The first bit of rethinking is conceptual and historical.
Socialism is not identical to Communism, nor is the reverse true. Both spring from the impulse to democratize economic decision-making, thought by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to involve a process shifting economic control -- ownership -- from the possessing few to the wage-slave many.
Socialists recognize the errors of the 1917 Revolution, launched by the misnamed "Bolsheviki" (which means "majority"), later consolidated as Communists. Lenin read Marx too mechanistically in order to justify authoritarian and violent change and a materialist dogmatism having more to do with Russian culture than Marxian political economy. Stalin transmogrified it into a system of permanent tyranny.
Still, even the half-baked socialism of the USSR and its satellites achieved many economic advances still unseen elsewhere, such as the abolition of inflation and the massive reduction of poverty.
A truer, more democratic Socialism was beginning to obtain modest triumphs in Western Europe by 1912. Even the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had been forced by socialists' victories at the ballot box to lay the foundations of social insurance programs and mass education that have ever since been a hallmark of Germany.
When a Chapinesque figure emerged in the 1920s at the head of an anti-Semitic right-wing group, even he used the word "socialist" in the name of his party, even though the real socialists were the first people he threw in jail once he was in power in 1933. "Socialist" was and remained a vote-getting word in Germany throughout the 20th century.
Socialism also swept Western Europe after World War II.
Britain's Labour hegemony, the Spanish PSOE, the Italian PSI, the German SPD and the French Party, became partners in postwar rebuilding and repeatedly won elections in which voters pushed for ever more benefits and shorter working hours and longer vacations. And let's not forget the socialist electoral dynasties in Sweden, Denmark and the Low Countries.
The application to the United States is thin. Anything Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson did in the United States pales by comparison to the European systems. Today, the Democratic Party has a loose "caucus" that rarely dares even to whisper the S-word and publicly disclaims the L-word.
In Western Europe, however, all was achieved through open, free elections, side by side with private property and large corporations.
The Thatcherite-Reaganite refrain today is that all this largesse has bankrupted Europe and that the entire socialist project for society is to blame. Like George W. Bush, the spokespersons for this view yearn for history to advance toward 1908 rather than 2008.
Yet such people deserve the Left's thanks. Their excesses are undoing confidence in the myth of capitalism as an economic perpetual motion machine. Capitalism has high social and human (not to mention ecological) costs.
The question Marx posed about a century and a half ago was not how to destroy capitalism by blunt means (aka Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc.) but how to develop capitalism to the point that it transcends itself through its inherent internal contradictions.
This means socialists must accept first that capitalism is here to stay -- until it fully develops into something else.
German 19th century theoretician and politician Eduard Bernstein suggested in 1899 something of the sort in Evolutionary Socialism. Rosa Luxembourg's Reform or Revolution? was the radical reply in 1900, although she, too, later saw the error of her ways as she watched Lenin descend to the tactics of terror.
Perhaps the telling quote I could offer from Bernstein for the present moment is this:
[...] the present social order has not been created for all eternity but is subject to the law of change, and [...] a catastrophic development with all its horrors and devastation can only be avoided if in legislation consideration is paid to changes in the conditions of production and commerce and to the evolution of the classes. And the number of those who recognise this is steadily increasing. Their influence would be much greater than it is to-day if the social democracy could find the courage to emancipate itself from a phraseology which is actually outworn and if it would make up its mind to appear what it is in reality to-day: a democratic, socialistic party of reform.My point, and Bernstein's, is that the planks that socialists support -- among them, fair and livable wages for all, economic and social equality of the sexes and races, shared decision-making concerning the use and distribution of vital resources, elimination of all degrading conditions of living -- are widely shared by most modern citizens of the world.
The ideas of socialism do not need selling. They need to be presented in modern, simple terms, without multisyllabic dogmatisms from the mouths of St. Karl or St. Fidel.
Socialism has to
- stop allowing itself to be easily portrayed as the party of equally doled out bare necessities to become the party of shared prosperity, a prosperity that leaves no one too far behind;
- learn to demand work from workers while demanding justice from the holders of capital;
- consider revolutionary changes that are purely economic, such as employee ownership arrangements that blur class distinctions -- and ultimately promise to transcend the present quagmire of a yawning inequality through perfectly capitalist means;
- care about economic growth, productivity and profits (assuming an ever more democratic economy);
- care about winning through political means in open debate, not the force of arms;
- offer criticism of socialists who are antidemocratic.