Birtherism, socialism, and craziness

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Christopher Beam, in a Slate magazine last Wednesday (published while I was winging my way back to the UK by a modified air route far south of Iceland), connects the strange business of birtherism (the political perversion of believing, or pretending to believe, that President Obama doesn't have a US birth certificate and thus isn't constitutionally allowed to serve) to lexical semantics:

Birtherism is here to stay. And not because more people are going crazy, but because crazy has been redefined. Birtherism isn't the only example. Consider how conservatives accuse Obama of peddling "socialism." Sure, some of them genuinely think that Obama is going to usher in a new Soviet state in which the government owns all means of production. But most right-wingers use it as shorthand for government overreach. So now that's what "socialism" means.

There is a fairly major difference between birtherism and the socialism charge: Birtherism has been disproved by facts. But they're similar in the way they get tossed around without much connection to their original meaning.

He isn't very clear in the way he puts this: "crazy has been redefined" isn't quite right, because everyone agrees that craziness is irrationality or mental disorder of a sort that gives rise to unpredictably strange behavior. But the idea that the word socialism has actually changed its denotation in modern American English might not be so crazy.

Having grown up in England and then moved to America, I do actually recall reading books about socialism, and knowing actual socialists. Very few Americans have ever met a socialist. The socialists at the University of York that I knew in the 1970s were divided into various factions and microfactions depending on their exact interpretation of the degree to which Trotsky had been right to break with Lenin, and the the degree to which Lenin had betrayed the ideas of Marx, and the degree to which the murderous Stalin had utterly wrecked the strategy of Lenin. But all of them would laugh at the idea that the Labour Party, often referred to by the newspapers back then as "the socialists", were socialist at all.

To be a socialist, at least of the Trotskyite stripe (and everyone to the right of them was dismissed as being to some extent fascist enemies of the people), you had to believe not only that capitalism and private ownership of homes and businesses was a massive evil for humanity and had to be eliminated, but also that capitalism was almost certainly going to be destroyed, in a revolution that would involve the working people rising up and completely destroying the state and its political machinery. The people would seize the "means of production" and would reorganize society into a system where councils of workers would determine everything about the economic, political, and social life of the country, and indeed, the world. There would be no conventional political leaders leading this revolution, and it certainly would not be televised.

National borders would soon cease to matter, so it wouldn't matter who was foreign-born and who wasn't — the division between Indonesians and Kenyans and Americans was just another trick of the fascist capitalists to divide the workers. After the revolution there would be no Members of Parliament in the UK or Senators in the USA because there would be no Parliament and no Senate. There would be some inequality of income due to differential level of work contributions, but even that was supposed to be only a transitional state on the way to the final perfection of communism. Ultimately, under the communism that socialism would lead to, there would be no bankers for any president or government to bail out because not only would there be no president or government, there would be no banks.

The idea that the Soviet Union was socialist (let alone communist) was also derided. The true socialists in Britain in the 1970s regarded the Soviet Union exactly as Ronald Reagan did: it was an "evil empire", ruled by a corrupt Russian dictatorship. Russia needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, and had done since Lenin began to betray the 1917 revolution some time in the early 1920s. In the UK you could stand on a box at the famous Hyde Park Corner free speech area and shout that the government was a corrupt bunch of plutocrats and should be destroyed by a popular uprising, even if there were policemen walking nearby; whereas in Russia if you did any such thing, or even considerably less, you would be sent to a camp in Siberia for decades. The difference was that they regarded the British government as a corrupt plutocracy as well — and the American government as considerably worse.

Socialism meant complete and utter dismantling of the capitalist system — the very idea that you could have private property and own a house and have a bank account and run a profit-making business and keep the profits. It meant no more politicians or kings or queens or presidents. The idea that socialism might be compatible with a charismatic politician holding the office of President of the United States, and working with a Congress that passed laws, and heading armed services that could be directed to fight wars, and protecting the world financial system by having a Secretary of the Treasury (formerly president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) regulating the banking industry and bailing it out of its problem with "troubled assets" would have seemed a total sell-out to the real socialists.

And the fact of Hitler's party having chosen the term "National Socialist" for itself was treated as just a bizarre semantic perversion. Nothing could have been further from the ideals of socialism than the ruthlessly racist and militaristic nightmare that Hitler unleashed. If you wanted to wear a socialist button, first, at the very least, you had to be anti-racist, internationalist, and opposed to wars that had the people fighting each other for the interests of nation states (though that did not mean being opposed to violent struggle to bring about the revolution).

When today's Tea Party activists declare that Obama is a socialist, do they seriously commit to any of the foregoing principles of socialism? Do they even know about them? Do they seriously think Obama is working to have the people rise up so that he has no presidency, and no armed forces to be commander-in-chief of, and he simply has to work in a collectively owned factory to contribute to the material well-being of society like anybody else, and lend his voice, one among equals, to the discussions in the worker's committees that would run the factory?

It is reasonable to think that they do not think this at all — that they use the term "socialist" as a kind of general term of abuse aimed at anyone in the political establishment who is involved in government control of things like the Federal Reserve, the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and so on. Their "socialists" are exactly the sort of people who would have been the first target of the real socialists who were attending meetings of Trotskyite factions at universities in Britain in the 1970s. The socialists that today's radical Republican right-wingers rail against are the very establishment that the Trotskyites aimed to deprive of their power.

At the very least, we have to allow for a massive polysemy in the word socialist today (the Webster's dictionary entry quite properly begins with "any of various theories or social and political movements…"). A word must be flexible indeed if it is to cover early Christian communities who gave up private property; Trotsky's atheistic plans for a worker-controlled Russia; the bureaucratic authoritarian Soviet Russian state as it actually existed between 1920 and 1990; the Labour Party of postwar Britain with its nationalized industries alongside privately owned ones; and "government overreach" such as the Democrats' guarantee of insurance coverage permitting Americans access to their country's largely private and profit-making health industry.

English is, of course, fully adequate to the task of providing words with this ridiculous degree of polysemy. After all, there are words like post and charge.

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  1. Joanne Salton said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    I feel that most of the other English/Scottish people around would have referred to these "socialist" people as communists. "Misuse" of the word is hardly a new turn of events.

