The race for the White House has entered a critical phase, making it especially important for voters to understand the underlying ideologies of the candidates. In the Democratic Party, although “socialism” and “progressivism” are often used interchangeably, there is a crucial difference between them. While “progressivism” is a broad conviction about social development that can be linked with almost any political ideology, “socialism” has very specific precepts and goals.
In practice, the “progressive” label has spanned the political spectrum, from fascists seeking to elevate their nations and imperialists claiming the development of colonized societies, to leftist and rightist reformers promoting specific social changes. The word was also hijacked by the Bolsheviks and other communists to claim that Marxist prophecies and Leninist practice would inevitably deliver progress for humanity. It has also been used loosely in American politics, often by liberals seeking to avoid the negative connotations of “liberal” propounded by conservatives.
In stark contrast to the eclectic nature of progressivism, socialism is a specific ideology that is actually regressive. Having failed to deliver on its 20th century promises, some of its proponents adopted the progressive label as a disguise. Leftists and former fellow travelers of the Soviet Union and Cuba, such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin suggests pausing talks on .5 trillion package until 2022: report Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Sanders calls deadly Afghan drone strike 'unacceptable' MORE (I-Vt.), openly define themselves as “democratic socialists” and seek to convince voters that socialism remains a progressive force. The historical record tells a different story.
Socialism emerged at the end of the 19th century as an anti-capitalist movement demanding economic equality guaranteed by state power. Two main socialist streams predominated — the systemic or democratic socialists willing to operate within existing institutions in order to transform them in implementing their ideological goals and a revolutionary or communist stream seeking to abolish existing institutions and hasten the creation of a fully socialist society.
Leaders in both factions believed that they were the progressive vanguard that would bury capitalism and sweep away inequality and injustice. Democratic socialists in Western societies rarely criticized their revolutionary comrades in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam or elsewhere, even as they murdered or imprisoned millions of people in conducting their “class war” against capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Their methods may have differed, but their objectives coincided — the creation of a socialist utopia controlled by enlightened leaders. Hence, the mass repressions in Cuba and China can be glossed over as a casualty of “progress,” which included literacy campaigns to inculcate communist propaganda among the masses.
Revolutionary communism failed miserably to deliver the promised progress, while its experiments resulted in millions of victims and numerous genocides. Many of the systemic socialists in the West turned to various forms of social democracy and welfarism after finally realizing that state economic planning disincentivized entrepreneurship, innovation and modernization. Capitalism proved to be essential for economic growth, and the only question was how it should be regulated to protect workers and to prevent abuses such as monopolization and price gouging.
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 such as Denmark and Norway that some American “democratic socialists” hail as an example for the U.S. may have a strong and equitable welfare system, but they are also pro-capitalist, business-friendly, and economically competitive. They also avidly avoid the socialist label because of its negative connotations.
Socialism has always been a minority belief in the United States, as the country’s ethos is founded on individualism and entrepreneurship not on collectivism and state imposition. Immigrants who flocked to America sought to escape state oppression and simply wanted the opportunity to work, earn and compete, including millions from communist states. The rulers of Europe’s “socialist democracies” or “people’s democracies” declared them to be the first stage of progress toward full communism until the whole system collapsed in economic misery 30 years ago.
The current revival of socialist ideology in America is based on a mixture of idealism, cynicism and ignorance. Cynical socialist true believers who have never actually lived in socialist societies exploit the idealism of the younger generation and their evident ignorance about the tragic results of social engineering perpetrated by socialist parties. They are capitalizing on wealth inequalities to promote “class struggle” in pursuit of state socialist redistribution. And they are promising idyllic economic models that simply cannot be sustained.
Historically, socialist utopias rapidly devolve into impoverished social dystopias, as Venezuela has demonstrated in recent years. And the usual refrain from politically ambitious “democratic socialists” that “this time we will get it right” cannot be trusted. In reality, a state socialist agenda, even if dressed in enticing democratic or progressivist garb, guarantees economic decline, social conflict and increasing state repression.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.”