Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is Barack Obama a Socialist?

The charge that Barack Obama is a socialist comes from several different sources: journalists, politicians, and many Objectivists among them. "Socialist" is used as a negative pejorative term, meant to associate Obama with bloodthirsty savages like Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao. Most who make the charge do so in an attempt to differentiate Obama from John McCain, ostensibly to advocate a McCain presidency. McCain may be a Big Government Republican with a Neo-Con running mate, the argument goes, but at least he's not an outright socialist like Obama.

But does the term apply?

Before one can answer that question, he must first determine what socialism is. (Note that this process is very different from determining what the meaning of the word "is" is.) So what is socialism? The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines socialism this way:

"1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done"

Socialism is a political-economic system in which the government owns and controls all property. This theory is based primarily on the work of Karl Marx, an influential German philosopher who has achieved iconic status in communist countries. Marx believed that capitalism was part of a historically inevitable series of political-economic systems that would eventually result in a classless, stateless society of communes. Socialism, he thought, was a transitionary system between capitalism and communism in which the working classes (the proletariat) would violently revolt against the wealthy (the bourgeoisie), and establish a dictatorship in which the government owned and distributed all property.

So in asking whether Obama is a socialist, one is really asking: Does Obama believe that the government should own and distribute all means of production? Does he believe that rule by the proletariat is historically inevitable? Is he planning for a violent overthrow of the incumbent capitalist system?

One could argue that the answer to the first of these questions is "yes." Obama is pushing for higher taxes and more government controls. He wants to take money from the bourgois to give it to the proletariat. But a desire for bigger government does not make one a socialist. There are many different belief systems which advocate government control over property: Facism, Sharia Law, and other forms of theology, just to name a few. All these political systems are collectivist and statist, but they are not all socialist. Socialism is something very specific, as outlined above.

My conclusion is that Obama is not a socialist, any more than McCain is a socialist. Though their rhetoric differs (in non-essential ways), they both advocate some mixture of statism and capitalism. Both will increase the size of the federal government. Both support government intervention in the banking system, as we saw a few weeks ago. Both support welfare, Medicare, and Social Security. Both support reducing "emissions" to save Mother Earth. On nearly every major policy issue, Obama and McCain are indistinguishable.

Why do I make this point so strongly? Well for one, because it makes no sense to base one's vote on misapplied terminology. The term "socialism" is being tossed around as if it's synonymous with statism. Socialism is an emotionally charged word which incites visions of the dictatorships in U.S.S.R., North Korea, and China. If you are planning to vote against Obama simply because you think him a "socialist" while McCain is not, then I advise you to reconsider.

Also, as rational men we should be specific in our identifications of ideologies and their adherents. If Ayn Rand was right, and I believe she was, then it is ideology (philosophy) which moves the world. Properly identifying ideological movements is critically important to determining in what direction a nation is moving. In my opinion, socialism is dead, and has been dead for decades. No one believes in the historical inevitability of communism any more. No one believes that the proletariat will initiate a violent overthrow of government all over the world. These ideas have been so thoroughly discredited (and even demonized in the U.S.), that no one in the Western World takes them seriously any more.

But that does not mean that statism is dead. Statism is alive and well, but in the U.S., it still lacks an integrated, organized ideological movement to serve as its vehicle. Some have argued that the Neo-cons, with their "compassionate conservatism," now qualify as the most integrated movement advocating statism. I don't know if this is true or not, but it is definitely something we should be thinking about. Throwing the "socialism" charge around only muddies the issue further.

--Dan Edge


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for addressing this issue. It needs attention. Your admonitions to define terms/ideas and define them logically are on target.

If I have understood you correctly, you are saying (but in my phrasing) that, properly used, the term "socialism" should label this idea: socialism is a particular type of statism (the genus), the species in which the state (1) owns the "means of production," which classically meant all the big industries, and (2) controls (restricts or "permits") all the rest, directly or indirectly. Socialism was totalitarian in scope if not always in the details of implementation.

I agree that Sen. Obama is not a socialist in that sense. He does not generally, and on principle, call for government ownership of the means of production.

However, I also think that not being a socialist does not make him (or McCain) any less dangerous. Both Obama and McCain are what I would call parentalists.

Parentalism is a form of statism in which the state serves both as father (the stern regulator) and mother (the nurturing giver of welfare). Parentalists usually do not claim ownership, but they do claim "oversight" and "regulatory" power.

Parentalism is not a "mixed economy." In one sense, parentalists too are totalitarians: they believe that parents know best and should have the power to supervise all aspects of the lives of their "children." These parents may "allow" large areas of "personal choice" (you can decorate your own bedroom, subject to approval), but they do not in any way recognize the principle of individual rights. There is no mixture here.

Thanks for the stimulating and clearly written article!

Bill Brown said...

Ayn Rand herself equivocated on the definition of socialism, conflating it with statism in several of the citations.

By your reckoning, then, the Scandinavian countries aren't socialist, nor is Great Britain or Germany or France? They are normally described as socialist but they are far from owning all or even most of the means of production.

