Is It Dumb to Call Obama a Socialist?

by Will on August 23, 2010

David Frum’s Frum Forum interviews the leader of some fringe left-wing group called the Socialist Party USA. I believe this group is the modern-day remnant of the old Socialist Party of Gene Debs and Norman Thomas, many of whose idea’s were adopted into the New Deal, but the genealogy of these things can get pretty murky. They ask the guy if he considers Obama a fellow socialist, and of course he says No:

FF: In what areas is the president falling short of socialist goals?

BW: I would encourage these folks to take a serious look at the policies Obama has enacted over the past two years. The election campaign is over, so there is no more ambiguity about what Obama might or might not do. On healthcare, Obama and the Democrats in the Congress allowed the health insurance companies to write the healthcare reform bill. This means that instead of the single-payer national program that socialists advocated, Obama supported a bill that will allow private companies to loot taxpayer money while selling junk healthcare plans to the uninsured.

On the bank bailout, more of the same. Instead of the national jobs program that we called for, Obama poured billions into the banks. Financial reform? Same deal. Obama and the Democrats allowed the Republicans to negotiate out the Volcker Rule that would have placed more serious regulation on the financial sector. Finally, Obama failed miserably during the BP oil explosion. Instead of a nationalization order, which socialists supported, BP received polite invitations to lunch at the White House. Where is the socialism in all of this?…

I’m sympathetic to what the Frum people are trying to do here, and to what Frum’s been trying to do lately in general. But I don’t know how effective this interview is. Compared to most people who are such leftist fire-eaters that they are willing to identify with the hated, un-American philosophy of socialism, this guy seems really, really moderate. His socialist vision is that the Volcker Rule gets imposed on still-private banks, and one oil company gets nationalized? One really unpopular oil company?? The Volcker thing is a mainstream liberal view, and the BP thing is a pretty timid program of nationalization. Most of the self-identified socialists, Trotskists, et al. that I’ve known in Berkeley through the years would say that not only is Obama no socialist, but this guy’s no socialist either. His testimony doesn’t really do what Frum Forum wants it to, which is to clearly differentiate the Obama’s agenda from whatever the socialist agenda is.
If one looks at the question honestly, one has to say that definitions quickly make it hard to say what is or isn’t “socialism”: the definition of socialism is quite vague and place-specific. During the Cold War it had a fairly specific definition that prevailed in the USA, referring to the command economies in eastern Europe. In Europe it had a more nuanced meaning. Some Americans have now opportunistically appropriated that usage. Since the Berlin Wall has come down, it has become common to refer to Europe as “socialist,” even though it features a market economy with private ownership of property and businesses. Perhaps that’s fair enough: the socialists in Europe call themselves socialists and have largely accomplished all their goals, and those policies remain in place in Europe. But people throwing the epithet around are trying to have it both ways. They can say that they are correctly noting the similarity in tenor between what Democrats say and do and, say, what the British Labour Party says and does, and that shows that the Democrats are socialists. But what they clearly want you to think, when they use the word, is that the Democrats want to seize your property, threaten to kill you, and order you to go work 14-hour days at a beet collective somewhere.

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