"Socialism" as a word
If Bernie keeps winning you're going to see more pieces like this:
Right, so we can't have Medicare for All or College for All or the Green New Deal because omigod Bernie Sanders used that word "socialism." So there ought to be an explanation -- not merely of what the word socialism means (Sanders can do that just fine, although not everyone agrees with his explanation) but also of the historical background that gives the term meaning.
Sure, the word "socialism" has a lot of baggage, and that baggage has become the basis for a lot of concern trolling of Bernie Sanders' campaign. "Sanders is unelectable because he uses that socialism word." Well, "socialism" has had baggage for quite some time now. Here's the British author George Orwell (1903-1950), in a book titled The Road to Wigan Pier, written in 1937, before the Cold War:
there is the horrible—the really disquieting—prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. (174)
Orwell goes over this social connotation of "socialism" in detail, since he was himself a convinced socialist. He argued that the ideas of socialism and of being a socialist can get completely lost in the vast quantity of associations anyone can make between socialism and the actual socialists, who turn out to be a bunch of rather marginal people. Or, as Orwell argued, "As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents" (ibid.).
And then you have Chris Matthews, voicing the historic panic on MSNBC, which is that socialism equals the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which equals the Gulag and the death camps. Of course, what appeared natural in April of 1961 looks silly in February of 2020, and so few people take Chris Matthews seriously today. I suppose the lesson to be learned from Chris Matthews is that there are still a few individuals around who are not ready to discuss the word "socialism" with any degree of reasonableness.
So far we've looked at ridiculous word games people can play with the word "socialism." So what of "socialism"? What's in a name? Written pieces too numerous to mention will tell you that what Bernie Sanders means by "socialism" is actually social democracy. To argue thusly is to say that social democracy is not socialism, but instead a system in which the government provides social benefits to a public while the means of production remain in private hands. Socialism, these same people insist, is PUBLIC control/ ownership of the means of production. It's not what Bernie Sanders is proposing. So at least these critics of Bernie Sanders, most of them friendly critics, are trying to be precise about what they think "socialism" means. (Social democracy, it should be pointed out, is better than what we've got now. Who cares what it's called?)
However, such critics point out, quite validly, one problem with defining "socialism." Another problem with defining "socialism" is that, even when one tries to be precise about "socialism," one's argument can only go so far. How is the public to control/ own the means of production? Some folks just can't conceive of a public -- yeah, they just don't see it AT ALL --and so they think the public is the government. But, no, the public is not the government, not at all. But how does the government become the public? There was this concept of the "withering away of the state," back in the 19th century, but, big problem, the state appears to have cemented itself in place in the 20th century through its possession of nuclear weapons. So we're clearly going to need something more ideal than the Cold War balance of terror if we are to imagine a "socialism" that fits that precise definition.
One recalls that, before and during the Cold War, there was a married couple, Will and Ariel Durant, who put forth these breezy and biographically-minded volumes of ancient, Medieval, and early Modern history -- The Story of Civilization. There were eleven volumes in all, and I used to own all of them but water damage destroyed my copies. Some anonymous author in Wikipedia posted that "The Story of Civilization is the most successful historiographical series in history. It has been said that the series 'put Simon & Schuster on the map' as a publishing house."
Anyway, the Durants argue their definition of "socialism" in a separate book titled "The Lessons of History," in which they use the term "socialism" to describe any sort of government-sponsored shaping of the economy, even if it happened a long, long time ago. So, for instance, we are told in this book that
Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in AD 301 an Edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government, which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits -- brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control. (60)
Only if you accept a definition of socialism as government control over the economy does the Will and Ariel Durant idea of Diocletian as a socialist make sense. Diocletian was an autocrat, ruling the later Roman Empire from the year 284 to the year 305 of our calendar, and so there was no sense that he represented any sort of public. He wore a purple cloak and so you kissed his feet and did what he said if you valued your life. So yeah the Will and Ariel Durant version of "socialism" is a bit over-broad. But you can see when you read them that we are back to the problem of "we can define socialism in a lot of different ways."
The catch, then, if we are to accept the definition of socialism as public ownership and control over the means of production, is to suggest a sense in which "the public," organized however we please, can own the means of production. In truth this remains an ideal, approximated in various ways, but only approximated. But there have nonetheless been attempts to name and describe the real thing. So for instance you have Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's idea of participatory economics, so named because at Albert and Hahnel's level of reasoning the term "socialism" just looks too vague. The Wikipedia entry characterizes participatory economics as follows:
The underlying values that parecon seeks to implement are equity, solidarity, diversity, workers' self-management, efficiency (defined as accomplishing goals without wasting valued assets) and sustainability. The institutions of parecon include workers' and consumers' councils utilizing self-managerial methods for decision-making, balanced job complexes, remuneration based on individual effort, and wide participatory planning.
Sounds good to me!
What it looks like, at this point, is that actual socialism is quite possible, though the term "socialism" is probably doomed. The socialism term is probably doomed because invoking socialism prompts endless discussions of what socialism is, of who supports it, of how we can do it, and of why we need it. Not to worry -- we'll find another term. Today it looks like the primary positive function of the term "socialism" is to argue that the fire departments, the Post Office, the libraries, and the public schools count as "socialism" and that fools who hate socialism also hate the fire department, the Post Office, the libraries, and the public schools. I don't see that argument staying cogent forever. Anyone who isn't maliciously greedy wants to see those services in public hands.