Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2008

Is Obama a socialist?

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

As many of you know, the Republican Party and particularly its operatives on talk radio and cable TV news have all been hammering away at the idea that Barack Obama is a “socialist”. For most the proof is found in an off-the-cuff remark made by the Democratic Party hopeful with a rightwing activist known as “Joe the Plumber”. You can watch the exchange on Youtube here.

The plumber asked Obama: “Your new tax plan’s going to tax me more, isn’t it?”

Obama replied, “It’s not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance at success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

In the Fox TV interview with Joe the Plumber seen as part of the Youtube clip above, he characterizes Obama’s approach as “socialist”, an opening salvo in a propaganda offensive that hopes to stigmatize him as un-American. Not un-American in the old-fashioned sense of somebody being called a Commie. Since the USSR no longer exists, it is pretty hard to pull this off. The last attempt at this was when the Republicans tried to make a big deal out of Bill Clinton going to the Soviet Union when he was a graduate student.

On the McLaughlin Group, a Sunday morning CBS TV talk show, Pat Buchanan made the case for Obama as socialist this way:

But on the socialism issue, he really called Obama out. What Obama has in mind, and he said so, is basically taking money from successful people who earn it and giving it to people who don’t earn it. That is classic democratic socialism — you know, equality of wealth and all the rest of it. He’s not talking about simply aiding the poor. I think he has opened the door here to an attack on Obama as a socialist basically of the Saul Alinsky school, the community organizers and all the rest. You’re going to see that theme developed all during the rest of the campaign.

But the charge has been around since July. Back then the Kansas City Star’s David Helling had this exchange with John McCain:

Helling: You talked about a little bit about Senator Obama today. You said he was the most extreme member of the Senate.

McCain: Yea, that’s his voting record.

Helling: Extreme? You really think he’s an extremist? I mean he’s clearly liberal..

McCain: Well, that’s his voting record. All I said was his voting record. And it’s more to the left that the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Helling: You really think he’s a socialist, Barack Obama?

McCain: Oh, I don’t know. All I know is his voting record.

Congressman Sanders appeared on Bill Maher’s Firing Line last Friday night and put in a good word for “democratic socialism”. You can watch him making the case for the Scandinavian model here.

Speaking for myself, and risking the wrath of my many ultraleft friends, I for one would be very happy to see Obama carry out the program his rightwing opponents are frothing at the mouth at.

However, the redistributionist model that has them so upset, and that is reflected in the Scandinavian model during its heyday and in FDR’s New Deal, is only one part of the equation. In order to redistribute wealth, you need to have a vigorous economy. But there is little likelihood that Obama will promote an ambitious domestic spending program as long as the financial crisis continues to take its toll. The cost of bailing out huge corporations like AIG, General Motors et al will force a deficit hawk and free market devotee like Obama to defer social spending until “things get better”.

In a major speech on the economy made last week, Obama put the working class forced to use credit cards and the big bourgeoisie that happily sold them these usurious instruments on the same level:

It also means promoting a new ethic of responsibility. Part of the reason this crisis occurred is that everyone was living beyond their means – from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street. CEOs got greedy. Politicians spent money they didn’t have. Lenders tricked people into buying home they couldn’t afford and some folks knew they couldn’t afford them and bought them anyway.

This was not the first time that Obama blurred class distinctions. In the speech to the 2004 Democratic Party convention that burnished his reputation as an up-and-coming politician, he compared waste at the Pentagon to welfare “abuse”:

Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet — in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks — they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead, and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.

This kind of rhetoric was of course calculated to mollify the Joe the Plumbers who constitute a broad base in the Democratic Party electorate. Obama has made every effort to represent himself as an enemy of bad behavior in the Black community, whether it is welfare cheats or absentee fathers.

But the crucial point is that one cannot expect Obama to carry out any kind of redistributionist program unless there is a tidal wave of protests mounted by ordinary Americans who refuse to be evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs. Roosevelt came into the Presidency with more or less the same kind of promises of fiscal restraint as Obama but militant strikes and protests by the unemployed woke him up to the fact that welfare state capitalism (i.e. “democratic socialism”) was preferable to communism.

Furthermore, we should never forget that democratic socialism came to Sweden not because politicians one day decided that this would be best for society as a whole, but because the working class demonstrated a willingness to get rid of class rule, including by those kind-hearted elements of the bourgeoisie with a noblesse oblige attitude.

Although it is sadly not available in home video, Bo Widerberg’s 1969 movie “Adalen 31” dramatizes how events that took place 77 years ago led inexorably to the rise of Swedish social democracy. In a general strike led by workers from a paper mill, government troops opened fire on a peaceful march causing the death of five people. The political turmoil unleashed by the repression eventually led to the election of a Social Democratic government.

But that government proved that despite its redistributionist principles that it could not avoid the contradictions posed by the same kind of economic crisis now unfolding across the world.

Currency crisis forces Swedish left, right to unite

STOCKHOLM – Sweden, its economy in tatters, sagging under a 500 percent interest rate and battling with money-market speculators, closed political ranks yesterday behind a stiff austerity program.

Politicians met in a marathon round of talks in the midst of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Depression of the 1920s.

