What Is Socialism? A History Of The Word Used As A Scare Tactic In American Politics

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A demonstrator carries a sign calling for a second American revolution to bring an end to alleged socialism during a march by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator carries a sign calling for a second American revolution to bring an end to alleged socialism during a march by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The word “socialism” has made its way into American politics a lot recently.

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, President Trump used the term to repeatedly condemn Democratic policies.

"We believe in the American Dream, not in the socialist nightmare,” Trump said.

And it’s not just the GOP. Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris made it clear to reporters at a campaign stop in New Hampshire: “I am not a democratic socialist.”

However, some Democrats, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are embracing aspects of the label.

But "socialist" largely remains a dirty, and often misunderstood, term in the realm of U.S. politics. During the Cold War, anti-Soviet sentiments and McCarthyism, a campaign against alleged communists in the U.S., are largely to thank for that.

So what is socialism?

Socialism, as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary, is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. A system of society or group living in which there is no private property and the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

Historians Nathan Connolly (@ndbconnolly) and Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) talk to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about how the words “socialism” and “socialist” have evolved into a scare tactic within American politics over time.

A demonstrator wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A demonstrator wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Interview Highlights

On the definition of socialism

Connolly: “I think many people would assume that socialism is very un-American. But there also are very different stripes of it. In the European strain, there was a great emphasis on to each according to their needs, from each according to their skill. On the American side, you have a certain commitment to it maybe a revolutionary rhetoric, but reformist implementation, for the most part. And the other thing that may surprise people is that just day to day practices that we would today call “socialistic,” perhaps, certainly publicly owned lands, represent a kind of socialism. Whether you're talking about parks or grazing land. Even something like say eminent domain, which is the taking of private property for a public good, is actually a very American practice — moving something from a market to a nonmarket use, per se.”

On when socialism became a dirty word

Ayers: “Before it really became a dirty word, it became a very popular word. The second best-selling book of the 19th century was Edward Bellamy's “Looking Backward,” which actually is a utopian vision of what America might be in the future and their utopian Bellamy clubs all across the United States. So that's in 1888, that recently — in the middle of the Gilded Age — which had the great wealth disparities that we're seeing today. Some people talk about living the second Gilded Age, well that was the first one, when people were so shocked about what concentration of wealth meant and what corporate power meant. People immediately started imagining what an alternative might be. And one of the men who came out of that culture was Eugene Debs from Terre Haute, Indiana, who became the great era socialist of American history. And I guess to answer your question, it was around Debs that socialism began to become a dirty word.”

Connolly: “So Debs is a figure that is, you know, by many accounts considered the most important American socialists of all time. But there is a broad base to the socialist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. So much so, in fact, that you have entire government organizations that are built to basically police and try to drum socialists out of American society. What we might call the first Red Scare in the 19 teens and ‘20s was an effort to basically treat socialists as if they were the same as anarchists, as if they were the same as general terrorists. And you have a man, an attorney general, by the name of A. Mitchell Palmer, who takes it upon himself to basically create an entire radical division of the Justice Department, populated in the early going by a young J. Edgar Hoover, to begin to crack down on those who espouse what they believe to be socialist ideas.”

Ayers: “And they felt they had to do that because the socialists sort of peaked in 1912, right before World War I. Debs got 6 percent of the vote, which is 900,000 people voting for somebody calling himself a socialist.”

On socialism during the Great Depression

Ayers: “Socialism sort of fades away. Debs is put into prison for opposing World War I. He stays there until 1921 when he has deteriorating health. And so you don't know much about it. Now the picture of the ‘20s and the flappers and all the prosperity and so forth, but then of course all that comes crashing down in the Great Depression. People begin to suspect that Roosevelt is really a socialist and that even though he's doing great things like creating Social Security Administration, or maybe because he's doing great things like creating the Social Security Administration, people begin to really believe that he's taking America in a direction that's too close to that being followed by Russia.”

On how the idea of socialism evolved in the last 100 years

Connolly: “During the Depression, you obviously have the federal government stepping into a host of sectors to try to salvage the American economy. So they're stepping into agriculture, they're stepping into housing, and in many of those sectors where you have private capital trying to make its money, they'll use pejoratives — like creeping socialism — to describe anything the government is doing. So landlords, for example, hated public housing and talked about it as being creeping socialism and that was the debate that raged through the mid-20th century around whether or not there would be robust public housing projects around different corners of urban America.

“At the same time, you have people like A. Philip Randolph, who was a black labor organizer, who advancing a cause of civil rights, arguing that basically capitalism creates divisions between white and black workers, and so a socialist position would create greater racial equality. Randolph himself, who lived very long, brought this impulse of trying to balance a socialist position in effect into the 1960s with the March on Washington in 1963, which we don't tend to think about as a grand socialist protest but if we look at the actual principles of the manifesto, they're very clear and they say that integration in the fields of transportation, public accommodation, education and housing, will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists. And it's that connection between economic and racial inequality that many socialists of color tried to carry into the late ‘70s and beyond.”

On McCarthyism and socialism during the Cold War

Ayers: “So a lot of the criticism of the civil rights movement that Nathan [Connolly] was just talking about is these people who are living it are commies, right, if you want to discredit anybody. And of course, McCarthy coming out in the early 1950s claiming to have found communists embedded throughout the government, a kind of deep state if you will, became the great cause in which people, this creeping socialism that Nathan [Connolly] talked about, it didn't seem to be creeping anymore. It seemed to really be kind of taking over the federal government in the vision of McCarthyites.”

On socialism through the '70s until today

Connolly: “Through the 1970s and ‘80s, most mainstream politicians would flee from the very notion that they could be associated with socialism. Folks on the new left basically were demobilized and you have someone like Ronald Reagan who certainly was able to fan a vision of Americanism that played socialism on the outside of it. You think about the Democratic Party through the 1990s under Bill Clinton, and even now in the early 20th century, they weren't really trying to take up the mantle of socialism.

“What's so remarkable is that many of the same principles that guided someone like A. Philip Randolph or Martin Luther King Jr. even, who defined himself as a democratic socialist, were part of this attempt to again think about the Americanness of the institution, going all the way back to someone like Debs, and saying look, if our job [as a] democratic socialist is to make sure that capitalism's excesses don't crush the working class or don't make it possible to prey on poor people, then we're basically being good Americans. There’s an effort now to try to collapse, as what happened in the 19th century, the relationship between being a good American and basically being conversant in some of the key principles of socialist reform.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this story for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 7, 2019.

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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


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Serena McMahon Digital Producer
Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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