I’ve addressed this subject before, and I’ll keep it brief, but I hope the latest edition of Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter, “Letters from an American,” will be clarifying.
Richardson argues (in my view, persuasively) that the use of the word “socialism” by the American right and the Republican Party to redefine pretty much “everything the U.S. government might do to improve the lives of average or poor Americans” is rubbish.
In her column over the weekend, Richardson dipped into the Republican efforts to denounce the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by a (slightly) bipartisan vote of 228–206, “Republicans began to say that the Democrats were ushering in ‘socialism.’”
Obviously not referring to the small number of Republicans who voted with the entirety of the Democrats to pass the bill, Richardson explained:
When Republicans warn of socialism, they are not talking about actual socialism, which is an economic system in which the means of production, that is, the factories and industries, are owned by the people. In practical terms, that means they are owned by the government.
True socialism has never been popular in America, and virtually no one is talking about it here today. The best it has ever done in a national election was in 1912, when labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, running for president as a Socialist, won a whopping 6% of the vote, coming in behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. True socialism isn’t a real threat in America.
I don’t want to quote her whole column, so you’ll read it on her site if you find it interesting. I’ve long understood how the American right abuses the S-word. But Richardson links this whole effort to redefine “socialism,” and make it into a scare word to the period immediately after the Civil War, when Black men first got the right to vote. (Maybe you think it started under Joe McCarthy, but Richardson is a historian, so give her version a chance.)
After freed slaves were emancipated by the 13th Amendment and enfranchised by the 15th, they supported Lincoln’s Republican successors and joined poor white men to “vote for leaders who promised to rebuild the South, provide schools and hospitals (as well as desperately needed prosthetics for veterans), and develop the economy with railroads to provide an equal opportunity for all men to work hard and rise.” Richardson continues:
Former Confederates loathed the idea of Black men voting. But their opposition to Black voting on racial grounds ran headlong into the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which, after it was ratified in 1870, gave the U.S. government the power to make sure that no state denied any man the right to vote ‘on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ When white former Confederates nonetheless tried to force their Black neighbors from the polls, Congress in 1870 created the Department of Justice, which began to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan members who had been terrorizing the South.
According to Richardson, although slavery per se was never reinstated:
Long before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia brought the fears of a workers’ government to life, Americans who opposed regulation insisted that their economy was under siege by socialists. That conviction did indeed lead to a redistribution of wealth, but as regular Americans were kept from voting, it went dramatically upward, not down.
Under the great (Republican!) president Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, the first U.S. income tax was instituted, which could be called a kind of socialism, but if it is, America went socialist in the 1860s under the commie, Lincoln.
Richardson quoted Lincoln who said that:
“the legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.” Those things included, he wrote, “public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.”
We can and should argue about taxes and spending and finding the right line between things that should be subject to government control or subsidization. Fine. Have at it.
But the widespread Republican or right-wing equation of everything the government pays for or subsidizes as “socialism” is rubbish and if they disagree, they should take it up with Honest Abe, the first Republican president.