George Will: Socialism a classification that no longer classifies
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
— Karl Marx
Norman Thomas was not easily discouraged. Running for president in 1932, three years into the Depression, which seemed to many to be a systemic crisis of capitalism, Thomas, who had been the Socialist Party’s candidate in 1928 and would be in 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948, received fewer votes (884,885) than Eugene Debs had won (913,693) as the party’s candidate in 1920, when, thanks to the wartime hysteria President Woodrow Wilson had fomented, Debs was in jail.
In 1962, Michael Harrington, a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, published “The Other America.” It supposedly kindled President John F. Kennedy’s interest in poverty, which supposedly had not escaped his attention while campaigning in West Virginia’s primary. Harrington thought socialism should be advanced through the Democratic Party.
Today, socialism has new, angrier advocates. Speaking well of it gives the speaker the frisson of being naughty and the fun of provoking Republicans. Socialism is, however, more frequently praised than defined because it has become a classification that no longer classifies. So, a president who promiscuously wields government power to influence the allocation of capital (e.g., bossing around Carrier even before he was inaugurated; using protectionism to pick industrial winners and losers) can preen as capitalism’s defender against socialists who, like the Bolsheviks, would storm America’s Winter Palace if America had one.
Time was, socialism meant thorough collectivism: state ownership of the means of production (including arable land), distribution and exchange. When this did not go swimmingly where it was first tried, Lenin said (in 1922) that socialism meant government ownership of the economy’s “commanding heights” — big entities. After many subsequent dilutions, today’s watery conceptions of socialism amount to this: almost everyone will be nice to almost everyone, using money taken from a few. This means having government distribute, according to its conception of equity, the wealth produced by capitalism.
Socialists favor a steeply progressive income tax, as did those who created today’s: The top 1 percent pay 40 percent of taxes; the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent; 50 percent of households pay either no income tax or 10 percent or less of their income.
In his volume in the Oxford History of the United States Stanford’s Richard White says that John Bates Clark, the leading economist of that era, said “true socialism” is “economic republicanism,” which meant more cooperation and less individualism. Others saw socialism as “a system of social ethics.” All was vagueness.
Today’s angrier socialists rail, with specificity and some justification, against today’s “rigged” system of government in the service of the strong. But as the Hoover Institution’s John H. Cochrane (aka the Grumpy Economist) says, “If the central problem is rent-seeking, abuse of the power of the state, to deliver economic goods to the wealthy and politically powerful, how in the world is more government the answer?”
The “boldness” of today’s explicit and implicit socialists — taxing the “rich” — is a perennial temptation of democracy: inciting the majority to attack an unpopular minority. This is socialism now: From each faction according to its vulnerability, to each faction according to its ability to confiscate.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.