With the exception of three years at an international school, I have always worked for socialist institutions: public schools and universities. We assign our government to collect taxes from those who have children and those who do not, to support an enterprise that provides a literacy level beneficial to all of us. These are not private institutions.
Other agencies managed for the public good include the police, the military, our firefighters, and more. Even the public roads we drive on are based on taxes and managed by governmental agencies, although they certainly fund construction projects that private businesses bid on.
Unfortunately, the term “socialist” elicits a knee-jerk negative reaction from most citizens. This has been our response for over a century.
As an upper elementary student, I read every utopian and dystopian book I could find in the libraries, from Thomas More’s Utopia to Orwell’s 1984. That included Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. He was the cousin of Francis Bellamy who became famous for writing our “Pledge of Allegiance.” Francis Bellamy was also a Christian and socialist who “championed ‘the rights of working people and the equal distribution of economic resources, which he believed was inherent in the teachings of Jesus.’”
Both were convinced that the social ills of America of that time were caused by capitalism. The late 1800s were our “Gilded Age” where a few rich captains of industry had their private police and fought attempts at unionization. Both the utopian Edward Bellamy and the minister Francis Bellamy pushed for state management of banks and railroads. By the 1890s, they had over a hundred “Nationalist” clubs in the United States advocating for this limited takeover. But why “nationalist” rather than “socialist”? In 1888, Edward explained the reason in a letter to another writer:
“Every sensible man will admit there is a big deal in a name, especially in making first impressions. In the radicalness of the opinions I have expressed, I may seem to out-socialize the socialists, yet the word socialist is one I never could well stomach. In the first place it is a foreign word in itself, and equally foreign in all its suggestions. It smells to the average American of petroleum, suggests the red flag, and with all manner of sexual novelties, and an abusive tone about God and religion, which in this country we at least treat with respect. ...Whatever German and French reformers may choose to call themselves, socialist is not a good name for a party to succeed with in America. No such party can or ought to succeed that is not wholly and enthusiastically American and patriotic in spirit and suggestions.”
By the mid-1890s, the Nationalist clubs were absorbed into the populist People’s Party that continued to advocate for the nationalization of some industries.
A socialist party did grow after the violent suppression of railroad workers. To many working class Americans, Eugene V. Debs was their hero and labor leader, proclaiming “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Eugene Debs was well-loved by the working classes, but his Socialist Party never gained the votes to make him President. His successor, Norman Thomas — trained as a minister — was likewise a powerful orator. But he came to understand Bellamy’s observation that “...socialist is not a good name for a party to succeed in America.” However, many important socialist concepts have been adopted over the years.
Our elderly constituted our largest group in poverty until F.D.R. adopted Social Security. Among all the developed nations of the world, only the U.S. has failed to provide medical care for all of its citizens. The easy way to resist any such proposal is to merely label any such effort as “socialized medicine.” No further intelligence or thinking is required. Indeed, many folks do not realize that Norway, Sweden and Denmark are socialist. France and Spain likewise.
But many Americans, who themselves receive Social Security benefits or benefit from their parents being independent still have a knee-jerk aversion to the S-word.
If they really think unlimited capitalism, private schools and private police is the best system, perhaps they should go back and read Charles Dickens.