Gulags. Starvation. Purges. Five-year plans. Show trials. Political repression.
This is all many Americans have heard about socialism. From history classes to the mass media to the talking points of both political parties, the word “socialism” is used to spark fear in Americans, lest they vote for representatives who would help the working class.
Bias against socialism permeates American culture while the crimes of capitalist nations are overlooked. Americans need to know the real history, one that acknowledges that socialists have made wonderful contributions to the world.
Perhaps the worst time to be an American socialist was when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., led investigations into alleged communist agents in the U.S. government in the 1950s. Socialist ideas were suppressed in this period and it has taken decades for their resurgence in the U.S.
But the “S” word is still controversial in many circles. Donald Trump repeatedly hurled “socialist” as a pejorative against Joe Biden in the 2020 election cycle. Before that in his 2019 State of the Union Address, Trump said America will never adopt socialism, to Congress’s thunderous applause.
The former U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China are often portrayed as uniquely repressive. Socialist countries have been guilty of limiting freedoms and harming their citizens in the past, and some Americans are quick to warn that any horrors in those countries could be replicated here if socialists come to power.
The crimes of socialist countries are attributed to their political philosophy, but socialism itself wasn’t the problem. Similar atrocities were being committed by so-called democracies.
At the same time that Joseph Stalin was plaguing the earth, the U.S. had a Great Depression, Jim Crow, Red Scares and Japanese internment camps.
Abroad, the U.S. military committed numerous war crimes, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing campaign decimating North Korea a few years later. The American government implemented the Truman Doctrine, which funded militaries around the world in an effort to contain communism.
Dismissing socialism based solely on the records of the 20th century is dishonest. To make such an argument would be to pretend capitalism never hurt anyone. But in our capitalist society, the working class struggles while the wealthy have more than they will ever need.
If capitalism truly worked, polls would not show ever-increasing support for socialism, among young people in particular.
Young people are no longer interested in old talking points. Socialism, once taboo in the United States, has now seen a tremendous resurrection thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rising popularity of the Democratic Socialists of America.
With this renewed popularity of socialism, the role of socialists in American history and around the world can no longer be ignored.
For example, the Industrial Workers of the World, an American labor union organized by socialists, Marxists and anarchists in 1905, had more than 100,000 members at its peak who fought for the rights of workers. The union protested World War I, leading the U.S. government to brutally repress them and throw many of their members in jail.
Similarly, the radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement has been wiped away from the history books. Martin Luther King Jr. was a socialist. Really. His criticisms of capitalism are well-documented.
Socialists have also been the foremost opponent of fascism and Nazism. The Soviet Union was instrumental in ending World War II, and today’s anti-fascists are still defending marginalized groups from those who seek to destroy them.
After the anti-fascists — who mostly consist of socialists, anarchists and communists — stood against neo-Nazis in 2017 at Charlottesville, Virginia, conservatives in the media called them “terrorists” and liberals often refused to defend them, when they should have been thanking them.
There is much for young socialists to be proud of in our history. It’s long past time to stop fear mongering about socialism and start being honest about why so many people are turning to it.
Stop appealing to a biased history that overlooks the positive impacts socialists have had on the world. You can join the socialist movement, or fight against it, but at least be honest.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.