McClaughry: The revived debate over ‘socialism’

By John McClaughry

Thanks in part to 50 years of unflagging advocacy by Bernie Sanders, “socialism” has become a frequent topic of partisan debate. Like its counterpart “capitalism,” socialism has meant several quite different things both to its partisans and its opponents. That can make it difficult to make out just what the debate is about.

Historically, the meaning of socialism was spelled out in detail by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels starting in 1848. Their scientific theory of history held that at some crucial point in history the oppressed working class would arise and expropriate all significant means of production from their owners — capitalists who had expropriated the labor value of the workers — and bestow it all upon the new socialist State. The State would banish, or execute, the former owners, abolish private property and manage the economy and society in the name of “the people.”

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Ultimately, Marx and Engels conjectured, the selfishness and greed inherent in capitalism would give way to democratic cooperation by all in the interest of all. Then the State would begin to “wither away” and “communism” would reign.

The powerfully argued ideas of Marx and Engels triggered a furious theoretical debate over the correct path to socialism. The “armed working class revolution” version prevailed in Lenin’s Russia, but failed in Europe. Step by step, “democratic socialism” became the predominant strategy in the industrialized Western world.

In Sanders’ contemporary version of “democratic socialism,” the State would allow the owners of the means of production to continue their pursuit of profits, so long as they comply with the instructions of the State and turn over as much of their earnings as the State needs to pay for a long list of politically attractive benefits. Those benefits include “useful and remunerative jobs, a decent living, adequate medical care, good education, a decent home and the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Sanders likes to point out that President Franklin Roosevelt announced these rights in 1944, although his message was largely ignored.

An October Gallup Poll found that 39% of Americans said that they have a positive opinion of socialism, while 57% viewed that term negatively. Gallup first asked this question in 2010, and since then positive responses about socialism have been fairly steady, between 35% and 39%.

There is, however, an astonishing partisan divergence: Self-identified Democrats are 65% positive about “socialism” (as they understand it), and only 9% of Republicans like the idea (as they understand it). Independents fall in between.

As socialists are quick to point out, Americans have “socialism” all over the place — if by “socialism” one means government-owned and operated services and enterprises. Here in Vermont we have socialized state and town roads, water and sewer systems, waste management, airports, railroads and public schools. Efforts to put the state in charge of providing health care collapsed in 2014, but incremental steps (“All Payer”) are slowly being taken in that direction.

Our safeguard against becoming a predominately socialist state is our Bill of Rights enforced by an independent judiciary. The first of those rights is the freedom to speak, associate, petition, and choose our governors. Equally important are the rights to own property and to form voluntary associations, which underlie our ability to control an encroaching despotism. And of course if socialism becomes too advanced and costly here, wealth-creators and liberty-loving citizens can depart for freer places.

Back in 1946, the eminent University of Chicago economist Henry Calvert Simons — who in that day referred to himself as a liberal — penned a much admired “Political Credo.” He readily conceded that “extensive local socialization need not be incompatible with, or very dangerous to, a free society.” Americans would remain free so long as they kept socialized institutions close to home under the sharp eyes of a freedom-loving citizenry that would rein them in when they threaten to become wasteful, unaffordable, intrusive or despotic.

After asking a lot of probing questions, the Gallup Poll concluded that “despite recent growth in public support for more government involvement in such areas as health care, environmental protection and income equality, support for big government generally falls short of a majority, and the climate is still a challenging one for avowed socialists. Only 25% of [our] sample favored more government services if paired with higher taxes. The term ‘socialism’ has gained favor with Democrats, but remains broadly unpopular among independents and Republicans.”

Whether today’s national electorate will join Bernie Sanders and the candidates of the Democratic Party in their march ever further toward “democratic socialism” remains to be seen. It would be tragic if the socialist cause made dramatic gains simply because voters couldn’t stomach the flagbearer of the other party.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and John McClaughry

13 thoughts on “McClaughry: The revived debate over ‘socialism’

  1. “It would be tragic if the socialist cause made dramatic gains simply because voters couldn’t stomach the flagbearer of the other [Republican] party.”

    IThat last point by John in this article should be greatly considered. There are many things to appreciate and even love about what Donald Trump has done as president. I can easily name many. And it is just as appropriate to stand up against those intent on impeaching me as a means of moving political power. But to demand allegiance to everything Trump from anyone, including Republican candidates for lower offices, is nothing anyone who appreciates liberty and decency should do. Trump has his positives and negatives. His presidency has conservatism, limited-government elements, but to the extent we help conservative or limited government be defined by Trump, we very likely help move our nation toward socialism.

