The American obsession with socialism has virtually nothing to do with actual international socialism
From Heather Cox Richardson October 27, 2020 (Original Facebook post)
During her interview with the vice-presidential candidate on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, journalist Norah O’Donnell asked Senator Kamala Harris if she would bring a “socialist or progressive perspective” to the White House. Harris burst out laughing before she said “no.”
Harris’s response has been viewed more than a million times on social media. One person responded “she doesn’t even know she’s into Marxism = socialism = communism.” Trump and his campaign surrogates, as well as Republican lawmakers, continue to refer to Democrats as “socialists.” In Florida on Friday, Trump said: "We're not supposed to have a socialist—look we're not going to be a socialist nation. We're not going to have a socialist president, especially a female socialist president, we're not gonna have it, we're not gonna put up with it."
Today, in Lansing, Michigan, Trump warned about the elevation of Harris to the presidency, saying that “Joe’s shot; Kamala, you ready?... She makes Bernie Sanders look like a serious conservative.” Trump seems to be using the term “shot” as the old slang word for “worn out,” but there is no doubt he understands the dual meaning in that word, and is warning that Harris, should she be required to succeed Biden, will be a left-wing radical.
The American obsession with socialism has virtually nothing to do with actual international socialism, which developed in the early twentieth century. International socialism is based on the ideas of political theorist Karl Marx, who believed that, as the working class was crushed under the wealthy during late stage capitalism, it would rise up to take control of the factories, farms, utilities, and so on, taking over the means of production.
That theory has never been popular in America. While we have had a few socialist mayors, the best a socialist candidate has ever done in an election was when Eugene V. Debs won about 6% of the popular vote in 1912. Even then, while Debs called himself a socialist, it is not clear he was advocating the national takeover of industry so much as calling for the government to work for ordinary Americans, rather than the very wealthy, in a time that looked much like our own.
American “socialism” is a very different thing than what Marx was describing in his theoretical works. Fear of it erupted in the 1870s, long before the rise of international socialism, and it grew out of the peculiar American context of the years after the Civil War. During the war, Republicans had both invented national taxation—including the income tax—and welcomed African American men to the ballot box. This meant that, after the Civil War, for the first time in American history, voting had a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks.
After the war, southern Democrats organized as the Ku Klux Klan to try to stop Black Americans from taking their rightful place in society. They assaulted, raped, and murdered their Black neighbors to keep them from voting. But President Ulysses S. Grant met domestic terrorism with federal authority, established the Department of Justice, and arrested Klan members, driving their movement underground.
So reactionary whites took a different tack. The same people who had bitterly and publicly complained about Black Americans participating in society as equal to whites began to argue that their problem with Black voting was not about race, but rather about class. They said that they objected to poor voters being able to elect leaders who promised to deliver services or public improvements, like schools and roads, that could be paid for only by taxes, levied on property holders.
In the South of the post-Civil War years, almost all property holders were white. They argued that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to poor Black people. It was, they insisted, “socialism,” or, after workers in Paris created a Commune in 1871, “communism.”
This is the origin of the American obsession with “socialism,” more than 40 years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.
Since that time, Americans have cried “socialism” whenever ordinary Americans try to use the government to level the economic playing field by calling for business regulation—which will cost tax dollars by requiring bureaucrats—or for schools and roads, or by asking for a basic social safety net. But the public funding of roads and education and health care is not the same thing as government taking over the means of production. Rather, it is an attempt to prevent a small oligarchy from using the government to gather power to themselves, cutting off the access of ordinary Americans to resources, a chance to rise, and, ultimately, to equality before the law.
It is striking that O’Donnell felt it appropriate to ask Harris if she is a socialist—and lots of people apparently think that’s a legitimate question—while no one seems to be asking Trump, who is currently in power, if he’s a fascist.
Fascism is a far-right political ideology born in the early twentieth century. At its heart is the idea of a strong nation, whose people are welded into a unit by militarism abroad and the suppression of opposition at home. While socialism starts from the premise that all members of society are equal, fascists believe that that some people are better than others, and those elites should direct all aspects of society. To promote efficiency, fascists believe, business and government should work together to direct production and labor. To make people loyal to the state, fascists promote the idea of a domestic enemy that threatens the country and which therefore must be vanquished to make the nation great. The idea of a hierarchy of men leads to the defense of a dictatorial leader who comes to embody the nation.
Trump has certainly rallied far-right thugs to his side. At his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand by,” and last week a study warned that five U.S. states are at risk for election-related armed violence by right-wing terrorists who have already threatened elected officials. Today, Trump repeatedly attacked Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer at his rally in Lansing. Whitmer was a target of right-wing extremists who plotted to kidnap her and put her on trial for “treason,” and she has asked him repeatedly to stop riling up his followers against her. He has also weaponized government police for his own ends, sending them into the streets to bash peaceful protesters in a campaign he insists, in an echo of fascist leaders, will produce “law and order.”
He has certainly behaved as if some Americans are better than others, telling us that we simply must accept more than 225,000 deaths from coronavirus even as we know that those deaths disproportionately hit the elderly and Black and Brown Americans. Over the past week, the U.S has reported more than 500,000 new cases—a record—while Trump claimed credit today for “ENDING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.” He uses images of himself as a strongman, insists he has handled his job perfectly, and increasingly uses our public property as props for dramatic videos and photoshoots.
He is purging the public service of career officials and replacing them with loyalists. Recently, he issued an Executive Order stripping public servants of their civil service protections so he can fire those who are insufficiently loyal and fill their posts with cronies. Last night, his hand-picked head of Voice of America, Michael Pack, scrapped a federal regulation giving editorial freedom to the U.S. media outlets under the VOA umbrella. Pack wants editorial control, to turn the public outlet into a mouthpiece for Trump. Former VOA director Amanda Bennett told NPR she was “stunned” at his actions, which remove “the one thing that makes Voice of America distinct from broadcasters of repressive regimes.”
He has set up Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats, and has increasingly threatened Democrats, saying they should not be allowed to win the upcoming election, an election he has threatened to ignore unless he wins.
It’s a frightening list, no?
But for all that, Trump is an aspiring oligarch, rather than a fascist. He has no driving ideology except money and sees the country as a piggy bank rather than as a juggernaut for national greatness. Still, that his drive for power comes from a different place than fascism makes it no less dangerous to our democracy.
Over the next few years, we are going to have to have hard conversations about the role of government in society. Those conversations will not be possible if any Democratic policy to regulate runaway capitalism is met with howls of "socialism" while Republican policies that increasingly concentrate power in a small group of Americans are not challenged for the dangerous ideologies they mimic.