The New Red Scare

COMMENTARY Progressivism

The New Red Scare

Apr 12, 2016 7 min read

Former Director and AWC Family Foundation Fellow

David Azerrad studies conservatism, progressivism, identity politics, libertarianism and the American Founding.

Based on the delegate counts, it seems we may not feel the Bern past this summer—except in one important regard: Bernie Sanders has made socialism reputable in America. Call it the afterBern.

In the one developed country where, as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset explained, "It Didn't Happen" and "Socialism Failed," majorities of Democrats and millennials now look favorably upon socialism. Merriam-Webster reports that "socialism" was the most looked-up term on its website last year.

Bernie Sanders, it is true, did not inaugurate these trends. In the early '80s already, one in five Americans thought the United States would be better off if it moved toward socialism. What the independent senator from Vermont has done is to further popularize and legitimize the S-word.

Conservatives and libertarians are dismayed by the growing support for an ideology they thought had been consigned to the ash heap of history. Writing in Commentary, Ben Domenech worries that the "rise of socialism—real socialism" means that we will need to relearn the hard lessons of the 20th century "by repeating the errors of socialism here."

Yet a red dawn is not really upon us. Whatever brand of socialism is gaining popularity in America, it ain't Uncle Ulyanov's brand of nationalized industries and five-year plans paving the way to a glorious future in which the state withers away and private property is abolished. There is almost no support in America for the Marxist-Leninist variety of socialism, which was discredited after we won the Cold War.

Cold War socialism came in two varieties. It was used either to describe the intermediary stage on the way to communism or as a synonym for full-blown, end-of-history communism. The confusion can be traced back to Marx and Engels, who used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably in their writings.

It was Lenin who first distinguished the two regimes. "The scientific distinction between socialism and communism is clear," he wrote in The State and Revolution. "What is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the 'first,' or lower, phase of communist society. Insofar as the means of production becomes common property, the word 'communism' is also applicable here, providing we do not forget that this is not complete communism."

Complete communism—the higher and final phase of Communist society—will only come about after the state has withered away. "So long as the state exists there is no freedom," Lenin explains. "Only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary."

Such visions of a stateless society may appeal to Communists and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists, but they are sure to fill the souls of our self-styled socialists with dread. Whatever today's socialists support, you can be sure it requires heavy doses of statism.

In fact, it is hard to think of a single area of society in which they don't want the state to meddle (the only exception being the bedroom—so long, of course, as you're not smoking in bed). Contrary to what you may read in certain conservative fundraising letters, our socialists are not Communists.

Nor are they socialists. Real socialists want the government to seize the means of production—the factories, the machines, the land. They want an economy in which there is no private enterprise, everyone works for the state, and the state runs the economy. "Socialized production upon a predetermined plan," as Engels once described it.

It is true that our "socialists" want the government to heavily regulate the economy. As a result, certain industries will effectively be converted into public utilities (health insurance under Obamacare). Others will have to be regulated out of existence (coal plants if the left has its way). The government will also need to subsidize particular sectors of the economy (solar energy) and operate its own corporations (Amtrak and Freddie Mac).

This sure isn't Adam Smith's natural system of liberty. But it's not Soviet socialism either. It is really just a continuation of liberalism by the same means. In theory and in practice, American-style "socialism" and liberalism are indistinguishable. This explains why neither Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz nor Hillary Clinton have been capable of explaining the difference between the two.

Both Bernie's "socialism" and Hillary's liberalism understand themselves in opposition to a caricature of capitalism as sink-or-swim, you're-on-your-own Social Darwinism. Both want to preserve all the government we now have—and add some more. And both realize that it is much more efficient to have the state compel the private sector to do its bidding than have it run everything itself.

This may in fact be the one great lesson that our left learned from the collapse of Soviet communism. Our liberals and socialists are in favor of an awful lot more government involvement in the economy, but their goal is not to have the state actually own and operate factories and corporations. That's why, for example, they are in favor of single-payer Medicare-for-all and not single-employer VA-hospitals-for-all.

It's not that they have any principled objections to the nationalization of industry. They just have found that subsidies, mandates, and regulations will get you where you want to go more effectively. The Soviet Union had shortages. We don't.

