Socialism: A Primer for the 2020 Election: Part I

Socialism: A Primer for the 2020 Election: Part I

By Merrill Ring

It must be confessed that only the first part of the primer is published here – most of what will follow it hasn’t even been written yet. By the next issue of Progressive Democracy the entire thing will be finished – and the reminder will then be published in this journal.

So read this – even if it stops just when the major topics begin – and wait for the next issue.


Donald J. Trump is in all probability going to be the Republican nominee for President in the 2020 election – that is unless he is in jail or is otherwise removed from office (and then spending his time tweeting from Mar-a-Lago – or his Moscow penthouse – encouraging a right-wing revolution.)

Both Trump and the Republicans will be (and even now are) running on the theme that the Democratic Party, whether its nominee is a progressive figure or not, is a party of socialists. (There will also be a second theme: that the party is anti-Semitic; but that is an issue for another time and place.)

That election strategy means it is time for we progressives to refresh ourselves on the topic of socialism. This primer is meant to be a brief guide to the topic and so provides a way to respond to the right-wing on these matters.

There are some essential background points. (1) As this work is importantly an attempt to clear up misconceptions and to keep our terminology straight, it must be noticed right at the beginning that all of the terminology involved in the relevant discussions is very fluid. There are so many intellectual versions of socialism, for instance, versions that do not agree on many issues, that anyone who tries to clarify must step on someone’s toes (or tongue). (Those who write in criticism of socialism are very likely to think that there is only one thing called ‘socialism’.) So just remember that when I say X, not everyone who has written on the subject will agree.

(2) Moreover, the actual practice of economic systems is hugely different – both in time and in space, capitalist and socialist systems can have large differences while still qualifying for the title of ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’.

(3) An obvious assumption will be made here: it is capitalism that is the economic system that socialism aims to replace.

(4) It is intended that this primer be open-ended – there is no fixed number of items that I intend to discuss here. One thing leads to another. So do not look for The End: that may come sometime but as I am starting, it is not certain when.

(5) This primer is not intended to be a defense of socialism. Rather what is said here is a preliminary to either defense or criticism. What is written here is an attempt to explain the notion of socialism in face of massive confusions on the part of right-wing critics of it but also sadly enough on the part of progressive thinkers and actors.

Socialism as Bogeyman

The resurgence of public discussions of socialism, the willingness of a few Democratic political figures to call themselves ‘socialists’, and polls showing that young adults say that they regard socialism more highly than capitalism, have led to a right-wing freak-out. The conservatives (and libertarians) are flat-out afraid. Not that anything has happened: it is the mere public appearance of the bogeyman, the very use of the ‘S’ word in public, that has caused the anxiety.

My favorite expression of the fear and the attempt to cause others to share in it is a piece from an organization called The Media Research Center. The piece blames ‘the liberal media’ for the problem though that certainly isn’t the explanation for the resurgence of socialism talk in American public life (though it does suit the organization’s agenda.) But that aside, it is worth our time to read (and savor) what is passing for thought in right-wing circles about the matter of socialism.

“Socialism is on the rise in America and it owes its newfound popularity to the nefarious efforts of the activist liberal press. They are selling radical socialism to America’s young people, making young socialists into social media stars, and entrenching them in Congress. Why does it matter? The liberal media are force feeding their poisonous ideology to the American people. Socialism is a real danger to our democracy and the American way of life. By censoring conservative voices and using their platform to push their leftist extremism, they are putting our country at risk and jeopardizing the futures of generations of Americans. This is a threat we cannot ignore. The Media Research Center is committed to combating liberal bias in the media and standing up for conservative values. We know what is truly at stake and understand that no other organization has the experience or the expertise to fight this battle. If the leftist media are left to their own devices, socialism will become a permanent fixture in America, taxes will soar, the ridiculous Green New Deal will bankrupt our country, and open borders will compromise America’s security. But we can’t do it on our own. We need patriotic Americans like you in order to make the greatest possible impact. Our Grassroots Army is the best and most effective way for ordinary citizens to stand up for American values and take action against the radical leftist media and their socialist agenda.”

