What’s socialism anyway?

Suddenly we seem preoccupied with socialism.

It’s understandable. For the first time in decades, serious people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) willingly subscribe to that label.

The last well-known U.S. socialist was Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book, “The Other America,” was credited with stimulating John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty (hardly a radical idea by today’s standards).

But while Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez may know what they mean by socialism, I sincerely doubt most of the others throwing the label around have any real understanding of the term.

Eduard Bernstein, the preeminent theorist of democratic socialism, made the same point 120 years ago: “If we asked a number of people … to give a brief definition of socialism, most of them would be in some difficulty. … If we consult the literature of socialism itself, we will find very different accounts of the concept. … They will vary from … legal ideas (equality, justice) to … its identification with the class struggle … to the explanation that socialism means cooperative economics.”

Bernstein’s socialist program was so mainstream (i.e., not radical) that much of it was achieved in America long ago: universal suffrage, workers’ rights to form unions, an end to child labor for those under 14 and improved conditions for agricultural workers. 

Bernstein explicitly rejected Marx and revolution, preferring evolution, and unlike some current American socialists,  opposed “full state maintenance” of the unemployed, saying it  was damaging the will to work of those voluntarily unemployed.

Soviet socialism was radically different, as are other visions of socialism. Saint-Simon’s socialism and Proudhon’s and Owens’s and Bakunin’s and Debs’s and Olof Palme’s socialisms were all quite different from each other. 

But that’s exactly the point: There’s lots of disagreement, even among socialists, about what constitutes socialism.

So what are polls measuring when they ask about socialism?

Poll respondents seem uncertain themselves, since their answers vary significantly depending on small differences in question wording.

Last month, Fox News polling found only 25 percent of respondents with favorable views of socialism while 59 percent were unfavorable. 

According to Gallup, 37 percent have a positive view of socialism, while the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put that figure at 18 percent.

Two clear trends are evident in these data, however. 

First, younger people are more positive than their elders. 

For those over 50, the Cold War and Soviet repression were daily realities. Among younger Americans they are, at most, distant historical curiosities.

Moreover, when I went to college, almost every political science department featured a course on Marxism or socialism, often using a text edited by my own teacher, the late Robert C. Tucker.

A quick perusal of the course catalogs for my undergraduate and graduate alma maters, as well as my hometown Big Ten state university, suggests that today, none of them offers a course on this subject.

So, if you don’t know the difference between Bernstein and Marx, or you never heard of Owens or Bakunin, it’s not really your fault.

The second clear trend in the data is that Democrats feel more positively toward socialism. Part of this is age related. Democrats are younger, and older Democrats are much more hostile to socialism.

But uncertainty also comes into play.

Asked by Gallup to define socialism, the largest number of respondents —  about a quarter of both Democrats and Republicans — said it meant equality. Another 13 percent of Democrats, but only 7 percent of Republicans, saw it as government services, like free health care.

About 6 percent believe socialism means being social, including activity on social media.

Relatively few Democrats (13 percent), but more Republicans (23 percent) believe socialism implies government ownership.

In short, those who feel positively about socialism embrace Bernstein’s version, rejecting Marx and Lenin. Those who are hostile conceive of socialism in its Soviet incarnation.

Labels, including this one, often obscure more than they reveal.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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