What is Socialism?


Eugene Debs

National Public Radio’s “Here and Now” explores this question with historians Ed Ayers and Nathan Connolly.  Here are some 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.”

Read the entire piece here.

10 thoughts on “What is Socialism?

  1. Rick,

    I am far from an expert on Pell Grants but they are a drop in the bucket of federal spending. I would guess that some in Congress are becoming skeptical of them now because a lot of the money is being gobbled up by “for profit “ colleges which have questionable academic value. Of course, I realize you simply cited these grants as an example.

    Socialism brings the same difficulty as Evangelicalism when it comes to definition. Marx had one definition, the Labour Party in England has another while Eugene V.Debs probably had a third way of describing his political/economic beliefs. The movement can be defined by the individual promoter.

    Rick, you mentioned in your final paragraph the lack of political courage in opposing undue government spending. I agree. If any honest politician takes a principled stand against unnecessary spending, he/she risks being demagogued out of office. Having spent my fair share of time in and around the Veterans Administration hospital system, I can tell you that there is a lot of money being spent on patients and programs which have minimal connection to genuinely deserving veterans with service-connected disabilities. Yet if a politician were to point this fact out, he would be “dead meat” in his next election. “You are shortchanging our worthy veterans, Senator.” Once a federal program of any type gets traction and starts to roll, it is hard to stop the spending faucet.


  2. I get impatient with the capitalism vs. socialism conversation, which is intentionally skewed by free-market cheerleaders as some kind of devious plot wherein a President Sanders will start locking up the 1%. The truth is, we’ll always be a mixture of public spending and private enterprise. The only question is whose priorities win out.

    As one example, take Pell Grants. Around 2012, we had about 9 million students receiving Pell Grants, if I’m reading the chart correctly. The number fell to 7 million by 2017. Let’s say the Sanders/Warren administration proposes a dramatic expansion in Pell spending, so that 11 million people will get the grants by 2020.

    Scream socialism if you want, but I think such screaming is used as a deflection when people don’t want to reveal their real priorities. If you’re a hardcore libertarian and you genuinely think the Pell program should be scrapped completely, admit that. But they won’t, because being “anti-student aid” is a really hard sell with most of America, so instead they go for generalities, whining about statism and collectivism.


    • It’s also skewed by specific free market rhetoric. The reality is many socialists and Marxists have always supported free markets. It was primarily communism in its form as state capitalism that opposed free markets. But that variety of communism had little to do with the vision held by most socialists, especially in the US.

      When speaking of a free market, we have to look at results and not only intentions, that is to say look beyond rhetoric, empty rhetoric most of all. Free market language has been used to promote authoritarianism, censorship, monopoly, and fascism by the likes of pseudo-libertarian the Koch brothers. Or consider the great Hayek who was in love with Pinochet.

      It isn’t a free market where most people’s freedom is curtailed. A market can only be as free as the people involved in and impacted by the market. Freedom never exists as an abstract idea. People are free or they are not. It’s that simple.


      • Benjamin,

        How would you define freedom in contrast with liberty? It has always been my understanding that liberty is freedom with reasonable restraints. Freedom, on the other hand, cannot be unlimited without bringing anarchy.
        Any thoughts?



        • There is a long cultural background to these two terms.

          Freedom originated in Germanic tribes. It is etymologically associated with ‘friend’. The implication is that of relationship, specifically kinship and community. It means to belong to a free society, to be identified with a free people, to have one’s own rights and responsibilities tied up with that of others. Liberty, on the other hand, originated in Latin as used in a slave-based society. Even though there were slaves among the Germanic tribes, most people were free. But in the Roman Empire, there were more slaves that free people. Liberty simply meant not being a slave, but had nothing to do with other people, much less mutual belonging and obligation. It was a more legalistic worldview, although Stoics turned it into a philosophy such that even a slave could have liberty in their own mind. No Germanic tribesman of that era would have spoken of a slave having mental freedom in this way.

          These two conceptual terms converged in the English language and in British society. But they maintained some of their distinctions, not entirely though and they did occasionally get mixed up. A liberty pole, for example, is actually a tradition involving the commons of northern Europe and so maybe should’ve more accurately been called a freedom pole. Still, the use of ‘liberty’ in reference to a liberty pole was meaningful because the British Empire was built on the Cavalier culture of a Roman social order. The colonists were feeling the imposition of oppression which is why liberty was invoked. They didn’t consider the constraints to be reasonable at all. Since early colonialism, the centralized imperial government had been weak and the colonists had grown used to governing themselves — that is to say they had come to take freedom for granted. There was an uneasy relationship between the cultural worldviews of Germanic freedom and Latin liberty.

          This is why Thomas Jefferson spoke of the last struggle for freedom the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fought against the French Normans who founded the centralized monarchy and aristocracy that set the stage for imperialism, even though Thomas Jefferson descended from those Normans. He was using rhetoric to frame the conflict, as this cultural division had been going on for a while. The English Civil Wars also fell along the lines of Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian culture (Roundheads) versus French Norman culture (Cavaliers). If this interests you, I high recommend Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars. Two other great books are David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed and Colin Woodard’s American Nations. All three books analyze ethnic and regional cultures.