So socialism is a “poisonous ideology”, it is a “danger” to democracy, it is a danger to “the American way of life”, it is un-American requiring real Americans (“patriots”) to “battle” it, it is “leftist extremism”, it poses a terrifying risk to the U.S., it “jeopardizes the future of generations of Americans”, it is “a threat”, it is an attack on “conservative values”, “taxes will soar”, it is the “agenda” behind the Green New Deal which is a “ridiculous” program that will “bankrupt” the country.

Notice that there is nothing specific about what socialism is mentioned there. Socialism is just something deeply scary no matter what it is like, something that must be fought to the end. The prospect sketched makes socialism out to be something in a horror movie, some unknown force that is threatening life as we know it.

What we need to do is to see what the right-wing thinks socialism is, what it actually is, and how to start a rational discussion of what it would be for the United States to become a socialist country.
Practical Advice: The conservative discussion of socialism always includes so much horror that the word tends to be nothing more than a pejorative without content. It is like this: these days we can call someone a bastard without in the slightest intending to say that they were in fact born out of wedlock. So it is with socialism: it is something that is bad without knowing what it is. However, and of course, lurking in the background of right-wing expressions of horror are some vague ideas of what socialism is. When faced with the name calling, the best response is to ask coolly ‘What do you think socialism is?’ This primer is intended to examine some of those likely answers and to provide a correction for them.

Capitalism in the Constitution

When the right-wing critic of socialism starts talking about America, about socialism being un-American, that it is contrary to what America is, it is likely that they are treating the matter as a constitutional issue. This line of opposition to socialism tends to assume that we have a capitalist economic system in this country because that is what the Constitution requires. So socialism is constitutionally un-American.

In fact, the U.S. Constitution does not forbid socialism nor does it require capitalism. In the first place, the Constitution is a political document. It was not intended to address the economic organization of the country that it was founding. Even more, while the founders knew a lot about the history of political life, they were not up to date in their economic knowledge: in fact, the first theoretical account of capitalism (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) was published just prior to the Constitutional convention. Moreover, while the Constitution is roughly contemporaneous with the origins of a capitalist economy, it pre-dates by about 50 years, the 19th century critiques of capitalism that were the origin of the socialist tradition. Though conservative American defenders of capitalism may find bits and pieces of possible arguments in or implied by the Constitution, those are but scraps; one can equally find scraps that would function in a defense of a socialist America.

Practical Advice: When the theme of Americanism is raised, the response should be to ask where in the Constitution a discussion of opposing economic systems is raised and what the justification there is for any particular economic system. Since nothing specific will be found, the usual maneuver is to try to say that such-and-such provision implies capitalism. Those who try that will have to stretch things mightily to begin to make out a case. In response, just mention that the Constitution does say that the aim is to “provide for the general welfare” and that that can easily be understood to mean that if a socialist economy provides for the general welfare better than a capitalist one, then we ought to go for socialism.

Politics and Economics

Since the Constitution does not address the question of what economic system the U.S. shall have, it follows that we citizens have a choice under that constitution as to how we shall organize our economic life. Given that we conduct our political life by voting on representatives and on issues, it is quite permissible that we can vote to replace the historically dominant system of capitalism with some socialist system.

Two points: first, it is our political will that, in the end, determines how our economy is organized and second, it is not only by revolution that a socialist economy comes to be.

The first point runs counter to a major thesis, derived from Karl Marx, that everything else in a country is determined by – and ‘determined’ is the correct word – the underlying economy. Politics is a superstructure, shaped entirely by the nature of the economy. The socialism being considered here does not accept that relationship – how our economy is structured can be settled by our political will.
Given that our we can make fundamental changes in the economy by choice, there are different ways of doing that. One is by revolution, another by, say, choices expressed at the ballot box. Socialism, as being described here, is not revolutionary. To achieve it may involve massive action outside the ballot box (demonstrations, strikes) but that is not the same thing as attempting to overthrow the existing government by force.

