Socialism Under the Microscope: Part One – The Socialists Among Us

Flickr Socialist Party November 2011

Current French President Francois Hollande at a Socialist Party rally back in 2011. Flickr photo by the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: the President is a socialist.

While some of us may wish to avoid talking about it, facts are facts.  The President’s policy positions, his background, and most of all his own affirmative statements prove beyond a doubt that the land which once fought so hard for liberty is now being governed by a socialist.  Sacré bleu!

Francois Hollande is not France’s first socialist president.  Rather, it was Francois Mitterand who first carried the socialist banner into the Élysée Palace….What?  I have confused you?  Oh, I suppose you thought that I was talking about U.S. President Barack Obama.  How funny!  No, I have been speaking of Francois Hollande, who defeated incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy in last year’s French presidential election.  He is a member of France’s Socialist Party, or as they say over there, Parti socialiste.

“Socialist” is a dirty word in the United States.  If a politician has the misfortune of becoming associated with it, their chances of getting elected are next to zero.  Many conservatives have accused President Obama of being a socialist, as if it were the worst thing that a politician could be.  How interesting, then, that our friends across the pond in France should have elected a card carrying member of a literal socialist party to be their president!

Wiki Flickr Jean-Marc Ayrault January 2012

Francois Hollande in January 2012. Flickr photo by user Jean-Marc Ayrault

Not only does the word “socialist” not make someone unelectable in France, but it seems that some voters actually like it.  The Socialist Party is currently part of ruling Left-wing coalitions in both houses of the French parliament – the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) and the Senate (Sénat) – in addition to controlling the presidency.

Of course, this is unlikely to shock many Americans, who tend to hold these assumptions about the French: 1) they rely on a nanny state, 2) they work limited hours and take lots of vacations, 3) their tax rates are astronomical, 4) they do not believe in open market competition, 5) there is nothing their government wouldn’t subsidize, 6) they are generally snobs, and 7) they do not like Americans.

Ok, so the French are always going to be the French: what about some real American allies who are not afraid to speak English?

Britain essentially gave the world modern capitalism, most particularly in the form of Adam Smith’s famous work The Wealth of Nations.  However, the UK has proven to be a breeding ground for a number of ideological strains over the years, with capitalism being only one of them.  While the Industrial Revolution and Smith’s capitalist ideas propelled the nation to global economic supremacy, those who toiled in the “workshop of the world” (as Britain was viewed at the time) found themselves crushed amid this new world of machines.

In a time before modern workers’ rights and expanded government regulation, businesses were often free to exploit those who they employed, whether they were impoverished Britons or residents of one of Britain’s many colonies.  The labor movement that sprung up in the UK at that time (as well as in the United States) was a natural reaction against this mistreatment.  While some of the reforms they pushed for would not seem radical to us today, it was out of this movement that what we now know as “socialism” began to take shape.

The official logo of the British Labour Party is used for commentary purposes only.

The official logo of the British Labour Party

Britain’s Labour Party was formed in 1900 by trade unionists who wanted greater influence in the political sphere.  While unions are not as powerful in Britain as they once were – largely due to the decline of the country’s manufacturing sector – union support is still important to the Labour Party, and with that support has come a left-leaning economic policy.  The constitution that the party adopted in 1918 was in line with socialist ideals, as demonstrated in Clause IV.

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

When a Labour government came to power immediately following World War II, with Clement Attlee as prime minister, nationalization became a matter of national policy.  The industrial, transportation, and telecommunications sectors were all nationalized.  The new National Health Service not only provided universal health care, but it also made most of the country’s doctors government employees, either directly or as contractors.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007.  Photo by Wikipedia user LittleMissSilly

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007. Photo by Wikipedia user LittleMissSilly

Despite public support in Britain for many of these policies over the years, socialism is still treated with hesitancy by some.  When Labour leader Tony Blair led his party to a landslide victory in the 1997 elections, it was largely because he realized that after years of getting defeated by the conservatives under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, many of the old socialist ideas just wouldn’t cut it.  Perhaps his greatest achievement his early years as Labour leader was convincing the party faithful to support a rewording of Clause IV that was more moderate.

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Despite the change to the party’s constitution and a more business friendly policy platform, Britain’s Labour Party remains a member of the Party of European Socialists.  While the aversion to the term “socialism” may not be as great in the UK as it is in the US, there are certainly a fair number of conservatives (and conservative media outlets – yes, they have lots of those in the UK) who love to use Labour’s socialist bent against it.

The current leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, at the September 2010 Labour Party conference.  Photo by Wikipedia user EdMiliband

The current leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, at the September 2010 Labour Party conference. Photo by Wikipedia user EdMiliband

When Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour Party in September 2010 (by which point it was in the minority in Parliament), he pledged that unlike Tony Blair, he would not shy away from the S word.  He said his form of socialism was about creating “a more fair, more just, more equal society…That is the path that I will want to take our party on.”  Unfortunately, his stance regarding the ‘S’ word seemed to change depending on the situation.

In a speech at a Google event in May 2013, Ed Miliband suggested that socialism was no longer the answer for Britain, and the choice was between different kinds of capitalism.

[T]here is a choice to make.

A choice between an “irresponsible capitalism” which sees huge gaps between the richest and the poorest, power concentrated in a few hands, and people are just in it for the fast buck whatever the consequences.

And a “responsible capitalism”, and this is an agenda being led by business, where companies pursue profit but we also have an equal society, power is in the hands of the many, and where we recognize our responsibilities to each other.

And my case is a “responsible capitalism” isn’t only fairer, but we’re more likely to succeed as a country with it.”

Of course, it makes sense to praise capitalism when you’re speaking at an event organized by Google.  However, when Miliband was addressing his annual party conference just last month, he once again had developed an affinity for the ‘S’ word.  He pledged to create “an economy that works for working people”, and assured the faithful that he would be “bringing back socialism”.

As if seeking to prove that there were plenty of Britons who were wary of all things socialist, the notoriously right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail published a piece a few days later declaring that the Labour leader’s father, the self-acknowledged Marxist philosopher Ralph Miliband, was “the man who hated Britain”, and that his son was now trying to continue his legacy.  So while socialism may not always provoke a “red scare” in Europe, it certainly has its detractors.

Still, Europe is Europe, even if we’re talking about the UK (which is only sort of Europe).  Socialism is looked on much less kindly in the United States, where even liberals tend to flee from the term at all costs.  Nevertheless, we do have one member of Congress who is willing to describe himself as such: a U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

This photo of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is by Flickr user Truthout and photographer Troy Page.

This photo of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is by Flickr user Truthout and photographer Troy Page.

“Yeah. I wouldn’t deny it. Not for one second. I’m a democratic socialist,” the senator said back in 2006.  “A lot of progressives sit around their homes and worry about being labeled or how to talk to people. I go out, I knock on doors, and I talk about economic justice and the oligarchy and what’s fair, and more people than you might guess listen to me.”

While Sanders is not a member of any political party, he chooses to caucus with the Democrats in the Senate.  This could only serve as further evidence for American conservatives that Democrats are bent on imposing a socialist agenda on the country.  Then again, Bernie Sanders is the first admitted socialist to serve in Congress for over 60 years and the first to ever serve in the Senate, so this doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong trend.

It’s safe to say that socialism is more acceptable and common in Europe, despite Sanders’ tenure in the Senate.  This is most likely because of the different conditions and diverse histories that exist on each side of the Atlantic, which have led to different understandings of what socialism means.  In the next part of this series, I will examine the true definition of socialism and its history within the United States.   Later, I plan to ask questions such as, “Is President Obama a socialist?”, “Can socialism ever work successfully?”, and “Should we be afraid of socialism?”  Stay tuned: there’s plenty of socialism still to come!

One thought on “Socialism Under the Microscope: Part One – The Socialists Among Us

Comments are closed.