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Socialism Lives

We used to argue in the late ‘60s whether socialism would come in five years or fifteen. I always took the latter position for which economist Jim O'Connor used to call me "the black cloud." Of course, this argument was like that famous debate among the Millerites about whether Christ would return in July or October of 1844. Still, my comrades and I have a better chance of being subsequently vindicated than the Millerites. Look, for instance, at a recent poll for Rasmussen.

According to the poll, 53 percent of Americans think capitalism is preferable to socialism, while 20 percent say socialism is preferable. And among those trustworthy adults under thirty, 37 percent prefer capitalism, 33 percent socialism, and 30 percent are weighing the alternatives. What, you might ask, does this all mean? I don't think it's a vote for Soviet-style socialism. While Cold War conservatives did their best to identify socialism, and European social democracy, with Soviet or Cuban communism, the identification doesn't seem to have survived the Cold War itself.

Instead, what those 30 percent of under-thirties probably mean by "socialism" is a much greater degree of government--and public--control of private corporations and of the market. That would put the United States closer, say, to Sweden, France, or Germany, but would not put it anywhere near the old Soviet Union, which tried to abolish the market itself. Most of all, I imagine, it's an expression of extreme disillusionment with the magic of the market as preached by Republicans and some Democrats as well.

It's also, I think, not an incorrect understanding of socialism. As a political philosophy, socialism predated Marx as any reader of "The Communist Manifesto" or of "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" is aware. In America, too, there were Christian socialists like Walter Rauschenbusch, who was an important influence on Martin Luther King, and prairie socialists in Kansas or Oklahoma who never envisioned giving up their farms for socialism. The point that runs through all these many varieties was not collectivism, but instead the subjection of large banks and businesses to social priorities: "people before profits," as Bill Clinton said in 1992. And that's what those 20 percent of Americans in the Rasmussen Poll seem to be opting for.

--John B. Judis