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Socialism in America

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Wednesday, 21 July 2010 17:29
A sign at a Tea Party rally likens President Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler, 09/14/09. (photo: EPA)

A sign at a Tea Party rally likens President Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler, 09/14/09. (photo: EPA)

 

 

Reader Supported News | Perspective

ocialism had a checkered career in the United States. Its partisans never had a meaningful chance at gaining power. Around the turn of the 20th century, during the 1930s, and then again during the 1960s, however, they did influence the intellectual climate and the formation of various policy options. That influence grew weaker in the aftermath of the 1960s. But today, the appeal of socialism has had something of a rebirth. Eight years of the Bush administration produced the largest upward shift of income in American history. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (September 9, 2009), two-thirds of the nation's total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of US households. The last time such a large share of the income gain went to the top 1 percent of households - and such a small share went to the bottom 90 percent of households - was in the 1920s. Immediately following 9/11, President Bush and his neo-conservative friends began strengthening the national security state and implementing an overtly imperialist foreign policy. All this accompanied a domestic economic offensive. Waged in the name of the capitalist class - there is no other meaningful way to say it - policies were introduced intent on radically deregulating markets and business, curtailing social services, and preparing the conditions for legal judgments that would abolish limits on campaign spending. Following the election of Barack Obama, this offensive found a new target. Subsidies for home owners with mortgages, environmental programs, extension of unemployment benefits, litigation against employers of illegal immigrants, and national health insurance legislation accompanied bailouts of the banks and oversight legislation for the stock market that was described by The New York Times (May 21, 2010) as constituting "the most sweeping regulatory overhaul since the aftermath of the great depression."

Were these policies "socialist" enough? Newsweek certainly thought so: Its headline on February 16, 2009 ran "We are all socialists now!" Powerful elements of the far right galvanized around this perception. Healthcare was attacked at a recent Conservative Political Action Conference (February 20, 2010) as a "secular socialist machine." A huge billboard went up in Iowa displaying a photo of President Obama alongside photos of Lenin ("Marxist socialism") and Hitler ("national socialism"). A phalanx of wildly popular and reactionary radio talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly now use "socialism" as a catch-all term to condemn any policy that strengthens the social welfare function of the state. It is the same with the right-wing populist "tea party." Anti-welfare state, anti-intellectual, implacably opposed to immigration and increasingly racist, they are openly hostile to all proposals for redistributing wealth. Oddly enough, however, right-wing fears about socialism are not completely unfounded. Polls by Pew, Gallup, and Rasmusson noted that 29 percent of the American public views socialism in a positive light and 37 percent considers it superior to capitalism - and the numbers rise to 43 percent among those between 18 and 30 years of age (Common Dreams May 18, 2010). But the polls note, significantly, that the respondents are not necessarily clear about the meaning of terms like socialism. Many leftists use the socialist ideal to decry the shortcomings of the Obama administration. Others don't. Legitimate criticisms about half-baked foreign policies in Afghanistan and Iraq abound with often over-heated claims about one "sell-out" after another on the domestic front. Some left critics suggest that finance reform will not affect banks that are "too big to fail;" others insist that healthcare reform requires a "single payer" plan or a "public option;" still others demand greater emphasis on job creation. Certain of these charges are undoubtedly legitimate. Referring to the more radical elements of the New Deal, however, FDR famously told the unions of his time "make me do it." Shortly following his election, President Obama uttered the same words. Yet the difference in context is striking. In contrast to the 1930s, there has been little organized action from below on any issue concerning foreign or domestic policy (including nationalizing the banks or a single payer health care system) that might force the hand of the current president.

Many once-enthusiastic supporters of President Obama have become disillusioned. But, while never as radical as many assumed, he is no more opportunistic than was FDR, Willy Brandt or a host of other leading post-war socialists. It's understandable why Obama himself doesn't wish to describe himself as a socialist. He is, after all, a pragmatic politician. Less clear is why left-wing activists and intellectuals don't discuss his programs in socialist terms either approvingly or negatively. Either it is because they, too, are afraid of the socialist label or because they identify socialism with some sectarian or utopian ideal. Ignoring socialism leaves progressive forces in the position of identifying with liberalism (the notorious "L-word") or plain "democracy" - though it has done nothing to dispel conservative attacks. Preserving a doctrinaire understanding of socialism, by contrast, renders it politically irrelevant. Better to consider a notion of critical solidarity and highlight the "socialist" elements of existing proposals that seek to regulate capital and redistribute wealth. Articulating criteria for judging this or that piece of legislation, while targeting and then pressuring conservative "allies," is part of the challenge facing contemporary socialists. Commitment to principles should not excuse refusing to engage what exists. After all, if it means anything at all, socialism is ultimately a political project rather than a model program or a prefabricated ideal.

