"Basically, we've got to get socialist," David Brooks writes in the New York Times this week. That's interesting coming from one of the house Republicans of the paper's op-ed page, but Brooks is quick to say that he doesn't mean what you think he means. "I don’t mean the way Bernie Sanders is a socialist," he clarifies, "He’s a statist, not a socialist." About Sanders, at least, I suspect Brooks is correct, if by "democratic socialism" Sanders means that elected politicians will run the economy rather than the working class. Brooks, however, probably thinks all socialists, except himself, are statists, since the pejorative American understanding of socialism is that the state runs the economy. I don't know what's more audacious about Brooks: that as a Republican he just wrote that "we've got to get socialist," or that he feels free to redefine "socialist" to serve his own purposes. For what it's worth, for Brooks, or anyone who takes his advice, to be a socialist means having to "put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics." That translates not into greater democratic regulation of the economy but more of the moralism Brooks has been offering recently. Once upon a time socialism was identified, fairly or not, with the dread doctrines of "free love" and a desire to abolish the family as a bourgeois institution. Now, Brooksian socialism preaches "no single parents!" while advocating more charter schools. To be fair, he also advocates expanding public-sector early education programs; that's one of the "things Democrats like" he includes in his hopeful program for bipartisan "socialism." But rather than probe deeper into the idiosyncratic socialism he'd like to hear advocated by "a sensible version of Donald Trump" -- why don't you speak for yourself, David? -- I want to figure out what "socialism" really means.
Somebody had to coin the word sometime, right? And they presumably knew what they were talking or writing about, right? Well, researchers tell me that the word "socialism" is around 200 years old, and that while it first appeared in Italian, it didn't start to catch on until it appeared in French in the 1830s. A paper called the Globe started using it in a roundabout way, one writer asserting that he no more wanted to sacrifice "socialisme" to "personnalite" than to sacrifice vice for versa. I don't know enough intellectual French to know for sure, but I'd guess that personnalite translates to "individuality," if not something more like "individualism." The writer, presumably, is looking for that balance of individuality and fellowship utopians have striven for ever since. "Socialist" was being used occasionally in English by 1833; the term was identified initially with the "utopian socialist" Robert Owen, and was quickly identified pejoratively with "community of goods, abolition of crime, of punishment, of magistrates and of marriage." Community of goods, as practiced in voluntary communities like Owen's, seems to be essential to the definition. As far as I know, no such thing is advocated by Sanders, much less Brooks. For the latter, socialism may as well be the science of socializing people to be good bourgeois citizens. Looking back again, however, the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the 1888 volume from which I take many of the quotes above, consistently identifies socialism with ownership of the means of production, etc., by "the community as a whole," not by "the state." Inevitably, socialism came to be identified with "statism," as Brooks puts it, if only because state power seemed inescapably necessary, once socialists gave up on voluntary utopian collectives, to the achievement of socialist goals. Bolshevism made matters worse by empowering a political class -- the vanguard party -- to run things for the workers' benefit, whether the workers liked it or not. Democratic socialists like Sanders are by definition more accountable to workers in their capacity as voters, but it can still be asked whether genuine socialism need be statist in the ways implied by Brooks, whether is must be hierarchically professional or totalitarian in its designs on individuals. Whatever socialism Brooks himself espouses probably isn't even half-assed, but such is our political environment today that some readers probably will conclude that Brooks, a critic of Trump and the Tea Pary, has only now confessed what they suspected of him all along.