What is Socialism and Can It Live With Democracy?

February 29, 2020

By Patricia Sohn

In the mid-19th century and early in the 20th century, socialism was a nouveau idea among anti-monarchist and anti-establishment quarters seeking to carve out a place of power and prestige for themselves in their local and regional contexts, as well as in the world order.  Because of our particular experience with the Cold War, in the United States our discussion of what socialism means has been relatively limited in most contexts to what the Soviet Union and Cuba did.  That is, for us, Lenin’s étatism, or highly centralized state with command economy, and Stalin’s combination of Lenin’s étatism with totalitarian rule, have been – in terms of our own rhetoric – the sum total of what socialism is.

There are a wide range of “socialisms,” however.  Because the terms socialism and communism have both made their way expressly into the current 2020 U.S. election cycle, I think it is worth taking a moment to think about socialism more broadly than our Cold War context allowed us to do.

Let me preface what I am about to say with the admonition that Lenin’s and Stalin’s brands of socialism are, for me personally, politically, and ideologically, as anathema as would be human cannibalism.  Indeed, they are a form of human cannibalism in my view, part of a spectrum of manipulation and oppression of human souls.  They are grotesque forms of top-down control of the many by the few, and, to my mind, they have little if nothing to do with Marx himself, particularly in his observations regarding the plight of factory workers and his scathing criticisms of the then new phenomenon of the centralizing nation-state.  Marx’s critiques of the centralized state are well-known and profound.  To suggest that Lenin’s étatism and command economy are in keeping with that critique requires vast stretches of the imagination verging on fantasy.  Indeed, both Lenin and Stalin appear to have enjoyed that fantastical ability to suspend disbelief in regard to their ostensible relation to Marx as a social scientist and social theorist.

That is, we do not want Lenin’s or Stalin’s version of socialism or communism in this country.  They are dangerous forms of rule that are, by definition and by nature, authoritarian and totalitarian in structure and experience.  Were we to end up with this type of regime in the U.S., I predict a second Civil War.  Nothing less.  Americans are not prepared to lose their Constitutional rights for which we have all fought very hard to the Soviet-minded among us.

Interestingly, a third and, to my mind, more authentic Marxist thinker of the late-19th and early-20th century offered a form of socialism that emphasized what he referred to as a radical and always renewing democracy.  That is, authority should be handled at the local level, and power should be regularly rotated among members of the community either by election or rotation.  That was Trotsky.  Not surprisingly, Stalin had Trotsky exiled and then killed for Trotsky’s democratic views of socialism and critique of the centralized Soviet state. 

Something much more influenced by Trotsky’s brand of socialism appears, to my understanding, in social democracies like Israel and the Scandinavian social democracies.  Since I know far more about the Israeli case, I will talk about it.  We in American Political Science are apparently reluctant to call Israel a social democracy, almost certainly because of our Cold War history and inherent distrust of communism.  Nonetheless, that it was established as a Labor democracy – something between a communist and a socialist state – is non-controversial among scholars of Israel.  It moved over time from a regime more Lenin-influenced under David Ben Gurion, in which all societal communication with the state was mediated through the political party, to a more Trotsky- and American-influenced social democracy with a thriving civil society by the early and mid-1970s.  Ninety percent of the land of the state was still owned by the state (or a state-affiliated agency) as of 2005, and 90% of the economy was still state-run or strongly state-influenced ten years before that, as of the mid-1990s.  Both of those numbers remain high today.  So, despite the efforts at neo-liberal changes to the economy, which are real and important, Israel remains a social democracy.  And it works well.  Walking through Israel from a political-ethnographic standpoint, social democracy is the norm by which most people measure change, and neoliberalism is the nouveau

Social democracy may work well in Israel because it is a very small state.  It was also explained to me in interviews with a number of Israeli officials over the years that, while public corruption exists in Israel, misuse of public funds before a population of Holocaust survivors, their children, and their grandchildren is something that few are willing to engage in with regard to social programs associated with social democracy. In democracies like our own with our long histories of pork barrel politics and Tammany Hall-type use of public funds, I am skeptical that same exercise of self-constraint could be true here were our politicians given that much power and funding at their disposal. They misuse the funds they have now. Do we want to give them more?

