We should not be surprised that socialism remains a live political issue in Colorado. It has been so for over a century. Now that the elections are over, this is a good time to reflect on that long-running debate and try to make sense of it.
This year, socialism was an issue in the Third Congressional race, where Trump-endorsed firebrand Lauren Boebert handily beat Diane Mitsch Bush by six points. In Mesa County, home of Grand Junction, Boebert earned an impressive 62% of the vote.
One thing that haunted Mitsch Bush is that, as the Gazette notes, in the past she “contributed money to support the far-left publication ‘In These Times,’ founded in Chicago in 1976 by former Communist Party member James Weinstein as the country’s ‘Independent Socialist Newspaper.'” Also, as Charles Ashby reports, in the 1960s, Mitsch Bush found inspiration in “The Other America,” a book by Michael Harrington, a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Boebert said she wanted to “defeat the left lunatic socialists that want to fundamentally destroy America.” She Tweeted, “The choice is clear: vote for freedom, prosperity and someone who will respect the Constitution or vote for my opponent who will plunge this country into a socialist scourge while being Nancy Pelosi’s wingwoman.”
Two years ago, Scott Tipton, defeated by Boebert in the Republican primary this year, played the same card against Mitsch Bush. A spokesperson for Tipton’s campaign called her “a socialist . . . who funds socialist propaganda.” Mitsch Bush replied that she read “In These Times” for information about “local groups and organizations.” She said, “For the record, I am not a socialist, I’m a Democrat. I was raised in Minnesota as a DFL, that means Democratic, farmer, laborer.”
The clash over socialism played out in the Denver area too. In May, someone painted a hammer and sickle, the symbol of Soviet Russia, on the state capitol building. On October 10—the same day a 9News security guard fatally shot a right-wing protester—the Denver Communists and Colorado Socialist Revolution participated in a “Black Lives Matter Anti-Fascist Soup Drive & Pop-up Communist Bookswap.”
On November 4, protesters carried a Communist Party USA sign through the streets of Denver, along with a sign that read, “Death to fascism and the liberalism that enables it.” Yes, parts of today’s left seriously call for Communism and wish “death to liberalism.” (Liberalism broadly conceived and properly understood is the antithesis of fascism and of all forms of human oppression.)
On November 10, the evil capitalist limited liability corporation Westword ran a feature about the Denver Party for Socialism and Liberation, complete with a glam shot of three of the organization’s members. As Noah Kaplan reports, after protesting at the Aurora Police Department, several members of the socialist organization, including Lillian House, were “charged with attempted kidnapping eighteen police officers, among other crimes.”
House, who according to Kaplan “makes her living through thrift stores, selling vintage clothing online,”(i.e., buying clothing out from under the poor to resell to the rich for a profit) got radicalized in college (shocker). She told Kaplan, “When Bernie Sanders ran in 2016, socialism became a real concept I could actually think about.” Kaplan summarizes, “Socialists understood that the concentration of political and economic power in a handful of greedy, out-of-touch oligarchs had brought this country to the brink of social and ecological collapse, she saw.”
Meanwhile, Republicans motivate their base by warning about socialism. For example, Republican strategist Dick Wadhams wrote ominously of the “new Democratic Socialist Party.” Outgoing state house minority leader Patrick Neville predicted, “Eventually we are going to take Colorado back from radical socialists”—implying that Governor Jared Polis and the Democrats who lead the legislature are “radical socialists.”
A lot of people don’t seem to realize that the “socialist scourge” first came to Colorado over a century ago. In 1909, as a historian with (the socialized?) Mesa County Libraries points out, Thomas Matthew Todd of the Socialist Party of America was elected mayor of Grand Junction, an office he held to 1914. I’m not sure he was much of a socialist, though; he “owned a large lumber company” and “owned a nice, Victorian home on Main Street,” the library notes. Still, Todd created a “municipal woodpile” where homeless people could chop wood for benefits and the poor could get heating fuel. Todd also tried, unsuccessfully, to create a municipal ice house (for refrigeration) and to “make utilities publicly owned,” the library notes.
Walter Walker of Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel led the charge against the socialists, declaring, “Grand Junction is not a socialistic community; never was and never will be,” as Jeannette Smith reviews. In 1914, Walker successfully led the campaign to defeat “municipal ownership of the gas and electric power plants,” Smith writes.