    Many elections, including the last election in Virginia made huge swings to the left, even radical on some levels. Those shifts tie as much to a Trump effect as any other single thing. The left leveraged Trump to a huge advantage last election here in Virginia. They did the same for the U.S. House in 2018.

    We should learn from this, not pretend it is not real. It does not mean that Trump should be abandoned, but it does mean we must not see Trump as president as the source of saving America from socialism, because the Trump effect is a very mixed bag.

  2. We have already socialized education. If you don’t agree wit it, or simply cannot afford it they take your home and put you out on the street. — The current liberal agenda is to take weapons from the people, just because, along with free speech and thought. — with the so called hate crimes and hate speech laws they are, little by little outlawing, are just steps toward removing the 1st Amendment. Right after they nullify the 2nd Amendment.

    When the first two amendments in the Bill of rights are nullified, the rest cannot be saved. — I once wore a uniform to save the nation from communism, and now some are letting it take over without a fight.

  3. Of all the rights being infringed upon, the one not mentioned is that of ownership of property.

    I have not read in either the article or the comments any mention. Could it be that no one wishes to admit that it does not really exist? I certainly do.

    Consider the outcome of inability, unwillingness, or simply outright refusal to pay the (in effect) annual rental fees on that property you think you “own”.

    • That’s precisely what I’ve been saying from years of experience. I have newspaper clippings of property tax sales. A property can be advertised within a week of when the tax year ended.

      Don’t have an accident, sickness, financial hardship. They’ll ruin a veteran, put your life for the country. There’s no boundaries, the school kiddies (actually the staff) is more needy than the taxpayer.

      I’ve been thru the mill with bogus taxation fighting many years.
      Want more into?

  4. Additional cautions are found in the book “The Demon in Democracy,” by Ryszard Legutko, the Polish professor and diplomat who was barred from speaking at Middlebury College. Professor Legutko relates the dangerous “progression” of “liberal democracy” in Europe, and how it is exceeding socialist oppression in its intolerance. Legutko asserts that this “liberal democracy” is a terrifying ideology that seeks to do much more than retake money for workers — it seeks to abandon the past and craft a new dystopia wherein it controls not just economics but morality and thought. That too, looks like Vermont in 2020.

  5. Once again, I quote our beloved president, Ronald Reagan. “The most frightening ten words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’ “.It seems that some folks never learn. When Bernie started his crusade, he didn’t have two nickels to run together. Isn’t ironic that the very system he raved against is the system that made him a MILLIONAIRE!!!!

  6. Socialist sanders just spewing more of his Rhetoric, he promotes socialism and has
    made a living on Capitalism, calling him a Hypocrite is an understatement.

    It’s funny that Sanders can spew all his negativity towards the President he wants and
    others, it’s Ok with liberal media, but when you post the same derogatory statement most
    or all is never posted ??

    Freedom of speech, something being hindered even in Vermont…. Liberals thin-skinned
    to say the least !!

    • They desperately want to control the narrative, it’s why VT Digger moderates all the conversations, it’s why they don’t allow discussions then the public doesn’t realize there is more support or a different opinion.

      • The worst offender, Neil, is the public school monopoly. You don’t have to read Digger or contribute monetary support to it.

        But the education monopoly has everyone by the short-hairs. It derives its funding from property tax (arguably an unconstitutional seizure of property) and it requires all parents who can’t afford otherwise to force their children to attend or be truant. Add to that the political dogma imbedded in the State’s forced curricula.

        Unless and until alternate curricula are available to all parents, a discussion of the degree to which socialism is dangerous will be limited to sympathetic media like TNR.

        • So true, so true. If we have two generations that don’t understand what type of government we have and why…..there is much work to do.

  7. The socialist parasite has taken over the Democratic Party of Vermont and is working on the national scene now!

    Our problem is not home grown, these “activists” have been recruited, trained and imported. They have systematically ruined many major cities, starting with the South Side of Chicago….

    Freedom, Our Constitution, Bill of Rights and Divine Providence are the cure for this malaise. It’s definitely a downer, except of course for those pulling the strings and connected……some are more equal than others in socialism. Hey Bernie….following your own tax code yet…the one you’ve been harping about for 30 plus years?????? HUH????

    See, he’s more equal.

    • Sheryl Atkinson on her program “Full Measure” yesterday (12/15) interviewed a guy that said every American should read, understand the Bill of Rights and therefore many of the happenings forced on Americans will be successfully fought. It should be taught in the schools, civics.

      Then the kids won’t allow being brainwashed as well as “adults” have.

      • “It should be taught in the schools, civics.”


        Again, if we want to have an effective discussion in this regard, it must begin the education system.

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