  2. Timothy Martin said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    I feel like to allow these people their redefinition of "socialism" is to give legitimacy to their ideas despite the fact that they have no idea what they're talking about. Or more precisely, this doesn't seem to be a simple matter of re-definition, because clearly these people want "socialism" to be a much stronger epithet than it could be given the meaning you've indicated (i.e. "a charismatic politician holding the office of President of the United States, and working with a Congress that passed laws, and heading armed services that could be directed to fight wars…" etc.)

  3. John Laviolette said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    I think the U.S. redefinition of "socialism" goes no farther than looking at the word "social" embedded in the word and deciding that the definition ought to be based strictly on the resemblance between words: "socialism" is now redefined as any movement or plan that attempts to improve social conditions.

    It's basically a throw-back to the medieval scholastic tradition of defining words in terms of false cognates.

  4. Buck Ritter said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    Well, we can't rightly be calling the Democrat and Republican parties plutocratic or fascist, now can they? That would make us sound like dirty hippies.

    As you know, you go to war with the epithets you have, not the epithets you might want or wish to have at a later time, or necessarily the most accurate, to the sort of person who believes that words have inherent meanings (as Language Log's Descriptivist linguists would surely agree, a most ridiculous form of Prescriptivist pedophile perversion).

  5. Laura said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

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    I received this award from another language blogger and part of the acceptance process asks that the recipient post the award picture with a link to the blog from whom the award was received and to add links to ten additional worthy blogs.

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    Cheers,
    Laura
    A Walk in the WoRds
    http://walkinthewords.blogspot.com/2010/04/blog-awards-portuguese-stamp-of.html

  6. Steve said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

    Well said. Clearly, the Tea Party is more socialist than Mr. Obama. How ironic.

  7. TB said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    I'm American and I've met some real live socialists! In fact in college there was a whole bunch of them who played in hardcore bands with names like "18th Brumaire". Of course, as an anarchist more or less, I am not a very typical American.

  8. Kylopod said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    The article is conflating a bizarre conspiracy theory with standard political hyperbole. Conservatives in the United States have been attacking liberal social policy–and liberals–as "socialist" for the better part of 100 years. Teddy Roosevelt was attacked as one. It may be historically and ideologically inaccurate, but it is a fairly normal part of right-wing discourse, just like the left-wing (and more recently, right-wing) uses of the term "fascist."

    The only connection between the birther phenomenon and promiscuous use of the word "socialism" is paranoia. "Socialism" as a term of abuse has its roots in the red-baiting that reached its apex in the McCarthy era. President Eisenhower, a moderate Republican, was called a Communist agent by the John Birch Society. But most of the time this practice doesn't involve outright conspiracy-mongering.

    Still, to this day the American right has retained the idea that it is constantly rooting out subversives, usually on the left. After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatives stopped calling liberals soft on Communism and began to call them soft on terrorism. One way or another, they're inclined to see fellow Americans as secretly foreign in some way, or giving aid and comfort to foreign enemies, and the birther theory is a version of this belief at its most extreme.

  9. John said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    This usage of "socialist" by American conservatives actually doesn't seem that crazy or confusing to me — it seems like they use it to mean "left-of-center politician who favors redistributionist policies." Not "resdistributionist" in the extreme sense of Marxism, but in the sense of tending to favor government policies which would promote some kind of narrowing of the gap between the welfare of the rich and of the poor. Classical Marxism seems to appeal to the same sentiments that make contemporary liberals tend to favor, say, a higher minimum wage or progressively higher income tax rates for the wealthy, only it advocates a much more extreme solution.

    So I think the current polysemy of "socialism" is much less confusing to me than the polysemy of words that have two almost opposite meanings, like "sanction." The danger, though, is to make a slippery-slope fallacy and conclude that anybody who favors things like government-mandated universal access to health care is automatically making the same mistakes as the Soviets did.

  10. exackerly said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    I guess "socialist" is one of those words like "Christian" — you can't define it without taking a theological position. I won't ask whether you were being ironic in your exposition of the beliefs of "real" and "true" socialists, but it's not convincing from a historical point of view. Britain, after all, was the birthplace of the Fabian Socialists, who predate the 70's by a long stretch and certainly wouldn't agree with any of that stuff.

  11. Joshua said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    I wonder why this post isn't directed at Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or others in the UK Labour Party who have been operating a political party with Members of Parliament and everything for many years and still allowing private property and the like, while holding membership in the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists and calling their party (in its constitution) a "democratic socialist party."

    [Because the post isn't directed at anyone, Joshua — though it does express doubts about whether Christopher Beam has made his point clearly. The post is basically about the conditions under which we would and should say that the lexeme socialist had undergone a semantic shift. You seem to have assumed that I couldn't possibly be doing anything other than pushing for some political party or other. But I didn't say a word about electoral matters. (Heaven forfend. In the UK there is an election in full hue and cry.) —GKP]

    After all, if anyone is getting the definition of socialism wrong, then the criticism should first be directed toward the ones who are incorrectly calling themselves socialists.

    On the other hand, if what the UK Labour Party espoused in the past, or espouses now, also counts as a variety of socialism, then it's possible your acquaintances at the University of York had too narrow a definition of socialism.

    Also, to Steve: I don't understand your point. From the point of view of the Trotskyists at the University of York, both Obama and the Tea Partiers would appear to be in basically the same, decidedly non-socialist point on the political spectrum. I don't know how one could consistently define "socialism" so as to make the Tea Partiers more socialist than Obama, although I do understand how one could define "socialism" to make them equally non-socialist.

  12. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    @GKP: I am intrigued by your usage in "Russia needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, and had done since Lenin began to betray the 1917 revolution some time in the early 1920s." The use of "had done" here seems to me to be a fairly consistent marker for BrE; I would have said "had" instead. Does the grammar of BrE simply not allow bare "had" here, or is there something more complex going on? (Have you covered this before?)

    [Well spotted, Garrett: I fell into one of the only really clear syntactic Britishisms, the use of it had done for it had, they may do for they may, etc. And the answer to your question is no, that's not obligatory in British, it's just an option. So I could easily camouflage my basically British English as American English by simply not using that option, and quite often I do. —GKP]

    @all: The definitive treatment here must continue to be Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". It wasn't a new phenomenon even in 1964 when Hofstadter wrote his article.

