Self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a big splash in the media after her victory in the Bronx Democratic primary for the House of Representatives, and many leading Democrats have echoed her policy proposals on trending issues, including her support for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While the political drama of Ocasio-Cortez’s influence on the 2018 midterm elections is interesting, the position and ideology of the left are more important to the future of America than petty electoral politics. Getting to the heart of the matter: what does democratic socialism mean, what are the differences between this and socialism or communism, and why does it matter?
The following are the three most dangerous misconceptions about socialism and its influence in America.
MYTH 1: Socialism and Communism are very different from Progressivism and Democratic Socialism.
TRUTH: There are slight nuances, but there isn’t that much of a distinction between them.
Language evolves over time, but the language used by the political left shifts with the wind. The truth is that the various branches of socialism which have developed throughout the centuries-long predate Marx, going back as far as Plato’s Republic and St. Thomas More’s Utopia. Collectivism and the abolition of private property are problems as old as western civilization.
Although the terms have different meanings to different people, both Marx and Lenin used the terms “socialism” and “communism” almost interchangeably. With respect to Lenin’s implementation of Marx’s brand of socialism, Lenin’s original political party was the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which he eventually turned into the official Communist Party.
Although the founding philosophers did not formulate exact definitions of their concepts, socialism in America has the connotation of nonviolence. This nonviolent and gradual approach to achieving socialistic ends – as opposed to Lenin’s violent and immediate revolution – is typically associated with implementing socialism in western-style democracies, such as in the United Kingdom with the Fabian Socialists. In the United States, this tradition was advanced by the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transitioning into FDR’s brand of liberalism from the 1930s onward.
Whether you identify as a Socialist, a Progressive, or an (FDR’s) Liberal, Ted Cruz said it best that the difference between positions on the left is like the difference between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.
MYTH 2: The ideas themselves are good, but they have never been implemented properly.
TRUTH: The fundamental problem with socialism is its ideas.
Although socialism touts equality and solidarity, socialism in practice only damages the communities in which it is implemented, both socially and economically.
Socialism is an ideology which puts the society above the person: the collective is more valuable than the individual. The problem: society is made up of individuals. Whether implemented through violence or unrepentant majoritarian democracy, socialism rejects private property rights, the family, and differences of opinion, eventually eroding social bonds of trust and kinship.
Take for example America’s first flirtation with socialism: the Pilgrims of New England. Attempting to create a new society based on Christian brotherhood, the first government of Massachusetts established a system of communal property ownership. The fruits of individual labor, whether the products of the fields or the products of the home, were collectivized. This system deteriorated the strong community spirit that carried the Pilgrims to America, and unity was only restored after a system of private property was implemented.
Not only did socialism wreak havoc on the social bonds of Plymouth, but it also perpetuated a state of death and destruction. Why? The colonists had very little incentive to produce if all of their toil and labor were efforts only for the sake of others; therefore, starvation and disease plagued Plymouth until private property and personal responsibility was respected.
Socialism is inherently inefficient because of its centralized use of resources, but, more importantly, it fundamentally contradicts human nature. Ultimately, private property rights flow from a system of natural law, which should not be cast aside lightly.
It is true that all communist dictators have been notoriously brutal, but leadership failures are not responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people, spread across all continents and cultures. The real failure of socialism is in its ideas, not merely its implementation.
MYTH 3: Americans want socialism; they must understand it and know what they are getting, right?
TRUTH: Actually, most Americans don’t know what socialism truly means.
Perhaps the most chilling part of this picture is that most Americans don’t have a basic grasp on the ideological underpinnings of socialism or communism, let alone understand their nuances or how they influence American politics.
According to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s 2017 Annual Report, seven in ten Americans do not know the definition of communism or confuse it with other political and economic philosophies. Despite this ignorance, approximately 41% of the general American populace would prefer to live in a socialistic, communistic, or fascistic society. Of millennials, 58% would prefer these forms of collectivism to the current American model, even if they don’t know how to accurately define them.
Moral of the story: Americans need to know the facts. Please share this story everywhere you can; preaching to the choir is important, but it doesn’t influence the debate where it matters most.
Interested in reading more by Gabrielle Etzel. Check out her blog to read more!