Socialist a dirty word? Depends who you ask

Political labels change over time. Progressives became liberals for decades until the term “progressive” came back into favor. What it means to be a conservative has changed over time. Mr. Conservative, Robert Taft, didn’t recognize the conservatism of Barry Goldwater who, before he died, said he did not recognize the conservatism of his latter days.

A political label that we hear more of today also does not hold the same relevance it once did. Being called a socialist is almost meaningless in 2015.

I grew up with the false belief that a socialist was merely anyone with a political ideology that did not agree with the far right because I was always hearing opponents of the right being labeled as socialists. My studies of political science revealed that neither FDR nor any other Democrat met the definition.

What brings the subject to my mind is the use of the socialist label in recent months. First, we have Sen. Bernie Sanders, who labels himself a socialist, running for the Democratic nomination for President.

What intrigued me about Sanders being a socialist is that the American Socialist party claim he is anything but. Then we had conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh attack Pope Francis, saying the Pontiff is nothing but a socialist.

I decided to write about the subject, though, only after a somewhat conservative member of my church told me that the people who attack Sanders forget that Jesus was a socialist. The problem is none of the above meets the actual definition of the word.

Socialism is a belief in total government control of the economy. It is defined as a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government, or an advocating of government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

Neither the Pope nor Senator Sanders argues for government ownership of industry. As for Jesus, he died nearly 1,800 years before socialism was formed. While he threw the moneylenders out of the temple, he never advocated for government takeover of the means of production and distribution of goods.

President Obama is insulted as a socialist, but if he were, private insurance companies would not exist within the Affordable Care Act.

Before labeling an opponent a socialist, we must realize that most socialist political parties gave up the notion of government elimination of private industry decades ago.

The reason? True socialism always failed. Bill Moyers announced once that he did not trust the socialist answers, but he added we should always listen to the socialist questions because they are the questions of fairness and equality.

To bolster Moyers’ position, we need only recall that the most famous American socialist, Eugene V. Debs, fought for a number of ideas which we now accept as an important part of American life today.

These include the abolition of sweat shops and child labor, 40-hour work weeks, unemployment insurance and social security. They were rejected in his day primarily because these were considered socialistic ideas unworthy of a capitalistic United States.

Do we then reject the ideas of someone such as Sanders or Pope Francis simply because they have been labeled as socialists? Debs was on the right track about equality and America’s needs. The Pope’s proclamations may come across as socialist to Limbaugh, but they are certainly not in opposition to a religion with more than 2,000 biblical verses in which scripture demands Christians tend to the needs of the poor.

We as a people stifled in political gridlock need to step away from inflexible and inaccurate labels when we seek answers to problems. Both the right and left agree to some extent on the Christian value of helping others.

Where they differ is on how such help should be given, through private works or through government administration of social welfare programs, and that is a legitimate argument. It is far wiser to debate the means than merely labeling those with whom we disagree a socialist. It simply is not a particularly relevant label.

Some maintain anyone, whether it is Sanders or the Pope, who attacks capitalism, is a socialist. That is nonsense. It is not only possible but good to suggest that capitalism, while necessary, has its boundaries.

As one European Democratic Socialist put it, “a market does not know human values. It is government, we the people, which creates a moral and value system.”

A successful capitalistic system requires such morality and the placing of regulations to ensure fairness is a plus for continued capitalistic success. While capitalistic greed is the enemy of the true socialist, it should also be the enemy of every American. That is something we should all be able to agree upon.

Michael Adkins is the former chair of the Hancock County Democratic Party. He lives in Greenfield.