During Walker’s fight with the socialists, Dalton Trumbo was a boy living in Grand Junction, having moved there from Montrose. After graduating from Grand Junction High School, Trumbo went on to work for Walker at the Sentinel before he took a position with Boulder’s Daily Camera. Trumbo then built a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter—until he was blacklisted. After Trumbo joined the Communist Party but refused to divulge details to Congress, he spent eleven months in federal prison. He continued to write uncredited scripts. Today people can visit the Dalton Trumbo Fountain Court at the University of Colorado, Boulder, if they like.
This history raises the question: What is socialism, and what should we make of debates that purport to be about it?
Classically, socialism means the state nationalizing major industries. The economist Ludwig von Mises, who literally wrote the book on socialism from a critical perspective, wrote, “To abolish private property in the means of production, to make the means of production the property of the community, that is the whole aim of Socialism.”
Socialism leads inexorably to authoritarianism and mass poverty. That is why the socialist North Korea is a hell on earth, while the mostly-capitalist South Korea thrives. That is why some people in socialist Venezuela were reduced to hunting cats and dogs in the streets. That is why the Communist Mao became the worst mass-murderer in human history, surpassing even the slaughter of Stalin and other socialist dictators.
Of course, an iron-fisted takeover of the means of production is not what the “democratic socialists” of today mean. They do not want the state to take over most major industries: farms, grocery stores, oil companies, auto manufacturers, computer makers, and so on. They do want government to take over some industries, as it has taken over utilities, most roads, public libraries, and public schools. For example, we’ve heard talk of turning social media platforms into public utilities. They want to extensively regulate business, as by taxing and restricting oil companies to subsidize makers of “renewables.” They want government to finance all (or at least basic) health care. And they want a more-extensive welfare state.
What is interesting to consider is just how much today’s conservatives agree with today’s democratic socialists. In some ways conservatives go further in calling for government interventions in the economy. Almost all elected Republican officials today endorse Social Security, public schools, public libraries, public roads, national forests, and so on. Usually fights with Democrats over the welfare state pertain to minor funding details. If “single payer” health care is “socialist,” then so too are conservative schemes to impose protective tariffs, immigration restrictions, farm subsidies, and antitrust actions. Conservatives more than leftists have called for government intervention in social media. Let us not forget that the idea to force everyone to buy health insurance started mostly with conservatives.
I think the most important lesson we can draw from the debate over socialism is that the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. Denver’s Communists claim to be anti-fascist, but the fact that I too am anti-fascist does not mean that I have anything substantive in common with the Communists. At the same time, that many white nationalists claim to oppose Marxist socialism hardly makes them my friend, even though I (more consistently) oppose socialism. Let us not forget that Walter Walker, whatever his achievements, also ran the Grand Junction affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan before he turned to criticizing it.
Here is how I put this warning (in a Tweet) to Republicans: “Some people are so afraid of socialism that they forget fascism is a variant of it.” Strangely, I didn’t get any criticism about this from Republicans, but I got yelled at by various Democrats over it. One leftist journalist suggested that any history book I read would prove me wrong. Okay, let’s turn to the book Capitalism, written by Mises’s New York student George Reisman.
Reisman points out that any “system must be called socialism” where “the government exercises all of the powers of ownership.” He writes, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that Nazi Germany was a socialist country and that the Nazis were right to call themselves National Socialists…In Nazi Germany, the government controlled all prices and wages and determined what each firm was to produce, in what quantity, by what methods, and to whom it was to turn over its products. There was no fundamental difference between the Nazis and the Communists. While the Communists in Russia wore red shirts and had five-year plans, the Nazis in Germany wore brown shirts and had four-year plans.”
We are defined not fundamentally by what we oppose, but by what we champion. Those who oppose German-style socialism while endorsing Russian-style socialism, or vice versa, are enemies of liberty. Although the Communists and the neo-Nazis might fight each other in the streets, as other street gangs often do, they are two sides of the same authoritarian coin.
The same pattern holds when it comes to less-extreme ideologies of “democratic socialism” and racial nationalism. Just because someone opposes one or the other doesn’t mean the person is a friend of liberty.
We can and should debate the proper scope of government, within certain sensible limits, without resorting to calling our opponents “socialists” or “fascists,” at least when they’re not, as is usually the case.
If we care about liberty, what really matters is not what someone claims to oppose but what someone in fact endorses. My allies are people who endorse a society of consensual relationships, free markets, equality before the law, and individual rights. Don’t tell me what you’re against, tell me what you’re for.