Several years ago I wrote an essay for TAC on what fascism is not. In that broadside I spared neither right nor left for their misappropriations of the F-word.

It may now be time to raise similar questions about the overuse of the “socialist” label by Republicans and Conservative Inc.

This task seemed particularly timely after I was paired last night on a podcast with Riva Enteen, the co-editor of the anthology Follow the Money: Radio Voices for Peace and Justice. Although Riva described herself as a Marxist and a “historical materialist,” just about everything she seemed passionate about was a contemporary cultural issue. She advocated for women’s “reproductive rights,” endorsed Black Lives Matter, and stressed the uphill battle still being waged by gays. And, oh yes, she was against war because she thought it was inhumane. Whatever her intent, Riva gave the impression that Marxism, and more generally socialism, is about being culturally progressive.

Yet I don’t think I heard much orthodox Marxism in what she had to say.

Unlike feminism and the LGBT lobby, Marxist regimes have historically been socially reactionary, with Russian, Cuban, and Chinese communists throwing homosexuals and drug addicts in labor camp, or worse. As I write in my book The Strange Death of Marxism, what our progressive culture now celebrates as new forms of liberation profoundly offended real communists when they were in power. In fact, communists treated groups that the contemporary left holds up as historical victims with contempt.

There is a long established practice of confusing what is misleadingly called “Cultural Marxism” with socialism and Marxist economics. The two are most definitely not the same. Those who invented what the Frankfurt School in interwar Germany called Critical Theory, and that was called by its friends and later adversaries “Cultural Marxism,” were intent on a cultural revolution. Critical Theory was only secondarily about changing the economic system, which is the primary interest of socialists and which real Marxists maintained could only come about through violence. Although the Frankfurt School and its descendants favored state ownership of productive forces, they took this stand only as a means towards a cultural end. They viewed socialism as instrumental for overcoming sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. These things, which they equated with “fascism,” were their primary targets.

In today’s Western countries, however, most of the social program of the Frankfurt School seems to have been carried out, accomplished without the state controlling production. Even more strikingly, the managers of global capitalist enterprises have happily promoted the cultural left’s agenda, from homosexual marriage to mandatory transgender restrooms. And unlike the French Communist Party after the Second World War and American labor organizers of an earlier era, both of which opposed immigration because of its impact on the native workforce, our culturally radical capitalists are delighted to bring in cheap foreign labor, legal or otherwise.

Media conservatives and Republican operatives attack as the back door to socialism the Democratic Party’s proposals for new redistributionist programs. Without necessarily favoring such programs (and I usually don’t), one might ask why they will turn our current welfare state, which incidentally both national parties effusively favor, into “socialism.” Unless we have in mind a nationalized, collectivized economy, we are not describing socialism. We can of course claim that we’re already on the “road to socialism,” but if we’re indeed on that road, we’ve been there for a very long time without ever reaching the goal. Instead we’ve arrived at a top-heavy managerial state that allows for the continued practice of capitalism on a global scale.

It’s hard to imagine that a hypothetical Elizabeth Warren presidency would change this, even if Warren, faithful to her promise, were to subsidize college education for every high school graduate. And I doubt we would become truly socialist even if Warren shook down large investment companies for additional revenue, for example Goldman Sachs, which might in any case support her because of her social stands. In any event, that wouldn’t be the most destructive effect of a Warren presidency. Her attack on our remaining freedoms would come less from her alleged socialism than from her giving free rein to the cultural left. She would likely bombard us with anti-discrimination directives enforced by government agencies. Perhaps I’m the only one who’s noticed that Warren and others of her ilk are ranting nonstop against “systemic prejudice.” Just read Warren’s “fiery speech” given at the Women’s Rally against Donald Trump on January 21, 2017. It’s not exactly her “socialism” that stands out in this fire and brimstone harangue.

Perhaps Republicans relentlessly denounce their opponents as “socialist” at least partly because they don’t want to confront the five-hundred pound gorilla in their living room: namely cultural radicalism and the accelerated use of big government to impose it. It may seem prudent to keep sticking it to the old hobgoblins, like the ever-present socialist menace, than to go after the Democrats as the party of political correctness on steroids. After all, Millennial and feminist voters may agree with Warren’s social views. What might stop them from voting for her is the likelihood that she’d raise taxes. Republicans therefore denounce the Democratic Party’s socialism, which means additional spending on social programs, as opposed to the GOP’s military expenditures.

There is an obvious enthusiasm shared by more than half of Millennials for socialism: what this may mean is they want the state to look after them in loco parentis. Also at least some Democrats are now describing themselves as “socialists,” causing Republican talk show hosts like Glenn Beck to predictably foam at the mouth. But it’s hard to find actual full-blown socialism in the pronouncements of these would-be socialists, as opposed to demands that government administrators beat up on banks, redistribute income, switch to single-payer health care, and give more public funds to aggrieved minorities. By the way, the Canadian socialized health care system has not kept the Heritage Foundation from judging Canada as having the world’s ninth freest economy.

At the same time, a majority of college students, together with their professors, now express preference for what amounts to politically correct speech enforcement over academic freedom. And our elites just might be inclined to give the kids what they want. The U.S. is hardly on its way to becoming Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, whatever the complaints one hears on Fox News. But we could easily slip into an up-to-date version of “antifascist” Germany or Sweden—provided that cultural radicals acquire even more power.  

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.