Economics, Politics

‘Socialism’: Why the Word Matters

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is practically over, but its impact is bound to be lasting. The Vermont Senator has achieved a remarkable feat in energizing voters, especially millennials, getting them more involved in the political process.

He has also moved the public discourse in America leftward, by connecting with voters on economic issues that matter to them. College graduates in America are experiencing record levels of student debt, wages for the middle class have stagnated, and many Americans have trouble accessing quality healthcare. Sanders hopes to mitigate these problems by making public college tuition free, raising minimum wages, boosting government spending (particularly in infrastructure), and aiming to bring about a single-payer healthcare system.

During the course of his wildly successful campaign, Sanders has also popularized the notion of socialism within the American zeitgeist. ‘Socialism’ used to be a bad word, but it isn’t anymore. A recent YouGov poll found that more than a third of the population between the ages of 18-29 has a favorable view of socialism.

What does ‘socialism’ mean? According to Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” his governing philosophy basically involves the incorporation of a robust social safety net, free college education, and universal healthcare, among other things, and a more progressive taxation scheme to fund these things.

However, this is importantly different from what ‘socialism’ has traditionally meant. Socialism, in this sense, involves the public (or state) ownership of the means of production, such as factories and farms. Typically, this is to be accompanied by state control of the means of distribution, such as retail markets and transportation systems.

These two notions of socialism are extremely important to keep distinct. The latter form of government has been an unmitigated disaster every time it has been tried, and is responsible for an unfathomable amount of human suffering since it was first attempted via the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia.

The question of what mechanisms explain the failures of centrally planned economies is up for debate. One popular explanation, first put forward by Ludwig von Mises, is that the lack of market pricing mechanisms within centrally planned economies causes inefficiencies that lead to shortages of essential goods within the system.

Whatever the ultimate explanation, the historical facts are undeniable. Centrally planned economies, within which the state operates the means of production and distribution, have uniformly led to chronic shortages of essential goods, often producing massive famines. Life for ordinary citizens within China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar was a nightmare when the state monopolized the means of production. Forty-five million people are estimated to have died of starvation in Maoist China alone, as a result of state monopolization of the agriculture sector.

Devoted socialists often argue that dictatorial regimes, rather than central planning, caused these disasters. This is wishful thinking for two reasons. First, even in contexts where state nationalization of most of the industry has operated within a democratic system, standards of living have been extremely low. For example, until the 1990s, India’s economy operated under a “license raj,” where most large industries — banking, mining, airlines, etc. — were publicly owned, and only a few private players, along with mom and pop shops, were allowed to compete. And until the nineties, India had some of the worst rates of poverty in the world. Following the partial liberalization of the economy by the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, the country has seen remarkably higher growth rates, and millions have been lifted out of poverty.

Second, even socialist regimes that are democratically elected often turn into dictatorships, because that’s the only way to remain in power following the shortages that their policies bring about. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is an excellent example. Following his nationalization of industry and implementation of land redistribution policies, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) went from being one of the most prosperous nations in Africa to being one of its poorest. Had Mugabe allowed free and fair elections since his rise to power, he surely would have been voted out by now.

The most recent socialist debacle is Venezuela, where democratically elected Hugo Chàvez eventually became a de facto dictator. The country is now collapsing, facing shortages of everything from toilet paper to basic groceries and medicines. And this is so despite Venezuela having been a relatively prosperous country within Latin America in the not too distant past, and having vast oil reserves.

Given the economic history of the last hundred years or so, it is thus important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Now, Bernie Sanders is no Hugo Chàvez – he shows no interest in nationalizing industries or setting prices. Sanders’ ideal model is that of Scandinavia, where the private sector and international trade are allowed to flourish, but nonetheless, the government plays a key role in ensuring that all citizens have access to education, healthcare, and robust unemployment benefits.

The danger, in Sanders’ labeling policies his policies as ‘socialist — whether democratic or not — is that the boundaries between the two systems may begin to blur. And millennials, if they don’t keep the distinction firmly in mind, may find themselves supporting politicians who do want to nationalize industries.

Perhaps realizing the potential of this slippery slope, socialist politicians have been keen to align themselves with the Sanders campaign. Consider the Socialist Alternative (SA), an organization that campaigned to elect Kshama Sawant into the Seattle City Council. Among the policies that the SA eventually wants to see adopted in the U.S. is the nationalization of the entire Fortune 500. Anticipating that the immense popularity of the Sanders campaign offers a unique opportunity to expand the socialist base, SA has been actively considering strategies to mold Bernie’s “revolution” into a genuine socialist movement.

Senator Sanders himself is partly to blame for this. He should stop calling himself a socialist — he simply isn’t one. Many have suggested “social democrat” as a more appropriate label.

