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Opinion: Does anyone know what socialism really means?

We throw around words like ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘socialist,’ ‘capitalist,’ but do we really understand what we’re saying? And do our listeners?

SHARE Opinion: Does anyone know what socialism really means?

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Walk into any world history classroom in Utah, ask “what is socialism,” and you’ll receive a relatively stable answer: It is an economic ideology where the government is in near total control of the means of production. For the majority of the time since the early 1800s, this has been the standard, universal definition with little controversy.

And yet, when I walk down the hall in that very high school, I hear echoes of teachers giving several different answers to that same question.

In economics, it might be a muddy middle ground between “capitalism” and “communism.” In government, it might be “government which reduced inequality.” In an English class, it might be one of many things.

Now, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having various meanings for common words. But issues with definitions instead arise when two specific things happen simultaneously: when a word’s meanings are too vague and numerous to derive any genuine use, and when these words have intense political ramifications. 

The trouble with having muddy definitions for divisive words comes from how easy it becomes to use these words to misinterpret and vilify those with whom one disagrees. Take that same word, “socialism.” Many older people are accustomed to its classical definition, nearly synonymous with “communism.” But when a new Gallup poll shows over 50% of millennials “feeling positive” about “socialism,” some may worry. Have pro-Marx, anti-free market ideas taken over the younger generation? No. In that same poll, over 80% of young adults also “felt positive” about “free enterprise.” 

Most of the words politicians and pundits use aren’t like “socialism.” Some do have genuine meaning and purpose yet are still very reductive. Take “right” and “left.” It has recently become incredibly fashionable for my generation’s influencers to take so-called online “political compass tests,” websites that can supposedly distill one’s entire policy worldview down to a dot on a graph.

The trouble with these tests is not just that they oversimplify, but that they do so by encouraging the use of “right” and “left” to describe oneself, where most people have an infinitely more complex outlook. If you look up “right” and “left,” you may find various definitions describing one’s social beliefs, or perhaps whether they prefer the “individual” or the “collective,” or maybe just how interested they are in “change.” 

It would be far more useful to accept that “right” and “left” often aren’t especially useful for understanding precisely what others believe. For instance, how might you describe a candidate like the French politician Marine Le Pen, who supports both a wealth tax and enormous reductions on immigration? Or how might you use this simple scale to describe a third-party candidate who is undoubtedly not “centrist” but doesn’t adhere to either side?

You can’t.

Instead of running down an exhaustive list of all the “right” or “left” attributes a person or policy might have, why not just explain their specific positions?

Political disagreements over definitions are also far from new. In the mid-1940s, when the “ism” rocking across the world was fascism, George Orwell published “Politics in the English Language,” arguing how “meaningless” words had been hijacking otherwise useful discussion and had boiled functional language down to simple smears. To Orwell, the word fascism had “no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”

It would be hard to argue that the word “socialism” has become much less than the same, or even that seemingly positive words like democracy, justice and truth have become nothing more than filler. China brands itself democratic, Vladimir Putin purports the justice of his regime and, in my favorite example, Pravda, the name of the Soviet propaganda machine, translates to “truth.” 

The point is not that we should abandon words like right, left, democracy, justice and truth — that would be absurd. Instead, we need to consciously understand or explain precisely what these words mean each time they are used and empathize with the definitions other groups tend to choose, lest we continue to be trapped in the speculative pitfalls these words inspire.

As for “socialism” and “fascism,” just as Orwell argued, purely ideological, meaningless words like these can and should simply be thrown out.

Ben Murton is a senior at Corner Canyon High School and the founder of Polempathy.org