    Obviously the use of "socialist", while not new, is somewhat different from what it was before: when I first registered to vote, the objects of right-wing paranoia were still called "liberals". (Traditionally, a "liberal" was a pro-capitalist, anti-communist moderate in favor of democratic social change; the redefinition and then self-imposed shunning of "liberal" must be considered one of the greatest accomplishments of the right-wing politico-media complex of the past three decades. The non-anti-communist left were "progressive" — a word which has had several different meanings in 20C American political discourse.)

  13. Carlito said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    I agree with Joanne. As long as there are people and 24 hour news stations, we'll have nothing but over-exaggerations and misinterpretations. In the same way that stun guns have gone from inhumane to suddenly a more pleasant way to take a person down: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/04/13/evolution-in-the-law-of-stun-guns/

  14. Geoff Nunberg said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    It's a mistake to assume that the recent charges of "socialism" merely continue an old Republican hypberole: this is a reinvention, not a reprise. See the "Fresh Air" piece I did on this point during the 2008 campaign.

  15. JT said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:03 am

    I second G. Wollman's inquiry on "had done". I too would have used just "had", and, to be honest, I'm not quite sure how to make sense of "had done" in this context. "They had done needed a socialist revolution" sounds very odd to me.

    [So it should. In British English They knew the answer, and they had done for ages is grammatical, but *They had done known the answer is completely and utterly ungrammatical. —GKP]

  16. Buck Ritter said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:08 am

    @ Kylopod

    Still, to this day the American right has retained the idea that it is constantly rooting out subversives, usually on the left

    Yes, that's true, but not terribly original. Conservatives have more of a shame culture than leftists, who tend much more strongly toward guilt and punishment and the idea that principles are more important than people.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:09 am

    I was under the impression that the commonly accepted definition of "socialism" these days was “what they do in Sweden”.

    That said, my university (Columbia, class of ’02) included noisy, if very small, local branches of the ISO, the DSA, and something called the “Spartacist League”, which may or may not have been the same thing as the “International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), popularly referred to as the Spartacist League”, and the ISO and the Spartacists, at least, certainly seemed to be advocating things I would normally associate with communists—workers’ revolution, destruction of the state, &c.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    I'm not sure whether this post is an elaborate troll, but giving you the benefit of the doubt, it does seem a bit inconsistent. To get at the meaning of "socialist" in current-day USA you look at widespread usage, but you appear to side with the Trotskyists you knew in your youth in prescribing the widely used meaning in 1970s UK as being wrong at the time.

    [I don't understand this comment at all. You seem to speak as if I have made claims about what socialist means in America today, and criticized Americans for being wrong by using survey data from 1970s England. It's hard to believe anyone who had read the post carefully could think that. I didn't in any way try to "get at the meaning of socialist in current-day USA"; I quoted Christopher Beam in Slate, and mused on whether he might be right about the semantic change he claims has occurred. Then I pointed out that the word once had a very specific meaning in Britain that Americans appear to know nothing about, and I said it was reasonable to believe that the people using socialist as an anti-Obama term of abuse do not intend anything like that earlier specific use. I didn't say they should, just that it is reasonable to believe they don't. —GKP]

  19. Dierk said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    To those defending the rubbish re-definition of 'socialist' [it should really be capitalised], if Obama, Clinton or FDR can legitimately called that, a table is now a chair, hair has become feet, television is cricket. But then, the same Newspeak redefining has been done to 'liberal', 'conservative', 'traditionalist'. To think the GOP was once founded on an anti-abolitionist platform …

    True, many words change their meaning over time, e.g. 'gay', sometimes quite naturally, sometimes rather strangely, sometimes even forcibly. Very rarely do words take on the opposite of their original meaning, particularly with defined names for movements, ideologies, institutions and such. New meaning also develop relatively slowly, bit by bit.

    And to the US readers especially: You use 'liberal' to denote a perceived leftist ideology, while in [continental] Europe the term is used equally denigrating to denote a rightist Social Darwinistic movement.

  20. emilio said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    I think that the traditional English usage Pullum describes differs sharply from the traditional usage in other European countries. In continental Europe, "socialist" means refers to the moderate progressive position of the Old Labour, French Socialist Party, German and Scandinavian Social-Democrats and so on.
    Recently the word has been used to refer to positions even more moderate than these (more or less a synonym of AmE "liberal"). Marxist-Leninist position are traditionally referred to as "maximalist socialism" or, more popularly, "communism". In a sense, Tea Parties are just using the European common meaning of "socialist".

    [This is a sensible suggestion, given that the only sign of any political issue with a dash of anything socialistic in it is a very slight move in the direction of a health policy more like Sweden's. (Of course, it's only a slight move in that direction; no national health maintenance system is being set up, and private health care will still predominate.) I didn't say they couldn't mean "like they have in Sweden" when they said "socialist"; I only commented that they certainly couldn't mean "like Trotsky advocated". —GKP]

  21. Kylopod said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    @John

    This usage of "socialist" by American conservatives actually doesn't seem that crazy or confusing to me — it seems like they use it to mean "left-of-center politician who favors redistributionist policies."

    To some conservatives, like Rep. Steve King of Iowa, same-sex marriage is "socialist."

    I can sort of understand the conflation of single-payer health care with socialism, but I cannot understand what makes the health care bill that Obama just passed socialist. Nor, for that matter, do I understand how "cap and trade" is socialist. Both these things arose as conservative alternatives to liberal welfare ideas, attempting to preserve the autonomy of the private sector while addressing substantive goals such as the uninsured and industrial pollution.

    A major theme of the Tea Party last year was attacking proposed cuts to Medicare, the "socialized medicine" of the 1960s.

    The fact is, "socialist" is little more than a scare label that conservatives use for just about anything they believe liberals are doing wrong. What's important is not whether there's a sliding scale between some liberal policies and some socialist ones. After all, you don't hear Americans go around attacking conservatives as "anarchists."

    What's important is the dark meaning that "socialism" has for most Americans. Every time a conservative calls someone "socialist," he is implicitly conjuring up the specter of the Soviet Union. Even if he frames it more moderately, as a warning against America becoming a European-style social democracy, fear of the old "evil empire" always lurks in the background of this sort of rhetoric.

