The following is part of a series of essays, “Why I’m (Still) a Socialist,” in our Fall 2022 issue.
Socialism—democratic socialism—has experienced a revival, thanks largely to Bernie Sanders, who is actually not a socialist but a New Deal Democrat. Calling himself a socialist probably didn’t help Sanders win votes. In 2019, when asked if they would vote for various kinds of people for president, socialist came in dead last at 47 percent—the same percentage as in 2015—after Muslim, “over the age of 70,” and atheist. But socialism gave people, especially young people, a name for their rage at the status quo and helped boost membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization to which Sanders does not belong, to around 90,000.
I belong to DSA and sometimes say I am a socialist, while wondering exactly what I mean. In the United States, it seems to mean, at minimum, a generous welfare state with healthcare for all, free public college, racial and gender equality, environmental protections, strong unions, personal freedoms, and political democracy—what Robert Heilbroner called “real but slightly imaginary Sweden” in the pages of Dissent in 1991.
I am all for all those things, beginning with a gigantic welfare state. I would support extreme levels of taxation, including on myself, so that everyone could enjoy a decent, dignified life with excellent education, healthcare, housing, no poverty, and far less inequality. But that is not socialism. Sweden, as Heilbroner pointed out, is a capitalist country. It has corporations that exert power over the economy and, despite its pacifist label and its small population, exported over $300 million in arms last year. It has private enterprises that strive to make profits. It has consumerism.
Socialism used to mean a lot more than a generous welfare state, however. As the example of Sweden (and other social democratic states) shows, those benefits can be provided under capitalism, if the working class fights hard enough for them and the ruling class believes it is to its advantage. Socialism used to mean a system that would be superior to capitalism not just morally but economically. It would be more rational, efficient, and modern, and it would produce abundance for all. That idea was lost some time ago. Central economic planning was a disaster wherever it was tried.
When socialists have taken state power, there’s another problem: democracy. It’s not an accident that many socialist nations have moved toward authoritarianism, with power concentrated in one party, often helmed by a very long-lived leader. In a closed circle of power, politics becomes a business of relatives and cronies. Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for forty-nine years and handed over the government to his brother; North Korea is on its third generation of Kims; Madame Mao and Mrs. Ceaușescu were easily the most powerful women in their respective countries. (It didn’t end well for either of them.) I know what you’re thinking: whatever they called themselves, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Hoxha’s Albania weren’t really socialist. But if you don’t have ways of transferring power peacefully and bringing in new people and new ideas, you end up with a rigid, often corrupt regime that will eventually be overthrown, as happened with Russia and its satellites, or become capitalist in all but name, like China and Vietnam.
On the other hand, if you have open elections, with a free press and organized political parties that can compete on equal terms with the governing party, people can vote socialism out. That’s what happened in Nicaragua in 1990 and seems to be happening today with Sweden, Denmark, France, and other countries where socialist parties were once powerful. Indeed, the social democratic welfare states we admire have been shrinking for years. Sweden has downsized its social provisions to the point that the New York Times blamed cutbacks for a “wave of death” in nursing homes during the pandemic. (As we went to press, the far-right Sweden Democrats appeared likely to become the largest party in a new right-wing governing coalition, threatening to undo decades of progressive social policy.) Moreover, hostility to immigration is moving formerly progressive voters rightward all over the social democratic world. Denmark is now one of Europe’s most hostile places for immigrants—and the social democrats are as bad on that issue as the xenophobic People’s Party. Democracy doesn’t always work to the greater good.
Contemporary socialists spend a lot of energy denying the relevance of self-described socialist states or the capitalist welfare states of Western Europe: they weren’t really socialist. But if those countries weren’t socialist, what does that say about the socialist idea itself? At best one has moments and glimpses—the “sewer socialism” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Red Vienna and Red Bologna; Kerala in India. Perhaps it is a bit like Christianity, whose believers attribute to it everything good it has done and whose detractors blame it for everything bad it has done, while nobody can actually point to a society that embodies it.
Capitalism is clearly hurtling us toward many kinds of disaster, foremost of all global warming. It’s hard to see how a system based on profit and ever-increasing consumption can safeguard natural resources at the same time it needs to exploit them to the full. People are right to reject a system based on that contradiction, and to demand an end to extreme and increasing inequality; the ill-paid labor of millions of workers, especially immigrants; and the unacknowledged and unpaid labor and subjection of women. They are right, too, to feel disenchanted with an electoral system that gives outsize power to major donors and caters to the self-interest of the rich and almost rich, and which the Republican Party is doing its best to turn into a Hungarian-style authoritarian democracy with a bit of theocracy thrown in.
Without some kind of urgent mass movement, it is hard to see how we’ll get out of the hole that’s being dug for us. And for a mass movement you need hope. I don’t feel particularly hopeful these days, but socialism is my name for the hope I still sometimes feel that we can share wealth and power and knowledge, be less selfish and cruel, and let everyone, not just the lucky few, develop their talents and have a good life. Maybe individual freedom and the common good don’t have to be opposites. How can that happen? Someone else will have to figure that out.
Katha Pollitt is a poet, essayist, and Nation columnist. Her most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.