Schwab: So, what do we mean when use the word ‘socialism’?

Put aside the scare tactics for a moment and consider what democratic socialism has done elsewhere.

By Sid Schwab

Herald columnist

Hoping to divert attention from their agenda of enriching the rich; cutting Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid; censoring science; polluting the environment; taking health care access from millions without replacement; controlling women’s bodies; worsening climate change; gutting consumer protections and suppressing minority voting, it’s clear that Republicans’ cries of “socialism” will be central to their attacks on Democratic candidates. So let’s address it, starting with three compendious definitions:

Socialism: state-owned production and commerce in which workers are government employees.

Capitalism: private ownership with workers employed by the owners.

Communism: ownership of everything by everyone; give what you can, take what you need; no private property.

Only right-wing media and people unhappy with certain opinion columnists mention communism, and no Democrat advocates it. In purest form, it’s existed only on Russian kolkhozes, Israeli kibbutzim and a few ephemeral, utopian enclaves in this country. A socialist dictatorship, the USSR was never “communist.” Because humans tend toward greed and jealousy, comm-baya fails.

So does pure socialism. Which is why — Trumpic lies notwithstanding — Democrats aren’t proposing it. Touring the Soviet Union when a student of the Russian language, I saw it. Their products were junk, their workers unproductive, and it seemed their only incentives (other than avoiding Siberia) were omnipresent warnings of an enemy to fear and hate: namely, us. It’s what despots do. And would-be despots. Not that anyone comes to mind.

Venezuela — the right’s disingenuous definition of Democrats’ desire, and one of two potential stages for performing our next war — is failing for many reasons, including incompetence and authoritarian corruption. For those seeking partisan analogies, there they are. Venezuela is as far from what liberals want as Trump is from veracity.

We’ve never seen pure, unfettered capitalism, either, although the U.S. came close in the Gilded Age, when regulations were few, capitalists were extraordinarily wealthy and oligarchical — and their employees, including children — were overworked, undercompensated and disempowered. Workplaces were unsafe and unhealthy, often fatally. Along came liberalism and unions to rectify, at least partially, the inhumane inequality, but not before unbridled greed led to the Great Depression. MAGA, it turns out, means Make America Gilded Again.

So there’s a spectrum, at the unoccupied extremes of which are absolute capitalism and absolute socialism. Most countries lie somewhere between. Given the worldwide breadth of that scale, differences between Democrats and Republicans are comparatively narrow, and none but hardcore Libertarians and “Freedom Caucus” Republicans are aiming for a far end, despite what one hears from Sean “Tell ‘em liberals hate America, Donnie” Hannity, and Donald “Liberals hate America” Trump.

Believing regulations stifle growth, conservatives favor abrogating most of them, arguing “market forces” will ensure that corporations won’t, say, pollute, and, out of charitable patriotism or something, they’ll do right by their employees. History suggests otherwise.

Liberals are proud of producing workplace-safety, child-labor and pollution-control laws, plus other Republican-hated programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. They believe seniors are better off with than without Social Security and Medicare, that education and press freedom protect our constitutional democracy, and that voter suppression doesn’t.

Some prefer to disparage these accomplishments, but it’s Fox-level fakery to suggest liberals want anything like pure socialism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other targets of right-wing lies have issues with the sort of capitalism in which widespread, crushing poverty exists alongside unimaginable wealth; in which enormous corporations pay no taxes; which creates leaded drinking water, contaminated canals and coal-ashed rivers. Everyone should.

Which brings us to “democratic socialism.” Before reflexively dismissing it, people should consider what it is, not what they’ve been told to think it is. In short, it’s capitalism with a conscience. Flourishing capitalism. Like Sweden’s, with worldwide, for-profit, tax-paying corporations: Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, Ikea, and more; and, by all measures, happier, healthier, better-educated, more financially-secure citizens than Americans. Higher taxes, better perks. Fewer worries, better sleep.

Democratic socialism replaces profit-above-all with profit for a purpose, recognizing that capitalism endures when its workforce is educated, healthy, has decent benefits, predictable retirement, and enough income to buy what capitalists produce. It thrives by not salting the soil in which it grows.

Rather than engaging in honest debate, Trump’s rally-joiners prefer chanting “AOC sucks.” That’s Trumpism: reflexive, simplistic nescience replacing thoughtful discourse. That’s fatal to democracy. And it’s intentional.

Among those who’ve gained the most and will gain still more from progressive policies are Trump’s fact-free adulators, obediently swallowing the lies without a moment’s thought to who’s telling them, and why.

Email Sid Schwab at

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Phlebotomist Heather Evans preps JaNeen Aagaard a donation at Bloodworks NW Friday afternoon in Everett at July 3o, 2021.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Editorial: Get back in (or start) your habit of giving blood

The pandemic’s effects and fewer younger donors too often leave blood supplies dangerously low.

Editorial cartoons for Thursday, June 8

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Lummi Tribal members Ellie Kinley, left, and Raynell Morris, president and vice president of the non-profit Sacred Lands Conservancy known as Sacred Sea, lead a prayer for the repatriation of southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — who has lived and performed at the Miami Seaquarium for over 50 years — to her home waters of the Salish Sea at a gathering Sunday, March 20, 2022, at the sacred site of Cherry Point in Whatcom County, Wash.

The Bellingham Herald
Editorial: What it will require to bring Tokitae home

Bringing home the last captive orca requires expanded efforts to restore the killer whales’ habitat.

A map of the I-5/SR 529 Interchange project on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Set your muscle memory for work zone speed cameras

Starting next summer, not slowing down in highway work zones can result in a $500 fine.

File - A teenager holds her phone as she sits for a portrait near her home in Illinois, on Friday, March 24, 2023. The U.S. Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo Erin Hooley, File)
Editorial: Warning label on social media not enough for kids

The U.S. surgeon general has outlined tasks for parents, officials and social media companies.

Comment: After LIV-PGA merger, Saudis are just getting started

The money from their wealth fund may prove irresistible to other sports organizations in the U.S.

Comment: Feuding Russian forces point to problems for Putin

Infighting among Russia units, mercenaries and irregulars raises doubts amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Comment: We should worry more about AI’s creators than AI itself

Their warnings of an ‘extinction threat’ are part marketing tool and part effort to avoid scrutiny.

Comment: Expect battles as Oklahoma lowers church-state wall

State funding of a Catholic school may require the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the establishment clause.

Most Read