For Decades, It Was Considered Uncivil to Use the Word ‘Socialism’

'America is slowly getting educated,' says historian Mike Shotwell

For Decades, It Was Considered Uncivil to Use the Word ‘Socialism’
A protester (R) at a campaign rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 5, 2020, in Phoenix on March 5, 2020. (Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images)
Catherine Yang

If you have a varied social circle, or even just tend to watch the news from rivaling networks, you've likely noticed that people on different sides of the political spectrum seem to be speaking almost two different languages. It's evidence of how much language has been warped by the left with now "anti-racist" trainings that teach racism; a Green New Deal that spells disaster for the environment; diversity and inclusion initiatives that demand homogeneity and conformity; "health care" that ends life with euthanasia or "assisted suicide" and abortion; progressive policies that promise social regression—more and more people aren't even surprised that this is coming from a movement that violently demands compassion.

But this perversion of language isn't new. What's new is that we're even willing to talk about it, says Mike Shotwell, a historian of Marxism.

"This is the first major dialogue that we've ever had—there have been other dialogues, in the '30s after the turn of the 20th century," Shotwell said. "We didn't have a major dialogue in 1948 or even in the '60s or '70s, because it was verboten. You couldn't talk about socialists because that was 'dirty pool.'"

The Democratic Party has always included socialist politicians, some with openly Marxist or Stalinist ties, but neither party would openly call the policies socialism. Even as recent as the 2008 or 2012 elections, it wasn't a term to be used.

For decades, the Republican Party considered it unfair or uncivil to use the word "socialism," or to call an opponent a socialist—it was unthinkable, like comparing their opponents to Hitler, and would invite accusations of McCarthyism besides, Shotwell said. So no one ever did it.

"Well, you can see how correct it would have been then. We would have had a much longer dialogue," he said.

But then in the 2016 presidential elections, Sen. Bernie Sanders openly ran as a democratic socialist, and the dam broke, Shotwell says. Socialism became widely discussed by the media and public—terms like communism, socialism, democratic socialism, Stalinism, Marxist, previously used with nitpicking distinctions, became nearly interchangeable as people started to understand what Karl Marx's vision of socialism and communism was.

"America is slowly getting educated," Shotwell said.

By Any Means Necessary

Shotwell grew up in a deeply anti-American, communist household, with conviction in these leftist ideals until he saw the consequences of communism in action.
"My whole world was backwards," said Shotwell, who recounts the experience in his memoir "Immersed In Red: My Formative Years in a Marxist Household," which he recently updated in an October 2020 edition.  "It's one of the reasons I can write about it with some authority, because I lived it."

His stepfather Orville Olson was one of the main organizers of the 1948 Progressive Party, which in reality was the Communist Party, ran by communists who deliberately chose a word that would convey very different connotations. Such deceptive terminology "has always been part and parcel of communism," Shotwell said. These members agreed to use "patriotism" when they meant "socialism" and "capitalist" to refer to their opposition. "It's across the board, it's been around a long time."

If you look in communist handbooks, it says explicitly to lie, to say anything you want, in order to promote your cause, Shotwell explained. You'll see frequently in left-leaning manifestos the phrase "by any means necessary."

Though new terms like "anti-racist" are ridiculed, older ones like "progressive" are more or less taken for granted, having made their way firmly into our political lexicon.

If you have only a half-hearted grasp on reality, it is easy for the left to speak these lies into being. It is not even particularly strategic most of the time, just the time-worn tactic that if you say something often enough people will come to accept it, Shotwell added; for example, mainstream media doesn't twist facts about President Donald Trump's policies to paint him as a racist anymore, they just repeat "Trump's a racist" until it sticks.

"It is insane at some point, because the left puts everything into a morality play. It's a morality play and, of course, they have no morals," Shotwell said. "They live in a world of moral relativity, where words mean anything you want."

Reality is grounded in objective truth, and Western civilization has as its foundation the Ten Commandments, objective truths that come from God, not the mind of man, Shotwell said. This is in stark contrast to communism, which breaks every one of those commandments and seeks to create a world with no nuclear family, private property, or freedom.

"I think when you live in that kind of a world, the word doesn't mean anything. You can move words around and do anything you want with them, and if you repeat it long enough it becomes real," Shotwell said. "The words they use are all malleable."

"They create their own morality, their own truth," Shotwell said. "You create your own world, 'speak your own truth'—what does that even mean?"

Shotwell saw the results of real-life application of communist ideas firsthand in crumbling Venezuela and the riots and fires in Los Angeles in the '60s. He sees a repeat of communism in action with anti-racist trainings that look exactly like the mandatory meetings of communist cells in the Soviet Union, where everyone at the factory had to attend and confess their privilege. Now others see it in the looting and riots and burning of private property.

"This isn't something that's just started, this has been going on," Shotwell said. "Until people know this stuff, you go along with the words."

"People come up with these nonsensical things—just unpack it. What does it basically mean?" Shotwell said. "Define what it is, and then you can go on and debate it. Until you unpack it, they're all just like a blur, there are so many of them."

Dialogue and Clarity

Having witnessed decades of growing communism with no debate against it, Shotwell says he is buoyed by the things he sees in public discourse today, even if some of the words used sound like utter insanity. It won't happen overnight, and it won't be painless or easy, but these growing pains are necessary for the United States to understand what socialism truly is, and there is every indicator that Americans don't truly want socialism.

"It doesn't happen with a catharsis, it doesn't happen at one time," Shotwell said.

Shotwell says the black population is a tremendous example of this awakening in action. This is a demographic that has for decades voted overwhelmingly Democrat, but in recent years, there has been a highly visible move away from this singular narrative, and he sees the reason as being on multiple levels.

First there is tangible proof of policy consequences; the mainstream media might demean Trump's character, but black people are seeing historic lows in unemployment. Secondly, admirable figures such as Thomas Sowell speak and write with clarity on these issues at a time when people are seeking the truth. And third, but maybe most importantly, and most persuasively, the everyday, one-on-one interactions we all have contribute greatly to this big dialogue of the public sphere.

Shotwell says he met a good friend of his about three years ago just because they happened to start a conversation in a restaurant after one spotted the other with a book by Sowell.

"He talks to his friends, he talks to his family, he's talking to his dad and his mother," Shotwell said. And his friends and family start to get curious and start to think about these issues. It's not by any means simple; at a family reunion his grandmother called him a race traitor, but other members of the family quietly thought about the points he brought up.
This "cancel culture" isn't new either, Shotwell said. There were many black members of the communist or progressive movement decades ago, too, and he remembers if anyone said something good about other viewpoints they would be ostracized and lose all their friends.

"Fortunately, we have the ballot box," Shotwell said. Most people may not be vocal about their political understanding, but they have the right to cast a vote, and the results will create more tangible proof, and, eventually, cultural change.

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