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Confessions of a True Believer

Confessions of a True Believer

In 1995, a magazine published by a conservative Washington think tank brought together a group of writers and scholars to debate a question that seemed to have a foregone conclusion: "Socialism: Dead or Alive?" Twelve of the participants voted for dead.

A single dissenting voice risked "derision," in his words, by insisting that "once the sordid memory of Soviet communism is laid to rest and the fervor of anti-government hysteria abates, politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism."

I was that lone dissenter. In the 1960s, I had been a member of the radical antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and even after that organization descended into violence and chaos, I kept the faith alive and edited a Marxist theoretical journal that advocated democratic socialism. Subsequently, I suffered my share of disillusionment with Marx and socialism, but I never bought into the facile view that the collapse of Soviet communism had altogether relegated these ideas to the dustbin of history.

And although I felt isolated in my viewpoint in 1995, I think I have been proven prescient. In recent months, the onset of the severe global economic downturn has undermined faith in the magic of the market and resurrected the specter of socialism. John Makin, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, the same think tank that years ago hosted that panel on socialism’s demise, recommended that the Obama administration nationalize the banks. American politicians and policymakers — not known for their admiration of Scandinavian socialism — have begun looking to the experiences of Sweden and Norway for inspiration. A recent Newsweek cover even announced, "We Are All Socialists Now."

Socialism, once banished from polite conversation, has made a startling comeback. But what about socialism as a remedy for today’s crisis?

If you think of the Soviet Union or Cuba, socialism doesn’t have any relevance. But if you consider the Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, whose economies were shaped by socialist agitation, then another kind of socialism — call it "liberal socialism" — has a lot to offer.

In these countries, the government owns, wholly or in part, industries that are necessary for social well-being. These industries include electric utilities (the French public owns Électricité de France, which runs, among other things, France’s nuclear plants) and energy-efficient transportation systems (Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and Canada’s VIA Rail are government-owned). Several European countries together fund Airbus, which requires massive investments, but gives Europe a stake in a critical world industry. And regulatory bodies in these countries are more insulated from the corporate lobbies and litigation that have undermined progressive regulation in the United States. The state retains a capitalist market and private ownership, but the public sector also has significant control over how industry functions and how wealth and income are distributed. As the historian Martin J. Sklar has argued, these economies represent a mix of socialism and capitalism; that mix has increasingly tilted toward socialism.

Today, many European countries are ready to move further in that direction. When the downturn began last fall, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown acted to nationalize the country’s ailing banks. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last September that "self-regulation as a way of solving all problems is finished. Laissez faire is finished. The all-powerful market that always knows best is finished."

In the United States, however, even liberal socialism has always been a hard sell. But today it’s clear that some of the barriers toward socialist ideas are coming down, notwithstanding the "socialist" name-calling of President Barack Obama by some of his more outspoken GOP foes. For starters, the memory of the USSR has receded, and with it, the identification — born of the Cold War and McCarthyism — of all forms of socialism with Moscow bread lines. Meanwhile, current economic troubles have discredited the blind faith in free markets and the antagonism toward government regulation that characterized the George W. Bush years.

Many past objections to a program for national health insurance or high-speed rail have been rooted in the notion that government reform on this scale isn’t practical — that it’s utopian, expensive, or unwieldy. Today, when the vulnerabilities of the private sector are on such vivid display, these kinds of programs seem ever more practical.

In times of crisis, Americans’ vaunted pragmatism has come into play. Think, for instance, of the Great Depression, or the social upheaval of the late 1960s, when Americans were willing to adopt ambitious reforms.

Today the Obama administration has put the need for national health insurance back on the political agenda. There is also widespread discussion about whether to nationalize banks, and the U.S. government has taken over the major housing lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Obama’s stimulus program and his first budget proposal represent not merely a quantitative, but a qualitative increase in government’s economic and social role.

In the past, when crises have subsided, Americans have tended to revert to their Lockean liberalism. Bill Clinton’s ambitious program to rebuild cities and enact national health insurance was cut short as the early 1990s recession lifted. In 1994, the Republican right’s "Contract with America" triumphed.

At this moment, as everyone from U.S. Treasury Department officials to former SDS members squints into the future, the big question mark is whether calls for what amounts to an American version of socialism will outlive the crisis moment. The next years will tell whether, and to what extent, Americans are willing to move from contemplating to creating a new political system that, though not formally called "socialist," is as different from what preceded it as the America of the New Deal was from the America of Herbert Hoover.