A Linguist’s Case Against Socialism

History has made the term vague and unproductive. Should it be retired?

Bernie Sanders
Andrew Harnik / AP

Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders defined his vision for democratic socialism in an address at George Washington University. The speech elicited mixed reactions from political reporters and scholars, several of whom questioned how Sanders had evoked socialism, and from some of Sanders’s Democratic rivals. When my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere told Senator Michael Bennet the title of the speech, “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism,” Bennet responded, “I don’t think the American people even know what that means.”

To John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, such debates about the use of the democratic-socialist label are a losing enterprise for everyone involved, because the American public doesn’t have a shared understanding of what socialism signifies. “When we’re talking about politics, especially today, with politics as urgent as it is, we can’t use terms for which we would have a hard time explaining the meanings,” he said Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

The problem isn’t just with democratic socialism, McWhorter said, but extends more broadly into how the American left refers to its politics. He argued that some words are too weighted with history, ambiguity, and disparaging associations to be a part of effective political communication. By using them, politicians, political commentators, and voters are consigning themselves to an unnecessary battle to clarify and defend their positions. He specifically cited two terms that American politicians should discard: Socialism is the first; the other is liberalism.

Liberalism’s original iteration, now referred to as “classical liberalism,” developed in the early 19th century. Classical liberals, according to McWhorter, believed that one should be “free from obstacles to being your best self.” Policy-wise, that translated into advocacy for unrestricted free markets and civil liberties.

In the modern day, the torch of classical liberalism is kept burning by its ideological descendant, libertarianism, and the label classical liberal is embraced by decidedly un-liberal figures in today’s parlance, such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

The term “neoliberalism”—also overly difficult to parse, in McWhorter’s eyes—originated as a modified form of classical liberalism in the early 20th century. The first neoliberals were people who generally embraced liberal thought but felt that capitalism should be regulated, in ways that still allowed markets to thrive. Today, McWhorter noted, the term is often used to evoke a caricature of “a cigar-chomping plutocrat.”

Like neoliberalism, the ideology now called liberalism also emerged around the turn of the 20th century as a reformed version of classical liberal ideology. At first, it was called “social liberalism.” Social liberals, rather than supporting free markets and individual liberty, advocated for the government to take a more active role in addressing social and economic issues like poverty, exploitation, and discrimination. “The idea was that not only do you want people to be free from certain basic hindrances to the pursuit of happiness,” McWhorter said, “but you wish to give people certain things”—things like health care, or old-age insurance, or unemployment support.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented the New Deal as a liberal platform in the 1930s, his predecessor Herbert Hoover pushed back against the characterization in an article for The Atlantic. “The term ‘liberal’ flows from the word ‘liberty’; it does not come from the word ‘coercion,’” he wrote. “The New Deal has camouflaged itself with this honored term.” With the passage of Roosevelt’s agenda, however, McWhorter said social liberalism effectively became America’s “default state”—and was widely understood simply as liberalism.

The word socialism has undergone less of an ideological shift, but is similarly burdened by historical associations. The term was first used in the early 1800s to differentiate an idealist vision of cooperative society from the individualism advocated by classical liberals. By the latter half of the 19th century, socialism took on its more modern meaning, referring to the advancement of collective economic and political control.

An 1879 Atlantic article described how the movement was taking hold in Germany at the time. “The workman … was told that every man has a right to the necessaries of life,” it reads, and “that while one single person suffers, no one has a right to luxuries.”

In the United States, socialist organizations emerged beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and aligned themselves with the struggle for labor rights. The term socialist was sometimes applied critically to social liberal policies such as the New Deal to characterize them as radically anti-democratic and un-American. Particularly through its association with the Soviet Union and communism, McWhorter observed, the word has taken on a certain “menacing” tenor for Americans, who identify it with foreignness, atheism, lack of patriotism, threats to civil liberty, and a certain glum grayness.

“People have associations with it that are negative,” McWhorter said, “and that’s not going to change.”

In general, McWhorter explained, words tend to take on more pejorative meanings with time. Notorious once simply meant famous, for instance, and obnoxious meant vulnerable; now both are unambiguous insults. The same has happened to socialism. “That sort of thing is natural,” he said. “ And one can scarcely think that you can reverse these basic conceptions that settle in among all of us.”

Sanders’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s efforts to specify that they represent democratic socialism, McWhorter said, “doesn’t work,” because the term is still weighed down by socialism’s negative connotations.

On top of that, he noted, neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez nor any other prominent Democrat is really proposing introducing a socialist program in the United States to the degree it exists in Denmark or Norway. So, as in the case of liberalism, the meaning of the term is muddled by its application to differing political ideas and situations.

All the associations that have been fixed onto these words, McWhorter contended, have made them “so opaque that they impede discussion rather than allowing it.” He pointed out that this defeats the purpose of language itself, which is to communicate an idea in a way that others can understand.

McWhorter argued that progressive is a far better term for the people and ideas described as liberal or democratic socialist today. Unlike liberalism, which communicates only a vague relation to liberty, he said progressivism is “etymologically transparent” in its clear signification of progress, of moving forward. And unlike socialism, the term doesn’t require supporters to clear “cobwebs” of negative historical and tonal associations when they identify with it; though progressive was formerly attached to the Progressive movement that arose in the late 19th century and the “bomb-throwing radicals” of the late 20th, McWhorter said that over the past decade, that baggage seems to have dropped away.

McWhorter contended that adopting a new term was simply a matter of accepting a reality of language: The meanings of all words tend to shift over time. Their uses grow more and more pejorative. Their origins are clouded by the different contexts they move through. Progressivism, he warned, will be no different. He gives it “roughly 20 years”—and then a new term will have to be found once again.