An American socialist guru, professor Richard Wolff, has remarked that the time has come when Americans can finally utter the word “socialism” without fear and even discuss its merits in comparison to capitalism. Bernie Sanders further advanced the discussion by proclaiming himself “democratic socialist” and winning a huge following, especially among the young Americans who had a chance to grow up without relentless brainwashing and fear of “the reds” who “were coming”. That brainwashing was - and to some extent is - so successful that American working class was trained to vote against its own interests. You can have your “freedoms”, your excessive lifestyle, your pursuit of personal happiness - all to take you away from the idea that your misery is the cause of “invisible hands” manipulating and dumbing you down into compliance in order to preserve their grip on power and their wealth. To this day, most Americans have no idea what socialism is including many of those who like its ideals. So lets start with the basics.
According to the horse’s mouth, aka the “socialist heaven”, aka the USSR’s official political economy textbook, both capitalism and socialism are first and foremost ECONOMIC SYSTEMS adopted by a society. Capitalism is based on private ownership of the Means_of_production while true socialism rejects private ownership of the means of production due to its inevitable lead to exploitation. Communism is a form of advanced money-less socialism that rests on the idea of a “new man” willing to give what he can and take only what he needs. In spite of all the communist fear-mongering, no country ever claimed it built communism, even the USSR, even though Khrushchev proclaimed in the 60s that the Soviet Union would build communism by 1980s.
Socialism is an old idea that resurfaced after an intensive industrialization of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries that led to massive run to the bottom of millions of Europeans. As Marx noted, capitalism inevitably leads to crisis when the lower classes will no longer accept their miserable status quo and the upper classes cannot hold on to it, thus leading to revolutions.
Which is exactly what happened in Russia in 1917 when tzar Nicolas ignored the warning signs and failed to relieve the pressure on his people. Russian leader of the revolution, Lenin, quoting Marx, even promised to hang capitalists with the rope they sell to him. The regime changed and survived in spite of relentless wars and attacks first by those who lost everything then by those who were afraid the example would spread. And it did.
Socialist parties sprung up all over Europe and America. But while European powers were smart to implement massive benefits to avoid the spread of revolutions, American uprisings and discontent were brutally quashed. It took a forward-looking president, FDR, to convince the American ruling class that without his New Deal they may follow the fate of Russian aristocracy. That Deal saved American capitalism and now no one, even conservatives, can imagine this country without social security and unemployment insurance. They call these benefits “socialist“, but does it mean more just and compassionate society will kill capitalism?
Bernie Sanders cites Northern European successes that he wants to implement in America. But none of the European countries are socialist. They still have a capitalist economic system and privately owned means of production. Introducing social benefits such as universal healthcare, free education, mandatory paid vacation time, limit on work hours, parental leaves etc.etc. alleviates the plight of the poor, evens out capitalist pitfalls and eliminates the need to control the masses thus redirecting billions to the safety net from the police, security measures for the rich and the prison system.
Does it mean the "socialist paradise", the USSR, proved that socialism is a failed system? It certainly damaged the faith of many followers, but the mistakes made by the Soviets do not mean that capitalism is the only feasible system. Richard Wolff advocates a worker-owned enterprises in his book Democracy at Work: a Cure for Capitalism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_D._Wolff According to Wolff, there are many forms of socialism and cooperative-based worker owned enterprises exist and are successful such as Mondragon in Spain and some even here in the US.
The most important difference between capitalism and socialism though is the human treats they rely upon: while capitalism is promoting and encouraging individualism, competition, greed and all the negative seeds of human condition, socialism is appealing to compassion, cooperation, sense of community and all the positive sides of human nature. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
― Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy