Mises Wire

American Socialism Isn’t Marxism—but It’s Still a Problem

Undoubtedly, the Democratic Party has made a left turn, but how far left have they found themselves in the first half of the twenty-first century? Many right-wing pundits, political analysts, and laypersons persistently and interchangeably call them “Marxists,” “communists,” or “socialists.” But such imprecise use of these terms tells us little about what ideology these people have actually adopted.

To adequately and intelligently set forth arguments against all sorts of collectivist movements, it is necessary to understand the historical development of socialist thought and to understand all the nuances of its general provisions. It is very shallow and utterly incorrect to view all socialists as Marxists, for example. Shots fired in this way will not hit their target. Recall how Obama ridiculed accusations of sympathy for Marxism and mocked Republicans for calling health care reform “some Bolshevik plot.” He deflected such criticism effectively, because it often did not apply to him; at the same time, he was able to veil the fact that he was a socialist of a different flavor. Most modern socialists in the United States do not follow either Marxism or Bolshevism at all.

Not All Socialism Is Marxism

How can Marxism be distinguished from representatives of other socialist currents? First of all, Marxism is an extreme and particular flavor of socialism that is usually called communism. Communists adhere to the materialist conception of history and the labor theory of value and surplus value. They claim to represent the “proletariat” class and believe in the exploitation of labor by capital. To them, this exploitation leads to the aggravation of class struggle and, as a result, instigates the socioeconomic change of society, which some would call a revolution. After the revolution, the victors would establish a proletarian dictatorship and start a socialist transformation of society, namely the collectivization of private property and consciousness. The founder of Marxism envisioned that the communist revolution would take place in all industrial countries at once. After the formation of a “new man”—who does not know the concept of individualism—and the achievement of economic prosperity and equality, the state would wither away. Society would then become genuinely communist.

Now, ask yourself, who in the Democratic Party shares such a view? Apparently, no one, not even openly socialist Bernie Sanders. First of all, neither he nor the Democratic Party represent most of the working class anymore. It is rather the contemporary Republican Party that has welcomed a considerable number of blue-collar workers into its ranks.

Not Marxism, but Reformism

The question is, what kind of socialism involves the leftist elements of the Democratic Party? First of all, modern socialists do not adhere to a single coherent socialist theory or create something anew; instead, they recycle old slogans about economic equality and fairness, which have been known from time immemorial, long before Marx. However, if we consider the main path to socialism that they have chosen, namely the redistribution of wealth, it becomes clear that modern socialism in the US is very close to Bernsteinian reformism. Reformism became the blueprint of European social democracy at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Eduard Bernstein was a personal friend and disciple of Friedrich Engels, he significantly changed the basic principles of Marxism. Thus, Bernstein replaced the Hegelian philosophical basis of Marxism with Kantianism; he questioned the dialectical materialism, the hegemony of the proletariat, and the acuteness of the class struggle. He emphasized the role of a democratic state and the moral principles of society as the most critical elements in achieving socialism.

In a nutshell, Bernstein proposed a framework of evolutionary socialism—an umbrella term for various strains of socialist thought employing education, culture, art, ethics, and aesthetics as tools in the transformation of society. However, the main idea remained untouched—gradually growing socialism out of capitalism from the ground up by employing democratic institutions. To win in honest parliamentary struggles, the Left needed to attract enough sympathizers to cast ballots for their ideas. Thus began the battle for hearts and minds, which made significant headway. Had they not, we would not be talking about them now.

It is important to note that in discussing Marxism’s “improvement,” one should reject the notion of cultural Marxism as oxymoronic. If Marx himself were to hear of it, he would be the principal adversary of the idea that denies the primacy of the economic basis of societal development in favor of the elements of superstructure (politics, culture, morals, etc.). It was an act of intellectual dishonesty on the part of past socialist thinkers to use Marx’s name to name something utterly non-Marxist “cultural Marxism.”

Looking back, one can conclude that antisocialist politicians and intellectuals were slow and inefficient to adequately respond to the rhetoric of the Left. They vigorously criticized Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, fought the communist block during the Cold War, but overlooked the evolutionary socialism under their noses. Moreover, after the end of World War II, antisocialists were overwhelmed by the flurry of false accusations of their belonging to fascism and Nazism. Such allegations became one of the most effective politico-technological techniques invented by the Left to lure the mass of the population into the bosom of collectivism. The infiltration of leftist ideas into the educational system and cultural institutions was missed, which made it possible to train without hindrance the soldiers of future changes. By this time, socialists had succeeded in attracting a considerable and motley electorate, which made it possible for them to come out openly, without shame, and attempt to win elections.

The Role of the Socialist Elites

What about collectivist generals? The leaders of the Left use collectivist rhetoric for their subordinates, but they assume a completely different role for themselves. These “anointed” people adhere to the provisions first mentioned by Plato, formulated by Pareto, and perfected by Italian fascists; that is, the idea that society should be governed by a capable elite within a coercive and robust state. They consider themselves the ruling class, intended for governance and appointed to decide the fate of the population.


The Left also creatively adopted the theory of the political myth developed by the French revolutionary Georges Sorel. He was a theoretician of revolutionary syndicalism, national syndicalism, and a progenitor of Italian fascism. Sorel’s idea was the clever use of historical myths to mobilize and politicize society. It was important that these myths be transmitted from generation to generation of revolutionaries and reformers. The vast majority of issues submitted for public discussion today by the Left are political myths. These include the idea that global central planning is necessary to save us from climate change, the notion that there is a “war on women,” and the idea that we must constantly identify new classes of “victims” who must be compensated through large-scale wealth redistribution schemes.

Socialism happens to be a political myth itself. It is used by the contemporary left as a vehicle to gain political power and exploit the state as a moneymaking machine for the enrichment of the chosen elites. Meanwhile, their ordinary voters are the real victims, who will be forgotten until the next election.

In the United States, what we have come to know as socialism is not Marxist, but appears as an amalgam of provisions taken from Bernsteinian reformism, Italian fascism, and French revolutionary syndicalism. To effectively counter this brand of American socialism, it is important to properly Identify the problem, and to attack with precision.

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