- - Monday, February 8, 2021

Few words in the American political lexicon are as freighted with fear as socialism. It can conjure thoughts of diabolical Communism, the horrors of Stalin and Mao, and the Iron Curtain. To many on the right, the word has become synonymous with un-American because of its perceived threat to overturn capitalism and erode freedom.

But attitudes are changing, especially among younger Americans who are embracing less narrow definitions of socialism. To millennials and members of Gen Z, the word does not immediately evoke Cold War paranoias and fears of an all-powerful state with one-party rule and a command economy.

Instead, many people in these age groups see socialist-sounding policies (i.e. government-run health insurance) not as steps toward communism per Marxist theory, but as a necessary salve to the excesses of modern American capitalism, with its high levels of inequality and lack of universal health care.

One aim of History As It Happens is to address the misuses and abuses of history as well as common misconceptions about basic philosophical and political concepts. Now seems a good time to dig into the meanings of socialism as public attitudes evolve, and as President Biden prepares a legislative agenda at least partly aimed at rectifying economic inequality.

Fear of, and fear mongering about, socialism is still around, of course. President Obama was routinely labeled a socialist by his critics on the right, and in the runup to the 2020 election some Republican senators warned that a Biden administration would try to foist socialism on the country all over again. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said the Democratic Party has been overtaken by socialism, even though the party’s nominee had been a centrist who valued bipartisanship during his three decades in the Senate. Moreover, Mr. Biden soundly defeated the democratic socialist candidate and supporter of Medicare for All, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, in the party’s primaries. 

In the latest episode of History As It Happens, George Mason University sociologist and historian Johanna Bockman said more nuanced, less fearful attitudes about socialism are developing among younger Americans because they have experienced capitalism in a state of repeat crises.

“The 2008 crisis was a huge jolt to the economy and people’s lives. And we continued to have further crises since then, so it makes people wonder about what is going on and whether there might be a better approach to our world,” said Ms. Bockman, whose work focuses on globalization, economic sociology and Eastern Europe.

She broadly defines socialism as requiring “the social or collective ownership of the means of production. They are not owned privately by individuals but are owned collectively. This collective ownership can take a lot of forms: it can be owned by the state or cooperatives or worker-owned companies.”

“It also requires redistribution of any profits or surpluses… but also it requires some kind of management. That management might come from the state, but what is more important for socialists is the idea that workers might manage these entities.”

Ms. Bockman points to large companies that are run as cooperatives, such as Ace Hardware, REI and Land O’Lakes, as examples of profit-sharing enterprises successfully operating in a capitalist or market economy.

And with the Super Bowl fresh in our minds, it is worth noting that the NFL’s 32 teams share about $9 billion in revenue each season thanks to its lucrative TV broadcast rights deals.

So instead of viewing monolithic socialism as the ideological enemy of pure capitalism, Ms. Bockman argues society benefits from a hybrid approach, where socialist-sounding policies (i.e. higher taxes) or entities make capitalism more supple.

“There are things that one can do to create a society that is better for people. This is what we might call another kind of capitalism. It is a capitalism we might call Keynesianism or the Swedish form of socialism,” she said.

For more on Ms. Bockman’s thoughts about socialism in America as well as Washington Times reporter Seth McLaughlin’s insights into Mr. Biden’s agenda as he tries to navigate a narrowly divided Congress, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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