We writers have to know all about words and how to use them. Meanings, definitions, usage, slang, puns, you name it, we have to know. So in a recent political discussion when my opponent used a word to try and label me, it got me thinking. Warning, what follows does contain politics (mine specifically), but pay more attention to the way the words are use
My opponent asked if I was a socialist. What the hell does that word mean? There are a lot of answers. What he meant by the word was a communist. He got that meaning from Glenn Beck. But is that what it really means? No, it isn't. It is, however, a common right wing label for those who espouse a view of government regulation, class leveling social programs, and a perceived godlessness that they feel equates someone to a communist. So in this sense, the word socialist is mean as a pejorative insult. I took it as such and responded with facts that showed they were talking nonsense.
What, then, is socialism? In the modern usage it refers to a different economic system where good are manufactured for consumption, not for sale. Companies are owned the government on behalf of the people or by the the people directly. The former in practice and the later in theory. This was true in the USSR form of Communism. In a pure form, all companies are owned in the same way. However, in general practice this system has been around since pre-history and is nothing new. In the 19th century, the thought was that the workers would take over the companies and the need for governments would vanish. In practice, the ownership always fell to the governments.
Now when I say this has been around since pre-history, what do I mean? The concept of the state (the head of state and defacto owner of everything in the state was usually a monarch) owning companies was very common. It still is. We do not live in a society were everything is done for profit. We have public services, such as water, gas, electricity, police, schools, fire-fighers, paramedics, road construction, and other public works. As you move further back into history, more and more things that we today have as independent businesses were owned an run by the government. The expeditions to the new world were all sponsored and funded by the monarchs of the day. Even going back to castles and cathedrals of Europe, the Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids, these are public works, not private. By strict definition, this is equivalent to the modern socialist ownership of companies by the government. But the thing was, this was never called socialism until the USSR took the Marx's communism and created the USSR and government ownership of everything.
It is from this that the insult arose. I didn't really connect it until I was watching a program on TV and they played a clip from the 1950's where the speaker referred to socialists. He was of course speaking of the USSR. Cut to today and Glenn Beck using it to label President Obama and accusing him of taking over healthcare. First off, for that label to be even tenuously correct, Obamacare would have to in some way take over from the private sector insurance companies. Instead, Obamacare establishes stronger regulation of the capitalistic health insurance industry and mandates that everyone over 130% of the poverty line buy health insurance and then expands Medicaid, the government health care coverage for the poor to cover everyone below 130% of the poverty line. That does not produce a government run healthcare system and does not match the definition of socialism. It is less government run than the other services I mentioned above.
And that brings me to my last definition of socialism. It was actually the first definition of the word, but least used these days. It refers to correcting capitalism for the natural imbalance of rich and poor by leveling the system while not making things equal. This is what all western capitalistic countries practice to reduce poverty. It is no longer called socialism, but things like social programs, social welfare, or, more disparagingly, entitlement programs.
So when someone uses the words socialist or socialism, which one do they mean? As you see, they are not interchangeable. And should you take offense? Probably not. If they intend to be insulting, educate them on what modern socialism means and how it is actually in use in every society in the world. Otherwise a simple yes or no works quite well.
From a writer's point of view, this discussion is important for two reasons. First, the usage for this word over time. The word means something different in 1830, 1880, and 1980. If you write period stories or have any political barbs to throw around in your story, you should know when and how to use the word. Second, this isn't the only word like this. If, like me, you write fiction that takes place in the future, you can come up with other words that might have a history like this. Or, for anything else, you need to research your terms and find out how words are used in context and how they are misused, either in honest mistake or to create a deliberate insult.
Words are crazy and powerful things. When you are talking about one that gets used as a label, you are talking about something even crazier and more powerful. Careful how you use them. Timing is everything.