Socialism, From Golda To Bernie And Beyond

In a three-way interview in 1970, Golda Meir, her daughter and granddaughter were asked about the place of socialism in Israel. Golda spoke at length about the continuing importance of socialism in the country, which, from its start, had defined itself as a socialist state. She emphasized especially the need to wipe out poverty and close the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor. Her daughter, Sarah, responded that the only area where socialism was still alive in Israel was in the kibbutzim, the collective agricultural settlements. Her granddaughter, Naomi, answered with a shrug that socialism meant nothing to her; at the moment, she had other interests.

Most young Israelis of the time would have agreed with Golda’s granddaughter. In fact, many snickered that Mrs. Meir, their elderly prime minister, was woefully out of date with her harangues about socialism at a moment when the country was growing and private enterprise expanding.

Fast forward now to the United States in 2019. “Socialism” is the hottest word in today’s politics. Our president rails that America “will never be a socialist country,” while large numbers of millennials (young people born between the late 1980s and mid-1990s), particularly in the Democratic Party, identify themselves as socialists or speak glowingly of that philosophy. During the 2016 presidential primaries, when Bernie Sanders, sounding much like Mrs. Meir some 40 years earlier, raged against the gap between rich and poor in this country, the young did not snicker; they flocked to his cause.   

What is this about? To a great extent, today’s young American socialists are the flip side of Israel’s early story. That country was built on the concept of communal labor, with kibbutzim turning swamps into fertile soil, and the Histadrut, the vast federation of labor, running mostly everything, from schools and hospitals to food cooperatives and workers’ housing units. That began to change as the nation grew and a new market economy flourished, making the founders’ socialism seem old fashioned. In contrast, young people today grew up under a free enterprise system in which they have seen vast sums of wealth increasingly accumulate in the hands of a small group of people. Moreover, many of these young people lived through the recession of 2008. They watched their parents and relatives lose jobs and homes. And they saw banks and big corporations receive bailouts, while small businesses failed. For these and other reasons, many became receptive to the idea of a socialism that seeks to equalize incomes and improve the lives of ordinary people.

They are receptive to plans put out by progressive Democratic presidential candidates, such as Medicare for all; a 70 percent tax on the income of the wealthiest; universal child care; tuition-free public colleges and, most recently, a “Green New Deal” to counter climate change. It’s hard to disagree with any of these worthy goals. Yet as I contemplate the socialism so alluring to the young, I’m troubled by some things. What, for example, does the much-touted Green New Deal actually mean? Along with the seemingly unrealistic goal of drastically reducing carbon emissions (which affect the climate) within 10 years, the resolution also includes such an array of social changes that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote it off as “the green dream or whatever they call it…” Then, too, is it really possible to pay for such things as free colleges or universal child care by taxing only the very wealthy, or, in the end, will they add to everyone’s tax burdens? And — most fundamentally — is there not a way to balance these government-run initiatives with the creativity of private enterprise?

My mind turns to the Torah. Scholars have argued for ages about whether it supports capitalism or socialism. The answer is neither — or both. Personal wealth is not disparaged in the Hebrew Bible. Each of the patriarchs, for example, is blessed by God with “flocks and herds” and “large households.” But the wealthy are obligated to care for the less well off. They must leave the gleanings of their fields for the hungry to gather; pay laborers on the day work is done; look after the widow and orphan and stranger. During a Jubilee year, indentured Hebrew servants are set free and land purchased, no matter its cost, is returned to its original owner, who may have sold it after falling into debt. There is a balance here between individual rights and communal responsibilities.     

The times they are a-changing, as we used to sing back in the day. The fear of socialism that gripped this country in earlier eras is dissipating, and that is good. But in its more extreme forms, today’s socialism makes me wish that the center will continue to hold, for that is where most people, of all ages, actually are.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.
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