The McCain campaign has accused Sen. Obama of being a not-so-secret socialist. Many of Obama’s journalistic supporters, if that’s not a redundancy, have denounced the Republicans’ invitation to a seminar on twentieth-century ideologies. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg says that McCain has reached the “bottom of the barrel” by “suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.”
The problem with asserting – or denying – that Sen. Obama is a socialist, is that the term, which was once merely hazy around the edges, is now just haze. In Brian Morton’s novel, Starting Out in the Evening, published in 1998 and set in New York, a character tells his girlfriend that he still considers himself a socialist. When she asks him to expand on that declaration, he says, “A socialist is someone who sits around pondering the question of whether it can possibly mean anything anymore to call yourself a socialist.”
The old sine qua non, social ownership of the means of production, has been quietly but firmly set aside, for the pedestrian reason that it worked terribly everywhere it was tried, and nobody could offer a convincing explanation of how to fix it. “The socialist economic project, consisting fundamentally of national planning and extensive public ownership, has been thoroughly discredited as a means of economic growth,” Paul Starr wrote in the American Prospect in 1991. “It is now indisputable that communism impoverished the people who lived under it, and it is not clear how or why a more democratically planned socialist economy would do much better – or that such a system is feasible at all.” Even in western Europe, “the idea of a planned national economy has been abandoned or planning of limited scope has accommodated the basic contours of capitalism. Although European social democrats have Marxist grandparents on their family tree, they have largely outgrown not just Marxism, but socialism itself.”
So if socialism isn’t what Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas argued for, what is it? Two years ago Bernard Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate from Vermont, making him the first self-described socialist to join the Club of 100. When a friendly radio interviewer asked Sanders to define socialism, he said, “Well, I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.” Socialism, in this formulation, is no longer an ideology with an ultimate goal or any interest in intellectual rigor, but just an assortment of leftists’ inclinations and resentments.
Before scoffing at the idea that Barack Obama is a socialist, then, it might be useful if someone could explain how, exactly, Obama’s political philosophy is fundamentally different from Bernie Sanders’. What are the ideas that Sanders believes in, and that Obama considers outlandish, impossible or pernicious?