The Corner

Socialism v. Liberalism v. Communism

Dave Weigel should be commended for trying to be fair to Stan’s book. And I’ll leave it to Stan to respond to the point-by-point stuff. But there’s one aspect of Weigel’s review that bothers me. It’s a common tendency and I’m only singling Weigel out because I just read his piece. He writes of Stan:

His first problem is that so much of his case depends on the power of that magic word socialism. Kurtz benefits from the fact that it causes a full-body freak-out among American voters and politicians, with images of gulags, bread lines, and Red Dawn.


This problem comes up again and again. If you look for socialism in Obama’s past, you can find it; and if you look for it in his presidency, everything seems like a hammer and sickle. But does this give us a deeper understanding of what the Democrats are up to? Or is socialism a word that, applied to Democrats, makes their policies less popular?

Kurtz sees socialism as the only way to explain Obama’s “insistence on pressing an ambitious program of health-care reform during an economic downturn.” A simpler explanation could be that he’s a liberal Democrat, and liberal Democrats have been trying to do what he did on health care for half a century. Pointing out that some of their ideas came from socialists, and locating the wellsprings of those ideas, is useful history. It helps explain where some of the concepts adopted by liberals come from. What it doesn’t explain is how those liberals end up running the place once they’re in power.

Here’s my problem. Socialism isn’t the scare word Weigel and others (David Frum comes to mind) say it is. I will be honest and admit that I wish it was more of a scare word than it is, but it’s really not one. I don’t think Americans think of gulags, bread lines and Red Dawn when they hear the word “socialist.”  They think of those things when they hear the word “Communist,” which is a different thing than socialism (or at least that’s what every book on the subject and every sincere democratic socialist I’ve ever spoken to says).

Now, I must defend my right flank and admit that yes, yes, a thousand times yes: Communism is a branch of socialism (And so are National Socialism and Fascism). And I would love it if more people recognized that the great murderous regimes of the 20th century all did their killing in the name of one flavor or another of socialism.

But social democracy is also a branch of socialism and it is simply unfair not to draw meaningful distinctions. Tony Blair calls himself a socialist as have pretty much all members of the British Labor Party going back a hundred years. But they are not all Stalinists.

What is so frustrating is that liberals — including no doubt Weigel — understand these distinctions. Indeed, in other eras and in other contexts, it has been the job of liberals to uphold these distinctions.

But now things are a bit mixed up. So even though leading liberals have talked openly about the possibility that Obama is a “liberal socialist” or might usher in a socialist era, when conservatives take these arguments at face value or make similar ones themselves, it is liberals like Weigel who insist that socialism must be seen as synonymous with Communism, the gulag, Red Dawn etc.

For example, I’ve just been dipping in and out of Stan’s book, but nowhere I’ve seen does he call Obama a Communist. I’m sure Dave understands the distinction and he might have simply found the word-play irresistible, but it’s worth noting that the Hammer and Sickle are not symbols of socialism but of Communism.

Who is seeing Hammer and Sickles everywhere now?

I covered a lot of this, with a lot more examples, in my Commentary essay.

But one question I would like to ask here is simply this: Can Weigel (or some other sympathetic volunteer) explain what exactly differentiates the goals, ambitions and/or philosophical drives of, say, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from European social democrats? Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a “socialist”? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?

I am sure that there are some cultural differences to account for. Swedes are culturally different from Belgians who are different from San Francisco liberals. But are they philosophically all that different? And do please keep in mind that most European socialists do believe in a mixed economy and all that.

I swear it’s an honest question — and I have my own answers to it. But the reason I ask is that I think more often than not it is liberals who use the s-word to defend themselves from conservatives. Oh, don’t you rightwing philistines understand? We’re not socialists, we’re liberals! Okay,  so what’s the difference?

Update: Weigel responds.


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