Socialism’s New American Opportunity

The US left today confronts a remarkable opportunity.  George Bush and Sarah Palin effectively reopened the explicit debate over capitalism versus socialism.  More than that, their interventions, combined with the current crisis of capitalism, disrupt the conventional, classic definitions of both isms.  Thus, the debate over them is now transformed in advantageous ways for the US left.

Sarah Palin tried to attach the epithet “socialist” to Obama during the campaign.  She linked it to his remark about a modest tax reform that might “spread the wealth” a bit.  McCain likewise jumped on the remark in ways that echoed Palin’s effort.  Clearly the Republicans’ campaign saw an opportunity to damage Obama’s candidacy.  In a society that had, since 1989, successfully pushed the concepts of socialism and communism off the radar as historically “failed experiments,” suddenly the mass media widely repeated affirmations that socialism was back again.  For those who denounce as socialism any government program benefitting the middle and poor at the expense of the rich, the socialist threat seemed alive and well in the Obama camp.  For Obama’s supporters, they suddenly had to interrogate, even if only briefly and superficially, their own sense of and attitude toward the capitalism versus socialism debate.

Another reinsertion of the capitalism-versus-socialism debate into contemporary American society followed from the Bush administration’s response to the economic crisis.  Bush made a November 13, 2008, speech that included these lines: “But the crisis was not a failure of the free market system.  And the answer is not to try to reinvent that system.”  That day’s Associated Press coverage (by Ben Feller) made sure to identify what “system” Bush meant; Feller’s story was entitled: “Bush defends capitalism on eve of economic summit.”   The president most Americans had just repudiated at the polls was defending capitalism.  Might anti-Bush voters, consciously or otherwise, consider also rejecting what he was defending?

Bush raised the capitalism versus socialism issue in yet another way.  Over the last few months his administration has violated in its practice the neoliberal dogma about the absolute superiority of private enterprise and markets.  While that dogma still gets Bush’s lip service, his “economic team” has forcibly converted private into state-run enterprises (including the largest US insurance company, AIG, the largest mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the largest US banks, Citibank, Bank of America, and so on).  Republican fiscal conservatives are running up humongous deficits borrowing trillions to finance state-planned “bailouts” that hand vast sums to selected firms.  Government planning is replacing markets in determining an increasing number of transactions and thus the course of the national economy.

Displacing private in favor of state property and markets in favor of state planning are the sins usually charged to socialism by the conservative supporters of capitalism.  How then are people to make sense of the Bush government’s embrace of just those sins?  Does a capitalist crisis require a dose of socialism as its solution?  And what might that suggest?

Across the country, many people’s thoughts and conversations, as widely reported in the media, have raised questions about capitalism and socialism in their relation to the Bush past and the Obama future.  Yet this turn is happening because of events that throw the conventional definitions of socialism into considerable doubt and disarray.  Leftists particularly are uncomfortable with describing Obama as a socialist, and not only because of the context and purpose of Palin’s charge.  They are also uneasy about how to assess the Bush regime’s massive turn toward state ownership and planning at the expense of private ownership and free markets.

The return of “socialism” to the thinking and conversations of many Americans is an exceptional opportunity for the left.  Beyond scoffing at Palin’s charge and Bush’s economics, leftists now have an exceptional opportunity to explain how “socialism” can and should mean something more than and different from progressive tax reforms, state ownership of enterprises, and state planning of economic affairs.  However, the need to produce a definition of socialism as “something more” confronts some traditional definitions that do focus on progressive state economic policy interventions (such as tax reform) and/or state ownership and planning.

To make the most of this historical period’s opportunity would require the left to formulate a new concept of and vision for socialism.  For example, if socialism were defined to include the following basic reorganization inside enterprises, no one would confuse it with anything done by Bush or advocated by Obama.  Suppose socialism were defined in the following terms: (1) the workers in every enterprise must function collectively as their own board of directors and as the private owners of their enterprise; (2) democratically elected local, regional, and national political bodies would share with each enterprise’s workers the power to determine production methods and the disposition of outputs and revenues; and (3) democratically elected representatives of the workers in each enterprise would share with residentially elected political bodies the power to determine political issues.  Defined in this way, socialism would entail a specific kind of interconnected democratization of the economy and the society.  The residential community and the workforce, as stakeholders, would share the power of deciding basic social issues.

This is, of course, only one among many examples of rethinking socialism.  The point is to extend and refocus the current, public considerations of whether and how the term could and should apply to the US.  The left might thereby take advantage of an ironic reopening of these considerations by socialism’s enemies.  Indeed, such a rethinking now in the US could also finally settle accounts with what actually happened in and to the “socialisms” of the USSR and China.  And the point of it all would be to refashion socialism to contest effectively for hearts and minds now opened by capitalism’s worst crisis in decades.

Rick Wolff Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002) and (with Stephen Resnick) New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006).   Be sure to check out the video of Rick Wolff’s lecture “Capitalism Hits the Fan: A Marxian View”: <>.