When "Socialism" Meant Something

It was remarkable to see the spirit of political camaraderie and good will disappear in the blink of a Tweet on Tuesday night. No doubt realizing that a shouted "You lie" might seem indelicate from a Republican on the floor of the House this time round, Representative Paul Broun slipped off to his office during the president's address to make his opinions known. The president doesn't believe in the Constitution, he tapped away to his constituents. The president believes in socialism.

It's fitting that this declaration should have come in the form of a Tweet where anything more than 140 characters doesn't make the cut. That leaves little room for explanations or analysis or even definitions. And that's probably a good thing for the folks tossing these terms around, especially when the complexities of fascism and anarchism have recently returned to the conversation and the Tweetwaves.

The trouble is these ideas no longer carry any value or distinction. They're simply words, slung like mud, without the slightest idea of what they mean, and sometimes in open contradiction. And while it's easy enough to dismiss a moment of staggering disrespect from a member of Congress, it's far more dangerous to let stand the clipped distortions of these fundamental terms.

Not since the devastations of the Spanish civil war -- the 75th anniversary happens to be this year -- have all these isms played so major and specific a role on the same stage of battle. World War II, with no anarchists to speak of, was democracy pitted against fascism. After that it was cold war when the world settled into a simple communism vs. anti-communism dichotomy. So it remains Spain, 1936-1939, where the current terminology last lived with any real meaning or serious purpose.

The Spanish saw socialism in simple economic terms, as a belief that governments had to oversee large programs of social improvement -- such as land reform and the wresting of education from the hands of the church to secular institutions -- while leaving small business to the entrepreneurs. Socialists argued that a small minority shouldn't own the majority of the wealth, and social welfare should be the aim of government. The anarchists were modern ascetics: no booze, no tobacco, no infidelity. Their rallying cry was that no official should be paid or have his power enhanced due to his position. And the fascists -- unlike their German and Italian counterparts -- were the army of the right fueled by strict loyalty to the church. They defined themselves by their traditional values and strong religious commitments.

That some of these ideals are alive and well in the US today -- alive on both the left and the right -- makes it so amazing that they should continue to be so badly misrepresented. And it's the socialists who always fare the worst. Those getting it wrong today might be shocked to learn that back in February of 1936, the leftist Spanish government led the only nation in the world that stood up to the growing Nazi propaganda juggernaut. Hitler was about to solidify his place on the international stage with the Berlin Olympics and he had just passed the Nuremburg racial laws. Everyone, including the US, promised to boycott the games but of course we all showed up.

Except for Spain. Not content with just words, the socialists arranged for Barcelona to host a summer protest games -- an Olimpiada Popular -- for the workers of the world. Competitors would vie in most of the usual events-track and field, fencing, swimming -- but also in a few extras with a distinctly proletarian slant. A team of folk dancers was coming in from Czechoslovakia. Actors and singers would be performing for gold, silver and bronze. And each of the twenty-two participant countries hoped to crown its own Olympic chess champion.

The Olimpiada was a truly international enterprise, endorsed by a leading nation, and scheduled for the week just before Hitler intended to take center stage. If the world's participation in the Nazi Olympics was the first irrevocable step of appeasement, then the Barcelona protest games remain the last act of genuine moral defiance of the Nazis.

Sadly, Franco and his rebel Nationalists rose up two days before the opening ceremonies and the games never happened. But perhaps just as sad is to realize that a venerable political label like socialism, and the ideals it stood for, is now trumpeted out as nothing more than a term of abuse. In the end, it's not just for the definitions that we can look back to Spain on this 75th anniversary. It's for the ideals themselves, which we betray every time we misuse the terms by which they were known, and for which so many high-minded people were willing to die.