For many Americans, “socialism” is just another name for communism, or the road to communism, understood to mean totalitarian government control, ostensibly to promote the general welfare and equality, but in reality leading to economic failure and elite government control of society.
For others (especially traditional Marxists), socialism sometimes does indeed denote the phase through which society must pass in its evolution from capitalism to communism; but, in contrast to the neo-liberal point of view, “communism” is understood to refer to a robust civil democratic society that has transcended the need for a coercive “State” (see wikipedia: “withering away of the state”), and “socialism” is the democratic (not “top-down totalitarian”) path to that State-less society.
For nearly all self-identifying socialists, therefore, socialism refers to the expansion of democratic principles beyond the political sphere and into the economic sphere (e.g. worker representation on company boards, worker-owned-and-run businesses, the use of democratically accountable government to redistribute wealth that has become concentrated in the hands of a few due to unearned privileges which accrue to the owners of capital), and a general orientation of social values and economic policy towards the fulfillment of human need rather than “profit”.
However, since “socialism” has commonly been used to refer to centralized top-down government control of the economy, many hear “socialism” and think of the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and other totalitarian or undemocratic states. Not surprisingly, therefore, some socialists today prefer to speak of “democratic socialism” or “economic democracy” in order to distinguish what they see as true socialism from those totalitarian regimes that have called themselves (inaccurately, even traitorously, from this point of view) “socialist”.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
If opponents of “socialism” were to hear that at least some socialists are advocating bottom-up democratic arrangements, rather than top-down authoritarian ones, how might that change the conversation?
One libertarian contributor to the dictionary has this to say: Milton Friedman famously regarded kibbutzim (regarded as socialist by the founders themselves) as “free market” institutions because they were voluntary. All of the language around “orientation of social values towards the fulfillment of human need” is completely fine as long as it is voluntary. In the U.S., many religious groups, including the Amish, Mennonites, and Mormons are very focused on helping their brethern and others. In order to begin a successful transpartisan dialogue on “socialism” we must begin by clarifying the issue of voluntary vs. coerced. What do you think?