“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
— Karl Marx
WASHINGTON — Norman Thomas was not easily discouraged. Running for president in 1932, three years into the shattering, terrifying Depression, which seemed to many to be a systemic crisis of capitalism, Thomas, who had been the Socialist Party’s candidate in 1928 and would be in 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948, received, as this column previously noted, fewer votes (884,885) than Eugene Debs had won (913,693) as the party’s candidate in 1920, when, thanks to the wartime hysteria President Woodrow Wilson had fomented, Debs was in jail.
In 1962, Michael Harrington, a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, published “The Other America.” It supposedly kindled President John Kennedy’s interest in poverty. Harrington, like “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders today, thought socialism should be advanced through the Democratic Party.
Today, socialism has new, angrier advocates. Speaking well of it gives the speaker the frisson of being naughty and the fun of provoking Republicans like those whose hosannas rattled the rafters when the president vowed that America would never become socialist. Socialism is, however, more frequently praised than defined because it has become a classification that no longer classifies. So, a president who promiscuously wields government power to influence the allocation of capital (e.g., bossing around Carrier even before he was inaugurated; using protectionism to pick industrial winners and losers) can preen as capitalism’s defender against socialists who, like the Bolsheviks, would storm America’s Winter Palace if America had one.
Time was, socialism meant thorough collectivism: state ownership of the means of production (including arable land), distribution and exchange. When this did not go swimmingly where it was first tried, Lenin said (in 1922) that socialism meant government ownership of the economy’s “commanding heights” — big entities. After many subsequent dilutions, today’s watery conceptions of socialism amount to this: almost everyone will be nice to almost everyone, using money taken from a few.
Today’s angrier socialists rail, with specificity and some justification, against today’s “rigged” system of government in the service of the strong. But as the Hoover Institution’s John H. Cochrane says, “If the central problem is rent-seeking, abuse of the power of the state, to deliver economic goods to the wealthy and politically powerful, how in the world is more government the answer?”
The “boldness” of today’s explicit and implicit socialists — taxing the “rich” — is a perennial temptation of democracy: inciting the majority to attack an unpopular minority. This is socialism now: From each faction according to its vulnerability, to each faction according to its ability to confiscate.