Is Socialism Still a Dirty Word?
John B. Judis makes the case for reviving the defunct doctrine
Not long ago, the word “socialism” was something of a taboo. Following the failed Soviet experiment in hardcore socialism, most Americans of a certain age still shudder at the prospect. Libertarians schooled in Friedrich Hayek’s writings have learned to instinctively resist even the smallest encroachments of government ownership into the means of production. But have we perhaps learned a lesson too well?
Every so often, I like to re-assess my fundamental beliefs by inviting highly intelligent people to make the case for ideas like socialism on my program. A glance through my show archives reveals that I’m long overdue for a challenge, and John B. Judis is the perfect man for the job.
John is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo and author of eight books, including most recently The Socialist Awakening — the last in his trilogy of books on the revival of the doctrines of nationalism, populism, and now, the “S” word.
Venezuela or Sweden — Which Way for the New Socialist Man?
Judis observed how Trump used populism to promote a nationalist agenda, and calls on today’s progressives to use these same populist forces to advance a rebranded socialist program.
For Judis, Bernie Sanders is the poster-child of the evolution of socialism, from orthodox Marxist ideology calling for imminent revolution to an incremental approach of expanding the power of labor over capital in a modern “mixed economy.” Where I see a flashing red DANGER sign in Sanders’ appeal to young people, Judis sees a sign of hope.
Is Judis’s vision compatible with a robust economy, free markets, and individual autonomy, or will a single step toward Scandinavian-style socialism set us down the “ Road to Serfdom”? Can socialists learn from the mistakes of the past, or are they doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of history?
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The Evolving Definition of Socialism
This morning’s topic is very much in the news every single day. Today’s guest is one of my more prescient guest authors. He predicted it in magnificent timing of his book, The Socialist Awakening, which was written and published right before the 2020 election results. The question is, how did John know? This morning’s guest is John Judis. John is an avowed socialist, and has been for most of his adult life. He has just written The Socialist Awakening, where he helps us understand all there is to understand about socialism, as the term is used today, not as it was used several hundred years ago, as it is used yesterday morning and tomorrow morning.
John, socialism has very much in common with libertarianism. The label says nothing. If anything, it causes many people to take a step back. You and I will help the audience understand what is really meant by the term socialism as it’s used today.
Socialism has a bad label — a bad rap — in much of society, although it is experiencing an awakening. There’s a lot about the word that other people assume you mean, but they are wrong.
I was a socialist in the ’60s from Berkeley SDS. I was an editor of a publication called Socialist Revolution, a journal put out in San Francisco in the early 70s. I was, at that time, what I described as an orthodox Marxist socialist. I believed that workers should own and control the means of production — that there should be no capitalist class. Markets should disappear. Our vision was the Soviet Union plus democracy. You could have central planning and democracy. That would be socialism.
I became disabused of those views during the 70s. I just couldn’t figure out what it would mean in America for us to have socialism. When Ronald Reagan came in, the vision became even more distant. When the Soviet Union itself collapsed, that was the end. I spent years where I was much closer to a Herbert Croly progressive. He was the founder of the New Republic for which I worked for 20 years.
I began to rethink socialism in the 1990s — mainly on a theoretical basis. I was influenced by a historian named Marty Sklar. A lot of other people who had been socialists during the 60s and 70s went through the same process. The basic idea was that socialism wasn’t a stage of history that would come after capitalism and could only be brought about through a revolution (violent or peaceful). It was something that was developing within capitalism in the same way that capitalism itself developed within feudalism. You saw different aspects of it in public ownership, of energy, transportation, health care, and the New Deal itself, so my own theoretical views began to change. I’m a socialist, but it doesn’t matter.
