The specter of socialism in America

The specter of socialism in America
© Greg Nash

Both proponents and opponents of “socialism” are beginning to battle it out in the early stages of the 2020 presidential election campaign.

The problem is that none of the presidential candidates have accurately defined the term, and it is doubtful whether many citizens understand its full implications. Without an informed debate on the theory and reality of socialism, politicians will continue to talk past each other.

Socialism was a movement opposing capitalism that emerged in the 19th century to demand economic equality guaranteed by state power.

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In Europe, two main socialist streams predominated — the systemic or democratic socialists willing to operate within existing institutions in order to transform them in the service of their ideological goals and a revolutionary or communist stream seeking to dominate or abolish existing institutions to hasten the creation of a fully socialist system.

Systemic socialists established political parties that competed for office in democratic elections. The revolutionary stream aimed to seize power and cancel genuine elections to ensure their perpetual control. But despite their differing methods, the two main streams shared core similarities in terms of economic and social goals.

Leaders in both factions believed that they were the agents of history — the “vanguard” in a “progressive” movement that would bury capitalism and sweep away inequality and injustice. The same phraseology has now resurfaced in the leftist stream of the Democratic Party.

The self-appointed revolutionary “vanguard” of the working classes seized power in Tsarist Russia in 1917, established absolute state control, and exterminated millions of citizens who doubted their wisdom and vision.

The democratic socialists in Western societies rarely criticized their revolutionary comrades. Even if they did not fully approve of their murderous methods, they agreed with their goals of creating a socialist utopia devoid of capitalists and the “reactionary” opposition.

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Ultimately, the attempted implementation of socialism proved an abject failure as state planning over the economy disincentivized entrepreneurship, innovation and competition.

Revolutionary socialist or communist systems collapsed in Europe’s east 30 years ago. The only systemic socialist parties that registered any success in Europe’s west were those that understood capitalism to be essential for economic growth and eschewed several basic features of a planned and redistributive economy. 

Indeed, very few leftist parties in contemporary Europe define themselves as socialist, as the movement has been largely discredited and lost much of its earlier working-class support.

The Scandinavian states that some American “progressives” hail as an example for the U.S. may have a broad and equitable welfare system, but they are also pro-capitalist, business-friendly and economically competitive. 

In the U.S. context, socialism has always been a minority faith for several fundamental reasons. The American ethos is founded on individualism and entrepreneurship, not on collectivism and state imposition.

The vast majority of immigrants who flocked to America sought to escape state oppression and simply wanted the opportunity to work, earn and compete. Europe’s persistent socialist failures, whether by democratic or revolutionary “progressives,” also served as a negative example for American politicians and publics.

So why are some presidential candidates and members of Congress reviving the specter of socialism? In some cases it seems to be idealism based on ignorance, in other cases a lifelong faith and a cynical calculation that the younger generation has no understanding of the depredations of previous socialist systems.

Some may view Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s populist transformation of the Republican party as an opportunity to reconstruct the Democratic Party into a socialist formation. Most importantly, they are capitalizing on income and wealth inequalities to promote their vision of state socialist redistribution.

The problem with a real socialist agenda, even if dolled up in democratic or populist garb, is that it will guarantee economic decline. When everything is free from cradle to grave as a result of government welfare and state assistance then why should people bother to work?

In a socialist economy, larger businesses will exit to countries where governments encourage profit making and capital accumulation. And smaller business may hesitate to hire and expand in case taxes, regulations and state supervision increases.

In socialist systems, state planning expands bureaucracies and not economies. Without unrestricted incentives and economic competition, the quality of government services declines and equality simply become shared poverty and stagnation, as was evident throughout communist Eastern Europe and in several Western European economies run by “democratic socialists,” including the United Kingdom during the 1970s.

In America under a socialist presidency, state institutions, including Congress, could come under renewed pressure, only this time from a leftist direction, to obey the executive and relinquish the system of checks and balances.

Ominously, the current White House is establishing methods and precedents of how a future president can evade constitutional controls in pursuit of a socialist utopia. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks," (Jamestown Foundation).