15 September 2009

What Is Socialism in 2009?

Well, today at The New York Times blog "Room For Debate", you can find a handful of posts that address the question "What is Socialism in 2009? The most pointed, I think, comes from political theorist Terry Ball. A little analysis, a dash of history and the whining right wingers look, well, willfully ignorant. Not only is Obama not a socialist by s standard definition, but if he were a socialist, that would hardly make him un-American. I've always like the slogan "dissent is patriotic." Turns out "socialism" is too.
Socialists as Patriots
Terence Ball

Why are some - mostly older, overwhelmingly white - Americans so afraid of "socialism" and, by extension, "socialized medicine"? One explanation is that they don't actually know what socialism is, namely the public ownership and/or control of the major means of production (mines, mills, factories, etc.) for the benefit of the public at large. Another is that many older Americans have vivid memories of the cold war and the dreaded U.S.S.R. (the second S standing for "socialist").

In hindsight it seems strange and almost miraculous that at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine - Medicare - got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson's desk. (These special interests won't make that mistake again: they now have a veritable army of lobbyists assaulting Capitol Hill and every congressman there.)

But now the cold war is over. For those in their 20s and 30s, the cold war might as well be ancient history.

To many Americans "socialism" may sound vaguely "foreign" and "un-American." Those at rallies protesting health reform now may be surprised to know that "socialism" and "socialist" have a long history in American political thought and that those terms weren't always terms of censure.

For the anti-socialism protesters, here's a quick quiz:

The author of the Pledge of Allegiance (1892), was A) a conservative, B) a liberal, C) a socialist.

The answer is C. Francis Bellamy was a socialist and a Baptist minister. (Yes, there actually were Christian socialists, then as now.)

The "Pledge to the Flag," as it was originally called, was not descriptive of then current conditions, but it was aspirational: "One nation, indivisible" invoked a nation undivided by differences of race, class and gender. And "with liberty and justice for all" it envisioned a nation in which women could vote and African Americans need not fear rope-wielding "night riders" of the KKK.

Contemporary "patriots," I hope, agree with such aspirations, despite their distinctly socialist provenance. It is historically false that the only "real" Americans are conservatives and that people of other ideological persuasions are not or cannot be "real" Americans. After all, what's more American than the "socialist" Pledge of Allegiance?



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