Then comes Bernie Sanders. We’re the same age. He went from New York and Chicago to Vermont. I went from the east coast to Berkeley in the same period, late 60s. He went through a very similar kind of evolution that I did politically. He gained this incredible popularity, especially among the young, and in the 2015–16 Democratic primary period, he won more votes than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined among young voters in that 18 to 29 year old group. His view of socialism was not the orthodox Marxist Soviet Union — the traditional view of socialism. It was something very close to what was evolving in the 90s — something very close to European advanced social democracy, where workers have more say through strong unions, workers are put on the boards of corporations, and industries that don’t act in the national interest are strongly regulated and if necessary, nationalized. The market is a very important part of the way that any economy has to work.
Sanders gains this incredible popularity among the young — the generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War, as I did. 50% say they prefer socialism to capitalism. The polls are fishy. It depends on how the questions are asked. I tried to break it down. Among Democrats, maybe it’s about 15 to 20% would prefer that label to progressive, liberal, moderate or anything else. It’s a significant group. It’s set off from people who are over 45 years old, who primarily still see socialism as the Soviet Union, Cuba, or Venezuela. You saw that the election and what happened to Biden, in southern Florida — identification of Democrats with supporting socialism in Venezuela.
The book is not so much about my politics, but what’s been arising among young people in the United States and Europe. It’s a new kind of socialism that’s more acceptable.
That’s a long answer to your question, but it’s not like I’m presenting my definition of the word and saying, the way political scientists do and say this is the real definition of socialism. I’m talking about the way it has evolved historically in our country and in Great Britain on the continent, in a different way from the old Marxist or Soviet Union-style of socialism.
What’s Wrong with Capitalism
What is the problem with capitalism? In a capitalist or free market economic organization, people and institutions are free to enter into voluntary exchanges for mutual benefit. The investors own capital. They have money, which they have presumably lawfully acquired. They use that money to make more money. In doing so they have to buy goods and services, and the services they have to buy are from workers, to whom they pay wages.
Workers are not compelled to work for an employer. Employers are not compelled to hire a worker. It’s all voluntary, gauzy-eyed free market exchanges. That seems to be the natural order of human existence. Help us by making the most direct comparison you can make between that environment and the environment you see as part of the awakening.
We’re talking about two systems that can coexist with each other. The socialist aspects of an economy and a society could begin to predominate over the capitalist, but what we have now is coexistence. The role of government in the economy in the United States looks a lot different now than it did before 1932, or than it did in the 1890s or 1820s. There is a lot more government intervention, regulation, unions, which you had a very primitive form of in the Jacksonian period.
We’ve moved a long way from capitalism in its very pure ideal form, where individuals are treated the same way as commodities, and they have to buy and sell labor on a market — where there aren’t things like unions, and regulations.
Why does the issue arise in certain respects?
You can think of the healthcare industry left to itself, and to the distribution of income and wealth in the society. Healthcare just wouldn’t be available to a lot of people. You get the government intervening in that market — Medicare. Now we have the Affordable Care Act, very flawed but it’s a function of the fact that Americans decided that the healthcare industry just left to itself was not going to act in the national interest. We had that with the public utilities in the 1920s. The same kind of issue and the very idea of a public utility is one that invites some kind of regulation by the government and in some cases, public ownership. Those are the kinds of cases.
You can think about the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency, why does that exist? Because if decisions are simply left to the market in those cases, there will be what economists call externalities, which is the pollution from coal in West Virginia that blows up to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and people start getting asthma and things like that. So in 1971, you got the Environmental Protection Agency.
Those are the elements of socialism that become introduced within capitalism. At the same time you still have private insurance. You still have private energy companies. The two coexist. Society could decide that we’re paying too much overhead as a country for these kinds of companies to compete for profits for their stockholders, and that it would be better to have something like what Bernie Sanders called “Medicare for all,” where it becomes a government-run insurance company. That’s not what we have. That’s in between.
What’s So Special About Socialized Medicine?
You mentioned that healthcare wasn’t really operating in the national interest. Does the food industry in America operate in the national interest? Food, like healthcare, is essential for life. We have no “food for all” plan. We simply have food. It’s healthy, inexpensive, available to everybody. If people don’t have enough money for food, we have government programs that provide the money. Why is health care privately operated not in the public interest but food is (whatever the “public interest” may mean)?
