Good discussion topic. I’ve recently asked myself a lot of the same questions that are being asked here given the way the right wing and the Republican party likes to toss around terms like “socialism” and “marxism” these days. I’ll try to outline what I’ve come to understand of all this…
First, from what I’ve read in the economics and sociology literature, the term socialism can be defined as any set of policies wherein a government takes a portion of the wealth of a populace and re-distributes it directly to some or all of that populace in the form or money, goods, or services based on need. From what I’ve seen, this typically refers to goods or services that might otherwise be provided by the private market, so it doesn’t refer to shared services like military spending, policing, or operating the legal system.
You can then subdivide socialism into two main categories: democratic socialism, and revolutionary socialism (communism).
Democratic socialism is what you see in the US in our Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, and in many of the European countries: programs that are put in place by democratic governments with popular support and according to the will of a majority of its citizens. As in the case of the US and Europe, these policies often sit alongside a market economy. Economists refer to this arrangement as a “mixed economy”.
Revolutionary socialism or communism is what you see or saw in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. It involves full government ownership of all property, and a centrally-planned economy where the government makes all the decisions about what gets produced when, how it gets distributed, and so on. The “revolutionary” philosophy here is that the only way to “free” the oppressed lower class (the so-called “industrial proletariat” in Marxism, or the peasantry in Maoism) from the tyranny of the capitalists who exploit them is to seize and hold power by force. This is how you end up with the famously-brutal totalitarian regimes in the communist countries.
Most Americans aren’t familiar with the distinction I just laid out. To most, socialism is synonymous with communism, and communism is evil. Republicans and right-wing commentators know this. So when they try to slap the “socialist” label on Democrats and liberals, what they’re really trying to do is get people to think of them as evil communists.
Allan West didn’t even bother pussyfooting around. He went straight for the “C word”.
Gotta stop here. Hope the discussion continues and would love to hear what people think of what I laid out.
And maybe at some point we can start a discussion about the left’s favorite slurs: “Nazi” and “Fascist”...