The word “socialist”

(This is a revised version of a piece first posted August 30, 2018. Since President Trump and the Republicans are planning to campaign against “socialism,” it seems worthwhile to revisit the subject.)

I come to bury socialism, not to praise it. The word that is. When something is dead, you need to bury it. Socialism (again, the word) has been murdered. C.S. Lewis wrote of verbicide:

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

That’s exactly what has happened to socialism and socialist. On the right, socialism has merged with words like Communist, Marxist, liberal, progressive, etc. to the point where they are all just empty epithets of abuse that convey no information beyond the speaker’s disdain. On the left, politicians like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders embrace the term to show their distaste for contemporary corporate capitalism. In both cases, the word is more evaluative than descriptive.

Godwin’s law states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one.” I have observed a related but more limited phenomenon that operates at a much higher speed. As an online discussion of Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Venezuela and/or Cuba approaches one. Conversely, in an online discussion of Venezuela or Cuba, the probability that Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez will be invoked also approaches one. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are, of course, democratic socialists who generally invoke Sweden and the social democracies of Western Europe as their model. Venezuela and Cuba are as irrelevant as Hitler usually is in most discussions. (And, of course, in any discussion of socialism, someone will point out that Nazi is short for National Socialism and the discussion risks being pulled into the rabbit hole of arguing whether Hitler was a socialist or not.)

The word socialist has just too many meanings. It refers both to authoritarian states like Venezuela and democratic ones like Sweden. On the other hand, Sanders, AOC, and others seem to embrace the term in a (probably vain) attempt to rescue the word from the right-wing verbicidal maniacs and to emphasize that they’re nothing like them. I think we would be better off if we simply dropped these terms and used descriptive terms that do convey information. For example, instead of saying, “I oppose Medicare for all because it’s socialist” (and then arguing endlessly whether it is or is not socialist), simply say, “I oppose Medicare for all because it means higher taxes” (or whatever your real beef is although taxes seem to be the point of contention almost always). Instead of talking past each other, we would at least be on the same page and, who knows, we might even get somewhere. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between Venezuela and Sweden is a moron.* It’s akin to not being able to tell the difference between a certain winged mammal and a club used in baseball and cricket because they’re both called bats. Dropping the word socialist from our discourse would, if nothing else, make that particular stupidity harder to achieve.

I should add that capitalism (the word) is nearly as dead as socialism and should likewise be dropped. It’s an empty epithet of praise at one end of the ideological spectrum and an equally empty epithet of censure at the other end. Consider this sentence (by hedge fund manager Ray Dalio): “I think that most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well, yet we are now at a juncture in which either a) people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or b) we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.” How much simpler, more pragmatic, and less likely to lead to conflict just to say “we need to figure out how to grow the economic pie and how to distribute it equitably.”

* For these people, let me offer some facts in the (probably vain) attempt at enlightenment (all facts taken from the CIA Factbook). I’ve thrown the USA in for comparison. GDP per capita (PPP): Venezuela $12,500, Sweden $51,200, USA $59,800; GDP real growth rate: Venezuela -14%, Sweden 2.1%; USA 2.2%; inflation rate: Venezuela 1087.5%, Sweden 1.9%, USA 2.1%; public debt: Venezuela 38.9% of GDP, Sweden 40.8% of GDP, USA 78.8% of GDP; maternal mortality rate: Venezuela 95 deaths per 100,000 live births, Sweden 4, USA 14; infant mortality rate: Venezuela 11.9 deaths per 1000 live births, Sweden 2.6, USA 5.7; life expectancy at birth: Venezuela 76.2 years, Sweden 82.2, USA 80.1; physician density: not given for Venezuela, Sweden 5.4 physicians per 1000 population, USA 2.59; health expenditure: Venezuela 5.3% of GDP ($663 per capita), Sweden 11.9% of GDP ($6093 per capita), USA 17.1% of GDP ($10,226 per capita); mobile phone subscriptions: Venezuela 78 per 100 inhabitants, Sweden 125, USA 121; internet use: Venezuela 60% of population, Sweden 91.5%, USA 76.2%.

3 thoughts on “The word “socialist”

  1. The situation is certainly crazy. Back When I Was A Boy, the semi-propaganda we were taught in middle school was capitalism vs. Communism (right and proper Marxism-Leninism) vs. socialism. The latter was a system where the government owned and ran certain major industries but there was still “free enterprise” in many businesses and a democratic government. This classification was politically necessary, as the UK and any number of our European allies fit this “socialism” a lot better than “capitalism”.

    In this classification, Sweden has never been socialist, and many of those countries denationalized industries. So it’s strange to me that Bernie Sanders would call himself a socialist without meriting the label in my mind. “I knew Edward Heath, and he was a socialist. You aren’t a socialist, Sen. Sanders!” (Though there is some socialism left — “the people” don’t own the means of production, but they have an enforcable claim to a large fraction of the output of the means of production.)

    Though as you note, similar corruption has happened to “capitalism”. Even Krugman praises “capitalism”, but the capitalism that everybody means is very heavily salted with government regulation and redistribution.

    However, I believe there is *some* actual content to this debate — as codewords for “I do/do not believe that the government should take action to equalize people’s incomes/standard of living.” People who want redistribution from the affluent and (sometimes) the middle class to (especially) the non-white poor tend to like “socialism” and rail against “capitalism”, and people who don’t like that idea are vice-versa.

    • The Swedish Labor Party has been calling itself socialist for over a century and, rightly or wrongly, the label has stuck. If the Swedes are deluding themselves about their socialist credentials, then so are Bernie Sanders and AOC although the right will never admit this. I have seen conservatives simultaneously argue that Sweden is not socialist while their advocacy of Swedish-style policies is. A better term for the “democratic socialism” of the Nordic countries and our far left is social democracy (see At least that term hasn’t yet been corrupted.

      Certainly, the right would like to frame the issue in terms of your “codewords” but that’s not how the advocates of such policies see it. They see limiting inequality as economically efficient (healthcare is a perfect example where the social democracies spend less and get better results) as well as being humanly decent. See, e.g., the work of Joseph Stiglitz.

      • You note ” although the right will never admit this”. That’s not so surprising. What’s surprising is that the left won’t admit it either!

        But it’s best to avoid getting worked up over people’s use of codewords. Pretty much everybody does it, and people who advocate things strongly almost always do. E.g., in one sentence, you’ve used “inequality”, “economically efficient”, “better results [of healthcare]”, and “humanly decent”, all of which are packed with a lot of specific meanings (and avoid certain other ones) and carry particular emotional connotations. When you’re inside any particular bubble, the codewords are very real and carry a lot of meaning that you and everybody else in the bubble care about. What makes the situation harsh is if you now stand in a different bubble. Those same words now dexterously ignore things that are important to those people, or attach emotions to things that are the opposite of the emotions that they have about those things.

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