Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Is Barack Obama A Socialist? Is Anyone?

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?

Discussions - 12 Comments

"Socialist" is a problematic word for conservatives, and my counsel is to generally avoid using it, except when the plain facts demand it. The Soviets were socialist. Period. But for that very reason, simple fairness requires that the democratic socialists of Western Europe, and the even more ambiguous ones of America, be given the benefit of the doubt, and always spoken of as DEMOCRATIC socialists. What we object to as conservatives is the indefinite expansion of the welfare state, is Scandanavian democratic socialism, ect. Accuse Obama and co. of being secretly for those things, not for socialism simply. Otherwise, you really sound like an unfair scare-monger, which quite unfairly, is the way so many liberals and moderates like to peg conservatives.

Carl's right. To Americans, a "socialist" is a member of the terrible Red empire that's against civil rights, free speech and everything else evil in the world. I can't understand why McCain has been saying it... it's definitely the wrong time to re-appropriate that term.

I prefer Islamocommunist.

Europe has employed ‘market socialist’ perspectives for the last 15 years, but you still seem trapped in the either /or of ‘planned’ economies like the soviets. But your overall point seemed confused to me. You seem just to say that the word socialist is vacuous. So that justifies our use of it against Obama. The word no longer has any meaning, so that allows me to say there is no difference between what Sanders meant and what Obama meant. How can a word that you say no longer means very much then be justifiably employed to attack Obama, except that you are exploiting the vagueness to score some cheap points?

Carl Scott, The plain facts demand the use of the word "socialism". Not to use that term when speaking of wealth redistribution is to succumb to the verbal legerdemain of both Obama and Biden. Why should we do that? Socialism is term from economics and while it might carry those connotations to you, the definition of the word makes its use apt.

I gotta go with Carl on this one. Obama doesn't seem to plausibly want to have the government own a controling interest in America's companies and such. McCain and conservatives seem to be using "socialism" as a euphemism for "really really liberal". The problem is that for most nonconservatives it doesn't really work. It sounds like hysterical name calling. Its like the eye rolling reaction leftists get from normal people when they call Bush a fascist. Obama is probably for alot more redistributionism than most people would like (and I suspect that his tax plan barely hints at his ambitions), but most people don't see socialism in the Obama plan that has been presented to them.

I would also add that conservatives should get used to the word corporatist. Obama's real damage to the economy won't come through tax increases or enlarged government programs (though those will happen too), it will come through bribing and regulating privately owned businesses into carrying it out his policy goals for him (restructuring the energy market, directing capital into politically favored industries and regions). One thing that is clear from DREAMS FROM MY FATHER is that Obama has this vague idea that government power should be deployed to restructure the economy not so much through the takeover of business, but through government dominated partnerships with business (though with the business getting a profit of course). It is not socialism, but it is Fannie Mae economics and it is bad enough. It will lead to stupid and destructive allocations of capital, expand the power of the government, and encourage business to pursue government influence (whether through money, favors, or ideological conformity with those in power) rather than productivity as the surest way to beat the competition. That corporatist politics, rather than 20th Century style socialism will likely be the greatest economic threat to come out of an Obama administration. Conservatives would do well to study how best to argue and defeat the enemy in front of them, rather than the familiar enemy they would prefer to face

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” - Churchill.

So what do we call an economic system wherein the means of production can be privately owned, but the production itself and ends of production are controlled by government? It certainly is not capitalism. What is it called?

Another question: would Obama nationalize the auto industry "giants" that are in danger of going under, because of both low sales and impossibly expensive union contract obligations? To do so would save American jobs. Would McCain do it? Is it a good idea and I am being stupid in thinking it is not?

Corporate socialism is basicly the combining of the government and the corporate giants. Regulation, for example, is often used to get rid of mid level players and competition rather than the curtail the coruption of industry leaders. Same thing for other liberal calling cards like environmentalism. Look at who funds these climate change studies. The problem with all this socialism talk is that people are just sick of it. After a generation of the Red Scare I doubt people have the energy to get all that worried about it. In the down economy its hard to imagine the middle class getting worried about high taxes on the rich despite the possible social climbers like joe the plumber. I fear he is in the minority. There is a point where people will vote simply to get an extra loaf of bread. Why we have gotten close to this point needs to be looked at if the conseveratives hope to reconserve in the next cycle. If the rich really, really want to stop these high taxes then they just need go on strike. I doubt they are forming a planned community in a valley somewhere as we speak.

Kate,

You're right. It would be a terrible idea. GM is asking Treasury for $10 billion of the $700 billion bailout money so it can merge with Chrysler. And once that happens, the new company would still shed 40,000 jobs.

The problem is, new car sales are down about one-third from their peak and they're not likely to rebound any time soon. If taxpayers start directly subsidizing Detroit now, it will never end.

The solution is painful: bankruptcy, which would let these companies offload some of their pension costs and restructure their compensation packages. It would hurt, but the alternative (direct subsidies) would be much worse.

A socialist is someone who believes that one's personal obligations are the same as one's social obligations. One consequence is that individual rights as normally understoo don't exist; only social ones. In this sense, Obama is actually a communist (see Marx's early writings). But of course this is rhetorically counterproductive, true as it is.

The McCain campaign failed to call Obama a leftist rather than a liberal, thus reading him out of the mainstream. The anti-Obama chorus, whether in politics or consevative punditry, did not capture his radicalism. They did not take his books seriously.

Then what is most worrisome about Obama is not himself, but that his communism, or whatever it is, is so appealing to so many, maybe most, Americans. That makes him something like mainstream, given the current political inclinations of the stream. Poor us.

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