  22. Tim Silverman said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    @JT, Garrett Wollman: BrE speaker here and yes, the bare "had" would sound a bit peculiar, though not glaringly ungrammatical.

    I'm a bit taken aback by JT's "They had done needed" remark, though. "Done" is obviously a substitute for "needed", not an accompaniment. In "I had encountered marzipan at my sixth birthday party, and liked it ever since" the phrase "liked it" is anaphoric for "liked marzipan", not elliptical for "liked it marzipan". "Done" works the same as "it", but for verb phrases rather than NPs.

  23. Kylopod said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    @Geoff Nunberg

    It's a mistake to assume that the recent charges of "socialism" merely continue an old Republican hypberole: this is a reinvention, not a reprise. See the "Fresh Air" piece I did on this point during the 2008 campaign.

    I am not sure your piece differs from what I've been saying. First of all, you concede how Republican politicians have routinely used the term "socialized medicine." They used it in the 1990s when they were attacking Clinton's reform plan. These critics included Clinton's challenger in the '96 race, Bob Dole. Claiming someone's policy is "socializing" private industry may not be exactly the same as directly calling that person a socialist, but I don't see it as fundamentally different.

    Moreover, talk radio and similar outlets have been likening Democrats to socialists pretty much for the past 20 years. What's changed is that the extreme rhetoric has penetrated the mainstream and been embraced by leading elected Republicans. But the use of "socialism" as an epithet against liberals has pretty much existed continuously at some level going all the way back to the McCarthy era and beyond.

  24. peter said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:38 am

    One definition of socialism commonly used in the past by left-of-center politicians in the nations of the British empire was the "state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." By that definition, the US Government, flirting as it did with taking ownership stakes in financial institutions and car manufacturing plants, was socialist. Unfortunately for the argument of the Tea Party's Mad Hatters, the US Government initially doing the flirting was the administration of Bush 43.

  25. Tom said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    Rather amused to see my current university, York, ending up as a byword for radical Trotskyism in the comments here. Things truly have changed since the 70s… Since my dad is (or was) an old-style revolutionary socialist of the type Geoff is describing, I've always found the abuse of the term in US politics particularly irritating.

  26. Damien Hall said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:52 am

    @Emilio (and others who've made the same sort of point): 'In continental Europe, "socialist" refers to the moderate progressive position of the Old Labour, French Socialist Party, German and Scandinavian Social-Democrats and so on' – as (I understand) it also does when it appears in the constitution of the (UK) Labour Party. By this definition, the Labour Party are socialists now and, indeed, so is Obama. This has always struck me as one of the ironies of this whole situation: that, if he weren't concerned about alienating a large proportion of his electorate, who won't have read this post and thread and will be used to the commoner modern-US meaning of socialist, Obama could legitimately and proudly say, 'Yes, I am a Socialist.'

    This was the point of the post, surely – to demonstrate the polysemy across time of socialis{m | t}.

    @Garrett Wollman, @JT: Yes, the use of forms of do to fill syntactic gaps in sentences is much more a feature of British English than of American English. It's analogous to what linguists call 'do-support'; though it's been mentioned here a few times, I can't see a post about exactly this difference.

    The gap arises because the sense of some verb(-phrase) which is used in the preceding context (and which the reader can therefore supply) is needed to complete the sentence: so the sentence you quote

    'Russia needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, and had done since Lenin began to betray the 1917 revolution some time in the early 1920s'

    has done in it to replace the sense of 'needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world'. That is, the sentence would have made just as much sense (but been a lot clunkier) if it had read

    'Russia needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, and had needed a socialist revolution perhaps more than any country in the world, since Lenin began to betray the 1917 revolution some time in the early 1920s.'

    In syntactic terms (according to the theory I have learned, anyway), there is a gap in the original sentence after had, and on many occasions British English fills it with some form of do, which is, in this use, like a dummy verb. So done replaces the phrase that begins with 'needed …' – it isn't inserted before it. It's the same thing that we all do when forming questions with do, but that's too far from this topic. It would also be correct and unremarkable in British English to do as most American English would have done, and not fill the gap at all in this sentence (so it would have read '… and had since Lenin began …', but BrE also has this second method.

  27. Mark F. said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    It seems to me that you undermine the central linguistic point of your post when you say

    But all of them would laugh at the idea that the Labour Party, often referred to by the newspapers back then as "the socialists", were socialist at all.

    So had the denotation in British English already changed?

    Anyway, from a center-left point of view I think it's progress that they're returning to "socialist" as an epithet. That suggests that "liberal" may no longer have sufficiently negative connotations.

  28. mollymooly said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    The contrast between "socialism" and "communism" may be diachronic or synchronic.

    1. For many Marxist revolutionaries, "socialism" is a staging post on the road to the final utopia that is "communism". The USSR et al self-identified as "socialist" thus admitting they were not at the end of the road yet, while the ruling parties were "communist" in reference to the goal they were ostensibly working towards.

    2. In 20C European politics, "socialist party" was a position on the left-right spectrum to the left of "social democratic party" and to the right of "communist party".

    3. In political invective, "socialist" can have a much wider and vaguer range of meanings; that's the nature of political insults.

    4. A special mention for Bertie Ahern's description of himself as a socialist. Ahern's personal political discourse transcends such traditional categories as "dog-whistle", "epithet", or "reclaimed epithet". Most pundits would contend it is a poorly understood species of "bullshit".

  29. Peter Taylor said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    GKP replied to my earlier comment:

    I don't understand this comment at all. You seem to speak as if I have made claims about what socialist means in America today, and criticized Americans for being wrong by using survey data from 1970s England. It's hard to believe anyone who had read the post carefully could think that. I didn't in any way try to "get at the meaning of socialist in current-day USA"; I quoted Christopher Beam in Slate, and mused on whether he might be right about the semantic change he claims has occurred.

    I didn't see a criticism of Americans for not speaking 1970s British English, but I do seem to have misjudged the extent of your approval of Beam's observations on what the word means in current-day USA, for which I apologise

    Then I pointed out that the word once had a very specific meaning in Britain

    This is the point I'm unconvinced on. You seem to me to have pointed out that it had a very specific meaning among British Trotskyites; you also mention that concurrently it had a very different meaning – that which Emilio refers to as the European meaning – according to evidence (the media) which might reasonably be taken to be more typical British usage of the time but you seem to give that no weight at all. In essence, you seem to me to be letting a small minority of extremists dictate the "true" meaning of the word in 1970s Britain.