Both industries, healthcare and agriculture, are heavily government regulated. In the 1920s, into the late 1930s, there was this enormous scandal because people were starving, and food was just going to waste because they didn’t have the money to buy it. The farmers thought they weren’t going to make any profit from selling it. At that point, Roosevelt’s Department of Agriculture intervenes. The kind of intervention that started then has continued to this day with things like subsidies for farmers, so they can have decent prices for what they produce. You have food stamps, so people who don’t have the income can buy food. There’s no difference in that case, between the food industry and the healthcare industry.
I’m making the same point about both. Let’s say the toy industry, even there you have safety regulations because it turned out companies were selling things to kids would blow up in their face and blind them. In the 60s, you get something there. It’s much less so in an industry like that or clothing than it is in what you rightly describe as essential industries like health care, food, energy.
What’s Wrong With Income Inequality?
The term income inequality is an important concept in distinguishing between socialism — which seeks to level it — and capitalism. What’s wrong with income inequality per se? After all, people are born with different attributes. It is unfair that some people are born healthier than others, taller, more handsome, thinner, etc. Inequality is a fact of human existence. What’s the big deal about income inequality per se as compared with health inequality, appearance inequality, accident of birth inequality, so speak to — the evils as you see it of income inequality, because so much of socialism seeks to fix that perceived evil.
I don’t identify equality with complete leveling. Sometimes they now use this word “equity” instead of equality. Let’s just talk about equality. The first thing is a question of fairness. Whether it’s fair, for instance, for somebody who inherits millions and millions of dollars and doesn’t have to work for it, and another person who’s born to very modest and humble circumstances and doesn’t really have the opportunity to make enough money even to support a family. Those are extremes but those are the kind of extremes that call up the idea of justice, and society should do something.
The inheritance tax, which Andrew Carnegie championed, is a good idea. That’s an attempt to create equality by birth, so that you don’t have a situation where that you have with basketball, where some people are just born taller. This is a case where somebody simply inherits a lot of money. They can just clip coupons for the rest of their life versus somebody in much more modest circumstances. That’s that’s why you have college scholarships, all those kinds of things. That’s one issue.
The second issue is the issue of stability. This is essential to the understanding of the economy that arose in the 1930s through John Maynard Keynes, and that has made some of a comeback in the 21st century, which is the idea if you have inequality of income, the way we had in the 1920s, and again in the 1980s 1990s, after that, you have too much savings. Then you have disproportionately too many people who are getting income that is simply saved and not invested. You don’t get enough consumption of the products that are produced. You get instability. You get recessions and things like that. It’s a question of the business cycle and the damage that a kind of radical inequality could do.
The third thing I’ll mention is that we have this kind of weird situation in the United States that we haven’t figured out how to deal with yet. We really have an economy that’s spilling out these billionaires. These people who make more money in a minute then I’m gonna make in a week or a year or my life. You have the salaries of CEOs going from 16 times the average worker 50 years ago to now 160 times. It’s a huge disparity. That fosters both instability economically, and it’s unfair. Those are the two big beefs. What you want is some way of making things more equal, not equal with an equality sign, but more equal, more fair.
The Voluntary/Compulsory Distinction
Andrew Carnegie was one of those early capitalists, who started with nothing but accumulated lots of money. He gave lots of money away — the Carnegie libraries, the endowments, the universities, as did Rockefeller. Now, I’m not gonna be saying that in praise of any individual. I’m speaking about the system. There was income and adjustment of income inequality by those who were fortunate enough for whatever reason to accumulate much more money than others to give lots of it away.
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates famously have given away buckets of their money. The difference is under socialism, it’s compulsory. Under capitalism, it’s voluntary. Maybe socialists would prefer more self-imposed adjustment, but that’s a question of one person’s opinion of how another should spend their money. Is it a question of voluntary versus force? Or something deeper?
