast array of internet subcultures as well. This one is perfect for a younger audience.
If you start to become passionate about the cause, organize! Joining a socialist group or organization can be a great way to meet like minded individuals and get more involved in your community. Getting in touch with your local Democratic Socialists of America chapter would be a good place to start. In fact, there’s a chapter right here on campus at the University of Michigan.
You now better understand what socialism is and where to begin your further exploration of the topic. So, what are you waiting for? Get to learning!
Elias Khoury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.