Sunday, March 24, 2019
Because the Democrats are proposing to actually do something about global warming, health care, runaway student debt, and rampant wealth inequality, the Republicans have trotted out the only response they can come up with: “Socialism!” We even hear cries of “Venezuela!” As if providing health care for all Americans would somehow turn us into a failed petrostate. On the right, there tends to be a lot of misinformation and fearmongering about what socialism even is. Perhaps a bit of personal history might shed some light on the question.
One sunny afternoon in August 1984, my wife and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie, where we were required to trade 50 Westmarks for 50 worthless Ostmarks. As we wandered the streets of East Berlin, we witnessed the somber, hopeless faces of the city’s few pedestrians. We marveled at the cheap-looking Trabants that motored loudly up and down the streets and belched foul fumes out of their tailpipes. We passed soldier after soldier, each fully armed, each exuding an almost tangible assurance that the Cold War was as real as any hot one. We watched people stand in lines a block long to buy produce. We tried to spend our allotted Ostmarks in the city’s most prestigious department store but couldn’t find even a souvenir we wouldn’t have thrown away. We finally bought a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. We ate at a state cafeteria where the food tasted as unappetizing as it looked, then stopped at an ice cream parlor on Unter den Linden that was already out of practically everything on the menu by 4 p.m. By evening we were more than eager to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We left with most of our East German currency and absolutely no illusions about communism.
I can still remember later that evening visiting a little Slavic restaurant in a quiet corner of Neukölln and how ecstatic I was over a tossed salad with tomatoes and green peppers. “I could never get a salad like this in East Berlin!” I exulted. That one afternoon behind the Iron Curtain had made me see the world with new eyes. I marveled at how many stores and shops there were in the West, and at how fully stocked they were. In fact, because of that one afternoon, I can perhaps dimly imagine what the East Germans must have felt that November day five years later when the Wall came tumbling down. I can understand their desires for reunification and prosperity. I can understand their blind assumption that capitalism is right—because communism is definitely wrong. But there are many types of capitalism, and not all of them look like our top-heavy American form of corporate capitalism.
How many times have we heard from Republicans that socialism is evil, just one step, or perhaps even a half-step, away from communism? But is socialism really just a half-step away from communism? Remember the contrast I drew between the scarcity of goods in East Berlin and their abundance in West Berlin, between the oppression in the East and the freedom in West? Yes, this was a contrast between two opposing systems. But it was not a contrast between communist East Germany and capitalist America; it was a contrast between communist East Germany and socialist West Germany. West Germany in the 1980s was a solidly socialist country, with a universal multipayer health-care system, high marginal tax rates, a statutory guarantee of four weeks’ paid vacation every year (compared with none in America), and a substantial social safety net. Yes, West Germany was what Republicans would deride as a welfare state. It also had one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in the world. It was strong enough to absorb the crumbling mess that was East Germany and still remain the strongest economy in Europe. Even today, Germany is solidly socialist, and in 2014 all German states also began offering free university tuition.
So, when you hear cries of “socialism” or “Venezuela,” please remember that this is simple partisan fearmongering by a party that has no solutions to the most pressing issues of our day.