    [I responded to Emilio's comment above (my response begins: "This is a sensible suggestion"). I mentioned that the Trotskyites laughed at the notion of the parliamentary Labour Party being socialists, but I didn't endorse that view. I don't in any way aim to establish a "true" meaning of any word; since my post is basically about semantic change leading to polysemy, it should be obvious that I am not inclined (like Jaques in the cartoon that Mark just wrote about) toward the indefensible notion that each word has one non-negotiable true meaning. —GKP]

  30. Charles Gaulke said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    To a politician or partisan political commentator of course such polysemy is highly desirable, particularly in a term of abuse. Being able to make the defensible if rather weak accusation that your opponent favours universal access to health care, and have it carry for much of your audience the implication or emotional impact of accusing them of favouring dismantling the state, eliminating private property and making everyone work together in factories is awfully convenient. Such equivocation is the basis so much political speech (likely not even consciously much of the time) it seems to have gone from a rhetorical fallacy to just an inherent aspect of the language.

  31. OiVey said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    The type of socialism you see arising in the west is Fabian socialism. i.e. no revolution, socialism by stealth. Tony Blair is a member of the Fabians, and the labour party is inherently Fabian in its policies. Fabian socialism, Marxism, Stalinism, Trotskyism and Rhodesian socialism (which is as operative as Fabian socialism) are all brands of collectivism which favours the rights of the group over the individual, and therefore sets a perfect stage for totalitarianism. Only people blind, ignorant of historical fact or beset by plain idealism have faith faith in these systems. Sure most Americans on the 'right' probably don't understand socialism in full, but they are totally correct in perceiving it as a threat – as is in large heirarchical social structure that takes power away from the individual and gives it to the state. Psycopathic people gravitate towards the top of heirarchies, this should be self-evident. Anyway, taking a look at Obama's cabinet he certainly isn't a socialist, he's more of a fascist. Though fascism and socialism are, of course, two sides of the same ugly collectivist coin.

  32. ShadowFox said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    But, Geoff–what did "socialism" mean before it matched what you describe? What did it mean before the October Revolution? Socialists, like Social Democrats and, later, Social Revolutionaries (who also came in Right and Left flavours) were the enemies of Bolsheviks who had a singular idea of what communism and socialism meant–basically what you described. But Plekhanov was a Socialist and he subscribed to few of these propositions.

    This does not mean that the current Republican reinvention of "socialism" makes any sense–to them, "socialism" means advocating anything with the word "social" in it, in particular "social welfare". So, yes, anything having to do with Sweden (a monarchy) and, especially, France is automatically suspect. And heavens fortend we should ever consider the possibility of adopting anything resembling what any of Euro-socialist governments do for heir people!

  33. Paul Mulshine said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I find the "very few Americans have ever met a socialist" line to be an overreach. Anyone who went to college in America in the 1960s met all of the types present at English universities and heard all the same tedious arguments. As for the use of "socialist" by conservative Americans, it is clearly a reference to Swedish-style socialism. And in that usage it is quite accurate. Swedish-style health care, day care, etc. is clearly the goal of many liberal Democrats in America.

    [Not to be obstinate, but very few Americans today, in percentage terms, have the property of having been college students in the 1960s. —GKP]

  34. Kylopod said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    @ShadowFox

    to them, "socialism" means advocating anything with the word "social" in it

    Not exactly. There's at least one exception: the term "social conservative" in the U.S. refers to the positions of the religious right on such issues as abortion, gays, and pornography, none of which are connected in anyone's mind with socialism. (They are, however, connected in many people's minds with authoritarian control of people's lives.)

  35. Mark Liberman said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    It's worth noting that the 64 "contrasting words" in Newt Gingrich's (in)famous 1990 GOPAC Memo didn't include socialism or socialist, or for that matter collectivist or any similar sorts of things.

  36. Aviatrix said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    Mr. Pullum points out that socialism promotes equality and is predicated on anti-racism, so by extension opposes discrimination by other innate characteristics. That would be the rationalization for calling same sex marriage "socialist." The opposite of socialism would be a regime that seeks to preserve the hierarchy of land and capital owners over the poor, white and Christian over Other, and "the way it was when I grew up" over any change in the system. The inconsistency in the anti-socialist argument lies not so much in over-extending the term as in its proponents not recognizing that they themselves have already benefited from the collective nature of the existing society.

  37. Aviatrix said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I forgot "men over women," which brings abortion and pornography under the umbrella.

  38. Kylopod said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    @Mark Liberman

    Newt, however, was a pretty profligate user of the term "socialist" and similar terms of abuse while he led the GOP. He compared Clinton's health care plan to Soviet Communism. He referred to President Clinton as "a pleasant socialist, who believes government knows best." He described public financing of campaigns as "a socialist model." He claimed that several major newspapers in the U.S.–which he declined to name–had socialist editorial views, and he encouraged advertisers to withdraw support.

  39. fev said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    "Mr. Charles Foster Kane, in every essence of his social beliefs, and by the dangerous manner in which he has persistently attacked the American traditions of private property, initiative, and opportunity for advancement, is in fact, nothing more or less than a Communist!"

    "The words of Charles Foster Kane are a menace to every working man in this land. He is today what he has always been – and always will be – a Fascist!"

    Life is hard, but life is harder when you're dumb.

  40. Richard said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    @GKP You define birtherism as "the political perversion of pretending to believe that President Obama doesn't have a US birth certificate and thus isn't constitutionally allowed to serve".

    In the interests of accuracy, may I suggest that you remove the phrase 'pretending to believe' and replace it with the word 'believing'.

    The right-wing crazies believe in 'Birtherism' just as deeply and just as sincerely as the left-wing crazies believe in 'Trutherism'.