Under this hybrid system, the capitalists can hang on to the means of production. But they must play by the rules of the EEOC, OSHA, and the EPA, pay their employees a living wage, provide them with health insurance, and subsidize their contraceptives. And, of course, they must pay their "fair share" of taxes.

Polls confirm that most Americans do not understand socialism to entail the nationalization of industry. A 2010 CBS/New York Times poll found that only 30 percent of Americans defined socialism in that fashion. Among millennials, who express the greatest support for socialism, that number drops to 16 percent. When the overwhelming majority of the population understands a word differently than it was once understood, they either are ignorant of its original meaning or the meaning of the word has changed. In this case, it's probably both.

A more recent Reason-Rupe survey found that millennials who view socialism favorably think it means being kind, or in the words of one respondent, "being together." It is worth remembering that the current occupant of the White House, who calls himself a progressive and not a socialist, is fond of saying that "government is us" and that "kindness covers all of my political beliefs."

That same survey found that millennials associate socialism with a more expansive welfare state where "the government pays for our own needs," to quote another respondent. In other words, whatever we're now doing—except more of it. The goal here is not the Soviet Union but Scandinavia (or at least the liberal concept of Scandinavia, which is considerably more progressive than reality).

The United States already provides generous benefits to the elderly (40 percent of the federal budget) and the non-elderly poor (22 percent of the federal budget). Our socialists, led by Bernie Sanders, want to fill the gap and take care of everyone else. They are clamoring for European-style middle-class entitlements to provide all citizens "free" benefits like health care, day care, paid leave, and college.

Appealing as this may sound to liberals and the young, real socialists are not taken in by it. The Socialist Party USA's current presidential candidate, Emidio "Mimi" Soltysik, for one, is not on board the B-Train: "To me, Sanders sounds more like a progressive Democrat/social Democrat," Soltysik explained to the Socialist, the party's official publication. "I don't see him putting forth a socialist proposal. I'm not seeing him talk about workers owning the means of production."

In fact, from an orthodox Marxist perspective, watered-down socialism, which aims to improve the lot of the proletariat without calling for revolution, is a sham. In his 1888 preface to a new English edition of The Communist Manifesto, Engels denounced those "most multifarious social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances."

If our socialists have much more in common with LBJ and Walter Mondale than they do with Marx and Lenin, why have they adopted such a loaded word to describe themselves?

The 2008 financial crisis may be the key to understanding this semantic shift on the left. Though its causes were complex, the left didn't waste any time blaming it on its straw-man caricature of capitalism.

"This financial crisis is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years," Barack Obama explained in September 2008. "It's the result of an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else; a philosophy that views even the most common-sense regulations as unwise and unnecessary. And this economic catastrophe is the final verdict on this failed philosophy."

Obama didn't need to name that failed philosophy. Everyone knew what he meant. In the absence of a simple, conservative counternarrative, the crash became synonymous with capitalism. This allowed "socialism" to present itself as the reasonable alternative to unregulated greed, especially for a generation that had no firsthand memories of the Cold War. Then came the polls asking respond-ents to choose between capitalism and socialism as the two alternative ways to run an economy.

Unless conservatives succeed in dislodging from the national consciousness the idea that capitalism caused the financial crisis or the economy really starts growing again, "socialism" will remain popular in America.

The fact that this socialism has more modest ambitions than its Marxist counterpart should not detract us from the threat it poses to free markets. The challenge is not to force the state to privatize the companies it owns (though selling a lot of the land it owns out West would not be a bad idea). We need to disentangle the private sector from the suffocating grip of the administrative state.

This may sound like an easier task, but in a certain sense, it isn't. Our government exercises its control over the economy in a much more subtle way than in a socialist regime. Its footprint is harder to detect. No one can truly measure the toll that the government takes on the economy.

More important, statism, bureaucracy, and rampant cronyism are largely concealed from the public eye in our nominally capitalist economy. This allows the government to shift blame to the private sector when things go wrong, thereby justifying ever more stringent regulations. The mess bequeathed to us by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is blamed on everyone but the state and leads to the passage of Dodd-Frank. In this regard, our newfangled American "socialism" is more pernicious than the socialism of yore.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard