Llewellyn King: Democrats must avoid being tarred as 'socialists,' whatever that word actually means

Socialists in    Union Square   , New York City, on    May Day    1912

Socialists in Union Square, New York City, on May Day 1912

Socialism is a toxic word in America, and so its happy adoption by some of the new stars of the Democratic left is to handle something that might blow up with lethal political consequences.

Words are the materiel of politics: its artillery, its infantry and its minefield, packed with unstable incendiary devices; hence the potency of one word, socialism.

Trouble is neither the opponents, who hold out anything to do with socialism as a plague that will engulf and destroy, nor the new wave of endorsers seem to have a clear idea of what socialism means. For the Democratic left it means the Nordic countries ,which, according to the old definitions of socialism, are not socialist. They are capitalist democracies with advanced social welfare.

Socialism, classic socialism, had at its bedrock a concept that is now curiously old and irrelevant, like a gas lamp. Socialism, in classic definition, states simply that the means of production should be owned by the workers -- understandable in the 19th Century and now an historical relic.

Karl Marx extended the struggle between workers and owners to embrace all of society as a great class battle between the workers and the owners; a struggle that embraced all aspects of endeavor.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized on this as a means of total control. The state, representing the workers, would control everything and so a small cadre at the top could dominate as thoroughly and effectively as any emperor or monarch ever had, in fact more so.

Joseph Stalin dragged the idealism of the earlier communism down further and added a massive state apparatus of suppression and industrial-scale brutality.

In the hands of 19th-Century socialists, such as the Englishman Sidney Webb and his wife, Beatrice, who gave us the phrase “collective bargaining,” socialism was humanitarianism as a political system. Harsh events and evil men overtook them.

Communism failed in the botched Soviet Union, and even the word mostly came down with the Berlin Wall in 1989. Only Cuba and few other far, far left states clung to the appellation communist. China remains avowedly communist, but it has evolved into an autocratic mercantilism, far from Marx, Lenin and the rest. Venezuela tried communism and called it socialism.

All of Africa after the colonial withdrawal went for what they called socialist government and failed awfully. The new leaders were not so much attracted to the enlightenment of the Webbs or of the theories of Marx as to the lure of controlling everything. From the Limpopo River (South Africa’s northern border) to the Nile, they failed disastrously.

Those who cling to the word socialism, besides Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), himself a durable anachronism, tempt to be tarred with the brush of the failed states, like Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Words play tricks with policy and they should be treated like munitions, useful in the battle but hazardous later. For example, whatever happened to the working class? They morphed into the middle class, and in so doing lost their old power base, the trade unions.

President Trump’s common-man populism is no substitute for a working union with its upward wage pressure, job security and healthcare. But unionism has lost its way, and the unions themselves have not found a new footing in the political firmament. 

The Democratic left, which is in ascendancy, needs a new vocabulary to fit its goals. If it wishes, as it seems, to emulate the successful countries that lie along the Baltic Sea, it needs to define its goals outside of the old lingo of socialism. It should articulate its new tangible vision of a more equitable future, untainted with the toxic limitations of the past.

For the Republicans, though, socialism is the gift that has given and keeps on giving. It is the weapon of choice, made more potent by failures in countries which defined themselves as socialist.

In the battle of 2020, Venezuela is a conservative asset. If Sanders and the shining star of the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.) keep the appellation socialism alive, that is a laurel tied around the GOP’s best weapon.

Llewellyn King, based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com.