    [I don't want to be obstinate on this, so I'll fix the post to say "believing (or pretending to believe)". I genuinely cannot bring myself to think that there are honest and fully mentally able American grownups who truly believe, having probed the question even a little bit, that Obama is not an American. The patient people at factcheck.org, instead of just saying "Oh, give us a break", have taken the trouble to go to where the original birth certificate is and have touched it and examined it closely. Anyone can find this out. Anyone can check the Honolulu Advertiser has called the dispute ridiculous. A birth announcement was published on on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, giving August 4 as the date of the birth, and giving an address. There is much more solid evidence on this than there is that men went to the moon. So I think that the birthers are faking their unbelief. However, I will assent to this: if there are some of them who truly believe this conspiracy theory, they are certainly birthers — it is not necessary that they should be pretending (though I continue to think most of them are). —GKP]

  41. OiVey said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    Aviatrix,

    Wrong. Intelligent opposition to socialism is concern over the propensity for centralised government structures to produce tyranny. It's a great ideal but has failed in the field over and over due to the fact that human beings remain human beings. The most sensible political system seeks to prevent centralisation of power as this is the greatest threat to human freedom. Socialism directly facilitates centralisation of power. You get tyranny for you own benefit, great. I think it was Solheytsin who said the word 'anti-socialism' creates a false dichotomy. In reality socialism is simply anti-life and anti-manifest reality. The problem with socialists is that they treat people who live in reality as ideologues while they are themselves the ultimate idealogues, almost to a delusional level. So far their ideals have killed over 110 million people.

  42. seriously said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Your statement ""crazy has been redefined" isn't quite right, because everyone agrees that craziness is irrationality or mental disorder of a sort that gives rise to unpredictably strange behavior," utterly fails to get Beam's point: that what would, to a rational person, appear to be unpredictably strange behavior (e.g. "birtherism") has now been accepted by a significant portion of one of our two major political parties as well within the realm of reasonable political discourse. Richard's point at 1:29 on April 25 perhaps inadvertently illustrates this quite well: "Trutherism" is unquestionably a fringe delusion indulged in by a tiny sliver of what he describes accurately as "left wing crazies." "Birtherism" is accepted or entertained by a surprisingly large number of elected Republican officials–recently one could even see a billboard touting it as one drives on Route 95 through Philadelphia. The equivalent notion that is readily recognized as crazy from left wingers is subject for serious contemplation on Fox News and among its viewers. Not exactly a 'redefinition' if you insist, but Beam's point was evident.

  43. Army1987 said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    In Italy, not only does socialista means what Emilio said, but IIRC at some time in the last decade there was a party with socialist in its name in a centre-right coalition (not that people would not laugh about that).

  44. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    @Tim Silverman: 'I'm a bit taken aback by JT's "They had done needed" remark, though. "Done" is obviously a substitute for "needed", not an accompaniment. In "I had encountered marzipan at my sixth birthday party, and liked it ever since" the phrase "liked it" is anaphoric for "liked marzipan", not elliptical for "liked it marzipan". "Done" works the same as "it", but for verb phrases rather than NPs.'

    What a neat explanation of the BrE use of "done" as a pro-verb (so to speak). But I'm astonished that as a six-year-old you liked marzipan.

  45. Jorge Sum said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    I don't really see the issue here. The way British socialists of the seventies used the word "socialist" is different from the way the modern French Socialist party uses it, which is different from the way the National Socialist Party used it, which is different from the way socialism's opponents use it.

    What all definitions of "socialism" have in common is the idea that the government should force people to work for the common good of society rather than allowing them to follow their own individualistic desires. Something along these lines would be the broad definition of "socialism" of which Obama and the Democrats are so often accused.

    Another nebulous ideological label which has different meanings in different places at different times is "Liberal", which means something very different in the modern American context to what it meant in 18th Century Britain.

  46. Joshua said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    I recently read about some Tea Party supporters who said they wanted Marco Rubio to become "governor" of Florida. I have been to an auto mechanic's shop, and the mechanics I knew in the early 1970s all knew what a "governor" was. It's an attachment to a machine that (such as a gasoline engine) for automatic control or limitation of speed. The governors the mechanics knew were all purely mechanical — not human beings at all.

    When today's Tea Party activists declare that Rubio could be come a governor, do they seriously commit to any of the foregoing principles of governorship? Do they even know about them? Do they seriously think Rubio is working to turn himself into a machine that can be attached to a gasoline engine, or could do so if he tried?

    It is reasonable to think that they do not think this at all — that they use the term "governor" to refer to some kind of political official.

    At the very least, we have to allow for a massive polysemy in the word governor today. English is, of course, fully adequate to the task of providing words with this ridiculous degree of polysemy. After all, there are words like post and charge.

  47. parse said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    My reading of the post was similar to Peter Taylors because. While I didn't see an attempt to establish a true meaning of socialist, it did inquire :When today's Tea Party activists declare that Obama is a socialist, do they seriously commit to any of the foregoing principles of socialism? In that instance, the foregoing principles are those of the specific Trotskyites who ideology had been previously detailed, and I didn't understand why one would have expected use of the term by Tea Party activists to match that specific definition of socialism rather than another, more broadly adopted, meaning of the word.

    It seems that would be pertinent to determining whether the word socialism has actually changed its denotation in modern American English

    It's not clear to me whether the Tea Party use is new, or just newly prominent.

  48. Jorge Sum said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    As for birtherism, I'm afraid it's not going away, not because "crazy" has been in any way redefined, but because a fairly large slice of the human race is sufficiently poorly attuned to reality to go round believing things not because they're likely to be true, but because they really really want them to be true.

    It has this in common with Trutherism, crystal healing, homeopathy and Christianity.

  49. Franz Bebop said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    I agree with Geoff Pullum's main argument. The use of the word "socialism" has become a generic synonym for "tyrant," and the hyperbolic application of the term is a novelty in English-language political discourse. It makes sense to consider this usage as a linguistic phenomenon, and not just as a political phenomenon.

    I disagree with Kylopod that this is an example of "standard political hyperbole." There's nothing standard about it. Hyperbole itself is not new, but this is a new and significantly meaner breed of that familiar species.

    I'm not convinced that the definition of the word even matters, in this context. The same hot-heads who label Obama a socialist also label him an Islamist, even though Islamists are definitely not socialists: the two groups are in fact not allies at all. The opinion that Obama (or anyone else) is a secret believer in both socialism and Islamism is a clear symptom of badly confused thinking. But that's why it's important to focus on the words used, rather than on the precise thinking behind those words. There isn't any precise thinking behind those words.

