I thought this was a fine essay by Andrew Koppelman on the Niskanen Center site. His basic point is that many, if not most, socialists are really social democrats who believe in a better capitalism and therefore are undermining their cause by insisting on the socialist label. Readers of my (now classic!) essay, “The Five Deadly Sins of the Left” will notice a family resemblance between Koppelman’s argument and sin #2 in that essay.
Here is perhaps the nub of his case:
“In a socialists-for-capitalism program, one of the first things that needs to go is the word “socialism” itself. George Orwell wrote in 1946 about the degradation of political discourse: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.” Every use of such empty terms, he thought, “anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.”
The sensible response by scholars who have studied the left is to distinguish (as Sheri Berman does in her wonderfully clarifying history, The Primacy of Politics) between socialism, which aims to abolish capitalism, and social democracy, which accepts a capitalist economy but demands a state strong enough to moderate its failures and excesses. Judis responds that social democracy is “a label that has no currency in American politics.” True, but there is value in a term that’s not already contaminated with misleading associations. It also helps to be able to articulate distinctions that matter….
Today’s American left has a suicidal tendency to rally around phrases with extreme, politically disastrous significations: defund the police, prison abolition, police abolition. Proponents of reform find themselves constantly explaining that those terms are not to be understood literally (giving new significance to the old slogan, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”). But the use of this toxic language is not accidental, because in each case the most committed members of the movement aren’t fooling; they are using the phrases literally. The police abolition movement includes genuine anarchists. As [John] Judis reports, many of the most committed American socialists are old-fashioned Marxists. Orwell thought that vague political terms like socialism “are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think he means something quite different.”
The DSA declares: “Until we face, and beat, the stigma attached to the ‘S word,’ politics in America will continue to be stifled and our options limited.” That’s true only if the option one hopes to keep open is the Marxist one, which even most Sanders voters reject. If the word frightens away voters, then it is the word itself that stifles politics and limits options. [EJ] Dionne and [William] Galston acknowledge that “Medicare and Social Security are, in a sense, socialist, and so are our public schools and universities, our community colleges, our water supplies and sewers, and our mass transit systems.” If those can happen without the S word – and they did – then they are not what the S word is necessary for. There are, indeed, enemies on the left.”
His argument is well worth reckoning with I think especially for those who have some attachment, sentimental or otherwise, to the socialist label but also wish to be politically effective.
For what it’s worth, here is how I made a similar case in my Five Deadly Sins essay.
“The second deadly sin of the Left is retro-socialism, which demands a complete remaking of the market system to heal the problems of contemporary capitalism. In this view, the ills of the current era are traceable to neoliberalism—faith in the market as the organizing mechanism for society—which compounds underlying problems with the capitalist system itself. The retro-socialists contend that the public is so sick of stagnating living standards, inequality, and periodic crises that it will (eventually) embrace their complete socialist overhaul of the system. This mistakes the public’s genuine discontent with current outcomes for a desire to abandon capitalism entirely. Voters are indeed dissatisfied with the current model of capitalism, but what they want is a different, better capitalism, not “socialism.”
The American Left is mostly careful to put the qualifier “democratic” in front of “socialism” to distinguish it from the authoritarian, command-economy socialists of yesteryear. And for many who use the term, their idea of socialism seems closer to a traditional social-democratic mixed economy than a radically different system that would somehow do away with profits and markets. So why call it socialism, a term that has all kinds of unpleasant associations and does imply a replacement of capitalism? Why not call it “people’s capitalism” or “democratic capitalism” or “the advanced mixed economy” or whatever?
By grasping nostalgically at revolutionary rhetoric, the Left sets the bar high for public embrace of what might otherwise be quite popular policy ideas, from single-payer health insurance to free college to a job guarantee. Generally, it is not a selling point for voters that your policies are a step along the road to socialism. Moreover, belief in the viability of replacing capitalism and the market encourages unrealistic thinking about policies that might work within a market system and misestimation of how quickly they might be adopted. This tendency has not gone unnoticed by voters, who are pragmatically interested in what is feasible and workable and have no ideological commitment to a different system. The socialist label and terminology undercut efforts to persuade voters that the Left’s agenda can work.”
A lot to chew on here. For further edification I recommend reading the two fine books Koppelman discusses in his essay, John Judis’ The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left (2020) and Fred Block’s Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion (2018). And then you can all join me in a rousing chorus of “The Red Flag” for old-times sake.