In terms of a purely voluntary system, where we rely on the charity of a few billionaires, that hasn’t existed since maybe the late 19th century. Andrew Carnegie was a proponent of the inheritance tax. In 1913, we had an income tax, and the income tax has always been progressive. We’ve always intervened. We did not have socialism in 1913. We did have a government that collected taxes. If you didn’t pay your taxes, you could go to jail. There was force involved, and there’s always been force involved in capitalism. The police in the National Guard were sent after strikers in the 1890s. If you fool around a little too much, you’ll end up with an injunction in court.
Capitalism has always involved a degree of force. Sometimes that force has been used in a benign way in order to create a greater equality of opportunity, not necessarily equality of income, but at the least equality of opportunity — opportunity to have decent health care, opportunity to live in cities where you don’t cough all the time from bad air. I think that’s the kind of equality that I’m talking about. Don’t equate that with something like China or Russia where in effect society is ruled in a very authoritarian way. This kind of force has been a natural part of capitalism, almost from the beginning. One of the good things to read on that subject is Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, where he talks about the evolution of capitalism precisely and the poor laws in England, so I recommend that after you buy my books, look at that book.
You distinguished somebody born into a wealthy family as being unfair because that person from birth never has to worry. I am troubled by inheritance. I haven’t figured it out yet, as you have. I worry about that a bit. One individual is born into great wealth. Therefore, that’s unfair — that individual had done nothing other than be born. That same individual, having been born from parents who have the right genes, so that person is born smarter and stronger and healthier, etc. To me, in both instances, you made the distinction as if they are different, they’re the same. You don’t seem to care that much about the unfairness of somebody who was lucky enough to have been conceived by people with good genes versus conceived by people with great wealth, isn’t it the same unfairness or is neither unfair?
If you’re born with blue eyes, rather than brown eyes, or if you end up six feet, rather than five foot seven, it’s ineradicable. You can’t have a government program, though, God knows, in 50 years, we might be changing heights the way we’re doing various changes now. That’s a lot different. A government and economic system can intervene — not to eliminate inheritance but to put a tax on it — to that degree, making the situation fair. There is no government program that could make me a center on the Los Angeles Lakers. It just would not be there, it can’t happen.
Physical characteristics and brain power and stuff like that, a lot of that is inherited. You can’t do anything about it — you live with it to the extent that society rewards certain things, and not others. I don’t think you can do much about that either, but you can do something about the transmission of great wealth.
There is no government program that could make me a center on the Los Angeles Lakers.
The transmission is being born into wealth, that is just assumed to be unfair and that society has to correct it, so that the individual born into great wealth has less of an advantage. They’ll still have a substantial advantage, but just simply on the principle of fairness.
You probably remember from the 90s this guy, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant who developed this idea called “death taxes,” and that people were being taxed for dying. We got a lot of people on board with this idea that there shouldn’t be an inheritance tax, which was very modest. You had to inherit 4 million dollars or something in order to be taxed on it. Now it’s much more money before you get the tax. I think that kind of tax again is fair and it’s something a government should do. That’s something different because if you make a lot of money, you want your children to have a degree of comfort. It’s one of the one of the advantages that you get from making money — not just being able to buy a Mac Pro, but also to leave something to your kids. That’s fine. Leaving enough so that they don’t have to ever work compared to somebody else, that makes me more leery. That’s a point at which equality becomes a moral issue.
What’s Wrong with Jeff Bezos’s Wealth?
Jeff Bezos started with not much more than anybody else. He found a way to give you and I and the rest of the planet cheap stuff almost instantaneously. Amazing. He has improved the lives of a gazillion people, including his own workers, who voluntarily work for him. Now, what is inherently unfair? Where does the system fail us that Bezos became the wealthiest person simply by figuring out a way to satisfy the needs of the planet? What’s inherently unfair about that? What went wrong, in your view, that allowed Bezos under those circumstances to become fabulously wealthy?
