There has been quite a bit of talk lately regarding a Pew survey that points to some positive shifts in the public perception of socialism. (http://people-press.org/report/610/socialism-capitalism). Although there are reasons to see hope in this kind of news, it is hardly indicative of the general mood amongst the American population. The ugly truth is that socialism is a “dirty word” thrown about casually by the Right, in hopes that it will stick and discredit. One of our challenges as Socialists, possibly our biggest challenge, is to define ourselves on our own terms, rather than letting the Right do it for us.
I remember vividly, during a campaign stop here in Fayetteville , NC , candidate Obama was assailed by a middle-aged Sam’s Club employee at a barbeque restaurant, with repeated cries of, “Socialist!” It’s doubtful she had a clue what socialism means, but this was in the wake of Joe the Plumber’s fifteen minutes of fame, which resulted from his accusation that Obama wanted to redistribute of wealth and favored socialism. Suddenly Red-baiting was all the rage…and it didn’t stop there. Socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, Stalinism…you name it. Any kind of “ism” that seemed to have a negative connotation was being trumpeted across the headlines and airwaves, in an effort to discredit the Obama agenda.
In spite of what the Pew polls say, in spite of Billy Wharton’s (SPUSA) thought-provoking interview on the Thom Hartmann show yesterday, I think the use of socialism in a disparaging manner is illustrative of the overall mainstream mindset. Few people have even a basic grasp of socialism; even fewer have read the works of Marx, Engels, Trotsky & Co. in an effort to get a better understanding of a philosophy they routinely criticize. There are those who fail to realize that our sacred Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist, also a Christian minister, or that This Land is Your Land, one of our most beloved patriotic songs, was written by Woody Guthrie, a communist sympathizer and outspoken labor advocate. Yet many are quick to point to select evils and failures of the Left, and freely use those cherry-picked examples to smear those with whom they disagree politically.
Periods of “Red Scare”, coupled with the justifiable fear of post-war Soviet aggression have done much to snuff out all traces of true socialism in America . The Right has effectively used Commu-phobia (I just made that up) to discredit everything it opposes, from public education to labor reforms to universal health care. More recently, the Right serves up the economic troubles in some European socialist democracies as evidence of a failed system…while ignoring the trickle-down impact our own collapsing economy is having, globally. Middle America will rarely acknowledge the contributions made by the Left, particularly in regards to civil rights, education, women’s equality and the labor movement, yet most have at least a rudimentary awareness of the atrocities of Stalin, and the oppressive regimes of China, North Korea and the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, and often unfairly, these latter examples seem to be the more popular and enduring legacy…a perversion of classic Marxist ideals.
Perception is everything, and that applies to socialism today, more than ever. The Cold War is over, Castro is but a shell of his former revolutionary self, we freely trade with China, arguably the most oppressive Communist nation on the planet. Yet we continue let the ghosts of Communist Past haunt us and define us. We must become more proactive regarding our own identity or others will continue to define it for us, most assuredly in a negative way. In order for socialism to cease being a “four-letter” word, we must not hide from the label, but embrace it openly…ignorance is our biggest enemy, and education is our strongest weapon. Socialism and communism have a rich and positive tradition in American history , and just as the Tea Party activists constantly threaten to take back their country, so must we work harder than ever to take back, from those that would discredit us, the socialist ideals that have been a force for progress in America for over a century.