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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) Talks Democratic Socialism with Stephen Colbert

BU historian: the term doesn’t fit the new NY congresswoman


She is the youngest member of Congress, at 29, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) is also a magnet for criticism from conservatives, largely because she has self-identified as a “democratic socialist,” made some statements shown to be factually questionable, and been outspoken on social media. The word socialism came up again Monday night when she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to eat ice cream, explain her proposal for a 70 percent tax rate on the superrich, and emphasize that there’s a big difference between “socialism” and “democratic socialism.”

But is AOC a socialist, a democratic socialist, or neither? What was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, since he embraced the term before her? And what exactly does that word mean anyway? We asked Jonathan Zatlin, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, to educate us on why socialism became such a divisive, even dirty, word in politics.

Socialism’s roots are from the French Revolution. The socialist tradition is older and bigger than just Marxism. The ideals of equality and justice during the French Revolution radicalized some people. The first socialists were also influenced by their interpretation of early Christians. They wanted to improve human relationships through brotherly love and the kind of communal property ownership early Christians practiced. But by the time you get to 1871 and the Paris Commune, European governments start to worry about political subversion. Government officials start to get nervous about any threats, and other kinds of left-wing political protest, such as anarchists, get lumped in with socialists. And all these various political movements get labeled as unacceptable.

Once we get to the 20th century, it is socialism in power, and especially after 1945, that people have in mind. People looked to the Soviet Union as embodying certain ideals, especially when it comes to the economy—the planned economy. Those who called themselves democratic socialists—in opposition to the dictatorial methods of the communists—rejected the Soviet Union. They start to say, we don’t want a government that enforces communal property ownership. Most American socialists were democrats and modeled themselves on the social democrats in Europe, especially during the Cold War.

It’s unclear if the people in the United States who say they are democratic socialists want to reform or abolish capitalism. If I had a chance to speak to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez without the political fanfare, the first question I’d ask her is, what do you think about capitalism? The big dilemma for people on the left since 1989 [generally regarded as the year communism collapsed] is whether you think capitalism can be reformed or if markets by their nature always harm people without power. The big dividing line on the left is between those who say, “Look, the market is a good thing, trade generally benefits everyone,” and those who say, “Trade is a zero-sum game, someone always wins and someone always loses.” If Ocasio-Cortez thinks capitalism always hurts the poor, then she probably opposes capitalism. If so, then she only has a few options. She’s not a communist, so she’s not going to go the dictatorial route like the Soviets. But no one knows what democratic socialism would really look like.

So she can try to limit markets, maybe by using the government to interfere with them, and just wait for the day that something else comes along to replace capitalism.

Or she can say, the market is good, but it’s often unfair. I want to restrain it, use the state to ensure markets benefit everyone.

Except, that’s not socialism. That’s still capitalism. From what I can see, she’s a welfare statist, not a socialist. She wants to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth. What’s happened in the United States is that it’s increasingly difficult to redistribute that wealth. That’s a critique not of capitalism, but of how corporate America is organized—to return more profits to managers and owners and less to workers. Ocasio-Cortez is just saying tax the wealthy more. In fact, I would go so far as to say she and Mitch McConnell are pretty good friends—they just don’t know it. She wants to take income and redistribute it using a more progressive tax system. McConnell wants the wealthy to have a bigger piece of the pie than she does, but he also believes in progressive taxation.

Is she a socialist? This drives me nuts, when politicians say they’re socialists. When Bernie Sanders started saying it, I would get very annoyed. I like some of the things he says, but I could not figure out why he would call himself a socialist. He isn’t a socialist in any sense of that term. He is not looking to get rid of capitalism. His insistence on being a socialist is wrong historically. But it’s apparently right politically. Bernie was trying to galvanize new voters behind him, protest against the way that our economy disadvantages many people.

Capitalism, or the economy as we know it, produces its own criticism. That’s one way of defining socialism. People who consistently take up that criticism either want to address those criticisms from inside the system, or mount a challenge outside the system to do it. She is working inside the system. She is using Twitter to make fun of old white men. That’s as inside the system as you can get. I do respect her a great deal. I don’t want to criticize her just because she isn’t using socialism in a scholarly way.

When it comes to socialism, she is trying to play up to her base. And that’s really important as we’ve seen. She has to galvanize people and also try to not push people away—except for certain kinds of Republicans.

Socialism is a dirty word. It’s been a dirty word in America since maybe the [1901] McKinley assassination or the Soviet takeover of 1917. I don’t think anyone had a kind word to say about it after 1945. It’s got this treasonous aspect to it. That’s why the right is so successful using it. It’s so easy for people to delegitimize socialism and socialists. That’s why it’s so interesting that Bernie started using it.