Even during the so-called Robber Baron era of the late 19th century with the Rockefellers, and Carnegies, we’ve never had the kind of disparity between great wealth and the average person that we have now. Some of it’s the kind of winner-takes-all character of high tech, which seems to be built into it. If you have a billion people who subscribe to Facebook, that gives you an advantage over anybody else. These people make an incredible amount of money. At the same time, who am I to deny that Facebook, Google or Apple, or Amazon isn’t really useful innovation.
I was taking the easiest road to talk with you about equality by talking about what’s gonna happen to Bezos’s money when he dies, and the parents, and there are lots of people who are very rich and don’t necessarily use their money for good purposes. You can look at the history of the Trump Foundation or some of his buddies at Mar-a-Lago and what they do with their money. I think you’d find a much different story from Bezos or Warren Buffet. I’m not in the business of criticizing him. I don’t know quite what we are going to do about those particular industries because it’s not just a matter of how much money somebody like that makes but it’s the enormous power they wield over our lives.
I think we’re at a point where there are critics on both the left and the right. I’m not sure myself what the answer is to the Facebook, Google, Amazon conundrum. There is a problem there. It just is we don’t understand and I don’t understand exactly what to do about it yet.
The Political Power Wealth Confers
Is the power political power?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s part of it. Part of it is political power.
If it is political power, isn’t it the fault of the behavior of the political system who responds to money and perhaps makes use of their political power for selfish reasons because they are rewarded economically? Is the problem the provider of the funds or the acceptor of the funds? If there was no one to accept the funds and provide political favors, there would be no political power from the money.
Let’s talk about political power and what great wealth confers. The libertarians talk about this regulatory capture, where the industries themselves are so powerful that they capture the regulatory agencies. The agencies — instead of protecting the public — end up protecting the industry. What we’re going to do about these incredibly powerful and wealthy industries is one element of politics. That’s influence over the government.
The other is campaign finance. I’m not a believer in Buckley v. Valeo — I think that we should have a system, but it should be closer to that of the Europeans where there are limits on how much candidates can spend, as well as limits on how much individuals can contribute, so that the wealthy and the powerful don’t have inordinate influence over the kind of choices that people make in campaigns. I know that there are a lot of instances where money just doesn’t matter as much.
Hillary Clinton had a lot more money than Donald Trump but it didn’t help her in 2016. Particularly in local and state races, there’s this invisible effect that the ordinary person doesn’t see where money matters a lot and you have a kind of accumulation of power. The Koch brothers network has been very important in influencing state and local elections. I would like to see some equalizing there. We should get towards a situation where it is really one person one vote in America and where people’s money doesn’t give them the equivalent of billions of votes.
The Democracy in Democratic Socialism
One of the major fault lines or differences between a capitalist system and a more socialist system is socialism has great faith in majority rule, democracy, and workers having a more meaningful say in the operation of the factories than the companies for which they work. Is that a fair distinction?
Is one of your criticisms of the existing system that the majority gets stepped upon by a minority, and majority rule would just be clearly more fair than the system we have now?
We’re going really get in the weeds here. I’m all for democracy. I think that should be an essential element of socialism. When the kids or Bernie Sanders talks about socialism, they always say democratic socialism. The irony of our system is that it’s always, in my opinion, dependent for its reforms on enlightened and not uninterested, but disinterested elites. A lot of the reforms in the 20th century, including the New Deal in the Progressive Era, were championed by the Warren Buffetts of the world. We’ve always had this peculiar situation.
One of the problems we have now is that there are violent clashes within the elites themselves. You could see that within our President Trump era. What’s going on now?
We have a constitutional democracy. I think that that’s important. It can be abused, but the Bill of Rights is incredibly important. Although it gets modified, misinterpreted, uninterpreted, whatever you want to say it, I think it’s still been a kind of check that’s provided us with a degree of self rule that other countries haven’t enjoyed. Yes, I’m all for democracy. Capitalism has been consistent with democracy. There’s obviously problems there in terms of what we talked about, but America was both a capitalist and a democratic system. Its problem initially was that it also had another system in the south that called slavery that was as it turned out inconsistent with wage labor, capitalism.
