Words Have Meanings

Last week, a reader contacted me to ask that I address the GOP’s ever-more frequent portrayals of Democratic policy positions as “communist” and/or “fascist.” This particular variety of propaganda–the use of words to label and confuse rather than communicate–assumes (probably correctly) voters’ ignorance of the differences between socialism, communism and National Socialism, aka fascism. 

Permit me to provide a “cheat sheet.”

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services– a decision to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market. There are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce, making collective provision necessary. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by  government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Of course, policymakers also socialize non-public goods: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.

In our highly polarized politics today, however, words like Socialism, Fascism and Communism are used more as insults than descriptions. Socialism may be the least precise of these terms. It is generally applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden is somewhat higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” but it differs very significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Three elements commonly identified with Fascism are 1) a national identity fused with racial/ethnic identity and concepts of racial superiority; 2) rejection of civil liberties and democracy in favor of authoritarian government; and 3) aggressive militarism. Fascists seek to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and the mass mobilization of the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. (Think Nazi Germany.)

Politicians of both parties use these terms indiscriminately as epithets, secure in the knowledge that very few in their target audiences hear anything other than “bad!!”

Next time a MAGA person calls you a communist, you can share this little exercise in definition–but it probably won’t help. Communication isn’t the point.


  1. Marv was pretty good at pointing this out. We would talk for hrs on this subject.

    Like was mentioned a few times over the past couple of weeks, the Boxer revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the French revolution, Paul Pots Khmer Rouge revolution. The German and Italian Fascists, which really were not the same, all were responsible for hundreds of millions of lives being snuffed out by an idea that was definitely not well thought out.

    The Hypocrisy of all of these revolutionary forces, is that they still had their aristocratic class. Those who were large and in charge, did not want to live the life of a peasant, but the peasants could, it was definitely good enough for them.

    During the revolutions, when they ran out of those who threatened their beliefs, they turned on their own. It’s a story as old as time itself.

    Humanity’s bulb has not gotten any brighter over the millennia, it’s still pretty dim when it comes to realizing that bridge out sign actually means the bridge is out.

    You really can’t hope that men can figure out how to be fair towards their fellow man, or how to love their neighbor as Christ said, or even help your enemy in time of conflict and sometimes you can gain a brother. But, the willpower is not there. Tribal conversions make fanatics, and the cycle continues!

    Many of us might be enlightened, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot in the stream of known history. Because those that might be enlightened are considered enemies of man. And those are the first ones to get put in prison camps, firing squads, or the guillotine. It’s easier to manipulate uneducated worker bees, then it is to deal with folks that actually know and see what’s coming down the pike. You got to get rid of those pesky intellectuals!

  2. “During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results.”

    I would note that, certainly in the Central and South American plus Cuban efforts, their failure was greatly assisted by USA efforts to destabilize any country that moved too far left. We worked pretty hard to overthrow any leader that wasn’t a hard-right, aggressive capitalist – and those countries can thank us for gifting them any number of monstrous dictators as a result.

    The various efforts at socialism might have failed anyway, but it would have been nice to let a country try without setting it on fire to stop the effort.

  3. Excellent points thus far. As Dirk pointed out, the US doesn’t like “lefty governments” because the oligarchs can’t extract resources from other countries if those resources belong to the people. We make lofty justifications for coups by saying the country interferes with our “national interests.” In real terms, this means our oligarchy can’t profit from stealing the resources as our own.

    In many respects, the US has become a fascist country. American exceptionalism is at its core—an ever-expanding defense industry with protectionism to save our oligarchs from competition. We’ve been a top-down oligarchy since our inception. Both our democratic components have eroded, and so have our freedoms. The latest attacks against free speech in “global democracies” should alert everyone.

    For generations, the oligarchy enjoyed controlling the masses through propaganda media. However, high-tech advances in communication capabilities have hindered that control, and the masses are informing themselves—waking up. We will experience authoritarianism as our brand of capitalism collapses, causing angst for the oligarchy.

  4. The word that embraces these socio-political terms – at least in my view – is POWER. Who has it? Who wants it? And what do we have to do to get it? I’ve written before that along with the invention of agriculture and food surplus came the invention of economics and slavery and … power over others.

