I admit it. I'm a socialist. Have been for years. I've never been precisely sure what is meant by the word. I usually preface it with the descriptive "some kind of ..." And more often than not I've felt that it wasn't worth the trouble and confusion to attempt any use of the term in actual American discourse.
Even today when the question of political affiliation or inclination arises, I'll usually just identify myself as a Jacksonian Democrat. Which is true, as far as it goes. But when you get down to cases, I've always known that I was one. A socialist, that is. At least I have since I outgrew an adolescent attraction to anarcho-syndicalism.
For most of the past decade, my obscure sense of socialist identity has been symbolized by a quotation from Eugene V. Debs that hangs on my office wall. Debs was a railroad worker from Terre Haute, Indiana, who became a union organizer, and eventually the leader of the U.S. Socialist Party during its glory days at the beginning of this century, when it was a vital political force and a real contender for power.
The quote is above the computer screen, between the photos of Bob Marley and John Lennon, and beneath the picture postcard of Elvis Presley's grave. It says, "While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free."
For me, the idea of socialism has never been an idea about forms of ownership, or currency exchange, or price administration. Instead it has been an idea that starts from that Debsian egalitarian impulse cited above and proceeds to ask the musical question, "Which Side Are You On?" For me, saying, even quietly, that I am a socialist has meant saying that I believe the destinies of human beings are joined one to another and that we will in fact be happier and freer together than we are apart.