That’s a sentence that can create awkwardness at dinner parties, and suspicion and confusion in political conversations. Socialism is a dirty word in some political circles. Case in point: think of all the times that Barrack Obama has been accused of being a socialist in the past seven years, As if that is some grave insult.
Because of the stigma around socialism, it is curious to me (and encouraging to me) that Bernie Sanders, a vocal and proud socialist, has gained so much traction in this year’s election. I feel like people are finally beginning to understand that socialism is not as scary as some would have us believe.
I wanted to take an opportunity to talk about socialism and explain why there is a growing support of socialism in the United States right now. I also want to dispel some of the myths around socialism. I think some people still view socialism as synonymous with communism. I think some people think socialism is a group of godless liberals. I think some people believe that socialism is a system in which the government takes your money, controls what you can do, and punishes the wealthy arbitrarily. I believe it is none of these things, and I want to try to offer a simple explanation of my personal views around socialism, in order to demystify the whole thing. This is not an attempt to sway anyone else to socialism. Rather, I want to reduce the misunderstanding around it, and provide a simple explanation for why a rational Christian would lean in this direction.
I resonate with the philosophy of socialism because of my wider philosophy in regards to how humans can best organize and live with one another in a civilized society. When I use the word civilized, I am not referring to gentility or politeness, or to things like art and music, though I do believe that a civilized society often lends to these things. What I am referring to here, when I talk about a society being “civilized,” is the idea of human beings working together to a greater good. I’m going to call this being “pro-social.”
Of course, the “good of a society” is a subjective thing, which is why I am a democratic socialist. I still believe that the individuals in a society should choose their leaders. I still believe that our government officials should represent the views of the people they are serving. I don’t believe that our government should be swayed by big businesses, money, or other personal interests. Unfortunately, in our current system, this is all too prevalent.
I think most Americans would agree that our government should be assigned by the democratic vote. However, the values of that government can vary widely, from an “every man to himself” philosophy (the Libertarian party in the US comes close to this) to the other extreme, which would be a society in which the individual is subject to the collective, and individualism is denied (like communism.) Socialism, in my opinion, is a healthy balance between individualism and collectivism. Most socialists hold to the value that an organized government works towards the good of both the individual and the society at large.
But back to this idea of pro-social values …
Through my travels, and through my research as a professor in regards to the psychology of various cultures, I think that most civilizations have areas of strengths and weaknesses as it relates to being pro-social. I also believe strongly that we, as a country, have much to learn from other governments and societies. The idea that America is always best, that we are infallible, or that the constitution cannot be carefully improved upon, puts us in a place of pridefulness and stagnation.
As I have visited or studied other societies, I have observed a wide variety of ways that humans can be civilized towards one another, and uncivilized towards one another. I think this has very little to do with the economics of a country, and more to do with the values of a particular people group. I have observed tribes in Africa in which a woman who has recently given birth is able to rest for upwards of a month as the women in her village care for her every need. In this aspect of society, this African village is more pro-social than our own. However, that same village practices female genital mutilation, which is NOT pro-social. There are Asian cultures in which filial piety and deference to elders are a huge value . . . this is pro-social behavior that makes our treatment of the elderly look barbaric. However, that same culture may hold a low view of people with special needs, who are cast out and not cared for. When we look at MOST cultures, we can see some disparities between pro-social practices and practices that seem less-than-civilized.
The United States is already a country that has many socialist programs. Many of these programs would be examples of how our country’s government embodies pro-social values. For example, we offer free education to every children through high schools. We have a public library system. We have beautiful state and federal parks. We have sufficient sanitation services, a reliable postal system, and competent fire and rescue services in most places. Are there areas for improvement? Absolutely. There always will be. But our country has agreed that these are basic ways that out government provides for its citizens.
It’s my opinion that a civilization is better when basic needs are provided to its citizens. That is one of the reasons I resonate with socialism. Of course, we could argue all day about what “basic needs” are, but in general, a socialist would tend to think that it’s in the country’s best interest when the collective works together. As I mentioned before, I think every society has it’s blind spots. In my view, some of our country’s specific blind spots are around our failure to provide medical care to all citizens, our failure to take better care of our veterans, and our failure to make higher education accessible to all citizens.
My convictions around socialism basically boil down to the philosophy that a society is best when all members contribute to the good of the whole. While there are certainly many atheists who hold to this philosophy, for me it is my Christianity that points me to these convictions. The bible has a lot to say about taking care of the poor and caring for the “least of these.” In Acts, we see the early church
living out socialist ideals:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
While this was specific to a church, I think that there are plenty of passages in the bible that suggest that taking care of others should be a priority, and so I prioritize that both in my personal life, and in the way I hope to see our government shaped. And while Bernie Sanders is not a Christian, as a leader, his views most closely embody the Christianity I know.
Ultimately, these quotes from Bernie Sanders are exactly why I consider myself a socialist, and why I will be voting for him in the primary.
“What my spirituality is about is that we are all in this together. It is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our back on the sufferings of other people . . . we cannot worship billionaires and the making of more money. Life is more than that.”
“We do best as human beings when we work together.”