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Socialism: A short primer

Editor’s Note: In this essay, E.J. Dionne, Jr. and Bill Galston give a primer on socialism in three parts: its definition, the age gap in perceptions of socialism among Americans, and how socialism evolved to social-democratic systems in the U.K. and Germany.



Something new is happening in American politics. Although most Americans continue to oppose socialism, it has reentered electoral politics and is enjoying an upsurge in public support unseen since the days of Eugene V. Debs.The three questions we will be focusing on are: Why has this happened? What does today’s “democratic socialism” mean in contrast with past versions? And what are the political implications?

It’s worth recalling how important socialism once was at the ballot box to understand that this tradition has deeper roots in our history than many imagine. In the 1912 presidential election, Debs secured six percent of the popular vote, and Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, their ranks including 79 mayors. Socialism declined after this peak and faced repression during World War I because of the party’s opposition to the war. (Debs secured almost a million votes in the 1920 presidential election, running from a jail cell). After the war ended, the Communist seizure of power in what became the Soviet Union contributed to a “red scare” that further weakened America’s indigenous socialist tradition.

Socialism never lost its intellectual influence, however. The New Deal drew on proposals pioneered by socialists, and it was a young socialist named Michael Harrington whose book The Other America helped launch the war on poverty. But when it came to electoral politics, socialism was largely shunned or irrelevant.

Until now. The crash of 2008, rising inequality, and an intensifying critique of how contemporary capitalism works has brought socialism back into the mainstream—in some ways even more powerfully than in Debs’ time, since those who use the label have become an influential force in the Democratic Party. Running as a democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders received 45 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2016, and in the 2018 mid-term elections, members of Democratic Socialists of America were among the prominent Democratic victors. Their ranks included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who quickly became one of the country’s best-known politicians. One measure of her influence: As of early May, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer had 1.7 million Twitter followers; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had 2.5 million; Ocasio-Cortez had 4 million.

The generational divide

Although President Donald Trump declared war on socialism in his 2019 State of the Union address, its champions felt no pressure to back down. It is not hard to see why.

During the heyday of the industrial era, growth was rapid, its fruits were broadly shared across income and wage classes, and upward mobility was widespread. Capitalism was popular. Socialism was not. In recent decades, however, growth has been episodic and slow, wages have stagnated for working-class and many middle-class families, mobility has slowed, and inequality has soared. The economic and financial collapse of 2008-2009 undermined the claim that the economy had entered a new era of stability and moderation. Experts who had preached the virtues of self-regulation were forced to recant. The slow recovery from the Great Recession left many Americans wondering whether they would ever regain the income and wealth they had lost.

The Great Recession especially shaped the outlook of young adults. The younger working class entered a job market that provided far fewer stable opportunities than their parents had enjoyed. And as revenues fell, many state governments slashed public support for higher education, forcing public colleges and universities to raise tuition sharply. Students had to abandon college hopes or take out larger loans that that consumed a substantial portion of their incomes. And particularly in the years immediately after the crash, many of them had trouble finding the jobs their degrees once promised. As the profits and share prices of large corporations recovered from their recessionary lows, enriching executives and investors, many young adults began wondering whether they would ever share the fruits of 21st century capitalism. They became increasingly open to the idea that the system was rigged against them and that incremental reform was not enough. Only transformational systemic change could get the job done, many concluded, and socialism was the available alternative to the failed “neo-liberal” model of contemporary capitalism.

The generational effect is dramatic. A 2018 YouGov survey found that 35 percent of young adults under 30 were very or somewhat favorably inclined toward socialism, while just 26 percent registered unfavorable sentiments. (40 percent were not sure.) By contrast, only 25 percent of voters 65 and older had favorable views of socialism, while 56 percent were unfavorable.

Table 1: The impact of age on attitudes toward socialism

Not sure40343119

(Source: YouGov, August 2018)

Competing definitions of socialism

The growing popularity of socialism reflects a change in its image. Viewed in the past under the dark shadow of the Soviet system, it is now seen in light of the achievements of social democratic governments in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.

In 2018, the Public Religion Research Institute offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as “a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education.” The other characterized it as “a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.” The first definition effectively refers to the Scandinavian model—and the ideas popularized by Sanders. Most proponents of social democracy see it as a way of smoothing capitalism’s rough edges, making it more humane, egalitarian, and protective, rather than replacing the market outright. The second definition corresponds to the classic understanding of socialism that dominated public consciousness after World War II, when the challenge from the Soviet Union was at its peak.

As one might expect, young adults, for whom Cold War memories are dim to non-existent, were strongly inclined to define socialism as social democracy rather than public ownership of key industries. Fifty-eight percent of them picked the social-democratic option, and just 38 percent the dominant post-war understanding. By contrast, Americans 65 and older, whose views of socialism reflected the post-war conflict with communism, were somewhat more inclined to focus on government control of the economy, although even the oldest Americans now tilt toward the social-democratic definition, too.

