The “S” Word in American History

Posted on February 23, 2011


Socialism has returned to the currency of political debate lately.

Conservatives and tea partiers accuse President Obama of a socialist agenda undermining American values, American prosperity, and the American way of life.

The President insists, on the other hand, that he is just as passionately pursuing the American dream (not socialist) with his agenda of equality and fairness.

Synonyms pop up everywhere to disguise the word and meaning of “socialism.”

“Spread the wealth” is one of the most current, used by opponents and proponents of the generally Leftist agenda of the Democrats.  

Is this new? Who is right in this? What is the American way?

Huey Long, Senator and, before that, Governor of Louisiana, made a famous speech in 1934 advocating sharing the wealth.

“Every Man a King” Long preached, and if he hadn’t been assassinated on the steps of the Louisiana capital in Baton Rouge in September, 1934, he might well have challenged President Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936. The Kingfish was immensely popular, not only in his native State but across the nation.

The word “socialism” is hissed by many, the same way “Communism” took on a pejorative meaning for most of the Cold War.

During the Senator Joseph McCarthy era of the early 1950s (ancient history for those in their forties or younger), a witchhunt of sorts took place, real and alleged Communists haled before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 and 1954 and accused of a wide range of crimes against the state, from treason and espionage to being card carrying members of the Communist Party.

The Cold War was in full swing and anyone suspected of sympathy or collaboration with Communists, especially those of the Soviet Union, were targeted.

Since Communists were thought to be but another face of socialism, we could just as easily have labeled this the “C” word in American history.

In fact, some form of government control of the nation’s economy has been in place since before the founding of the Republic.

In the English colonies, we like to think that “benign neglect” was the prevailing wisdom of the English government with respect to the colonies, or, more exactly, that few laws were imposed by the English and so the colonies grew and prospered pretty much at will.

But, in fact, the hand of government was never too far from the tiller, especially when it came to tax time. “Mercantilism” was but one expression of this economic philosophy at work. The State intervened to direct the political economy of the European empires before independence.

One can even go back into Biblical times and see the hand of “socialism” expressed vividly. In Acts 2, 44-45, we read that: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”

One can cut that statement many ways, explain it away with later events, say, “well, that was another place and time,” etc. but, in fact, the early Christian community shared everything. All Christian doctrine does not subscribe to a free market.

In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, a German philosopher-economist who lived in England, observed the unequal distribution of wealth produced by the industrial revolution and wrote a series of polemics and analyses which basically condemned the capitalist system and advocated an extreme form of communism, or Marxism named after him.

Marx posited a series of inevitable stages based on economic determinism. Man advanced from agriculture to industry and capitalism was the last stage before the inevitable triumph of communism. It was a gloomy view of the world, but, then again, London in the nineteenth century was a pretty gloomy industrial metropolis, clogged with pollution and divided between the very rich and the industrial poor. Charles Dickens found it to be a great troubled human sea for his stories.

Yet, in our country, socialism, or its many variants such as communism and Marxism, never really got established as a viable political force.

Even in the period of most unbridled capitalism at the turn of the nineteenth century, the idea of the state, or government, dictating how man should be organized and behave economically never took hold. We championed a different, more flexible, economic and political model, one based on individual liberties and responsibilities, not one locked into an ideology that put its trust in government to be the “nanny” state in today’s new slang.

As the twentieth century unrolled, people in this country became even more suspicious of socialism, for where it took hold—especially in Russia/Soviet Union– it undermined some dearly held principles, such as the power of free market inventiveness and enterprise as the engine of our material prosperity, and, in the political realm, the very liberty of the individual.

These were tinkered with to adjust for how unfair capitalism could be, but they were not to be sacrificed wholesale to communism or socialism, both essentially hostile to the liberty of the individual.

And furthermore, modern expressions of socialism seemed always to degenerate into dictatorships, such as in the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China to name but three.

Even dictatorships of the right, such as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, were labeled “national socialism,” implying once again that the government should exercise overall control for the good of all.

So the word “socialism” does not conjure up a very attractive image in the minds of most Americans. It smacks of something foreign, something imported, something that undermines our basic liberties.

Not all socialistic regimes degenerate into dictatorships of course. And not all dictatorships are socialist or communist. Witness the dictatorship that just fell in Egypt. And modern dictatorships can even be expressions of religious fanaticism, or what we sometimes label theocracies.

Numerous words in our wonderful English language carry fighting meanings. The “S” word is one of them.

Article published as The “S” Word in American History in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, February 20, 2011

Posted in: History