What’s a Socialist?

Excerpts from a NY Times article (June 30, 2012) by Steven Erlanger 

What’s a Socialist?

And what does it mean to be a Socialist these days, anyway?

Not very much. Certainly nothing radical. In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.

Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.

“As an ideologically based movement, socialism is no longer vital,” says Joschka Fischer, who began his career on the far left and remains a prominent spokesman for the [German] Green Party. “Today it’s a combination of democracy, rule of law and the welfare state, and I’d say a vast majority of Europeans defend this — the British Tories can’t touch the National Health Service without being beheaded.”

Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it — you don’t allow people to die on the street.”

So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.


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