Modern Misconceptions About Socialism
Over the last hundred years, Americans have been both baffled and frightened by socialism.
Periodic “red scares” have shaped America's domestic and foreign policy at times of national crisis. In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was convinced that socialists were plotting to overthrow the government. Without evidence, he arrested thousands of communists, socialists, and anarchists, most of whom had trouble organizing a small political party-let alone a revolution-and held them without trial.
In 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) was formed under the chairmanship of Texas congressman Martin Dies, Jr. Originally intended as a tool for investigating possible German-American spies and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, under Dies's leadership HCUA focused on the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated the Federal Writers' Project and other New Deal programs. Dies's tactics were soon attacked by those who saw HCUA's activities as a way of blocking Franklin Roosevelt's progressive programs without leaving a voting record that their constituents could track. HCUA's most vocal critic, New York congressman Vito Marcantonio, himself accused of ties to the American Communist Party, told members of the Committee in 1940:
If communism is destroyed, I do not know what some of you will do. It has become the most convenient method by which you wrap yourselves in the American flag in order to cover up some of the greasy stains on the legislative toga. You can vote against the unemployed, you can vote against the W.P.A. workers, and you can emasculate the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; you can try to destroy the National Labor Relations Law, the Magna Carta of American labor; you can vote against the farmer; and you can do all that with a great deal of impunity, because after you have done so you do not have to explain your vote.
Joseph McCarthy wasn't responsible for the infamous Hollywood blacklist. In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated possible communist influence in Hollywood. The original blacklist, known as the Hollywood Ten, consisted of ten witnesses who refused to answer committee members' questions. Eventually more than 300 actors, directors, and screenwriters were blacklisted by the movie industry.
In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy used similar tactics when he claimed members of the American Communist Party had infiltrated the government. Playing on American fears of the spread of Soviet-style communism, he used his power as the chairman of the investigation subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations of the Senate to accuse thousands of people of disloyalty, subversion, and treason with little regard for evidence.
Socialist is once again being used as an epithet, hurled with the same lack of precision that Mao's Red Guards used when accusing someone of being a “capitalist roader.” In the past, “red scares” have been based on the fear that “they” were conspiring to destroy the United States. Today, the popular understanding of socialism is still shaped to a great degree by the Cold War, which was often described in terms of a battle to the death between good (capitalism) and evil (communism). As a result, many people equate socialism with an attack on American values. In fact, both right-wing populists and American socialists often quote from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights when arguing their positions.
Misconception #1: Socialism and Communism Are the Same Thing
As the last twenty-one chapters have demonstrated, socialism wears lots of different red hats. While all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. Communism is a specific version of socialism based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Soviet-style communism is a specific historical manifestation of communism. Most socialists today are opposed to Soviet-style communism, which is not surprising given that the Soviets themselves abandoned it.
Misconception #2: If the Government Pays for It, It's Socialism
Extreme antisocialists groups, such as the Future of Freedom Foundation, consider any government-owned, -funded or -subsidized operation to be socialist. In fact, governments paid for public works, standing armies, and public services long before Thomas More dreamed up Utopia. Just think the Great Pyramid, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Roman legions . . .
Misconceptions #3 and #4: “It Didn't Happen Here” Versus “America Is a Socialist State”
The people who say “It didn't happen here” and the people who say “America has been a socialist state ever since [fill in the blank]” make the same basic mistake. They assume that a political system is either capitalist or socialist.
Long time Socialist Party spokesman Norman Thomas once said:
The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the name of “liberalism” they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.
America's mainstream political parties have adapted ideas from the socialist platform for many years, including Medicare, the minimum wage, Social Security, and the eight-hour day. The United States, like much of the world, has a mixed economy that includes elements of both capitalism and socialism.
The Tricky One: Nationalized Medicine Is Socialism
Nationalized medicine is definitely an idea that has long been espoused by socialist parties worldwide. Every country that has called itself socialist or had a social democrat or labor party majority in its government has adopted some form of nationalized medicine.
The first presidential candidate to advocate universal nationalized health insurance was Henry Wallace, who served as Franklin Roosevelt's Vice President from 1941 to 1945. The Progressive Party candidate in 1948, Wallace also advocated an end to the nascent Cold War, an end to segregation, and full voting rights for African Americans. He won only 2.4 percent of the popular vote.
It is probably accurate to describe universal healthcare as having its roots in socialism, just like Medicare and Medicaid. Whether that's a bad thing is a question outside of the scope of this book.