Socialism as Un-American (1)

To follow up on the theme of the bogeyman section, that socialism is not American and must therefore be kept at bay in this country, it is necessary to point out that there is a long socialist tradition in the U.S. The full story of that is not possible here, so let me make one small and revealing point.
One of the chief pieces of Americanism, something that we all learned as children since we were required to recite it every day in school, is the Pledge of Allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to ….” Who wrote the Pledge?

The author was Francis Bellamy. And what was Bellamy? He was a Christian Socialist minister. In other words, something that we all share as Americans, something at the heart of being a citizen of this country, was created by a Socialist!

Bellamy was important in the Christian Socialist movement, a significant feature of the 19th century political landscape, and was a founder of the Society of Christian Socialists. Since so many of those who so strongly support capitalism are also Christians, it is important to realize that Bellamy was a not only a socialist but a Christian, so committed to his religion that he was a minister, Baptist no less. One feature of his religious teaching was that Jesus was a socialist.

So let us hear no more of the idea that being a socialist is un-American (and that Christianity and capitalism go hand in hand.)

Socialism as un-American (2)

But, someone will object at this point, even if capitalism is not enshrined in the Constitution, the country has had a capitalist economy forever and that makes us by our very nature capitalist. To even think of fundamentally changing our economic system is therefore to run counter to what is American.
Let me not quibble and so grant that the U.S. has had a pre-dominantly capitalist organization of its economy for most of its history.

However, it was the increasing hold that capitalism had on our economy and the increasing realization of its harsh realities, that there was an increasing opposition, and increasingly violent opposition, to a capitalist economy here just as there was in Europe. While most of the nation’s energy in the 19th century was directed toward the slavery that was the basis of the southern economy (and that shaped our entire history), it was only with the end of slavery and the consequent victory of an industrial economy that opposition to our economic system began focusing upon capitalism as such.

Those who would identify America with capitalism simply are ignorant of how long and how extensive criticism of capitalism and activism opposition to it have been. There is a huge chunk of American history that has been covered up since the end of WWII in order to maintain the contrast between this country and communism as practiced in the Soviet Union. The U.S. is pure – and capitalist – and the Soviet Union is bad – and communist – and there can have been no anti-capitalism and so no socialist’ advocates here except traitors.

While everyone learns (something though not enough) of the opposition to slavery, both intellectual opposition and activism, we are given a blah and benign picture of our history with respect to capitalism. Perhaps with the return of public discussion of socialism, our textbooks will come to reflect the extensive conflict over our economic system.


The socialism that has become a topic of public argument today is Democratic Socialism. The people in public office who declare themselves socialists always preface that affiliation with ‘Democratic’. (That qualification is usually overlooked by critics: they hear ‘Socialism’ and their fear erases the adjective.) Let’s look first at the qualification first and then turn to the socialism.

Why does, say, Bernie Sanders but also all the young people, elected officials and others, always say that their socialism is democratic? There are two reasons.

That reference to democracy is intended, in the first place, to contrast the socialism they are advocating with an alternative socialist tradition that thinks that the only way socialism can become the way a country organizes its economy is by revolution – by overthrowing by force the existing government and its capitalist base. The current socialists are trying to inform the American public that they want socialism to prevail through normal democratic practices, namely by convincing people, voters, that capitalism needs to be replaced by a socialist economy and then winning not only public opinion battles but also elections.

Socialists of this persuasion have long been defenders of democratic government.

The second reason why the word ‘Democratic’ is prefaced to ‘Socialist’ leads to the heart of what Socialism is. For the aim of socialism is to increase the range of democracy by expanding the range of democratic practices. A socialist economic system is to be understood as, and advocated for, because it is the means to economic democracy, democracy extended from the political system to the economy.
Without specifying further what economic democracy is, it must now be pointed out that the right-wing charge that instituting socialism in this country would be the death of democracy is wildly mistaken. In fact, the aim of socialism is precisely the opposite, namely to greatly expand the arena of democracy.