    Call it what you like. Choose whatever ideological label that applies to your view, but today’s essay certainly encompasses the human condition of still operating with a new-lithic brain – at least when it comes to governance and politics.

    Our military is the largest socialistic undertaking in world history. We used to have the best public education in the world until Republicans got their “free market” shit-stained hands on it.

    I guess we’re stuck with ourselves for the foreseeable future.

  5. The problem with Communism is that it requires those who participate to swallow their pride in their own accomplishments and deem everything they do as only for the common good. That’s why the only successful communists are in cloistered convents. IMHO The Soviet Union was more fascist than communist.

    If you’re ever called a socialist just ask the person calling you out if they are prepared to give up their fire and police protection, or their garbage collection, or their streets and highways. Perhaps they would do away with Social Security and Medicare.

    Dirk, you hit the nail on the head. We can thank the Dulles brothers for that, John Foster at State and Allen at the CIA. By the end of their time in office they had intervention ingrained in both of their departments. It’s one reason that I’m not opposed to changing the name of the Airport. I am, however, opposed to naming it after tfg.

  6. I recently saw this clip of Jon Stewart making the rounds on social media where he made an interesting statement about American businesses – they have “socialized” their losses (bankruptcies, bailouts, etc.) and “privatized” their profits (super low or non existent taxes). Maybe we should get on board with the Rs and remove THAT kind of socialism…

  7. What Dirk and, Todd said.
    That other “Florida Man,” Sen.Scott, has been putting out ads with the object of scaring people with the “Socialism,” and “Communism” labels, indicating that he would fight to prevent these isms from gaining power. In 2008, there was a crew of BS artists calling Obama a Communist on a busy corner near my then home. All to many people vote with their emotions, rather than rational mind.

  8. So, I just went to HCR’s morning post and it started with
    “I write a lot about how the Biden-Harris administration is working to restore the principles of the period between 1933 and 1981, when members of both political parties widely shared the belief that the government should regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, promote infrastructure, and protect civil rights.
    Damned Commies!!!!!!!

  9. Great column, sparking a wide range of responses. One thing – mentioned in one other response – is the distribution of funds and services in the US known as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. I dare anyone to touch SS, and IMHO the ACA didn’t go far enough; we should have Medicare for all, basically. That just might help mitigate the outrageous fact that while we spend way more than any other nation on earth for medical care, it isn’t accessible by all. Socialism indeed. Let’s just say that term is weaponized by you-know-who in order to feed the flame-throwers to their base. Get over it, and figure out how to enhance the distribution of dollars and services – a safety net for our great Commonwealth – so that all citizens can truly enjoy life in this the richest nation ever to inhabit the planet. It only makes sense.

  10. The argument rages around what some goods and especially services should be socialized. Ah, there’s the rub, as the old bard might note. Thus when presented with such a choice I wax socialist or capitalist as a member of our mixed economy, depending upon what I perceive such choice to fit such description, and as I noted in a response to Sheila’s effort a few blogs ago, and in spite of Big Medicine’s scare tactic of the horrors of “socialized health care,”I am for “socialized medicine.” If our collective health is not as or more important than stop signs and other approved but socialized investments, I don’t know what is.

    So does that make me a socialist? Hardly. I am still of the mixed variety, socialist and capitalist, as are all Americans whether they know it or not. Even ardent right wing capitalists use stop signs, too, like Kochs and Musks, and every American will at some point need health care, so why leave our health, life and death to private enterprise with their track record (see the Lilly fiasco in re insulin pricing et al.). Why should a health care program be subject to profit-taking from the afflicted?

  11. A market economy and socialism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

    “Socialism is an economic and political philosophy encompassing diverse economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production, as opposed to private ownership … Social ownership can take various forms, including public, community, collective, COOPERATIVE, or EMPLOYEE.” (emphasis added).

    Cooperatives and employee-owned businesses can exist and operate just fine in a market economy.

  12. I have been taught by others that economic systems can be characterized by ownership of the means of production. In other words, the tools necessary to make all of the things that people want and need.

    Therefore, the people who live in entire countries own the means of production that they all need and enjoy. That’s socialism. Some of them also need and enjoy things beyond those basic common needs. That’s capitalism. All countries now have the same total economic systems: mixes of socialism and regulated capitalism. The only variable nowadays is how each is regulated.

