The Cooking the Books column from the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Here, in the United States,’ President Trump declared in his State of the Union message to Congress on 5 February, ‘we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence – and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.’
The United States was founded on capitalism and so involved government coercion, domination and control from the start. The American ‘war of independence’ was a classic bourgeois revolution in which a class of rich merchants, landowners and slaveholders mobilised enough popular support to set up an independent capitalist state on the east coast of North America. A state is a coercive institution and, when controlled by a capitalist class, is used to dominate and control the subordinate working class, as it has been throughout American history.
When it came to imposing controls on individual capitalist activity in the overall or long-term interest of the capitalist class as a whole, however, it has been a different story. Individual capitalists, defended by their ideologues, resented this and were able to minimise it due to the relative weakness of the US central state compared with its European counterparts.
Without ideological leftovers from feudalism such as honour and duty, American capitalists could devote themselves exclusively to profit-seeking and money-making, idealised as ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘free enterprise’. As far as they have been concerned, the ‘liberty’ and ‘independence’ that Trump spoke about has been their liberty to pursue profits and capital accumulation unhindered by state interference, with attempts by the government to restrict their activities in the general capitalist interest being denounced as ‘socialism’ and later ‘communism’ and, more ridiculously, ‘Marxism’. Hence Trump’s rhetoric.
Even so, the US state has intervened to curb individual capitalist excesses – to save them from themselves – as with trust-busting before WW1 and, then, in the 1930s with Roosevelt’s New Deal. In fact, before WW1, genuine socialist and Marxist ideas did circulate amongst a section of the American working class, as a rich body of literature bears witness to. After WW1, however, these were swamped by Bolshevik ideas from backward Russia and working class understanding regressed. After WW2 ‘anti-communism’ ruled supreme.
Now, especially since the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, more and more people, in particular young people, are no longer afraid of the word ‘socialism’. There is even one Senator and one member of the House of Representatives who openly call themselves ‘socialists’. It is this that has alarmed Trump (or that he feigned to be so as to take a dig at the Democrats). But he has no need to worry as they are merely reformist Social Democrats who are no threat to US capitalism. They may want to rein in the activities of individual capitalists that are harming the long-term interests of the US capitalist class, as for instance over carbon dioxide emissions, but they don’t want to get rid of capitalism as a system.
We don’t want to be too churlish about the revival of interest in the word ‘socialist’ not being an interest in genuine socialism in the sense of a society based on common ownership and democratic control with production directly to satisfy people’s needs. The very fact ‘socialism’ is no longer a dirty word means that real socialism can be discussed too, bringing closer the day when what used to be the United States of America becomes a part of the world socialist commonwealth.