On the flip side, conservative commentators have exacerbated the problem by crying wolf every time they see some effort towards social democratic reform. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has repeatedly been dubbed “socialist,” for example. These commentators also jump to criticize Sanders as being socialist. Doing so has no doubt promoted their short-term political goals. Insofar as there is still resistance to the notion of socialism, conservative politicians and pundits have leveraged this uneasiness in an effort to reduce the popularity of the Sanders campaign.

But doing so runs the risk of Americans — especially millennials — becoming less wary if and when a real socialist comes along. And given the repeated lessons of history, this is not something America, or the world, can afford.


Hrishikesh Joshi is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @RoundSqrCupola


  1. TRUMP the progressive establishment, the establishment that inflated your credentials like a cheap sou.

  2. Dianne Leonard says

    If you’d read Marx–which you obviously have not–and other socialists, you’d learn that socialism is not “state control of the means of production” but *worker* control. That’s the way that many socialists believe the economy should be structured. So, your bad-mouthing of governments that nationalize companies is so obviously wrong that I’ll not spend more time on it. In the U.S., companies that are worker-controlled are generally referred to as co-ops, Just as an example (there are many more) there’s a worker-controlled cab company in Madison, Wisconsin.This means that workers make up all or most of the board of directors, instead of investor fatcats. To take one example, a hospital near me is a “non-profit” hospital. (All that means in California is that they take Medicare and Medicaid, where “for profit” or private hospitals do not.) In a socialist-run economy, rather than rich investors, the board of directors would be made up of doctors, interns, nurses, clerical and janitorial staff, and representation from the communities they serve. It would *not* be run by the government! I’d suggest you read a little something other than stupid right-wing propaganda before you consider writing something else.

    • Pritesh says

      So much this. I hope he gets his PhD, but he needs to get a dictionary first.

    • Kevin Laprise says

      If the socialist state is defined as a worker state, where the workers make up the government, and the workers own the means of production, that mean they are the representants of the state and do own the means of production. You can try to go around all you want by nitpicking the phrasing, but the author is still right on that point: Socialism is about state ownership of the means of production because socialism is all about the power to the workers. It seems pretty obvious to me. And before you ask: yes I did read Marx. I had my skeptic puppy face all along, the amount of assumptions made are astounding. Anyway, Socialism= A state run by the worker class So workers owning the means of productions is socialism. The current system is certainly not perfect, but at least it kinda works. At least for first world countries. An imperfect system that works for now is better than a system that had occasions to prove itself and failed miserably every time. I don’t think that more ”socialist” (more social democrat really) ideas such as social safety nets, or universal base income are bad, in fact I think they are excellent ideas to be applied to our imperfect system to make it better already. Why throw away a dying reliable car because you broke a few pieces when you could try to repair it instead of of buying a shitty used car and doing all the perfectionning all over again anyways?It might prove to be more costy to buy and uograde that used car than repairing the reliable one you already have. Capitalism sucks for many reasons, but it’s the less sucky system for now, so I guess we’ll stick with it unless someone get a genius stroke.

  3. Wendall says

    One can see with what’s happening in Venezeula right now that being careful with the definition of “socialism” is pretty important.

  4. santoculto says

    ”Socialism” is the deny the fundamental right of self-subsistence, specially in ”special”/ very problematic situations.

  5. santoculto says

    Socialism still over-emphasise ”capital accumulation”, so it look like a collectivistic capitalism than a social-ism, a very enphasis on society.

    Pseudo-socialists or psychopaths use, as usual, very vague, abstract terms, like

    ”people”, ”working classes”…

    while in the true in all of the socialist societies has not been this transference of the power to the hands of ”people”, because as happen in ”normal” ”democracy”, the ”representantive of the people”, self-called ”the people”, already are OR become part of the ”system” or ”elit”, as untouchable ones.

  6. Santoculto says

    ”Whatever the ultimate explanation, the historical facts are undeniable. Centrally planned economies, within which the state operates the means of production and distribution, have uniformly led to chronic shortages of essential goods, often producing massive famines.”


    psychopaths in the power, a human norm, leave millions of ”ordinary” people to die because a variety of things, one them, because rural workers don’t want deliver their lands to the state… so this massive famine crisis don’t wasn’t directly caused by centrally planned economies… but by expected/characteristic sadism of psychotrashes on the left.

  7. Koh Mak says

    Bernie Sanders, William “Bill” Maher et al are using the words “socialist, socialism” wrongly. What they really mean is, as the writer pointed out, “social democratic (system)”. That is: It is social and democratic. The examples You can find in Scandinavia, which have lowest numbers of poor and homeless in the world, mainly free education, healthcare, daycare, fair pensions and further more: the taxation of the individuals is even lower than in the States, especially considering free healthcare vs payments for insurance in the US. And by the way: the corporate tax in Finland is 20 %.

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