The Use of the Word Socialism

The Use of the Word Socialism

The following brief articles comment upon a letter from M. Rubel which appeared in the first issue of DISSENT. A distinguished French student of Marxism, M. Rubel, raised the question whether the word “socialism” has become so contaminated and vulgarized in recent years as to preclude its usage by those who desire a socialist transformation of society. He then went on to propose a comparison between “the conceptual content of the word `socialism,’ as it was formed in a number of Western mindsmore than a century ago, with the significance that this term has taken on throughout the whole world beginning with the First World War. Such a confrontation might succeed in reaching a dramatic conclusion as to the scope and legitimacy of the use of the world `socialism.’ …”


For many years leader of the American Socialist Party

I was, of course, interested in the question raised by M. Rubel. I myself have thought for some years and, indeed, have said both in speech and writing that I wished we could have a new vocabulary which would correctly define various ideologies and movements.

Nevertheless, on reflection, I haven’t believed it wise or perhaps possible in the world in which we live for any considerable number of democratic socialists to get together and say: “From henceforth we are using a newer and more precise term to describe ourselves in order to purge ourselves of the taint of the misuse of our old name, not only by communists and national socialists but by various heretics with whom we do not agree.”

Let me begin with a practical difficulty. I can imagine a fairly large area of harmony among socialists in repudiating certain interpretations given to socialism by large and important groups. I find it harder to imagine an equal harmony today on the definition of a positive belief which might unite them. How easy would it be to get the editors of DISSENT, the New Leader, The Socialist Call, and, let’s say, Partisan Review, to agree on a positive definition?

In the second place, if we should agree, we should be hounded unmercifully by all those whose stock in trade is denunciation of socialism on the ground that we were trying to hide something, that we had become crypto-socialists and, hence, more dangerous. It is a matter of record that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Canada had a better time after it accepted a description of itself as democratic socialist than in its early years when it tried hard to avoid that fate. In some ways, I have myself had an easier time as an avowed democratic socialist than some liberals of my acquaintance who protest that they are not socialist but only liberals. (By the way, who is going to define that word? Or capitalist in the theoretical sense?)