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News Analysis

Socialism? Hardly, Say Socialists

Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

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 suburbs.

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 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.

Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek.

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