Socialism, by the way, predates Marx by at least a decade or two. The English commune movement was avowedly socialist, the American commune movement occurred contemporaneous to Marx, and Proudhon's dictum that "property is theft" was in an 1840 tract. Marxism != socialism. His communism is radically different from socialism--it's an amplification and intensification.

Obama is definitely a statist (as is McCain). He has kept his ideological cards close to his vest (except to say that he's a pragmatist) so we don't exactly know whether he wants the government to own the means of production. He definitely wants it to control the means so that makes him a fascist. But fascism has Nazi connotations that most would balk at. Socialism is apt enough and is more negative than the neutral statist.

I'd definitely like to work on investing "statist" with the same emotional force of "socialist" or "communist" but that's going to take a while.

madmax said...

There are different versions of socialism. There is the German/fascist version or the Russian/Communist version. Both Rand and Mises made these distinctions. The United States is moving towards the German model of socialism; nominal private property but with total central planning from Washington.

As for Obama, while he is not an explicit socialist, the end-of-road of his ideas *is* socialism. The same is true of McCain. I think a case can be make that McCain is less anti-capitalist than Obama but its not a significant difference.

Finally, while I agree that calling Obama a socialist would be technically wrong, I still think it is proper to state that his policies are "socialistic" or "lead to socialism" or something similar. Its important to stress that the US is gradually embracing socialism (of the German model).

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "Ayn Rand herself equivocated on the definition of socialism, conflating it with statism in several of the citations."

The common meaning of "equivocate" is "to use ambiguous or unclear expressions usually to avoid commitment or in order to mislead."

Ayn Rand did not "equivocate"--essentially a charge of dishoinesty--on the term "socialism." Anyone who thinks she did needs to prove his case or withdraw his claim.

Bill Brown said...

Pardon me for misusing the term. I meant "vacillate" rather than "equivocate." It was never a claim.

Any response to anything else I said or did you stop reading once I used that word? If the latter, please feel free to mentally substitute "vacillated" when you come across the offensive word.

I am also curious why you felt the need to coin a new term--"parentalism"--based on spurious notions of the gender roles of parents. Your analogy becomes ludicrous if one wanted to equate jail with say grounding or initiation of force with spanking. You're normally quite careful about such things so I'd like to hear your rationale given that existing concepts are quite sufficient.

Bill Brown said...

Rereading my previous comment, it reads more sarcastic than I intended. It was meant as a serious comment, not a snarky retort as it sort of came out. Sorry about that, Burgess.

madmax said...

I don't think Ayn Rand vacillated on the use of the word socialism. Sometimes she used it in a broad sense as being synonomous with statism. Other times she used it as meaning one specific form of statism. She used it differently depending on the context.

I think I actually disagree with Dan's point. In one sense, all of today's politicians are socialists (especially those like Obama or McCain). Used loosely as being synonomous with advocating central planning, it could be appropriate calling Obama or McCain a socialist so long as one explains the reasons. Why shy away from the word? Because some liberals might take offense? Who cares.

Bill Brown said...

Here's another take on "socialist." Hoo boy!

Inspector said...

Dan, I disagree with you here. First, as madmax and Myrhaf note, there is socialism on the Russian plan, and there is socialism on the German plan. The fact that Obama, at least publicly, platforms for the German plan does not excuse him from the label of socialist.

Secondly, I disagree with your statement that "No one believes in the historical inevitability of communism any more. No one believes that the proletariat will initiate a violent overthrow of government all over the world." Actually, Obama associates with and was mentored by actual Marxists such as Ayers, Ailinsky, and Wright who very much do believe in and advocate that ideology. He taught classes in Chicago on Marxist theory of "power structures" and how to implement socialist revolution by means of infiltration rather than the traditional violent overthrow.

Marx may not be viable as a popular movement but that does not mean it gone in academia - i.e. Obama's circles.

However, I do agree with you here, in a way:

"If you are planning to vote against Obama simply because you think him a "socialist" while McCain is not, then I advise you to reconsider."

I agree not because I believe that Obama is not a socialist, but because I believe he is - but that McCain is a paternalistic proto-fascist who is every bit as bad.

It isn't necessary to excuse or whitewash Obama's socialism in order to make McCain unacceptable as an alternative. In fact, the best argument I've seen for Obama revolves around the fact that he does believe in these dead ideas which could ultimately make him less dangerous than a McCain, who will package the same statism in terms more palatable to the American public.

For the record, I haven't 100% decided on how I will vote yet, but I have 100% decided that it will not be for McCain.

Bill Brown said...

Here's some documentary evidence that Obama was a member of the New Party, which were explicit socialists.

I can't stand McCain, but I think Obama's going to lead us down a path that will be much harder to recover from. If I had been alive back then, I would have voted against FDR for the exact same reason. The political environment is much different from back then: the avant garde then are the mainstream now. There's a whole lot more damage that Obama could do that FDR could only daydream about.

Socialized medicine, which I think Obama will propose and Congress will gladly enact, is a matter of life and death to me. I'd rather endure four years of McCain expanding government and caving in to liberals than to be enslaved for the rest of my life to a health care system like Canada's or England's.