Taking Back the Term ‘Socialism’ (OPINION)

Jan 5, 2022
6:31 PM

A mural reads “Free and Inclusive Education Now!” in Santiago, Chile (Dimitry B./Creative Commons)

Translation by Hector Luis Alamo

Recently, many terms of political discourse have lost their original meaning, transforming into ambiguous notions that lack linguistic value and leaving those who hear them in a conceptual limbo. Terms such as “socialism” and “Leftism” can mean anything these days.

The historical origin of the terms “Left” and “Right” go back to the French Revolution and had to do with where factions were seated in the Assembly. Henri de Saint-Simon, a French political theorist at the time, had a great influence on the modern origin of the term “socialism.” Saint-Simon as well as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Thomas Spence were influential figures in the British workers’ movement.

In those early days, the term “socialism” meant “the control of production by the producers, the elimination of salaried work, the democratization of spheres of social life—the control by citizens over their communities.” That was what was meant by “socialism” for more than 100 years, but clearly, it doesn’t mean the same thing today.

In the recent past, the so-called “socialist countries,” such as the U.S.S.R. and China, were rather anti-socialist systems, where an intellectual elite —Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and the other Bolsheviks, in the case of Soviet Russia— was situated at the top of the Communist Party and from there directed the decisions of the State. At that time, in fact, workers in the United States had more rights than those in the Soviet Union, and individual liberties were better guaranteed in England than in the “socialist” Eastern Bloc. Yet in some sickly and propagandistic way that is what is now called “socialism,” just as states that practice social welfare are called “socialist.”

When Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate, speaks of “socialism” for the United States, what he’s referring to is the liberalism of the New Deal put forth by President Franklin Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939. The fact that, in the last 50 years, any idea that questions the status quo has been stigmatized with the discriminatory epithet of “Communist,” “Leftist” or “socialist” is evidence that the political spectrum has moved so far to the right. Clearly the historical ignorance of these facts has become popular, since by flinging these labels —without context— a legion of useful idiots can dance to the one who professes them purely with the aim of sowing fear and gaining power.

Let us emphasize that it is no coincidence that from the 1950s until the fall of the U.S.S.R., the two rival global systems were focused on a fantasy that never came into being: “socialism.” From its origins, the Soviet state tried to harness the energies of its own population and the oppressed peoples of the world to consolidate its power and influence, and so Soviet leaders called themselves socialists. Taking this as true (whether it was or not), the United States continues to take advantage by spreading fear and hatred against the enemy, focusing on the very same labels that the Soviets appropriated for themselves. Two opposing propaganda systems, both focused on a false concept of what socialism truly is.

This is how the label “socialism” was brandished as an important ideological weapon employed by two world superpowers, American and Soviet, though in reality, as the subsequent history has revealed, the label was a gigantic lie.

And now that label has risen again like a torrent, especially in Chile. A torrent not from the distorted ideological understandings of Communist parties, but from the claims made by activist movements seeks a state that guarantees the right to social welfare, democracy, and equity. A torrent incarnated by a young charismatic figure 35 years old, one Gabriel Boric, president-elect of Chile, and identified with the noblest tradition of libertarian socialists which, incidentally, was even opposed to Marx from the time of Bakunin and Luxemburg. Actually, Gabriel Boric is, ideologically speaking, closest to Noam Chomsky, far removed from Leninist thought.

Therefore, we must congratulate the Chileans, who in the middle of 2021 and in brilliant form have identified a route that rejects the anti-democratic and totalitarian claims of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—a practice that manifests itself in the political activism of young people who feel disappointed by a neoliberal system that dehumanizes them and an outdated Left that could never give a democratic and participatory response to such realities. Today’s Chile doesn’t believe in dictatorships, not even that of the proletariat. Today’s Chile does not flow from the practice of lagging dogmatic parties, but from the very bowels of activism, fused in a single voice, feminist, environmentalist, pacifist, LGTB, Digna Social Security, No + AFP, workers, peasants, students, and so others—an example that Dominican activists should emulate away from their comfort zones

Today’s Chile presents a new alternative determined not to invest its energies in hating those who hate, but in loving those who love.


José M. Santana is a Dominican economist and specialist in technology and development. He is the executive director of the Dominican Republic International Commission of Science & Technology, as well as a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Twitter: @JoseMSantana10