When the comedian Colin Quinn said “Never trust a socialist with a summer home,” I laughed. It’s a good joke. But, I am a socialist with a winter home, which amounts to the same thing, so that joke got me thinking about my kind of socialism.
I learned socialism from my parents when I was growing up in the UK, but they wouldn’t have called it that. Actually, they wouldn’t have called it anything. They were just living their lives.
My socialism is rooted in watching my parents’ efforts to support their family, co-workers, and neighbours and to work with them to improve all their lives. My mother would always check in on our elderly neighbour and sometimes trim her toenails. My dad helped find furniture for new immigrants and deliver it when he could. They both joined an organization for the parents of GI brides so that they could work together to charter an aircraft to visit their children in the USA. It took them years to afford a seat on a plane so that my mother could see my sister. My dad worked in a factory that made vacuum cleaners and became a shop steward for his union. After they retired, mum and dad delivered meals on wheels to shut-ins.
So, I grew up with the idea that it was normal to help people who needed help, to work with others to meet shared goals, and to negotiate for improved working conditions and wages. We lived in England and enjoyed the benefits of publicly-owned health care, education, libraries, museums, and social services. At the time, I took those things for granted. They made perfect sense and made my world a better place. They were also the background to my parents’ support of their neighbours.
The socialism I grew up with was not opposed to capitalism but depended to a large extent on a high rate of employment. It provided for the sick, the elderly, and the unemployed so that no-one would starve or be homeless because they were unable to work. In my parents’ minds, it was pretty much that simple. Recipients of social welfare or pensions lived frugally, but they lived with self-respect. Actually, they lived lives a lot like those of their employed working-class neighbours.
I didn’t learn about socialism as a political theory until I went to university and I was amazed that respected thinkers and writers had written about socialism as a philosophy that, until then, I thought was just how decent people lived. What did come as a revelation to me was that some people thought that socialism was a bad thing. Worse, “socialism” could be a word said with a sneer, derided, mocked, or feared.
There are lots of different kinds of socialism, some with authoritarian leaders, but my kind of socialism is rooted in the shared sense of responsibility that is now mostly in the past. People who need welfare are often looked down upon, and those who cannot afford health care or housing must depend on loans or the kindness of strangers, or do without.
I’m old enough to look back on several decades of changes in the UK, Canada, and the US, and I’ve watched cutbacks to libraries, schools, hospitals, colleges, and so on. A lot of public money became corporate welfare to save businesses, jobs, or banks. A lot of businesses found ways to pay less tax and stockpile profits overseas, so there has been less available to help out people in need back home.
We can’t return to the welfare state that I grew up with, and even if we could it wouldn’t be perfect, but I wish we could somehow recover that sense that we are all in this together. After all, we all need a little help sometimes.