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Socialism in America


Socialism in America                Gerry OShea

The two most popular senators in their home states, both with approval ratings close to 65%, are Jon Tester in Montana and Bernie Sanders in Vermont. These are surprising approval numbers because Montana is seen as having a strong conservative population, and, unlike his West Virginia colleague, Joe Manchin, also elected in a red state, Tester’s voting on controversial issues follows the progressive line of most senate Democrats.

Sanders’ popularity is even harder to explain because Vermont is considered a rural state, where Republicans usually get clear majorities, and Senator Sanders runs for election as an independent socialist. He is the only member of the upper house openly using the “s” word to define his policies.

The Vermont senator has sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency on two occasions. In 2016 he was defeated by Hilary Clinton and in 2020 he lost to Joe Biden, but he performed credibly on both occasions, winning the support of around 40% of Democrats, showing that he has a wide following, especially among young people.

One recent poll in the United States, limited to 18 to 30-year-olds, reveals that 42% plump for a socialist system in the country with 40% of this cohort siding with capitalism. Among the wider population 56% favor the capitalist approach, but with close to 40% marking socialism as their preferred economic arrangement.

Yet, progressives mostly shun the use of the socialist appellation because it is considered toxic and off-putting for middle-of-the road voters. In Europe, by comparison, candidates of the left seem to be more comfortable with the term.

Many commentators consider the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church as bedded in socialist principles.  From the earliest years of Christianity their foundational social belief reads as follows: the goods of the earth belong to all the people on the earth and any ownership system must accommodate and honor that core ethical mandate. Karl Marx, a proclaimed atheist, would cheer that philosophical statement.

Another bedrock guiding Catholic belief stresses that all political decisions should reflect the supremacy of the common good over private interests – a high moral bar, for sure, that is honored, in Shakespeare’s words, “far more in the breach than in the observance.”

Readers may doubt the truthfulness of these binding statements about Catholic social principles, because, perhaps, they never heard a preacher highlight them in a Sunday sermon. Nor have they heard them stressed in the intermittent admonishments from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, most of whose members seem to prefer holding forth on moral issues related to sexual behavior.

There are two main branches of socialist thinking. The first was seen under Stalin and his descendants, emanating from Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 confirmed that this approach didn’t work out.

In fact, the record of East European socialism, directed from the Kremlin, can justifiably be described as dismal and grotesquely cruel. Farmers who didn’t want to give up their land to collectivist bullies were punished by government armies, resulting in mass murders during the early decades of the 20th century.

 Karl Marx always stressed the humanitarian underpinning of his proposed revolution. He claimed that he was as interested in promoting a society that valued artistic endeavors as much as workers’ rights. However, his talk of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” achieved with approval by the majority of the people, remains a pipe dream.

The other type of socialism grew from the travails that engulfed Europe after two awful world wars in the first half of the 20th century.

FDR’s famous New Deal provided public works for the unemployed as well as healthcare and better education for the masses. He introduced Social Security, best understood then and now as a serious anti-poverty program for the aging.

 In Europe, the two world wars left the continent in dire straits. The Marshal Plan, surely America’s boldest political initiative since the Civil War, opened the gates to rebuilding a devastated economy. The development plans in these countries included welfare benefits comparable to the New Deal in America.

These programs involved the central government providing hospitals and bridges and housing for citizens as well as direct payments to soften the travails of unemployment and old age.

From the beginning, conservatives, while approving of some infrastructure projects, vehemently opposed what they considered easy money for people going through tough times. In their view, the capitalist system should not be interfered with, especially by collecting taxes to help the poor and the indigent. Instead, in their estimation, extreme hardship should be ameliorated by local charities.

In Syracuse, New York, on October 10th 1952 President Harry Truman answered these critics who were proclaiming that somehow the relief policies vigorously promoted by himself and initiated by his admired predecessor, FDR, had the hated socialist tag and thus were thoroughly un-American. “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance in the last twenty years. Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Socialists like Senator Sanders gladly link arms with liberals and progressives advocating for improved social services for the poor and disadvantaged. They all surely agree that it is a disgraceful comment on the state of the body politic in America that one in five children lives in poverty.

Similarly, there will be no argument between them about the need to overhaul a health care system where 8% of the citizens have no coverage. The figure of uninsured Americans was twice that until Obamacare was passed against the determined opposition of conservatives.

Socialists in America and in the West are nearly all committed to democratic principles. The people’s votes are the final arbiter of progress, but the clout of ordinary workers is often superseded by plutocrats who pour money into political parties that rarely support progressive legislation.

The French economist Thomas Pikerty came to prominence nine years ago when he published “Capital in the 21st Century.” After his studies of intensifying inequality, he concluded that the redistributive policies of welfare capitalism – mildly progressive taxes and some improved social benefits – are no longer adequate.

He argues convincingly that power relationships, especially in the workplace, have to change, beginning with meaningful worker representation in company governance and in compulsory worker wealth sharing by corporations.

Back to the Catholic tradition. It is noteworthy that Pikerty’s radical arguments for co-ownership and profit sharing were spelled out approvingly in Pope John XX111’s masterful social justice encyclical “Mater et Magistra” released by the Vatican in 1961.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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