    The word "Satan" also comes up with some frequency. In the US, Tom Daschle was described as Satan by Rush Limbaugh. This level of hyperbole was being tossed around even before 9/11. (http://www.spinsanity.org/posts/limbaugh7-21-01.html)

    @Richard: Some of the people claiming to believe in it are indeed pretending. There's a lot of money to be made in peddling this story.

  50. SDT said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    When I was a Trotskyist for a short period in the early 1970s in the US, around the same time that GKP was at the University of York, we called ourselves Trotskyists not Trotskyites. Members of the Communist Party USA, whom we called Stalinists, called us Trotskyites. I considered that term to be offensive, but what bothered me more at the time was that the "ite" suffix was used by people, such as GKP, with no particular pejorative intent.

    I've become desensitized to that nuance since then. It wasn't until the second time that I read his post that I noticed that he used the term. I am pleased to note, however, that in a google search, Trotskyist comes out slightly better than Trotskyite.

    Also, I think GKP is right about what the word "socialist" meant at that time to anyone who considered himself or herself one. Tony Judt's new book, Ill Fares the Land, has an interesting comment about the term: "Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of 'capitalism' and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of 'socialism'." (Page 2.)

  51. SDT said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    I left out the important part of the Tony Judt quote above. He adds, that "By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the 'Left-Right' distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary on contemporary affairs."

  52. Adam said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 4:55 am

    "Very few Americans have ever met a socialist."

    …because to some extent, the witch hunts were successful?

  53. Plegmund said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    Isn't the greater currency of 'socialism' in right-wing American political discourse partly due to displacement of 'communism' following the general loss of credibility suffered by socialism and communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Could it be that the American Right now have to use 'Socialist' where once they would have automatically used 'Communist' because virtually nobody's communist any more and so 'Communist' would sound too extreme, too obviously hyperbolic, to have any credibility? Is it that these people are actually moderating their inaccurate rhetorical labels rather than ramping them up?

  54. Andrew said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    @Dierk

    …and even more weirdly, 'Liberal' (with a capital L) is worn as a badge of honour in Australia by a historically (and increasingly) conservative party of the traditional right.

  55. Saif said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    Based on my observation of student activists at a British university in the 1970s the only conclusion I could come to was:

    (a) the principal difference was between national socialists and international ones; and

    (b) sometimes even these differences were less than obvious.

  56. Kylopod said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    @Franz Bebop

    I disagree with Kylopod that this is an example of "standard political hyperbole." There's nothing standard about it. Hyperbole itself is not new, but this is a new and significantly meaner breed of that familiar species.

    Yet as I have shown already, this breed of right-wing hyperbole is not new. Newt Gingrich called President Clinton a socialist. Bush41 was more subtle, but he did refer to Dukakis as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," and for those Americans who knew their history, the innuendo was clear.

    More importantly, for much of the past century, going back at least to FDR's presidency, the right has described modern liberalism as a form of socialism, and this has become almost a tenet of conservatives. The fact that so many people here are unaware of that suggests a lack of familiarity with traditional right-wing rhetoric in the U.S.

    I'm not saying there isn't any difference between the rhetoric now and the rhetoric in the past. I'm saying that it's a difference of degree, not kind. The use of "socialist" to mean "just about anything liberals do, which will be a sliding scale toward totalitarianism," has been around for a long, long time in American politics. It's just that in the past it was usually reserved for the more fringe elements of the right, such as the John Birch Society, and talk radio. Now this sort of kooky rhetoric has penetrated the mainstream, and the rise of FOX News has had a lot to do with it.

    The same hot-heads who label Obama a socialist also label him an Islamist, even though Islamists are definitely not socialists: the two groups are in fact not allies at all.

    While there are people who simultaneously label Obama an Islamist and a socialist, there are also plenty of conservatives who stay away from the "Obama is a Muslim" business but who still eagerly call him a socialist. You (and many of the other people here) don't seem to realize how fundamental the "liberalism is socialism" tenet is to the right.

  57. hanmeng said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    "Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all." – Frédéric Bastiat

  58. Ken Brown said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    Jorge Sum said: "What all definitions of "socialism" have in common is the idea that the government should force people to work for the common good of society…"

    Actually, no. Plenty of people who call themselves socialists would oppose governments forcing people to work, or taking up ownership of all property. They might call that "State Capitalism" rather than "socialism"

    "Socialism" had a wide range of meaning back in the 1970s, much wider than just the Trotskyists and Revolutionary State Socialists described in the OP. But all its meanings (Libertarian, Marxist, Fabian, welfare-statist, Trotskyist) would have been contrasted with with capitalism (that is the control of productive enterprises by great property-owners). And few of all those different kids of socialist them would have called the welfare-statist liberal policies of (some) US Democrats "socialist".

    It has been a disputed word since it was invented. William Morris contrasted what he called "state socialism" (governments running everything) with "libertarian socialism". To a current-day US conservative "Libertarian Socialist" is probably an oxymoron. But lots of people have thought of themselves as "Libertarian Socialists" (or similar terms). They often have widely different views – some of them in effect anarchists, others members of mainstream political parties, others various varieties of Christian socialist. William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, even Keir Hardie and RH Tawney (at least at first). Some North Americans: Eugene Debs, Joe Hill, Woodie Guthrie, Lucy Parsons, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, perhaps even Henry Thoreau or Emiliano Zapata. Or amongst the living Ken MacLeod (excellent sf writer), Noam Chomsky, Kim Stanley Robinson (another sf writer!), Iain Banks, Ursula LeGuin, (maybe this kind of politics appeals to sf authors or maybe I just read too much sf…) The category certainly exists in the speech of some English-speaking socialists.

  59. George said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    @ mollymooly. Ah, jaysus, don't be showing us up in front of the foreigners.

  60. Dan T. said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    There are big fights on the talk pages of all of the Wikipedia articles regarding Libertarianism, Anarchism, etc., over whether Libertarian Socialism is an oxymoron, or whether Anarcho-Capitalism is an oxymoron.

