Socialism: What's in a Word?

Derek Kediora

22 February 2019

Can I step into the current political discourse wearing my linguist hat on for a minute? Unless we agree on basic terminology, the entire conversation becomes meaningless.

The right-wing media have long called anyone on the left a socialist. Let’s look at how Wikipedia defines socialism:

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Not even Bernie Sanders or AOC are anywhere close to calling for private industries to be nationalized or taken over by worker communes. There are no mainstream socialists in American politics.

I understand why people on the left-wing of the Democratic party are trying to reappropriate the term socialist. You’re not going to have a nuanced policy discussion with someone who’s frothing at the mouth and not arguing in good faith. It’s simpler to say, “Yeah, I’m socialist. So what?”

Nonetheless, AOC and Sanders aren’t socialists, they’re social democrats, which Wikipedia defines as:

Social democracy is a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and capitalist economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve a commitment to representative and participatory democracy; measures for income redistribution and regulation of the economy in the general interest; and welfare state provisions. Social democracy thus aims to create the conditions for capitalism to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes.

So they’re just mundane capitalists that use market mechanisms such as regulation and taxes to promote positive outcomes.

The 2020 Democratic primary is going to be the only serious idealogical contest of the year: neo-liberals and social democrats are fighting for the next generation of party leadership. This is a real debate, in good faith, about differing visions of how to govern the country.

On the flip side, calling everyone on the right a fascist is equally sloppy. To quote Orwell’s What is Fascism?:

[A]lmost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

Focusing on the identity politics of Evangelical Protestants and White Nationalists is far more precise and useful. Discussing economic policies that favor capital over wealth, deficient spending and critically underfunding infrastructure is far more constructive than titling at the windmill of fascism.

Reclaiming meaningful words in our political discourse and avoiding the cheap buzzwords is another step in keeping our democracy alive and flourishing.