    Let me cite an example: churches. Churches are buildings in which ideas are taught about a very specific topic: the contents of a “soul” that they teach we all possess, which most churches teach outlive our physical bodies. in other words, metaphysical existence. Churches are typically part of a chain of related others who teach similar ideas. Each comes with an organizational hierarchy of people who are organized roughly by their expertise in the particular brand and flavor that they teach. They ask their congregations to give some of the consequences of their labor, AKA money, to pay for a share of the means of production of the message that they spread.

    So, are churches socialistic or capitalistic? Well, if there are different brands and flavors within a country, then they are capitalistic. If the regulation of the socialistic part of the company insists on a single brand and flavor of religion, then it is socialistic.

    The regulations of our socialism, the Constitution, and the laws based on it insist that religion be capitalistic here. In the Middle East, for instance, they assume that specific holy books also serve as the regulations of their socialism.

    The result of putting into a single region two sets of socialistic religions is endless war. It can be no other way.

  13. A couple obvious things:

    First, a robust health care system should definitely be included in the social goods. Probably, education as well, meaning higher ed., not just K-12.

    Second, the MAGA gang is fundamentally fascist. The only small difference is that they _pretend_ to want limited government, and not want the government to rule over the people. The truth is they _do_ want the government to tell the people what to do, as long as it’s telling the _others_ to do the narrow, unpopular things that they want, but that most don’t. They are only comfortable defining freedom as the freedom to behave as live as they do. The idea that _others_ could have true freedom is anathema to them.

    All that said, I honestly think that most of them don’t see this at all. I wonder: is it delusion? Embarrassingly, I admit I enjoy watching (with a touch of schadenfreude) various person-in-the-field interviews at TFG rallies where the interviewer logically picks apart the interviewee’s hypocrisies. Ultimately, the discussion doesn’t ever matter, though. As they become uncomfortable, they will always lurch towards “I don’t believe you” at the end, happily ignoring any cognitive dissonance. (It’s utterly trivial and unproductive, but I feel a bit better, maybe a little morally superior, which doesn’t reflect at all well on me. 😉 )

  14. It seems that people differ in what they think socialism means. For instance, people from Cuba and other countries often have a vastly different view of socialism since in those countries’ socialism is more like communism. When they naturalize to US they bring those memories and seem to vote against US socialism in bloc.
    In this country they’ve taken a genius socialistic tool, insurance, and have made it into a big money maker. Being profit driven takes a lot of the relief out of the result. If the growth of the insurance pool was more protected(socialized) instead of used as a skimming pool for stockholders, premiums could go down and coverage of claims could go up. It’s a real gripe when they privatize Medicare/Medicaid for profit.
    I think as Americans we need to learn to be more debt averse and live within our means. Being in too much debt can and does lead to bad decision making and joining in with movements going wrong direction.
    Living within our means, peace of mind and following individual talents to add to the general welfare is a far more satisfying way of living.

  15. Ultimately as a person I feel that its part of my civic responsibility to support things I believe in whether it be monetary or volunteer wise. How common that belief is amongst people I have no idea. It seems like that would lean towards “socialism” I guess although I don’t consider myself a socialist. I think the world is a better place when we see each other as “brothers” and “sisters” of a gigantic family where everyone has a place at the table. Though that can be really a hard thing to do when some people are so vicious or misguided and are causing a lot of damage like Trump and his MAGA group. Honestly, I kind of see them as spoiled children that are hard to teach just basic “behavioral manners”. I used to work in a daycare and they remind me of the children that were more “troubled” that take more of your time and energy and hands on experience to settle them down to a point where they behave. So teach ’em while they are young!

  16. As usual, the willful ignorance of the MAGAT crowd is being used as a tool to gaslight Democrats and cover the true intentions of the Republican leadership. That group is hardwired to be followers. Definitions, critical thinking, and cognitive dissonance are outside their purview, and when challenged, they fearfully clutch their beliefs even tighter. Democrats can exclaim that the emperor has no clothes, but they will insist to their dying day that he was dressed in silks and jewels.

  17. The privatization of utilities has been an absolute failure for the majority of the Indiana residents. AES wants to charge a dollar to customers requesting a service, asking for your credit information to boot. How exclusionary is that?! It is definitely not a good for the common person, especially when the company is in Ohio, so not local accountability. CEG isn’t much better.

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