“Socialism” (or its even scarier cognate, communism) was for a good part of the 20th century the equivalent of what COVID has become for us, the terrible virus that lurked everywhere and perpetually threatened destruction to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, it had a home, at least theoretically, in the geographically largest nation in the world, Russia; and after 1949 in the most populated one, China. The fight to contain or roll it back was called the Cold War, and the potential cost of doing so, in the Atomic Age, was the destruction of the planet — a cost from which successive administrations did not shrink, at least until the nuclear standoff called the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of actual disaster. Future historians can look back and make some sense of that if they are able to.
Russia shed communism in 1991, or what had supposedly passed for it. China did not repudiate its own version of it, but slipped quietly into the autocratic capitalism it faces us with today. Republicans like to keep the bogeyman of Communism alive, still attached to even mildly helpful initiatives such as President Joe Biden’s relief and infrastructure bills, but, since hardly anyone still remembers what the word was supposed to mean, they interchangeably denounce “liberalism” or “progressivism,” signifying anything that involves the government with the exception of tax cuts for the rich or voter suppression laws. If politics, as George Orwell suggested, is the art of corrupting language to the maximum possible extent, then-Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Matt Gaetz have few peers. It has to be admitted that Soviet Russia and Communist China had little to do with anything Karl Marx would have understood as socialism, collective ownership of the means of production.
Looking at them with rose — or red — colored glasses, Americans vaguely identifying themselves as liberals or socialists saw in them what they wanted to see up to about 1970, namely societies that sought to promote the general welfare rather than the wealth of a few. And it was true that, in theory, this was the professed goal of so-called socialist states. That perception had real-world effects, particularly as the capitalist world wrestled with the devastating effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s that virtually shut the global economy down. If capitalism could lead to such systemic paralysis, why not give communism a try? The result of this was a mid-century period when developed Western countries experimented with something called social democracy, namely the attempt to graft populist reforms onto a capitalist framework. This was galvanized by World War II. The fight against Nazi Germany had to be one not only against tyrannical fascism but for something else. “Democracy” alone — parliamentary governments whose leaders were chosen by popular vote — would not fill the bill, since it had not prevented an economic collapse that had exposed transparent social injustice. And in the wake of the war, communist parties in France and Italy had come uncomfortably close to winning national elections with their programs.
To forestall the possibility that Soviet-style communism might not only succeed by violent revolution or military occupation but peacefully at the ballot box, Western leaders undertook to offer reforms premised on the idea that stable prosperity was compatible with, and indeed dependent on, government-supported welfare programs. This was enunciated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so-called “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941, which included a “freedom from want” that defined economic security as a basic human right. Roosevelt meant this as a permanent extension of the social commitments of the New Deal, while in Britain, the Beveridge Commission envisioned a broad postwar program to create what would come to be known as the welfare state. Nor were these merely national initiatives; Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill jointly affirmed the principle of social welfare in the Atlantic Charter, and it was universalized after the war in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
The grand rhetoric of freedom from want did not mean an abandonment of the national interests of the victorious Western powers, or of capitalism, with its boom and bust cycles of prosperity that made economic insecurity a standing threat. The fine print of Roosevelt’s promise enjoined worldwide free trade and tariff reductions, which favored advanced industrial countries at the expense of developing ones. Britain, which elected a Labour government in 1945, did go some distance toward a welfare state, creating a national health care system and, for a time, nationalizing some basic industries and services. In most of Western Europe, a system of social services was instituted, including government-run or regulated health care, child and elder care and unemployment benefits. Strong union pressure contributed to much of this, but underlying it was the fear, particularly acute in the postwar period, of Soviet expansion. Russia had occupied most of Eastern Europe during the war, asserting political control over it and introducing its version of communism, with state ownership of the means of production, centralized economic planning and a one-party system. It advertised itself as more stable, efficient and socially just.
As we have seen, it had considerable appeal through communist political parties in the West. And, somewhat more belligerently, it was backed by the world’s largest army, which had just defeated Adolf Hitler. All these reasons, and the additional problem of resettling millions of war-displaced refugees, impelled West European governments to play a more active role than they had formerly, including the provision of social benefits. Some of their policies might have occurred in the ordinary course of events.
Some, such as urban policing, public education and sanitation, were already in place. But the prime impetus for the welfare state was the challenge of the communist model. Western states could tout the benefits of freedom and opportunity. But economic security was precisely what the capitalist model had failed to provide, and what a planned economy with guarantees of subsistence and benefits seemed to offer. In the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism, the former had to demonstrate what, besides spasmodic growth and sudden contraction, it could work.
The welfare state was the West European answer. The U.S. did not follow suit, except for an expansion of public sector post-secondary education. It was not until the mid-1960s that a very limited public health program, Medicare, was instituted for seniors and the disabled over the fierce opposition of the medical profession, and a so-called War on Poverty, abandoned far short of its goal, was undertaken as the only general effort to realize freedom from want in the richest country on earth. America has been very generous to its wealthy, but for the rest of the country, any effort at social equity has been routinely decried as “socialism” — a term that carries its own terrible if never precisely defined opprobrium.
These events have coincided with a massive turn to the right in the past half-century. The reasons for this are many, but perhaps the major one has been the abandonment of socialism as a coherent ideology and a political goal. This climaxed with the fall of the Soviet Union, whose last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted catastrophically that, after seven decades, it had not achieved true socialism. With China, too, now a de facto capitalist society, there is no present alternative to the capitalist order. It seems no coincidence that we are also on the brink of ecological disaster and global anarchy. The question to be asked perhaps is whether socialism, with its dream of a just and egalitarian society, failed us, or whether we failed socialism.