The Limits to Redistribution
You said that we don’t want everybody to earn exactly the same amount. Is there a limit in the view of a thoughtful socialist to how much taking from those with more to give to those with less is appropriate? How do you determine it? What’s the objective data that will tell you that’s enough? What will be the measure of the perfect balance of taking from those with more to give those with less? It seems to be a ratchet. No matter how much in our current economic system is transferred, the trend has been one way — toward more and more transfers as time goes on, not less and less. When will even the socialists say that’s enough?
I’m more focused not on how wealthy people are, but on the lives that people who are not wealthy live, and how they can be changed. I think that should be the way in which we understand problems with equality. What I’d like to see in America is something that you see in a few European countries, which is that the people here who are citizens are free from the kind of anxiety about health care, housing, having enough to eat, the very basic kind of anxieties that we feel that other people in other countries don’t feel the same way.
I had a friend, a Dane, who was a journalist who lost his job when he was about 55 years old. He had three daughters. His wife had a good job as a defense contractor. She was a military expert, and they had a nice house in the suburbs. She got terminal cancer. She ended up dying. It took several years. He was unemployed, partly because he got involved in this libel suit which he eventually won. It was the kind of situation that in the United States could absolutely wreck a person. They would lose their house, etc.
In Denmark you get unemployment for years — 90% of your wages — health care is free based on large taxes. The kids all went to college, for free, with room and board and they’re all happy and they have jobs. It just wouldn’t happen that way in the United States. They all also are perfectly responsible citizens. They all work full time. My retired friend is still a working guy, odd jobs and things like that. I would like to see the elimination of those kinds of anxieties that Americans feel, and sometimes really aren’t even aware of, and aware that there’s another way of having it. That’s the kind of equality that I’d like to see in this society because people who are really wealthy don’t have to have those kinds of fears about their lives.
It seems like we have a ways to go. If you are correct about the awakening, I better start spending my money now before we achieve that balance. I’m exhausted at the thought of working towards that goal — at least you have identified a goal theoretically. Someday, you may even say, “We’ve gotten there. That’s enough.” That’s a relief to me.
This is Bob Zadek. I want to thank John Judis for joining us for this hour. John has written The Socialist Awakening. He has predicted the Biden administration. We will see if we all become awake as a result. John, thank you very much for helping us understand, demystify, and maybe remove some of the fear, perhaps instill more of the fear. I leave that to the listeners. You have explained it very, very well. We understand a lot more than we did before. Thank you so much, John. On Twitter it’s @JohnBJudis.
- Questioning Biden’s Inequality Narrative with Ed Conard, January 31, 2021
- Close Enough to Socialism: Amity Schlaes on The Great Society, December 29, 2019
- Socialism… Still Not Cool with Ben Powell, July 28, 2019
- Hugo Chavez: Failed Messiah with Clif Ross, May 6, 2019
- Socialism Reincarnated with Joshua Muravchik, April 12, 2019
- Here Comes the Storm with John O. McGinnis, February 22, 2019
- Utopia Unmasked with Clif Ross, February 2, 2019
- Elizabeth Warren’s Socialist Dogwhistle with Richard Epstein, August 25, 2018
- Venezuela on the Brink with Fergus Hodgson, April 23, 2017
- Ian Vasquez on the Prospects for a Free Cuba with Ian Vasquez, April 3, 2016
- Inclusive Capitalism: Economic Savior or Socialism in Disguise? with Sean McElwee, February 14, 2015
- Have Professional Sports Made Us More Socialist Than Europe?, May 18, 2014
- Atlas Shrugged and Creeping Socialism with Ed Hudgins, April 19, 2009
- AMAZON: The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, September 29, 2020
- John B. Judis (@JohnBJudis) / Twitter
- The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek