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The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

On May 6, France held their presidential elections, picking François Hollande over the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande is a socialist (a member of the French Socialist Party), a word that on occasion apparently confuses a large number of Americans, as many use it in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with its intended meaning. Hence, a short primer on the word socialist.

Socialist is first recorded in the English language in the late 18th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary gives the first historical meaning as ‘one who lives in (civilized) society’. Appropriately enough, the OED also notes that this now quaint sense of the word is both obsolete and rare, having had a very short lifespan. Within several decades socialist came to take on the new meaning of ‘a believer in socialism’, and by the middle of the 19th century it had taken on the sense referring specifically to an adherent of a particular political party.

A social war between allies

Socialist and socialism both are obviously derived from social, a word that has the delightful initial meaning, a long time ago, of ‘referring to a war fought between allies’. Quite different from the modern sense of amiable companionship, although anyone who has ever sat through a political meeting of any type might well wonder if the roots of other political terms are similarly derived from words based on disagreement.

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, is often referred to by political opponents as a socialist, and by extension his policies are also often called socialism. This confuses and irritates some people, as the political views and aims of the president do not overlap terribly much with those of Hollande. There are several possibilities for why the term socialist is attached to Obama. One is that some people do indeed believe that he is enacting socialist policies, regardless of whether socialists themselves agree with this. Another is that the word is being used simply as a pejorative term, broadening the meaning of the word socialist; this is similar to what has happened with the words Nazi and fascist, which once were applied only to members of political parties, but now have taken on a variety of extended meanings, including any person who seeks to impose his or her views on others in an inflexible way. Of course, the use of socialist in a pejorative way probably has more to do with the political views of the person using the term than anything inherent in its meaning. Indeed, some might view it as a compliment.

Politically correct

Yet another thing that serves to muddy the waters of the definition of socialist is that there have been a large number of political groups over the past hundred and fifty years that have used socialist or social in their title, and many of these have had exceedingly different political goals. Looking at Nazi once more, the etymology of the word is based on the abbreviation of the German Nationalsozialist (‘national socialist’), a group whose aims were obviously quite different than what most of us think of today as socialist.

So if you want to use socialist in a technical sense you would do well to rely on the definition that is provided in a dictionary. If you want to apply this label to an individual as a general pejorative meaning ‘someone who is to the left of me politically’ or ‘someone with whom I disagree’ then you may tell yourself that you are either incorrect or you are working to continue the semantic broadening of this word.