It started in an interview with Chris Wallace during the presidential campaign.
According to John McCain, Barack Obama was planning “redistribution of the wealth . . . [and] that’s one of the tenets of socialism.”
Although McCain backed off his accusation shortly afterwards, Republicans have since revived it. Rep. John Boehner, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, now describes President Obama’s economic policies as “one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.” Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) labels the president as “the world’s best salesman of socialism.”
And Rush Limbaugh clarified his much-criticized comment about hoping for Obama’s failure by saying to Sean Hannity: “If his agenda is a far-left collectivism — some people say socialism — as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?”
Socialists have always disagreed among themselves, often violently, over how to define their ideology. But is President Obama’s program socialist?
On this question their response would be unanimous: “If only that were true!” Speaking as a socialist myself, I would join that chorus.
The charges leveled by Republicans are an historic echo of those aimed at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and every bit as false. Indeed, many of his programs — social security, unemployment insurance, government regulation of the economy, public sector work for the jobless — were first proposed by socialists much earlier.
But most historians now recognize that FDR’s goal was to save capitalism from its own excesses. And clearly, President Obama is doing similar things for the same reason.
Buying up failed banks, throwing billions at AIG, preventing massive foreclosures, propping up state and local governments, fighting deflation with deficit spending, and subsidizing “green” economic experiments have nothing to do with socialism, and everything to do with avoiding a collapse of the capitalist system.
So what and who is a socialist?
Definitions of political ideologies differ according to who is doing the defining. Citing authority is no help. Karl Marx offered brief scenarios of what a communist society might look like, but never actually defined socialism. So Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chavez, “social democrats” in Europe, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont can all lay claim to the same label.
So why can’t Republicans apply it to President Obama? Because no matter where their politics take them, all socialists start with the same assumption: Capitalism is inherently unjust. It can be made more tolerable, but it cannot be made fair.
If liberal Democrats try to smooth out its rough edges, that’s fine in the short run. But in the long run, running an economy for the profit of its owners can never be to the benefit of those who earn their living by selling their labor to those owners.
Putting aside the complex economics of that argument, perhaps the clearest statement of a socialist perspective in an American context — and one that explicitly draws the dividing line between capitalist and socialist politicians and policies — came from Eugene Debs, five-time Socialist party candidate for president from 1900 to 1920. Before being sentenced to federal prison in 1918 for making a speech opposing U.S. participation in World War I (yes, that was a crime), he spoke to the court:
I believe, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned — that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of the few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all . . . I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
When President Obama chooses to announce that to a joint session of Congress, then and only then can anyone correctly call him or his policies “socialist.”
Michael Engel, professor emeritus of political science at Westfield State College (Massachusetts), is owner of a small capitalist enterprise in Easthampton, Cherry Picked Books. This article was first published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) on 9 March 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.