Other survey research confirms this shift. In 1949, the Gallup Organization probed Americans’ understanding of the term “socialism.” More Americans picked government ownership or control as socialism’s defining feature than all the other options combined. Almost seven decades later in 2018, Gallup posed the same question, with very different results. The share of respondents who focused on government control fell by half, to just 17 percent. By contrast, the share who emphasized egalitarianism and generous public services rose from 14 percent in 1949 to 33 percent in 2018.

Table 2: Changes over time in Americans’ understanding of socialism

Government ownership or control3417
Economic and social equality1223
Free social services, medical care for all210
Other definitions with single-digit support1832
No opinion3623

(Source: Gallup organization, 1949, 2018. Because of rounding, the items total to more than 100%.)

In the post-war period, Americans viewed socialism through the prism of Soviet communism. Today, they view it through the prism of the welfare state, the system that Western democracies developed to make market economies more broadly acceptable and to blunt the appeal of communism, which had powerful support throughout Europe in the post-war decades. The Soviet Union threatened liberty. Norway, Sweden and Denmark do not.

There was an important distinction, however, between Soviet-style communism and the system that socialist parties advocated after World War II. The Soviet system was undemocratic and totalitarian. The state (that is, the Communist party) controlled not only the entire economy but also civil society. As a “vanguard” party, the CPSU claimed to represent, infallibly, the “real interests” of the working class, even though average citizens of the Soviet Union might well disagree with the party’s “line” at any given moment.

By contrast, the program of Western socialist parties was both democratic and non-totalitarian. Western socialists acknowledged the importance of the individual liberties that Communists dismissed as “bourgeois.” These parties distinguished between the parts of the economy that needed to be brought under public control and those that did not. In the main, they did not seek government control of civil society, and they were willing to submit to the electorate’s democratic verdict on an ongoing basis.

From socialism to social democracy

The post-war British Labour Party offers a vivid example of democratic socialism in action—and also of the transition from state ownership to greater equality as socialism’s core goal. As World War II neared its end in the summer of 1945, the United Kingdom held its first general election in nearly a decade. The Labour Party campaigned on a bold program of economic and social change. “The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it,” declared its election manifesto. “Its ultimate purpose . . . is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain.”

The manifesto was serious, even literal, in its choice of the noun “commonwealth.” The key assumption was that everything in the U.K.—not just land and natural resources, but also productive facilities and wealth—should be seen as jointly owned by the people as a whole and could be directed to purposes determined by the people through democratic processes.

Not content with ringing generalities, the manifesto spelled out its socialist program in considerable detail. It called for public ownership of the fuel and power industries, the iron and steel industries, and all modes of domestic transportation (rail, road, air, and canal). Other key provisions included the nationalization of the Bank of England, eventual nationalization of land holdings, a National Investment Board to plan and shape public and private investment, and a government-funded and operated National Health Service.

One other theme suffuses the manifesto—the proposition that building socialism is akin to the wartime mobilization that directed all the nation’s energies toward a single overriding goal. “The nation and its post-war Governments will be called upon to put the nation above any sectional interest, above any free enterprise,” the manifesto asserts. “The problems and pressures of the post-war world threaten our security and progress as sure as—though less dramatically than—the Germans threatened them in 1940. We need the spirit of Dunkirk and of the Blitz sustained over a period of years.”

This said, the Labour Party’s version of socialism was entirely consistent with the British system of individual liberty and parliamentary democracy. The manifesto goes out of its way to underscore Labour’s commitment to freedom of worship, speech, and the press. It rejected the proposition that wartime restrictions on individual liberties should carry over into peacetime. The Labour Party won power peacefully and democratically in the 1945 parliamentary election and when Labour lost the subsequent election, it yielded power to the victorious conservatives.

In many respects, the Labour Party’s postwar program represented a high-water mark for democratic socialism. Beginning in the 1950s, after they lost power, Labour leaders deemphasized, without formally repudiating, the aspects of their program that focused on nationalization of key industries. The 13 years of Conservative government between 1951 and 1964 saw the rise of Labor’s “revisionists,” who moved the party away from the nationalization of industry as a central goal. In his seminal book, “The Future of Socialism,” Anthony Crosland, a major figure in the party, argued that a focus on nationalization confused means and ends and that the purpose of socialism was greater equality, not government ownership of industry. The party’s leader in the period, Hugh Gaitskell, was a revisionist who regularly battled with the party’s left. And when Harold Wilson led Labor back to power in 1964, he stressed the power of technological change to transform society and the promise of the “white heat” of the “scientific revolution.” It was a long way from taking over the coal mines.

