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Is The U.S. Moving Toward Socialism? A Socialist Weighs In

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Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

The upcoming elections will be decided in large part based on what voters think about economics.  So Planet Money is looking into the economic thinking behind much of today's politics.

We're going to start today with socialism.

Now, with the notable exception of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, no major figure in American political life identifies as socialist. Certainly no serious contender for national office this November does.

But socialism has become a large part of the discussion, with many conservative activists arguing that the nation may be "on the road toward a more socialist agenda," as Sarah Palin said this summer.

There is no evidence that President Obama or any leading Democrat is an avowed socialist.  But we did think it would be worth digging a bit deeper into socialism and finding out what a socialist government in the U.S. might look like.

Right now, the governments of Spain, Portugal, Greece, are headed by socialists.  In the recent past, the UK, France, Canada have all been led by socialists.  Most countries have an active socialist party; socialism is just one more mainstream way of thinking — on talk shows, on political debates, in the papers.

I talked to Richard Wolff, a real life American socialist — a Marxist Socialist, even — who is professor emeritus of economics at University of Massachusetts.

He says that in the 1950s, the U.S. banned socialism from polite discourse.

"That meant we have now about about two generations worth of people who never really engaged that topic," he says. "It produces both an inability to understand what socialism [and] a gut level rejection and hostility to it."

And, he says, it produces ignorance of what socialists think these days.  Most Americans, he says, think that socialism died alongside the Soviet Union and the shift towards capitalism in China.

"They don't know that, of course, the experience of Russia and China has also affected socialists," Wolff says. "Over the past 50 years, socialism has changed, dramatically, in every way."

For example, he says, socialists now say the government shouldn't own everything. You can own your house, your car, even your own business.

But, he says, socialism is not capitalism.

Take how companies work. In capitalism, large companies are typically owned by shareholders, directed by a board, and run by a small number of managers.

Most workers simply work in exchange for a paycheck.  Under socialism, many companies would be owned by the workers and would function as a cooperative.

"Groups of workers make the decisions: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits that are generated," Wolff says.

The Democrats' health-care reform and stimulus spending came nowhere near the socialist vision, Wolff says.

A truly socialist government would instantly provide free health care to everyone and government jobs programs to employ every single out of work American — along with a host of other government programs that, these days, it's hard to imagine the U.S. government being able to afford.

Strangely (or, maybe, not so strangely) Wolff says he loves it every time he hears the word socialism in the media, even if it's out of the mouth of an angry and possibly poorly informed critic.

He says that for the first time in a long time, socialism is — sort of — back in the public discourse.

For more: See Wolff's web site.

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