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21 December 2015

“Socialism” is 2015’s most looked-up word – so what should its modern definition be?

“Socialism” is far from dead, it just needs a rebrand.

By Callum towler

Socialism is having a renaissance of late. In the US, Bernie Sanders has thrust the much-maligned term back into mainstream consciousness, making it the most looked-up word this year on Merriam Webster. So too here, where Jeremy Corbyn’s election has re-established Labour’s claim to truly be a “democratic socialist party”.

There’s a new appetite for socialism, as more people scrutinise the world around them with a sense of burning discontent. Calling for a genuine alternative to our crisis-ridden system, where inequality only deepens, and the narrow spectrum of choice on offer doesn’t feel like democracy. Out of this disillusion comes the same question: “surely there is a better way?”

Socialism is a maelstrom – meaning different things to different people at various times. I myself identify with its core values, as Ralph Miliband put it, “of democracy, egalitarianism, and co-operation”. And yet lately, I can’t help thinking the term does more harm than good when attempting to widen its appeal.

Words are frequently sabotaged; who adopts them, and to what end, can untether something’s meaning from how it makes people feel. And, rightly or wrongly, socialism has grown a sinister underbelly, for some, recalling its Cold War association. Even in its modernised form, “democratic socialism” is tainted by this history. Its detractors stoke our fears, consciously passing over its successes in countries like Denmark, warning instead of oppressive state intervention impinging on our freedom, usually with ruinous, bloody conclusions.

Many on the left, me included, wear socialism as a badge of honour. Sticking it in our Twitter bios alongside the customary “drinks tea”. Call me a “shy socialist”, but I think conviction is nothing if it isn’t convincing. To refashion society around its principles, we should be frank about how the word alienates many of those we must win over.

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If your favourite t-shirt had an unremovable stain, you’d bin it and buy another one. The same applies for language, which when muddied beyond repair shouldn’t be clung on to. Otherwise, we give opponents an easy stick with which to beat us. What we need is a new term; one to unshackle its potential from the baggage of its past. Simply put, socialism requires a rebrand for the 21st century.

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Now is the perfect time because, believe it or not, we live in a country conducive to socialism. Polling shows widespread support for nationalising industries and tighter rent controls. While, I suspect, we share America’s fear of the word itself, where just 26 per cent view it favourably. Clearly our disregard for unfettered markets runs deeper than our mistrust of government. Socialist politics are as relevant as ever; it’s the term that’s redundant.

A rebrand is an opportunity to shake off socialism’s stigma, reframing it for our modern age. This sounds overly simple, but when Microsoft bought Nokia and released a new smartphone they dropped the longstanding name. Why? Because, to our modern sensibility, Nokia being at the cutting edge of anything seems laughable.

In politics, you only have to look at New Labour, or Cameron’s first election, to see we have an affinity with whatever best represents positive change away from a stagnating institution.

It wouldn’t be capitulating to the smear offensive, a reheat of old ideas, nor a return to poisonous spin. Rather, a new banner under which to repackage socialist tenets – old and new – converting a rejectionist streak into a bold vision of the future the left can coalesce around. One that gives equal weight to feminist and climate issues as it does to class oppression. Revivifying socialist principles so they’re electable, otherwise we’ll only fail those who need them the most.