In Germany, the transformation of democratic socialism was formal and explicit. As late as the mid-1950s, Germany’s Socialist Party (the SPD) continued to espouse classic socialist ideology. A key SPD leader declared that the crucial point of the party’s agenda was “the abolition of capitalist exploitation and the transfer of the means of production from the control of the big proprietors to social ownership.” But after a series of electoral defeats at the hands of a center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that itself supported a significant welfare state, the SPD came to understand that its post-war program had been outrun by events. Rapid economic growth based on private property and regulated markets during the 1950s had sparked the emergence of a new middle class and rendered obsolete an economic program centered on nationalization of key industries. The Soviet Union was a threat to social and political freedom, not an economic model to be emulated.

The SPD’s famous Bad Godesberg Program, adopted in November 1959, represented a fundamental change of course. It castigated Soviet Communism and repudiated Marxism. The proletariat was no longer the sole engine of progress; the SPD had changed from being a “party of the working class” to a “party of the people.” Henceforth, democracy, freedom, equality, and the fullest possible development of each individual would be the guiding principles.

The Program defined the social function of the state as “provid[ing] social security for its citizens to enable everyone to be responsible for shaping his own life freely and to further the development of a free society.” While achieving this aim would require substantial government regulation, it would not necessitate government ownership except in the rare cases in which “sound economic power relationships” could not be guaranteed by any other means.

The new economic vision rested on freedom—“free choice of consumer goods, free choice of working place, freedom for employers to exercise their initiative as well as free competition.” Where excessive concentration restricted competition, government must intervene to restore competition. The task of a freedom-based economic policy was to contain the power of big business, not to replace the private sector. In some instances, they suggested that what we would now call a “public option” could be used to broaden choices for consumers and diminish corporate power. But in a remarkable break with socialist orthodoxy, the Program stressed that “every concentration of economic power, even in the hands of the state, harbors dangers.” Widespread government ownership of the means of production is not always the solution; it may be part of the problem.

The Program focused, not on government taking control of the economy, but on using government to improve the lives of all citizens. Key planks included full employment, generous wages and shorter working days, a redistributive system of taxation, secure retirement with a state-guaranteed minimum pension, universal access to health care, and decent and affordable housing. These are among the building blocks of the system of “social democracy” that developed and spread throughout the West as the alternative to both socialism and unregulated capitalism. As scholar Sheri Berman puts it, “Capitalism remained, but it was a capitalism of a very different type—one tempered and limited by political power and often made subservient to the needs of society rather than the other way around.”

From social democracy to the Third Way

Although social democracy came to represent the dominant political program in most democracies, its triumph was short-lived. Starting in the late 1970s, conservative leaders who challenged key tenets of social democracy scored electoral victories in the U.K., U.S., Germany, and elsewhere. They argued that excessive government intervention and spending had slowed economic growth, impeded innovation, and promoted inflation. Moreover, excessive deference to organized labor had reduced private sector profits and investments, while the pursuit of equal outcomes had deprived the “job creators” of needed incentives to take risks. Government was not the solution for the problems of capitalism, the new conservative wisdom held, but rather the principal obstacle to the success of a market economy. Industries had to be deregulated; spending on programs of social protections had to be curtailed; taxes had to be slashed; and unions needed to be brought to heel.

The political success of conservative policies persuaded many center-left leaders that their social democratic programs needed to adjust to new circumstances. As this movement gathered strength, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the political situation. It seemed that every alternative to capitalism had faded. The future lay in a dynamic and increasingly global market economy with the fewest possible fetters on the free flow of capital, goods, services, workers, and information. Appropriate fiscal, trade, investment, immigration, and education policies would enable Western democracies to seize the commanding heights of the new economy. The future for workers lay in lifetime education and training, not in organized labor’s efforts to thwart needed change. Regulations that impeded efficiency in key sectors such as banking needed to be swept away. Competition would promote “self-regulation” as an alternative to the heavy hand of the state. Programs to promote economic and retirement security were acceptable—as long as they did not break the bank, raise interest rates, and squeeze out private investment.

Led by key figures such as Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in the U.K., and Gerhardt Schroeder in Germany, this new economic vision—dubbed the Third Way by its friends and neo-liberalism by its foes—guided changes in center-left parties. As long as the new economy delivered ample jobs and broad-based income gains, center-left parties enjoyed political success. But the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing severe global recession undermined public confidence in the institutions and policies that permitted the disaster. On the Right, populist forces began to stir. (In retrospect, the Tea Party was a harbinger of things to come.) On the Left, the failure of post-Cold War globalized capitalism opened the door to critics of the status quo. Occupy Wall Street targeted the “1 percent”—the wealthy elites whose greed and myopia, they said, triggered the crisis and left those of lesser means to suffer the losses and pay the costs.