With three days before the markets open again, an unholy alliance of Conservatives and Social Democrats opened detailed negotiations on a shock package to slash $8 billion in government spending.

The record interest rates made the cost of money so high that banks warned the public not to borrow. Demand for such big-ticket items as cars plummeted.

With the projected budget deficit for this year at nearly $20 billion, politicians seemed prepared to introduce the spending cuts needed to save the country from bankruptcy.

But it remains to be seen whether the people will accept slashed spending on their large unemployment, illness and child-welfare benefits.

“All areas of public spending will be affected. It will hurt, but it is absolutely necessary,” Conservative Prime Minister Carl Bildt said as he hurried to another meeting with the opposition on how to solve the country’s fiscal crisis.

“We are in such dire straits now that Sweden must be put before any party political considerations,” said Social Democrat Chairman Ingvar Carlsson, a former prime minister and Mr. Bildt’s political archrival.

–The Washington Times, September 19, 1992

Ultimately, redistributionism cannot succeed unless it is linked to a change in the mode of production. Instead of producing for profit, the economy must satisfy human need first and foremost. This would mean nationalizing the means of production as a kind of fundamental first step in laying the groundwork for communism, a word that along with socialism is gaining more and more currency as the capitalist system unravels at the seams.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

Karl Marx, “Communist Manifesto


  1. Excellent! I will reference this in my blog.

    Comment by Cecilieaux — October 21, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  2. I was talking to an older socialist yesterday about a point that you make here:

    “Roosevelt came into the Presidency with more or less the same kind of promises of fiscal restraint as Obama but militant strikes and protests by the unemployed woke him up to the fact that welfare state capitalism (i.e. “democratic socialism”) was preferable to communism.”

    Without a left-wing as organized as they were in those days, can we expect Obama to move to the left (in policy) as FDR did?

    Comment by Sky — October 21, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  3. I don’t think you can really compare today’s left with that of 1932. Back then, the CP had maybe 10,000 members and the SP probably as many. Plus, workers everywhere were sympathetic to leftwing ideas. Today the left is very fragmented and the workers are not at all interested in socialism. Politically, I think the period we are in today has much in common with the early 1960s when the witch-hunt still hung heavily on American society but when the winds of change were first beginning to blow. In the very early stages of a new radicalization, it is crucial for the left to create a solid foundation for future growth–something that did not occur in the 1960s unfortunately.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 21, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

  4. I think workers today are very much sympathetic to left-wing ideas, judging by the autoworkers who shouted “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” in McCain’s face during a campaign stop at a plant in Detroit, the fact that a majority of workers say they’d join a union if they could, etc.

    The big difference, as Proyect points out, is that the American left is much much weaker than it was in the early 30s. Not only that, but the working-class today does not have the same kind of experience and awareness of struggle that it did in the 30s, which makes re-building the left today all that much harder.

    Comment by Binh — October 22, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  5. When people speak of redistribution they normally refer to redistribution of income. You mention nationalization as a first step and it seems to mean some redistribution of productive resources from the private sector to public one (in this case the State). Still I don’t see any direct link between nationalization via the State and the end of exploitation for workers-not even as a necessary condition. Could it be that we are wrong to use the dichotomy of socialism vs capitalism in terms of markets vs planning and private vs public property? Maybe I misread the post as implying central planning, which again, doesn’t seem too socialist or communist to me if we just look at the dichotomies I mentioned above.
    Still, thanks for the article!

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — October 23, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  6. Ian, how else would nationalization be carried out except through the state? For an extended period, socialist development will require “special bodies of armed men” (and women, of course). The socialist state is a means to an end: classless society. But you can’t go directly from capitalist society to communism. As Marx once said, “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme)

    Comment by louisproyect — October 24, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  7. Obama’s comments about “spreading the wealth around” was deliberately taken from context and misrepresented by McCain’s campaign. Obama clearly did not mean that Joe Plumbers tax-dollars would be used to “spread the wealth around”, an element present in the scandinavian welfare system that americans see as “socialist” but in reality is appreciated and upheld by the current right-wing governments in Denmark and Sweden (Norway’s government is currently social-democrat, but is likely to be taken over by the extreme right who ironically wish to distribute that nation’s oil-billions around).

    Obama’s comments — easily understood by anyone who is not mean spirited — clearly means “by taking some of your tax dollars, Joe, we can help others to gain the same level of success that you have” … which is quite a different way of “spreading the wealth around”. Obama was simply referring to the effect of his proposed tax and healthcare reforms as the instrument of bringing about the “wealth-spreading”.

    Calling Obama a socialist for these policies is absurd. It is clearly used by the republicans as a slur; apparently the “S-word” is the worst slur they can think of; regardless that the “socialist” scandinavian societies are the most successful capitalist societies in the world. The US could certainly use some of that socialism.

    Comment by mok000 — October 25, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  8. […] Proyect. Is Obama a Socialist? But the crucial point is that one cannot expect Obama to carry out any kind of redistributionist […]

    Pingback by Chto Delat Weekly Reader No. 5 « chtodelat news — October 26, 2008 @ 12:37 am

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