The word “socialism” is becoming more and more mainstream. When Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his 2016 presidential bid, only a fringe few dared to use the label. To call yourself a socialist was supposedly a political death sentence. Now, in part thanks to Sanders, many are wearing “socialism” as a badge of pride. Dozens of socialist candidates have won seats all over the country, including two members of Congress, and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has exploded. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 70 percent of millennials now say they would vote for a socialist.
But what is socialism? How do you know whether you’re a socialist? Could you be one already without knowing it? In fact, it can be difficult to answer the question of what precisely socialism is because socialists themselves disagree over it. That’s not surprising; Democrats disagree over what it means to be a Democrat, too. It’s an abstract term that describes a diverse population with a lot of conflicting ideas. One popular perception, repeated by Republican Sen. Rand Paul in “The Case Against Socialism,” is that socialism is about “government control of the means of production.” But that’s pretty clearly wrong: historically, many socialists considered themselves outright anarchists, who wanted to get rid of the government altogether.
A better definition, at least as far as the economic dimension of socialism, is the concept of “worker control.” What socialists have disliked is the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of people. What they have demanded is that ordinary working people get their fair share of the wealth. Some socialists have believed strongly in the power of government, others have believed that worker cooperatives or syndicates could give workers their share. Matt Bruenig of the socialist People’s Policy Project has proposed a large “social wealth fund” that would distribute returns on public assets to the people as a whole, while Bernie Sanders (now running for president again) has put forth a plan to give employees seats on company boards and give ordinary workers guaranteed shares of stock. The specifics vary, but what all socialists have in common is a dislike for the class system, where some people work incredibly hard all their lives and end up with nothing, while other people get to make money in their sleep just by owning things. Socialists think that if you work for a company, you ought to reap rewards when it succeeds, and you ought to have a say in how it’s run.
But there’s more to it than that. In my book, ”Why You Should Be A Socialist,” I argue that what socialists have in common is a sense of “solidarity” with people at the bottom, no matter who they are. As the famous socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs said 100 years ago, “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
By: Kyle Barrett