          Below are some of my previous writings on the topic along with a passage from a book about another kind of modern society, the Nordic world, that combines individuality and collectivity. But the first link includes a quote from a working class American revolutionary.


          “Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
          ~ Levi Preston


          “In the earliest sense, a person is only free to the degree he is part of a free society. Freedom isn’t possessed by an individual; rather, it is participated in. Liberty, however, doesn’t require a free society. The Stoics went so far as to see liberty as a state of mind that even a slave could have. So, one can have liberty without freedom. Having based their society on the slave-holding republics of the ancient Mediterranean, privileged aristocrats in the American South correctly saw no conflict or hypocrisy in upholding the value of liberty while enslaving others.”


          “There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.”


          “The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.”


          “I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

          “Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.”


          The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
          By Anu Partanen
          Kindle Locations 861-895

          “A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.

          “In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.

          “Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.

          “A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”

          “In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.

          “What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”


          • Benjamin,

            Thanks for taking the time to provide all of that material. You have obviously done a lot of research in this area, and it gives me a better insight into the somewhat schizophrenic impulses in American society on the freedom vs. liberty question.

            So let me ask you if you think that “freedom” is only possible in a tribal, homogeneous society or if you believe it is transportable to a wide and pluralistic body?



            • I don’t think “freedom” is limited to tribes. But it is most clearly seen among them. I often think of the Piraha, a tribe that lacks all hierarchy and leadership and violent punishment. In a close-knit community, social conformity is so intertwined within collective identity that it rarely has to be enforced. You are either a Piraha or you aren’t.

              Still, something closer to this egalitarianism and fairness can be found among larger societies. That is why I shared the passage from Anu Partanen’s book. The Nordic countries are relatively smaller compared to the global superpowers and yet are massively larger than any tribal society. Cultural forms of social order and social norms are more important than simply population or geographic size.

              The main issue is culture of trust. Many factors harm communal trust. Inequality is particularly problematic, as seen in the work of Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder) and that of James Gilligan (Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others; and Preventing Violence), among many others like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (The Spirit Level; and The Inner Level). Related to this is the problems of hyper-individualism and disconnection, as demonstrated in the work of Johann Hari (Lost Connections; and Chasing the Scream).

              Not all inequality, by the way, is merely economic. It can be caused by segregation as well. As Eric Uslaner explained (from Segregation and Mistrust, Kindle Locations 65-73):

              “[C]orrelations across countries and American states between trust and all sorts of measures of diversity were about as close to zero as one can imagine… [L]iving among people who are different from yourself didn’t make you less trusting in people who are different from yourself. But that left me with a quandary: Does the composition of where you live not matter at all for trust in people unlike yourself? I had no ready answer, but going through the cross-national data set I had constructed, I found a variable that seemed remotely relevant: a crude ordinal measure (from the Minorities at Risk Project at my own university, indeed just one floor below my office) of whether minorities lived apart from the majority population. I found a moderately strong correlation with trust across nations – a relationship that held even controlling for other factors in the trust models I had estimated in my 2002 book. It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”



            • Let me emphasize Eric Uslaner’s conclusion based on his own research. I don’t want you to miss it since it came at the very end of my longish comment. He stated that, “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.” I’m constantly surprised that this data and this book is so little discussed. It offers an analysis contrary to the conventional thought and assumed truisms of our society.


              • All very interesting but the most telling part, in my opinion, is that trust is central. We see it more in homogeneous societies with reasonably shared values.

                After reading your posting I reflected laughingly about the remote chance of Texas ranchers ever developing much trust in NYC municipal employees.

                On a more serious level, we all know there is a strong likelihood that prisoners immediately self-segregate. I assume that it is for reasons of trust. I once listened to an author, a former prisoner, describe his experience. Immediately after coming into the cell block, he noted that the men were absorbed by their respective groups, i.e, black, white, various Hispanic groups, middle-aged white, middle-age black, middle-aged Hispanic, etc. Further self-segregation was even based upon religion and geographical background. All of this was almost automatic.


                • The US prison system encourages self-segregation or at least group-enforced segregation. It’s useful for social control, keeping the prisoners divided. I don’t know that is true in all prison systems.

                  Yes, it is easy to create a culture of segregation, which is inseparable from a culture of distrust. And it requires no racial or ethnic differences. The genocidal conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi was a colonial invention, as they were he same people. Interestingly, the Israelis and Palestinians are also the same people, the only difference being that some of the original Jews left and some remained.

                  Research has shown you can turn people against each other by giving people different color shirts or dividing them according to eye color. It doesn’t matter how arbitrary the division. Once a psychological sense of division has been created, people will unconsciously segregate themselves and conform to the new invented group.

                  A funny example of this was the making of the Planet of the Apes. The movie was about the division between humans and apes. During lunch, the actors who portrayed humans and the actors who portrayed apes would sit separately. Humans do this even when it is utterly meaningless. You could randomly select people and they’ll still come to identify with that random selection. Humans are so easy to manipulate.


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