As a historian, I would tell her this: There are many policy options she could adopt if she’s critical of capitalism. Clarify your economic aims. Why a 70 percent tax bracket and not 50 percent or 90? Does she understand that wealthy people can use many loopholes to get around tax policies? Or is she just trying to shake up the policy discussion? Aiming for another office? Whatever the case, it gives people a chance to rethink these problems.

I do worry that her command of tax law is not that great. There is a big distinction between income and wealth. When it comes to income, CEOs in this country get paid horrendous amounts of money. But not in the way she is talking about. They get all kinds of stock deals, private cars or jets, privileges they don’t have to declare as income. So how would you approach that practically?

Is it a good thing we’re talking about socialism? I think it’s a good thing. I just wish Americans understood the kind of socialism that she’s talking about. I would put that at Bernie’s feet. He never explained what he really meant. I also think social media plays a part. Socialists want to give more ordinary people more power, and social media does that, it levels the playing field. Except that Twitter is a corporation, making money off tweets—socialist ones, too.

Doug Most, Executive Editor
Doug Most

Doug Most can be reached at dmost@bu.edu.

7 Comments on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) Talks Democratic Socialism with Stephen Colbert

  • Cesar on 01.23.2019 at 6:18 am

    If you’re interested in these topics, read the Nobel prize-wining “The Gulag Archipelago”’!!! Hardly do we get to learn about that kind of stuff elsewhere these days.

  • Paul on 01.23.2019 at 7:39 am

    Even if she isn’t a technically a socialist, her policies are still bad.

    • Aaron on 01.23.2019 at 10:44 am


  • Anton on 01.23.2019 at 10:29 am

    Please, don’t worry. It is all glossy shape w/o substance. Real change will never go beyond your computer/phone screen. AOC will vote same way as corporate bound democrat. She is already vote in favor of fat cats in military industrial complex by supporting bill H.R.676.

  • Dolores on 01.23.2019 at 11:17 am

    There’s a few misconceptions in this article, which I’m afraid could cause even more confusion about socialism.

    For one, socialism is a very, very broad term that includes a lot of different approaches. Anarchism is actually one kind of socialism that tries to achieve its goals without the state. For a long time, this approach to socialism was synonymous with the term Libertarian Socialism, or simply Libertarianism (before the term was appropriated by a very different ideology in the mid-20th century). Some forms of socialism advocate a brisk transition to a new society, while others seek a more gradual approach (and no, I’m not talking about social democracies). There are forms of socialism that look to co-operatives and worker-self management, and even forms that advocate using the market! So, what then is the thread that ties all these approaches together? I would say a better way of understanding socialism is to see it as a movement towards a society where the engines of the economy (all the places where people put in work to produce “stuff”) are controlled primarily by the people who work them. It’s a very old idea, much older than Marx himself, which seeks to give people their fair share for the work they’ve put in, without being short-changed.

    As far as AOC, the author is correct that she has been vague about what she means when she calls herself a democratic socialist. However, the article strongly hints at the notion that she doesn’t really know what she means. I disagree with that. It would be disingenuous to say that we can deduce that simply based her current policies on taxes. Like I mentioned before, there are a vast amount of ways that AOC can still properly call herself a socialist, even if she currently advocates for policies that are social democratic. Frankly, given how badly we have been misinformed about the long history of socialism in the U.S. because of the Cold War, I absolutely don’t blame people like AOC or Bernie for taking small steps towards a dialogue with the public, rather than launching headfirst into the farthest corners of ideas we have been taught to fear.

  • LKW on 01.23.2019 at 5:48 pm

    European Social Democrats have been practicing socialism for decades or even hundreds of year, if you look at their coops and unions.

    Once again, an American is looking only at US history.

    Many of the European immigrants brought social structures with them and transplanted coops and unions to American towns and cities.

    I also don’t like the style of the author attributing ideas to AOC. Don’t speak in her voice.

  • Steve on 01.23.2019 at 11:15 pm

    To clarify: 1) social democrats prior to WW1 were mainly socialists (in fact the Bolsheviks were a wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party). So the hard division between social democrats and socialists is mainly an illusion created by European social democratic parties that abandoned their own traditions. 2) There is a long American tradition of radical social democratic socialism (Eugene Deb’s and the old SPA). The term is hardly new, nor is socialist opposition to Stalinism. (George Orwell refered to himself as a “democratic socialist” in the 1940s.) 3) Markets are not the same thing as capitalism. Markets have existed in most human societies, but capitalism only came into existence around the 1600s. This means that one can have markets (though not class divisions) within a socialist society. 4) No socialist thinks that capitalism is purely a zero sum game. Marx thought capitalism was in many senses quite positive. 5) Socialists are not necessarily protectionists. They are internationalists (“workers of the world unite…”). 6) Only insanely stupid socialists think the abolition of capitalism is imminent. If it’s not, the immediate task for the socialist movement is fighting for social democratic reforms.

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