Quotable: Hendrik Hertzberg on the dreaded S-word

“As a buzzword, ‘socialism’ had mostly good connotations in most of the world for most of the twentieth century. That’s why the Nazis called themselves national socialists. That’s why the Bolsheviks called their regime the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, obliging the socialist and social democratic parties of Europe (and America, for what it was worth) to make rescuing the ‘good name’ of socialism one of their central missions. Socialists–one thinks of men like George Orwell, Willy Brandt, and Aneurin Bevan–were among Communism’s most passionate and effective enemies.

“The United States is a special case. There is a whole shelf of books on the question of why socialism never became a real mass movement here. For decades, the word served mainly as a cudgel with which conservative Republicans beat liberal Democrats about the head. When Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan accused John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of socialism for advocating guaranteed health care for the aged and the poor, the implication was that Medicare and Medicaid would presage a Soviet America. Now that Communism has been defunct for nearly twenty years, though, the cry of socialism no longer packs its old punch. ‘At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,’ McCain said the other day–thereby suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.”

–Hendrik Hertzberg, at the New Yorker

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