What Makes Socialism Unappealing to So Many?

Pinellas DSA
6 min readJan 24, 2023

Member Bruce Nissen details his thoughts on what hurdles must be overcome to build broad support for socialism.

Polls show that socialism has a more positive image in the U.S. today than it did in the second half of the 20th Century. Nevertheless, support is still at only thirty six percent (36%) and sixty percent (60%) view socialism negatively according to a 2022 Pew Research Poll. Capitalism is much more popular, with fifty seven percent (57%) favorable and thirty nine percent (39%) unfavorable.

There are major differences among distinctive groups within these overall figures. Democrats and Independents are more likely to be favorable toward socialism while Republicans are extremely unlikely to have this view. Even more extreme differences are evident by age: young people under 30 are much more likely to be favorable to socialism than are those older than 30.

Considering that socialism has always been either somewhat marginal or extremely marginal in American life throughout history, these figures are fairly encouraging. Nevertheless, if we are to make socialism a major force in American politics and ultimately a governing power, we have a long way to go in convincing people that our favored economic and political system will improve their lives overall.

The DSA needs to increase in size tenfold and the larger socialist current in the country also needs to expand greatly. What are the roadblocks to this happening? There are many, and I cannot hope to address them all here. But I do want to look at one that has led me to conclude that we should always (1) describe ourselves as “democratic socialists,” not merely socsialists; (2) clearly distinguish a socialist economy from a completely centrally planned “command” economy; and (3) avoid public displays of Soviet-era symbols and language from the so-called “Communist” countries such as the Soviet Union and China. I arrived at these conclusions due to a couple of recent conversations.

I was discussing with an acquaintance the sorry state of housing in St. Petersburg. We were commenting on how unbelievable it was that people were being forced to live in their cars in the richest country in the world. I made the comment, “That’s capitalism.” He immediately came back with, “No, it’s greed.” I said, “Same thing. Capitalism is a system built around greed.” Then he said that the people leading socialist governments seemed just as greedy as those leading capitalist ones. It became apparent that his picture of socialism meant a country led by an authoritarian leader or party that hoarded all the power and much of the wealth in that country through their control of the government. While he was not wedded to capitalism and saw it as flawed, he viewed the historical alternative as no better and probably less free.

A second instance: I was talking with a man who was helping me install a new ceiling in the back room of my house. He was originally from Cuba; his father was Russian and his mother was Cuban. He was married to a woman from Colombia. I was asking him about Cuba and Colombia, two countries he had lived in before coming to the U.S. It quickly became apparent that his political attitudes were anti-leftist; he weas lamenting that a leftist candidate had just won the election for president of Colombia.

He noted that this candidate had previously been the leader of a guerilla war against a previous Colombian government and stated that every time guerillas took power in a country the government became authoritarian, you were no longer allowed access to a free press, viewpoints opposing government policy were repressed, etc. He pointed to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as examples. We had a longer conversation, but I was completely unable to dislodge the connection that he made between “socialist” and “authoritarian and unfree.”

In some ways, this pairing is understandable for the older generation because the primary experiences they have had with self-described socialist societies were with the Communist countries (Soviet Union, Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc.) I think it is difficult to underestimate the damage that was done to the cause of socialism by the failed one-party authoritarian experiments that were known as the Communist world. (Of course, there are some positive features of these countries such as universal literacy and education and usually widely available healthcare, but they are universally unfree societies that lose disproportionate percentages of their population if emigration is allowed — frequently it is not.)

Most modern societies have a mix of socialist and capitalist features although the capitalist ones tend to be more fundamental and prominent. It helps to think of countries as more socialistic or more capitalistic since pure forms of either socialism or capitalism are basically non-existent (although some of the most unequal societies with minimal social welfare features come perilously close to pure capitalism). If we look at the spectrum from most socialistic to most capitalistic, which countries in the world are closest to straight out socialism?

If we’re talking about democratic socialism, the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland) come closest. They combine a large social welfare sector with a strong safety net, relatively low levels of inequality, a massive union movement incorporating a strong majority of the workforce, strongly democratic governments, and a fluctuating but comparatively large public sector. (Wikipedia states that approximately 30% of the workforce in Nordic countries work in the public sector.) In the recent past these countries have generally retrogressed toward capitalism (Norway is an exception: its public sector wealth exceeds the private sector), but the difference from more capitalistic societies is still stark. These countries are not fully socialist, of course. But they are the most socialistic in the world. The consequences are stark: they consistently rank among the happiest countries in the world on the happiness index and they are among the healthiest and most equal in the world.

All of this may be so commonly understood that it hardly needs to be said. Yet, I think there are a couple of lessons for us in DSA from the account given above. First, we would be wise to always describe ourselves as democratic socialists. The simple word “socialist” has been sullied to such a degree that the modifier is necessary if we are to be clear about our politics.

Second, members of the DSA would be wise to separate the notions of socialism from a completely centrally planned “command” economy. Attempts at such an economy have universally been authoritarian failures and we need to be exploring other ways to gain democratic control over the economy and to combat vast inequalities of wealth. I think some version of market socialism where the workers own and control the means of production but utilize market mechanisms to coordinate the economy and respond to consumer demand is the best approach, but that is the subject for another essay.

Third, we should always be vigilantly paying attention to our public image. That doesn’t mean we hide any of our substantive political positions, but it does mean avoiding public displays of Soviet-era symbols of so-called “Communist” countries and/or statements of approval for these governments or their leaders. (I understand that some DSA members may adore these leaders or governments, but they are a distinct minority and do not in any way represent the general consensus of the organization.)

Some years ago, I remember participating in a Tampa Bay DSA chapter march for May Day where some of the marchers held hammer and sickle signs. The march stopped at one point and an American flag was burned. I thought that was counterproductive and contrary to the general thrust of DSA politics at the time, and I still do. The DSA is not an authoritarian communist organization, and it makes no sense to try to coopt Communist symbols or methodologies for an organization attempting to build a democratic socialist society. Why adopt the symbols of such a failed and unpopular movement when we have our own much more popular vision to put out to the public?

Since this entire article has been directed against the hard left-authoritarian fringe of our socialist movement, I should make it clear that I equally oppose attempts on the other side of our movement to dissolve DSA’s distinctive politics into a mushy liberalism indistinguishable from the predominant thinking of the Democratic Party. Unlike liberals, democratic socialists see the structural causes of inequality, racism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia, etc. baked into a capitalist economy. Divisions within the ranks of working people are critical to the survival of capitalism. But that too is the subject of another piece. The main point here is this: let’s avoid alienating the bulk of the American people by displaying false images of ourselves as upholders of undemocratic ideas and regimes.

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America