By Frank Blechman
At a convivial (social) lunch the other day, one of my colleagues observed, “We’re all socialists here.” Mentally, I found myself asking, “What does he mean by that?”
All of us at that table were old enough to receive Social Security and Medicare benefits.
We all drove cars on publicly build and maintained roads.
We breathed EPA-monitored air.
Was that it?
Were we saying that we were all somewhat left-of-center on the American or Virginian political spectrum?
Were we claiming a 19th-century mantle?
Was this a statement of contemporary political solidarity with Bernie Sanders?
Was one among us secretly Scandinavian?
Or was this just the pleasure of saying a formerly forbidden word out loud, the way folks in a prior generation said four-letter words just to show how liberal and open-minded they were?
It would have been polite to let the comment go. I should have waited to see if anybody else wanted to pursue the subject. But, I have never been good at waiting. So, instead of behaving myself, I said, “What do you mean by that?” I waited for an appropriately Marxist reply. “The greatest good for the greatest number,” or “The triumph of the proletariat,” or something like that.
What I got was a serious (if slightly mischievous) discussion of how our values put us outside of the mercantile/capitalist/colonialist dominant framework of Western culture. My friends asserted that none of us believed that:
- All contracts are sacred and inviolable.
- The bottom line matters most.
- Might makes right.
- The one who dies with the most toys, wins.
In contrast, they insisted that we believed:
- Good fortune, particularly wealth, should be shared.
- Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights.
(Maybe, access to education, adequate health care, and fair, affordable housing are, too.)
- We want to live in communities where equity, justice, and opportunity are realities for all, not just aspirations.
I found that I could not argue with either list, but remained uncertain whether that made me a member of the ‘socialist club.’ The values underlying both lists have been circulating in Western culture for the last 400 years, always vying with the ‘law of the jungle’ unregulated individualism and competition. The ideas of humanity, compassion, and caring are central (even if not always realized) in Western religious cultures.
I found that I could not argue with either list, but remained uncertain whether that made me a member of the ‘socialist club.’ The values underlying both lists have been circulating in Western culture for the last 400 years, always vying with the ‘law of the jungle’ unregulated individualism and competition. The ideas of humanity, compassion, and caring are central (even if not always realized) in Western religious cultures. One of my friends explicitly cited his upbringing in religious social doctrine that aligned with socialist ideas.
I should have pressed my idealistic compatriots to explain how they were living the values they claimed. Had each made binding legal plans to share their good fortune? Had they taken refugees into their homes? Had they refused benefits until the same were available to all? Did any hold corporate securities? Had any taken benefit from corporate profits? Had we each done everything we could to dismantle white-male privilege? I knew I could not claim such righteous living. Maybe if I confessed my failures, I would be kicked out of the club.
Fortunately, at that moment, dessert arrived. Chocolate, orange, and sugar overwhelmed philosophy. Reduced to a collective carbohydrate coma, we tabled the issue for another day.
Now, looking back, I am glad that I didn’t chide my colleague further. Everyone there does and has done enough over their lives to help others to qualify as good-deed-doers. Words, even labels, really don’t mean that much.
So, why did the term ring my bell? I think there are two reasons.
- First, I find the term unhelpful in general political conversation. Yes, the term has honorable roots, but in this country, even in this time and place, it is provocative. Divided as our society is, we don’t need to be arguing about labels like this. Rather, we should be pressing policies we think will work better than ones now in place, and challenging those advocates who oppose them.
- Second, I have no interest in defending the actions and policies of others who claim or have claimed to be socialists over the last 100 years. Some of them have done some pretty dumb things.
I’ll call myself a “progressive” or even (on some issues) a “liberal.” I’ll acknowledge an affinity for the Democratic Party versus the other major one. Let’s leave it at that.