In 1976 the sage Irving Kristol wrote that “The most important political event of the twentieth century is not the crisis of capitalism but the death of socialism.” He was one of the most brilliant thinkers in America, but he was quite wrong. It was communism that seemed to be breathing its last in the 1970s, not socialism.
The Soviet Union was dying, and with it all the puppet states the Soviets established in their vast empire. But in many places socialism remained alive, from Sweden to British Columbia. The Swedish Social Democratic Party has won most elections there since 1932, but never declared other forms of politics illegal — as a communist party would naturally (and happily) have done. In B.C. the provincial government administered the universal health-care system established by Canada, and the people sometimes voted for the socialist NDP. But few Canadians or British Columbians yearned for a communist system. The one thing is not like the other. Gulags, mass executions and rigid censorship come with communism. Socialism, though it might be a little self-righteous, manages to avoid the horrors.
The Economist magazine appeared this week with a coverline trumpeting “The Rise of Millennial Socialism.” (The word “millennial” was justified by a U.S. poll showing that young people thought socialism an agreeable idea.) Considering applied socialist ideas, the Economist notes off-handedly that the U.S. lacks a system of universal health care, which is “Normal elsewhere in the rich world.” Well, the U.S. is indeed rich but, weirdly, has never got around to universal medicare.
Many Americans are afraid of the idea. It sounds foreign enough to make them nervous. Socialists take it for granted that socialist ideas can be adopted without changing the quality of freedom in a society. Many Democrats believe they can be socialists as well as democrats. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most talked-about new member of congress, is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Bernie Sanders, the 77-year-old Vermont senator and candidate for the presidency in 2020, comes equipped with a full socialist agenda: he’s for lower prescription prices, free tuition in public colleges, a $15 minimum wage and of course universal health care.
A few prominent Democrats clearly avoid being marked as socialists. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, perhaps unwilling to join an expanding club, says “I am not a democratic socialist.” On other hand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “wealth tax,” is just the thing Republicans watch for and hate.
Despite everyone’s attempt to explain it, a universal health system will sound to conservatives like the first step on the road to the gulag. Perhaps we might withdraw the word “socialist” and substitute the word “co-operative.” Americans accept one enormously complicated national system, far more impressive than the country’s health system in its present condition — the roads.
They are beautiful to behold, great endless stripes of construction that reach every city and town in the country, planned and built to a standard of high excellence. They are maintained, for the most part, superbly. They are a mutual community project for all of the country, and absolutely necessary for maintaining American civilization. Many businesses, large and small, have profited from their construction and upkeep, but the roads are paid for co-operatively from everyone’s taxes, just as a universal health service would be — and no one ever said that the road system was socialist.