Israel is ethnically heterogeneous – not homogeneous as some believe – within the Jewish population and across Jewish-Arab lines.  It has managed that diversity and pluralism both within the Jewish community and across Jewish-Arab lines far better under social democracy since the 1970s than it did under its earlier Ben Gurion-influenced forms of Leninist étatism (during which Palestinians who are now citizens of Israel knew extended periods of martial law).  Intermarriage amongst Middle Eastern Jews and European Jews used to be a scandalous thing; since the 1970s and 1980s, it has become increasingly normalized and expected.  Since the post-Soviet immigrations to Israel after 1989, somewhere approximating 46% of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern, Asian, African, or (pre-1492) Spanish origin (all together called, Mizrahim, in Israeli everyday speech).  Somewhere approximating 38% of Israeli Jews are of other European origins.  And somewhere approximating 16% are of Russian origin.  Most Russian populations in Israel today address themselves as a separate bloc, politically, historically, and sometimes even ethnically from European Jewish populations; Russians were treated in negative (sometimes eugenicist) frame as Eur-Asians by some European populations in relatively recent history (e.g., European eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries addressed such populations as “Slavs,” who they regarded as a mixed-race and a much-hated ethnic group, among other Eur-Asian groups and communities.)  I am extrapolating these numbers from early 1950s numbers and accounting for some population changes, including the post-Soviet immigrations.  All of this is within the Jewish population and is to say nothing of the just over 20% of the overall population that is of non-Jewish origins, and which includes a wide range of faiths and ethnic groups of both historic and current quality.  So, Israel manages its social democracy in an ethnically- and religiously-heterogeneous context, mitigating against arguments that suggest that social democracy can only work in homogeneous countries.

Having spent several years living in Israel, I have had the opportunity to experience its medical system in small ways.  In my experience (and by research data in certain fields), Israel maintains among the best medical research communities and facilities in the world.  In a number of areas, including Invitro fertilization, it is sometimes ranked first in the world.  And the costs are shockingly low to U.S. sensibilities.  That is, a standard by-the-book ER allergy procedure that would cost upwards of $8,000 here, there is about $500 for out-of-system people.  By contrast, back home in the U.S., in recent years I had the dubious honor of an ER visit for back pain that turned out to be “likely” related to a minor bladder infection.  This is not information anyone needs to know – except that the charge to my insurance was, literally, $25,000!!!!!  That was for a few blood tests and a couple of pills (e.g., prescriptions).  So, if you want to know the answer to the question, What is the problem with medical costs in the U.S.?, I can tell you, the problem is:  THE COSTS!!!  That is, we are being fraudulently overcharged by the medical industry, which appears to be peopled by doctors who believe they have the right to yachts and country clubs while 30% of the U.S. public lives at poverty or just-above poverty levels – many because of medical bills.   The majority of medical research in the U.S. is federally funded.  That is, it is funded by tax payer dollars.  That makes it a Public Good. We are then expected to pay these sorts of costs for procedures the research for which we funded in the first place?  Doctors and hospitals are double- and triple-dipping in the U.S. taxpayer’s wallet.  When I need great medical care, I am grateful for it.  And as a professor and state employee, I am fortunate to have great insurance.  But Israel’s medical care is as great as ours, and it costs a fraction on the dollar of what our medical system charges Americans who can ill afford it. 

So, if you vote socialist this year – I cannot recommend Sanders.  I met him once when I was 8 years old.  He yelled at me for (very politely) taking his coat at the door at my grandparent’s home on Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT for their annual open house.  I still remember, and I am now 52.  He is not a nice guy in my book.  I would not trust my socialist dollars to him.

Who you trust your socialist dollars to matters if you are hiring (e.g., electing) socialists to office.  There is a substantive difference in real freedoms between hiring a Lenin, a Stalin, or a Trotsky.  Can you tell the difference before they get into power? With the first two, say bye-bye to the U.S. Constitution and Hello, Big-Daddy-State!  These are political experiments with which we are familiar.  Do not fool yourself that it will be different this time.

Trump, on the other hand, knows how to handle money.  Some have called him a monarch.  As a monarchist, I have no problem with that.  Benevolent and Constitutional monarchy works all over the world.  I would rather an ethical monarch over a corrupt parliamentarian any day if those are the choices, and they do appear to approximate our choices in the U.S. in recent decades. If anyone can unravel our medical juggernaut, Trump can.  And to those doctors who say they will not be in the medical profession anymore if they cannot make 5 times, or more, what I make for the same number of years (or sometimes fewer!) of post-Secondary education and training in the field, I say: I have some nice land for you in Vladivostok.  We will be happy to send you there.

In sum, if you are voting socialist, be careful what you are buying. Most socialist and communist regimes have been authoritarian or totalitarian in nature. Only a few have been nice social democracies with democratic freedoms.


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.

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