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What Is Socialism?

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
What Is Socialism?

Hey all. An early post as promised. No questions for Mail Time this time around, so it'll be brief. Send some in for next month:

Let's hop to it.

Recent Work

My history of bipartisanship for The New Republic is now online for everyone. An excerpt:

Despite and, again, because of our deepening political divides, leaders and voters in both parties, and the Democratic Party in particular, continue to make rhetorical appeals to bipartisanship as though it’s a fully coherent and foundational political value—one that, given the initial reluctance of Democratic leaders to impeach Donald Trump without Republican support and the dubious defenses of the filibuster as a facilitator of bipartisan compromise, has come to sit a few rungs above the rule of law and majority rule. What could possibly justify that position? While it’s produced decent legislation here and there, bipartisanship has also yielded many of the most destructive policies of the last quarter-century, including welfare reform, the deregulation of Wall Street, and, in another demonstration of bipartisanship’s power to foreclose foreign policy debate, the war on terrorism. Many of the bills the Democratic advocates of bipartisanship take the most pride in—from major legislation of the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act—were products of the party’s partisan dominance. We’ve come to a point where the protection of the right to vote and the reform of our federal political system are also partisan projects. And it cannot seriously be denied that the concept of bipartisanship—insofar as it is deployed as a case against unilateral Democratic action—has become a threat to the democratic process. If Democrats fail to check Republican voter suppression and the risk that the right subverts the next election, it will be because the pivotal voters in the caucus and the president upheld a doctrine that presupposes an equivalence between the two parties and holds that Republican abuses cannot be curbed without permission from Republicans.
Last September, The Hill ran a piece quoting a few of that doctrine’s key advocates. “Financial services and oil and gas groups are among those who are worried that progressive policies might be inevitable and bipartisanship on pro-business legislation will be a thing of the past,” reporter Alex Gangitano wrote. Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, told the paper that Democrats would be well-advised to keep the filibuster if they took the Senate, as the 60-vote threshold for passing legislation had historically protected “the idea that consensus is needed to move large pieces of legislation.” Neil Bradley, executive vice president at the Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying that the filibuster’s elimination would prevent “policy getting forged with bipartisan consensus.” The single-party enactment of legislation, he said, “means there’s less consensus, less opportunity for input, and ultimately it results in much worse policy.”
“Worse for whom?” we might ask. While most of the country would obviously benefit from democratic reforms that make our federal political system more egalitarian and major legislation on critical issues such as climate change, the likes of the American Petroleum Institute would obviously lose out if the Democratic Party fully jettisoned the filibuster and bipartisanship to get things done by making partisan progress on these and other fronts. The fact that sticking with bipartisanship might bring us to a democratic collapse hardly concerns them—what would such a collapse be, after all, but the culmination of decades’ worth of effort to constrain the federal government’s capacity to act in the interests of ordinary working Americans? And this is perhaps the final irony of where bipartisanship has taken us—conceived as an inducement to moderation and a way to keep both ends of the political spectrum in check, it sits on the cusp of delivering a final victory to the ideologues of the right and their financial backers. Early this year, many of those backers made a grand show of repudiating Trump’s attacks on the election process and the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Repudiating bipartisanship—which secures a place in governance for the party that brought about Trump and January 6—remains out of the question. It has earned them too much.
And while many Democrats under Biden have demonstrated an understanding that the party will need to go it alone on most of its agenda, a rhetorical break from bipartisanship isn’t in the offing on their part either. Voices on the left are often criticized for suggesting that the two parties are more similar than they outwardly seem. But even those who doubt this cannot reasonably deny that Democratic leaders spend much of their time arguing openly that both parties need each other and that the American people need them to need each other. The party needs more critics who insist that this isn’t an accident or a mistake—that while bipartisanship may well produce more dire consequences than Democratic leaders have anticipated, it has, for a very long time, succeeded in sidelining deep partisans who might have complicated the party’s efforts to appear more moderate to the electorate and the party’s relationships with business interests. Increasingly, voters—on the left and on the right—are demanding more than bipartisanship is capable of giving them.


What is socialism? There’s been some confusion on this point, so I’d thought I’d share how I’ve come to define and understand it.

Let’s try beginning, for once, with what socialism is not.

Socialism is not a lifestyle. It is not a hobby. It is not a subculture. It is not self-help. It is not self-care. It is not an aesthetic. It is not a vibe.

Being nice is not socialism.

Being mean is not socialism.

Being online is not socialism.

Being offline is not socialism.

Being woke is not socialism.

Pronouns are not socialism.

Being unwoke is not socialism.

Slurs are not socialism.

Being rich is not socialism.

Living in a $3 million dollar home is not socialism.

Being poor is not socialism.

Living in a tent is not socialism.

Working a white-collar job is not socialism.

Working a blue-collar job is not socialism.

Not having a job is not socialism.

Waistcoats are not socialism.

Overalls are not socialism.

Personal altruism is not socialism.

Taxing the rich is not socialism.

Breaking up monopolies is not socialism.

Breaking up the banks is not socialism.

Free college is not socialism.

Welfare is not socialism.

Social Security is not socialism.

Medicare is not socialism.

Medicare for All is not socialism.

The New Deal was not socialism.

The Green New Deal is not socialism.

The military is not socialism.

The CDC is not socialism.

The police are not socialism.

The fire department is not socialism.

The Postal Service is not socialism.

Libraries are not socialism.

Parks are not socialism.

The minimum wage is not socialism.

A living wage is not socialism.

Paying your employees very well is not socialism.

Paying your employees equally is not socialism.

Treating your employees very well is not socialism.

Treating your employees equally is not socialism.

Being friends with your employees is not socialism.

Unions are not socialism, though we’ve gotten as warm as we’re going to get.

So, what is socialism?

Socialism is a system in which the productive resources of the economy are owned and controlled by workers and society at large. Socialists are people who support moving to such a system. Often, socialists also support policies, activities, and ideas that might improve the lives of the masses or bolster workers’ bargaining position in the economy even if they don’t directly redistribute economic power. It is entirely possible to support such things without also believing that workers and society at large should own and control the productive resources of the economy. Given this, those things are not, in themselves, socialist. Because socialism is a system in which the productive resources of the economy are owned and controlled by workers and society at large.

I might be wrong, though.

Reasons to Be Cheerful