What’s So Bad About Socialism?

Socialism has gotten a bad name. Thanks to the failure of governments claiming the socialist mantle but having little to do with my understanding of what real socialism might be, socialism has become an epithet, an attack tossed at politicians from the right at the milquetoast moderates that masquerade as the American left.

Any attempt to use government to protect workers, to help the lower and middle classes, to break the grip of corporate power is derided as socialism with the politicians supporting those programs being denounced as the reincarnation of Stalin. (Not that Stalin was actually a socialist or that the Soviet Union practiced anything resembling socialism, but perhaps I’m just being sensitive.)

Liberals — i.e., those who define themselves as not conservative or whose only ideology is that they are Democrats — respond by running as far away from the tag as they can. “The era of big government is over,” claimed that arch leftist Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and the Democrats have been following that credo ever since.

The problem with this is that it not only undermines legitimate efforts to push the United States in a more socially progressive direction, but it damages the credibility of anyone who sees government as a tool of the people.

And — most importantly — it empowers the corporate elite, makes it easier for it to plunder the economy and environment. We have witnessed over the last three decades a startling upward redistribution of wealth in the United States as corporations evade their tax responsibilities (with the legal help of the politicians they’ve bought and paid for), abandon communities and workers and do everything in their power to lower their costs and increase their profits.

This, say conservatives, is the natural order of things, the way markets are supposed to work. And markets are sacrosanct. If you end up under the bus, then it’s too bad. It’s your fault.

This is nonsense, of course. Market dogma is just one more dogma, no more sacred than any other.

But rather than confront the mania for markets directly, the mainstream American left — or the group that plays it on TV and cable — offer small gestures of so-called reform: a health-care law that leaves the corporations in place and in control; a bailout of Wall Street that handed money, no strings attached, over to the very people who screwed our economy up in the first place; a financial reform package that leaves the threat in place (banks and financial institutions that are too big to fail). And this is just the short list.

This is not enough. We need more than reform, more than a basic tune-up, more than a neutered politics based on false ballot choices and an assumption that we just need to elect the right man and all will be well.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing the need to vote. I’m just being realistic about its limitations. Some candidates are worse — far worse — than others and, if we do nothing else at the ballot box but keep the crazies out of the legislatures, we’ve accomplished something.

But electing the lesser of two evils, even electing candidates as strong and principled a candidate as Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders can only accomplish so much — as their tenure in office has proved.

We need to stop running from the socialist label and fight to put a real alternative on the table — a socialist alternative.

Socialism, as I see it, means not only sharing the costs and risks, but sharing the benefits and making sure everyone has access to needed services. It means guaranteeing a job at a livable wage to everyone who wants one, free health care, workplace democracy, an environment free of the stink and contamination of corporate dominion, a food supply that is safe and nourishes rather than one based on the best way to make a quick buck.

The sad fact is that we already live in a socialized economy now, though the socialism we practice is a distorted one in which we redistribute income upward, in which the government lends its helping hand to the people who need it least, rather than to those in greatest need.

We don’t call it socialism, of course. And that seems fine with the corporate power structure.

Hank Kalet is a writer and editor in central New Jersey. Email,; blog; Twitter @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2010

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