Washington Post opinion: Let's reclaim 'socialism' without talking about why it became a dirty word

The Washington Post published an opinion piece Sunday titled “It’s time to reclaim ‘socialism’ from the dirty-word category.” The point of the piece is ostensibly to explain what socialism is, but author Elizabeth Bruenig doesn’t actually get very far down that road. Instead, there’s a lot of hand-waving about the various historical varieties of socialism:

To most English and French workers, Friedrich Engels wrote in an 1880 booklet, “Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice.” But since notions of truth, reason and justice differed, Engels observed, visions of what socialism really represented widely varied — leading to “a kind of eclectic, average Socialism.”

In contrast to Engels, Karl Marx argued for a scientific socialism, derived from careful analyses of history and economic facts — which explains why “Das Kapital” is such dry reading. Establishing the priority of one form of socialism over the other was political work…

The profusion of disparate historical examples of socialist governments can understandably cause confusion about what socialism looks like on the ground: Soviet Russia or modern-day Norway?…

But now, as in the 19th century, confusion about what “socialism” means is stoked by political interest in clouding the issue.

Having established that there are different varieties of socialism and that there is political interest in clouding the issue, we’re finally ready for the payoff. Now we’re going to get a cogent, unclouded explanation that will reclaim “socialism” from the dirty word category. Right?

Well, that would make sense given the headline and the setup of this piece, but no we don’t get that. Instead, we get one sentence attacking conservatives followed immediately by this: “Clarifying exactly what ‘socialism’ means once and for all likely won’t happen anytime soon.”

Wait, what?

The author has raised the specter of Soviet Russia, a brutal socialist regime responsible for millions of deaths. If we’re going to reclaim “socialism” then we’re probably going to have to talk about that, along with Mao’s China and maybe even modern-day Venezuela. But we get none of that here. Instead, we get some vague platitudes about the appeal of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Proposals to wipe out so-called right-to-work laws, to make college tuition-free or to provide universal health care are resonating with those supporters.”

The glaring, murderous failures of 20th-century socialism aren’t even an afterthought in this piece. They literally don’t get mentioned. Before we get to reclaim the word socialism, maybe we need to spend a bit more time talking about why it needs reclaiming in the first place.

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