Magazine article Foreign Policy

Confessions of a True Believer

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Confessions of a True Believer

Article excerpt

In 1995, a magazine published by a conservative Washington think tank brought together a group of writers and scholars to debate a question that seemed to have a foregone conclusion: "Socialism: Dead or Alive?" Twelve of the participants voted for dead.

A single dissenting voice risked "derision," in his words, by insisting that "once the sordid memory of Soviet communism is laid to rest and the fervor of anti-government hysteria abates, politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism."

I was that lone dissenter. In the 1960s, I had been a member of the radical antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and even after that organization descended into violence and chaos, I kept the faith alive and edited a Marxist theoretical journal that advocated democratic socialism. Subsequently, I suffered my share of disillusionment with Marx and socialism, but I never bought into the facile view that the collapse of Soviet communism had altogether relegated these ideas to the dustbin of history.

And although I felt isolated in my viewpoint in 1995, I think I have been proven prescient. In recent months, the onset of the severe global economic downturn has undermined faith in the magic of the market and resurrected the specter of socialism. John Makin, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, the same think tank that years ago hosted that panel on socialism's demise, recommended that the Obama administration nationalize the banks. American politicians and policymakers--not known for their admiration of Scandinavian socialism--have begun looking to the experiences of Sweden and Norway for inspiration. A recent Newsweek cover even announced, "We Are All Socialists Now."

Socialism, once banished from polite conversation, has made a startling comeback. But what about socialism as a remedy for today's crisis?

If you think of the Soviet Union or Cuba, socialism doesn't have any relevance. But if you consider the Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, whose economies were shaped by socialist agitation, then another kind of socialism--call it "liberal socialism"--has a lot to offer.

In these countries, the government owns, wholly or in part, industries that are necessary for social well-being. These industries include electric utilities (the French public owns Electricite de France, which runs, among other things, France's nuclear plants) and energy-efficient transportation systems (Germany's Deutsche Bahn and Canada's VIA Rail are government-owned). Several European countries together fund Airbus, which requires massive investments, but gives Europe a stake in a critical world industry. And regulatory bodies in these countries are more insulated from the corporate lobbies and litigation that have undermined progressive regulation in the United States. The state retains a capitalist market and private ownership, but the public sector also has significant control over how industry functions and how wealth and income are distributed. As the historian Martin J. Sklar has argued, these economies represent a mix of socialism and capitalism; that mix has increasingly tilted toward socialism. …

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