News Analysis May 22, 2009, 3:20PM
Socialism? Hardly, Say Socialists
Under Obama, socialism chatter has permeated the media in 2009. But beyond
sound bites, what is socialism?
By Moira Herbst
The first months of the Obama Administration have given rise to abundant
talk about a U.S. drift into socialism. "We Are All Socialists Now," a
Newsweek cover declared in February. On May 20 the Republican National
Committee approved a resolution calling on Democrats to "stop pushing our
country toward socialism." The resolution was predicated on the idea that,
under Obama, Democrats are following the path of Western European
countries in advocating expansive social safety nets and deeper government
involvement in the economy.
Some conservative commentators have even likened Obama's economic stimulus
and regulatory initiatives to a Soviet-style takeover of the country. In
February, syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh accused Obama of waging war
on capitalism. "That's his objective. He wants to destroy capitalism,"
Limbaugh told a caller. "He wants to establish a very powerful socialist
government, authoritarian. He wants control of the economy."
But real Socialists would vigorously disagree. They say if the Obama
Administration were establishing a true socialist state, we'd have at
least a $15-an-hour minimum wage (instead of the current $6.55 federal
minimum) and 30-hour workweeks. Every American would be guaranteed
employment and health-care coverage. Oh, and homeless people would be
occupying vacant office buildings in cities and vacant McMansions in the
In fact, many Americans appear to be confused about what socialism
actually is. In a poll of 1,000 adults conducted Apr. 6-7, Rasmussen
Reports found that 53% of Americans said they prefer capitalism to
socialism, while 20% said they prefer socialism. More than one-quarter,
27%, said they're not sure which system is better. Another poll conducted
this month by ConservativeHQ.com found that 70% of self-identified
conservatives consider Obama's political philosophy "Socialist" or
"Marxist," with 11% calling it "Communist."
Socialists say the policies Obama has pursued are hallmarks of "democratic
capitalist" states, not socialist ones. "None of the societies of Western
Europe are socialist, but the political influence of their strong Labor,
Social Democratic, and Socialist parties make their form of capitalism
much more humane than our own," says Frank Llewellyn, national director of
the New York-based Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest
U.S. Socialist party.
Obama: Saving Capitalism from Itself?
As with every political ideology, there's no discrete, tidy explanation of
what socialism means. "There have been diverse socialist movements that
have pursued different programs," says Frances Fox Piven, a professor of
political science at City University of New York (CUNY) and an honorary
chair of the DSA. "What they have shared is an effort to overcome the
historical problem with democracies that separate political governance
from the economy, often with a rigid wall. Socialists have tried to breach
that wall in the interest of democracy, or expanding the idea that the
people shall rule."
Karl Marx called socialism the "revolutionary dictatorship of the
proletariat," the working class seizing power and replacing a political,
economic, and social system controlled by the bourgeoisie, or the
propertied class. Such a reordering denotes "an association where the
development of each is the basis of the free development of all," Marx
wrote in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto.
Socialists say that far from creating a state in which workers rule, the
Obama team is instead scrambling to rescue and preserve capitalism. Sherry
Wolf, an activist with the Chicago-based U.S. branch of the International
Socialist Organization (ISO), scoffs at the idea that the U.S. is at the
dawn of a socialist era. "What Marxists mean by socialism is different
from what Rush Limbaugh means," she says. "We believe the class that
produces the wealth should own and control that wealth. That's a far cry
from what's happening now. The state is propping up banks, mortgage, and
insurance companies, while the lives of working people are torn apart by
foreclosures, evictions, and unemployment. It's an effort to save global
capitalism from its own excesses."
Wolf's group sees itself as "revolutionary," meaning it advocates not
incremental changes but rather a "total transformation of society and
political economy." By definition then, actions by a U.S. President like
Obama—tighter regulations, tax law revisions, and additional emergency
unemployment assistance—are not paving a path toward socialism. "Whoever
runs U.S. Inc. is in no position to advocate for the interests of the
class of people who produce the wealth," Wolf says. "There is really no
way for the President to deliver socialism to the people; it has to be
fought [for] and won by the workers themselves."
"A Hedge Fund Democrat"
Another group, called the Socialist Party USA, based in New York, refuses
to endorse any Democrat or Republican politician. The party, founded in
1973 when the Socialist Party of America split, wants a wholesale
reorientation of the economy so that the focus is on production "for need,
not profit." Billy Wharton, editor of the Socialist magazine for the
1,500-member party, wrote in a March Washington Post column that his group
considers Obama "a hedge-fund Democrat—one of a generation of neo-liberal
politicians firmly committed to free-market policies." "You see [Obama]
operating as a hedge fund Democrat on health care now," Wharton says. "He
blocked advocates of a single-payer system from presenting their case to
the Senate Finance Committee."
Not all Socialists denounce mainstream parties wholesale. Unlike the ISO
and the Socialist Party USA, the DSA, with about 7,000 members, is willing
to work within existing social and political structures toward incremental
change. The DSA is critical of Democrats, calling them the "second most
capitalistic party." Says Llewellyn, the DSA's national director: "We have
a long-term view of protecting people from the devastating power that
capitalism is capable of inflicting. We think the role of government and
civil society is to curtail and eventually eliminate the power of
capitalism to inflict that destruction." At the same time, Llewellyn says,
"we recognize that capitalism is capable of producing tremendous growth,"
which the DSA doesn't oppose.
But even to the more inclusive DSA, Obama is no socialist. "The discussion
of socialism that has appeared in the media is surreal," says Llewellyn.
"Nobody in their right mind would think Obama is a socialist if they knew
anything about the meaning of the word. Obama is acting as Roosevelt did,
trying to save capitalism from itself."
If the U.S. is not operating under a socialist regime, what would it look
like if it were? The DSA's Llewellyn says that for one, health care would
be universal and guaranteed, unlike the less comprehensive, market-based
plans the Obama Administration is floating. The Socialist Party USA takes
its platform a step further, calling for a full employment policy with a
$15 minimum wage, 30-hour workweeks, and six weeks' annual paid vacation
for all workers. The ISO would immediately end foreclosures and allow
homeless people to occupy vacant homes and buildings.
Recovering from Lax Regulation
On Mar. 6 a New York Times reporter asked Obama whether his domestic
policies indicated the President is a socialist. Obama laughed, replying
"the answer would be no." In a later telephone call to the paper, Obama
said enormous taxpayer sums had been injected into the financial system
before his election. "The fact that we've had to take these extraordinary
measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference,
but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant
risk-taking has precipitated a crisis," Obama told the newspaper.
Even if the description of "socialist" isn't accurate for the current
state of U.S. affairs, look for the term to reemerge in coming months as
the battle over health-care reform quickens. Earlier this month, for
example, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said Democrats are
on a "march toward socialized medicine." Meanwhile, Socialists consider
Obama a stalwart capitalist. Says Wolf at the ISO: "We haven't seen
Comrade Obama at a meeting."
Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York.