Bernie Sanders, who is widely considered the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic Primary, is one of the original “socialists” in congress. For most of his political career, he has proudly embraced the label of “democratic socialist,” despite advocating for policies and ideas that would be considered mainstream in most of Western Europe’s social democratic and labour parties. This has had the unfortunate consequence of a new generation of young people misunderstanding the definition of socialism, and therefore identifying as such without a proper understanding of the key principles of their ideology.
The problem with this is that firstly, it creates a tremendous amount of confusion about important semantic differences between important terms in political discourse. Second and more philosophically, it presupposes at face value that socialism isn’t anything more than a failed ideology that serves as the precursor to more successful left of centre ideologies, like social liberalism and social democracy.
As the rise of “socialism” among young people coincides with the rise of Bernie Sanders, who himself identifies with the label despite pushing internationally moderate and left of centre policies, we can infer that millenials aren’t looking for a resurgence of the Soviet Union, nor are they seeking out a figure similar to Hugo Chavez, that wants full nationalization of industry. Rather, they want a politician and, more broadly, a philosophy that will fight for policies that the remainder of the western, liberal democratic world has: universal healthcare, paid-time off by law, banning corporate and union donations from politics, and a stronger public school system for example. Social democrats passionately believe in most of these policies, as they are seen as the solution to the ills of capitalism, whilst still allowing for and embracing a capitalist economy.
This is in stark contrast to bona fide democratic socialists, who openly admit that their goal in the long-term is the abolition of capitalism and the social ownership of the means of production. While they may compromise initially for social democratic policies, their ultimate goals differ greatly from adherents of modern American liberalism and European social democracy.
This is because socialists are innately post-capitalist: that is, they want to do away with capitalism, not save it from itself. According to the policies that self-described socialists typically support, we can safely argue that they do not share this radical vision for the future. They just want to be like the rest of the industrialized world. This therefore creates mass confusion among political commentators and, most importantly, voters, who connect the idea of socialism to genuinely socialist countries like the Soviet Union or Venezuela at present, that are known for having a drastically lower quality of life than the US, rather than Norway, Sweden, Iceland, or Denmark. This further allows for easy strawmen to be propped up by conservative opponents, that buy into the premise that young people hate capitalism and that Bernie Sanders is an enemy of economic freedom. One does not need to look far for examples of this tactic.
Thus, young people aren’t socialists. They’re moderate progressives that see the US as falling behind the rest of the world on key issues, like healthcare, workers rights, and education. They’re confused about what socialism is, and they are perfectly content with a free market economy, insofar as their basic needs are met.
Second and more importantly, the distinction between social democracy and socialism should be made, because of the horrendous failure that socialist policies have been in practice. This is in stark contrast to social democratic policies, which can be empirically proven to hold merit. Every time a genuinely socialist government has taken power, be it in Africa, Europe, Latin America, or Asia, little good has come from it. Despite good intentions, the realities of human nature make such achievements impossible. A planned economy would require all workers to adhere to the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, which in plain English, means workers would have access to what they need to succeed and no more. Inequality of outcome relative to equal opportunity is therefore incompatible with such a system. Rather, there would be little difference between a common labourer and a physician in pay.
The long-term cooperation and universal altruism needed for such a system to succeed cannot be cited anywhere significant at any time in history. Every country that has attempted to adopt such a system has eventually fallen victim to human greed. Moreover, George Orwell’s Animal Farm brilliantly summarizes the socialist experiment in less than 100 pages, from the initial revolution, to when the very same revolutionaries that chased off Mr. Jones are living like him, at the expense of the rest of the remaining farm animals.
The night and day differences between these two ideologies are precisely why American progressives need to stop calling themselves socialists. Progressives are harming their cause by associating with such a disastrously unsuccessful philosophy. It opens them up to nuance-lacking attacks from opponents based on the realities of bona fide socialist regimes, and it is time for the left to repudiate socialism and openly embrace the free market as it exists in the developed world.