By 2016, right-wing populism had taken over the previously center-right Republican Party in the U.S., while Sanders gave Hillary Clinton, the establishment center-left candidate, a surprisingly tough race. Throughout Europe, traditional center-left and center-right parties suffered heavy losses while both right-wing populists and far-left parties gained support. In the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, insurgents have rejected what they see as the Third Way’s objectionable and ineffective compromises with conservative principles and programs. It is against this historical backdrop that young adults in America embraced programs that promised more than incremental change—and that they were not afraid to call themselves socialists.

What’s in a word?

There has always been a gap between rhetoric and reality in discussions of (and, especially, attacks on) socialism. Not one economically advanced society can be described as purely capitalist; every one of them is a mixed economy that includes some elements of socialism. Medicare and Social Security are, in a sense, socialist, and so are our public schools and universities, our community colleges, our water supplies and sewers, and our mass transit systems. Municipally owned and built sports stadiums are forms of socialism. North Dakota still has a publicly-owned bank, created during the years when agrarian populism and socialism overlapped. The Tennessee Valley Authority is a form of socialism, as conservatives never tire of pointing out.

Ideas rooted in socialism have often been deployed to save capitalism from its excesses—usually in the face of opposition from capitalists themselves. The political scientist Mason Williams points to a comment from New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank as capturing this history nicely. “We socialists are trying to save capitalism,” Frank said, “and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”

And from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, conservatives have made it a point to charge their Democratic foes with being socialists, no matter how many speeches they made in praise of the market. In attacking the program of his erstwhile friend FDR, Al Smith declared: “There can be only one national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale.” In the 1950 mid-term elections, Republicans briefly used the slogan “Liberty versus socialism.” (It turned out not to test very well.) Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater that made The Gipper a hero to conservatives argued that Goldwater’s victory over Lyndon Johnson was necessary to stop the advance of socialism. And, of course, Barack Obama’s health care plan, which was a very long way from a single payer system, was regularly denounced as socialist.

For the most part, Democratic politicians have regularly denied they were socialists—and even in this campaign cycle, marked by socialism’s resurgence, most Democrats earnestly pronounce themselves capitalists. The ranks of proud capitalists include Elizabeth Warren, who is by most measures as progressive as Sanders and has issued even more comprehensive proposals than he has to restructure contemporary capitalism. The fact that Sanders calls himself a socialist and Warren does not suggests that socialist/capitalist divide tells us less about policy than we might think and more about the valence assigned to the labels by different parts of the electorate.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the term socialism has lost its once-automatic linkage to the United States’ mortal enemy. The embrace of socialism no longer incurs the taint of treason, and proposals advanced by avowed socialists have expanded the perimeter of acceptable debate. As recent comments on the imperiled future of capitalism by Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co, and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates suggest, the sharper critiques of capitalism are gaining attention from capitalists themselves. In the past—from the New Deal years through the 1960s—fears for the system’s future have led important voices within the business world to embrace social reform as necessary to saving the system. Socialists might once again be the forerunners of capitalist reform.

There are three bottom lines here. The first is that attitudes toward socialism now divide the two parties. In a 2018 YouGov survey, 46 percent of Democrats had a somewhat or very favorable view of socialism, while only 25 percent held an unfavorable view. Among Republicans, only 11 percent viewed socialism favorably, while 71 percent viewed it unfavorably—including 61 percent who had a “very” unfavorable view. Tellingly, the breakdown among Independents was 19 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable. Among Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, 53 percent of had a favorable opinion of socialism, a view held by just 7 percent of Trump voters.

Second, sympathy for socialism is still a minority view. In the YouGov survey, overall, socialism was viewed favorably by only 26 percent of American adults and unfavorably by 46 percent. Among registered voters, the breakdown was 30 percent favorable, 50 percent unfavorable. As Warren’s self-labeling shows, most politicians trying to win national elections will continue to resist the S-word. If socialism is more popular than ever, it is still, on net, a troublesome word for a large share of the electorate. But whatever it is called, the impulse to use public power to smooth the market economy’s rough edges and to enhance opportunity and security for all Americans is a powerful current in today’s post-Great Recession politics.

Table 3: Partisanship and attitudes toward socialism

DemIndRepClinton voter 2016Trump voter 2016
Not sure2841182210

(Source: YouGov, August 2018)

Third, decades of rising inequality and the shock of the 2008 crash have led large numbers of Americans —whether they call themselves socialists or not— to call the fundamentals of our economic system into question. The resurgence of socialism is a warning sign for those who want to preserve this system and an opportunity for those who would reform it. And, as has happened before, their two causes may come to overlap.



The authors want to thank Amber Herrle for her contributions to this piece.


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