  61. Zubon said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    Any chance of a follow-up post on the similar problem with "capitalism"? The word has been so mis-used that some people think Naomi Klein is coherent. The actual supporters of free markets have a great deal of trouble getting people to understand the large distance between free markets and the American system of commerce. The word as used in American discourse seems to mean "pro big business" or "whatever the Republican Party currently claims to support / the Democratic Party currently claims to oppose."

  62. chris said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    What all definitions of "socialism" have in common is the idea that the government should force people to work for the common good of society rather than allowing them to follow their own individualistic desires.

    Depending on your definitions of "force" and "work", this could include any government that collects taxes.

    Obviously no society allows *everyone* to follow their own individualistic desires: homicidal maniacs, cannibals, pedophiles and many others are restrained from following their desires because of widespread belief that permitting them to engage in those desires is destructive to the rest of society. (Well grounded in some cases, of course!)

    The only real argument is over where to put the boundary. Which is why arguments over "is this socialism or something else?" are pointless Humpty-Dumpty-ism.

  63. Nathan Myers said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Here's hoping Geoff is home safe.

    I'm mystified that, after all we have seen, people still act as if political descriptors of this sort still have any meaning at all. There has been so much concerted and successful effort to muddy the water, it would take generations to establish any meaningful terms even if people could be persuaded to stop muddying. In the absence of meaning, all we have left to work with is group association.

    "Come the Revolution, you will drive a big, black car with a pretty girl on the seat next to you."

    "What if I don't want to drive a big, black car with a pretty girl on the seat next to me?"

    "Come the Revolution, you will do as you are told."

  64. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Question, directed at deeper questions of understanding meanings of the words people use. There is a strong political bias in the comments against conservatives, though it does not show up from every commenter. I have neither desire nor time to argue each point, but will note as my evidence the general absence of examination in the other political direction, including some who clearly believe it is not possible, because of imagined personality characteristics separating liberals and conservatives. There are also a few simply gratuitously insulting comments that I don't see challenged, or admonished according to any group norm. (And yes, I did search without success for other posts which might trend the other way because of subject matter.)

    That those fascinated by language might be liberals, and might even be wiser and more correct I will not enter into. But as a matter of basic anthropology, is there not an immediate danger of misunderstanding what one disapproves of? Shouldn't all observations expressly correct for that, or at least have a conscious attempt at neutrality? Especially in discussing the meaning of what others say, I would think that of first importance. There seems a rather blithe assumption among commenters that they already have their objectivity installed and need not bother about it further, their proof being how stupid their opponents are.

    This would seem to be not merely a polite nicety, but necessary, foundational, to discussing meanings of political words.

  65. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    Out of politeness at least, I should comment on the more important part of the OP.

    In 1969 I said I was a socialist. I may have had some vague recognition that there were intense socialists, probably capital S, who favored overthrow, dismantling, all that serious stuff. But I used small-s socialist to mean giving stuff to poor people and the government providing things, and I don't recall any difficulties in conversation of people misunderstanding what I meant. Whether that was a 16-year-old's shallow definition doesn't strike me as relevant. I had a pedantic streak even then, so I was certainly not on the side of the bell curve with sloppiest usage of political terms.

    If "socialist" already had that milder meaning even then, it certainly hasn't gotten more precise in the intervening decades. Objections to accepting that meaning strike me as more social than intellectual.

  66. David H. said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    I at first read the heading as "blitherism," and didn't even realize my mistake until several paragraphs in. I should probably pay attention more to our country's political goings-on. Then again…

  67. M said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    It's amusing to see the degree to which a few people in the comments here are willing to go just to avoid a little prescriptivism. If you are committed to descriptivism then you must accept that the world includes a definition of the French Socialist Party as "the socialists". If you aren't, then be a prescriptivist. Don't anyone try to play both sides of the same coin.

    As an aside (an obscure aside!), this is all particularly interesting to me in light of the fact that a policy of strict descriptivism (that it is only the goal of x to study the existing state of affairs y and that insofar as y should evolve it should not by the intentional intervention of x specialists who have decided how y should be) tends to be ideologically supportive of conservative (on a conservative/rationalist radical axis) movements, yet is generally advocated by people who would not consider themselves such.

  68. Kylopod said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    It isn't about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. It is more in line with Orwell's critique about how people manipulate the meanings of words through vagueness and equivocation. I would be more than happy to accept that a word like "socialism" can change over time. But if that's the case, we should be consistent about it. What conservatives in this country have done is used the "socialist" label as a scare word to imply an ideological affinity between progressive liberalism and Soviet Communism that simply does not exist, and to make it sound like any support for the former leads inexorably toward the latter. The conservatives are correct, however, that the Soviet ideology was rooted in something called socialism, and that American progressives do share many things in common with European social democrats, whose ideas are also rooted in something called socialism. Conservatives are obfuscating the issue by implying a connection between two things simply based on their relationship to systems that have at one point or another in history carried the name "socialist." For the past hundred years, conservatives have used this tactic to impede social progress. Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist, then FDR was, then the civil-rights movement was, then the ACLU was, then moderate health-care reform was, then gay marriage was, then cap and trade was. I honestly don't care what definition you use as long as you pick a definition and stick with it. The conservative use of the term is an exercise in rhetorical sleight of hand, and that's what we object to, not that the term has changed.

  69. Daniel.S said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    With the emergence of New Labour here in the UK over the past couple of decades the term "socialism" has started to be forgotten. But now with the return of the Conservative Tory party its no doubt going to start to make a comeback in people daily conversations.

  70. Fridrich Hláva said,

    January 23, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    I think most of You and the author himself NEVER lived under socialism- and know socialism only from WORDS. I lived practically my entire life in socialistic Czechoslovakia and I must say i am completely satisfied with the conditions which were in Czechoslovakia. No exploitation- free health care- and a good one- free education- and as well a good one- yearly two times minimum practically free holidays for all citizens who had worked- and there were no lack of jobs- everyone had a job or an office place . Young people had to their disposal free music instruments from trade unions(not a yellow trade unions as in Anglo-Saxon countries- but a real ones which defended the right of workers), The West had reacted on existence of socialist countries with Brettonwood treaty which made the currencies of socialist countries one day to another worthless- not convertible- so we have got a new slavery- working for USD pounds or German marks- to satisfy the needs of import wares. This was the attack from the West on us- and this we were unable to come over.

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