It turns out Bernie Sanders was recently in the Seattle area, and my mother-in-law, a slavish Republican, couldn’t resist. “Are you going to see Bernie? He’s a communist like you, right?” The latter question was asked with a little grin and matching giggle, like a four-year-old asking his parents where babies come from. A few years ago, when it looked for a moment that Sanders could topple the corrupt Democratic machine and win the nomination, I had a friend ask me a similar question. “So what do you make of your boy Bernie? His thinking is right up your pinko alley, eh?” Wink wink, nudge nudge. This friend, who is my age, is also a slavish Republican, ostensibly for economic reasons (he and his wife pull in over $500,000 a year). Both my mother-in-law and friend were poking fun at me, so I could brush away their mild disapproval at my beliefs. At the same time I felt the same despair I assume most socialists (at least those in the United States) feel when they are ridiculed, however lightly, for our beliefs: universal health care, elimination of the gender pay gap, more progressive taxes on corporations, and the like. And, as ever when I am accused, however mildly, of being a communist, I am reminded that one of the long-term consequences of the Russian Revolution is that, more than 100 years later, the term “socialism” remains wedded to “totalitarianism” and “communism,” when in truth the ideas have little in common.
Trying to explain those differences is mostly useless. By now it’s clear that those in western democracies who identify as socialists understand, but it’s a different story on the other side, especially in the USA, and neither side is going to convince the other. European-style socialism in the United States has been dead on arrival anyway, and Sanders’ version of socialism is not Europe’s. So whatever platform Sanders proposes would have little chance of getting through congress. No matter. I have no problem saying I’m a socialist, and when I share that with people I have just met, it’s a wonderful way to see if there is a future friendship in the works. I’m not seeking validation, but rather waiting to hear the nonsense we hear so often from the right-wing media circus. “Oh, so you want to turn the USA into Venezuela?” Or. “Hitler was a socialist, you know. You want another Hitler?” Or. “Great, another commie who wants to give lazy people who don’t want to work free health care.” When confronted with such ignorance, it’s best to steer the topic back to the lack of sunshine in Seattle.
What do socialists want, anyway? My friend or mother-in-law never bother to ask, but it’s worth discussing. And before I yield the floor to George Orwell, who I happily will let speak for me on the topic of socialists and their wants, I will mention a few things most socialists do not want (or, perhaps as importantly, expect). Remember, this is a partial list.
Socialists do not want five-year plans or centralised economies. They do not want to round up children and send them to rehabilitation centers. Socialists do not want every family to have a Mercedes or other luxury car or other status symbols, nor do they want to take those things away from those who already have them. Though it feels this way sometimes, they are not interested in forcing you to declare your pronouns. Socialists do not want you to give up your doctor or even your existing healthcare plan. They do not want a culture where individualism vanishes and we all think the same way. In the United States at least, I would assume most socialists do not want to take your guns. (They haven’t in Finland or Canada, among other countries branded “socialist.”) They have no desire to legislate what you think, what you eat, how (or if) you shower, what kind of car you drive (or don’t drive), what TV shows or movies you watch (or where and how you watch it). While they advocate a higher tax rate for those who earn more, socialists do not want to force you out of your high-earning job or limit how much you can earn. Socialists do not want to create some version of Brave New World where sterility and numbness rule over feelings; they do not want to create a utopia at all. They do not want to force your children to identify as whatever gender they feel like depending on the temperature outside and then change their mind the very next day, they don’t want to force your boy to do “girl things” and your girl to do “boy things,” and they do not want to demonise “traditional” families. Socialists do not want to eliminate private property. In short, socialists do not want to interfere with your pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
That latter question—happiness—seems the perfect time to bring back Orwell. It might surprise some to learn Orwell, so often lionised by the right, was, at his core, a socialist. There is no doubt Orwell disliked much of the intelligentsia on the left, and he despised what we now call “political correctness,” but that alone does not make him a fan of the Tories (who he also had harsh words for). Humbug, and any whiff of it, was the enemy, not socialism. Time and time again he would write about the democratic nature of World War II—for instance everyone, rich and poor, was subject to rationing, even if it was imperfectly enforced, and the nightly German bombing raids did not discriminate. The war ignited his patriotism and altered his thinking somewhat, but the overall trajectory pointed away from free-market capitalism and toward socialism, both politically and economically. But not the socialism in Russia, which Orwell (and some, but not all, members of the left) recognised as totalitarian.
Orwell made it clear happiness was a by-product of socialism, not the end goal. In 1943, when the war had not yet turned definitively to the Allies, Orwell wrote an essay titled “Can Socialists be Happy?” published in the socialist newspaper Tribune, where Orwell served as literary editor. He makes clear that visions of a Utopian Paradise are neither possible nor desired, and that the assumption that socialists are aiming for happiness is off the mark.
It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast. The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from pain or effort, presents Socialists with a real problem. We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia?
No. While Orwell enumerates much of what socialists want eliminated—poverty, war, hunger, fear, overwork, etc.—he declares that socialists do not want Utopia, nor do they solely want happiness.
I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness…The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.
There we go. It’s surprisingly touchy-feeling for a man like Orwell, but he’s right. While I am sure others have said something similar—maybe Bernie Sanders has, maybe John Lennon did—what Orwell also understands is the air of confusion and uncertainty occluding socialists, which opponents seize and declare that socialists don’t even know what they want, let alone how to get it. And anyway, they say, the vision of human brotherhood is impossible to implement. Maybe it is. But at least in other parts of the world other countries (the usual suspects: Norway, Finland, Denmark, et al) have tried and done a passable job. And in the end, they have made the world, at least their portion of it, a better place. In an essay about the mostly forgotten Arthur Koestler, Orwell suggests that goal might be enough.
Perhaps some degree of suffering is ineradicable from human life, perhaps the choice before Man is always a choice of evils, perhaps the aim of socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make the world better.
A better world. A world where “human beings love one another.” It feels like so little to ask but seems more out of reach than ever before, especially in the hobbled, bewildered, and angry United States.
There is, of course, someone else who urged us to love one another, someone who has also been used by the far right wing in this country. But somehow that message goes astray as these folks go to the polls and elect person after person who wouldn’t recognise the real Jesus if he appeared directly in front of them.