 

Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, Chair of the Executive of US Academics for Peace, the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, and the author of "Socialism Unbound."


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+3 # Guest 2010-07-22 00:12
"Less clear is why left-wing activists and intellectuals don't discuss his programs in socialist terms either approvingly or negatively. Either it is because they, too, are afraid of the socialist label or because they identify socialism with some sectarian or utopian ideal. Ignoring socialism leaves progressive forces in the position of identifying with liberalism (the notorious "L-word") or plain "democracy" - though it has done nothing to dispel conservative attacks.

I suggest that the writer read carefully the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.com) before making any more silly comments like the one above. It is the most widely read socialist site in the world. It was never taken in by Obama, and it does not adapt "pragmatically" to the illusions of liberalism. To call Obama or FDR socialist shows a profound ignorance of what socialism is.

Raoul N. Rizik
 
 
+4 # Guest 2010-07-22 04:31
The Assassination of Archbishop Romero of El Salkvador, the ousting of Bertrand Aristide of Haiti by Canadian, American and French forces, the election of Fernando Lugo, "The Bishop of the poor" in Paraguay, must leave Bill O'Reiley wondering about his own religious affiliations when he bashes advocates of socialism within his own back yard? Of course who knows what O'Reiley Believes, or Beck or Limbaugh for that matter?
"ELITISM' seem to be the bedroom of their choice ........ Hypocrites all Amen
 
 
+8 # Guest 2010-07-22 05:53
The confusion surrounding socialism and demonizing the system and the word, right along with "liberal", comes straight from conservative/co rporate media and those involved in corrupting and manipulating information. What is shocking is how much U.S. citizens have become compliant victims of the propaganda. Many have been born into it and are offended if the suggestion is made that they have been duped.

Consider the number of events over the last 20 years that have disappeared from the news almost immediately, such as the corruption of the 2000 presidential election, and the endless television/radi o/newpaper coverage of Monica Lewinski. That is what we live with.

And why we MUST protect the internet.
 
 
+12 # Guest 2010-07-22 06:20
"To call Obama or FDR socialist shows a profound ignorance of what socialism is."--Raoul Rizik

Yes, of course, but the right wing's main source of nourishment is ignorance. That's why it cultivates ignorance in the voting public. Intelligence and truth are enemies. Profound ignorance is patriotic.
 
 
0 # Guest 2010-07-22 06:21
Great way to open up a dialogue, Raoul. Perhaps we would make more progress on the left if we learned how to talk to each other without priapic personal attacks. Is that an ice pick in your pocket or are you glad to see me?
-Chip
 
 
-2 # Guest 2010-07-22 09:29
chip

Thanks for the support

Steve
 
 
+4 # Guest 2010-07-22 06:58
You can not put all your eggs in one basket . A purely private sector libertarian capitalistic feudalistic approach has never worked because there is no accountability or checks and balances. Having some socialistic ideas does not make you totalitarian autocrat. Also supporting capitalism does not guarantee an ardent supporter of the constitution either
Nobody would who is remotely sane would want to see a purely theocratic communistic regime ether. Unfortunately you have folks who cannot tell fascism from communism. The US has supported various Latin American regimes that have closely resembled the nazis as wedge against communism.
 
 
+3 # Guest 2010-07-22 13:53
"Unfortunately you have folks who cannot tell fascism from communism."

And some of us are having problems because we see US capitalism becoming more & more like fascism.
 
 
+2 # Guest 2010-07-22 07:35
Raoul,

I suspect that Bronner's point is that it is better to think poliitcally (which is to say, to think about power)rather than keep our hands ideologically clean and do nothing for the class we claim to care about. Legislation Obama passes will only be as good as the political pressure we apply. To think otherwise is to ignore how politics actually functions. It's great that Wsws.com is keeping the faith, but they're also not making a difference in anyone's life either. Health care reform, financial reform, and all the rest are far from perfect pieces of legislation, but I would prefer we not see the world burn down so that we MIGHT be able to build a better one afterwards, and so would (I suspect) all the people whose lives will be measureably improved by even imperfect progressive public policy
 
 
+9 # Guest 2010-07-22 09:45
It is becoming painfully clear to me that many people, including Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love Story, don't really understand socialism. Michael Moore's antidote to capitalism (at the end of the movie) was democracy, mixing economic and political systems. Socialism also gets connected with communism, again mixing two different systems. It is crucially important to be educated regarding socialism, that it can co-exist with democracy in a republic, and can be the vehicle for creating a more level economic playing field. This could and should happen in our educational institutions, but unfortunately many have been bought out by capitalists, who have no interest in spreading the truth about socialism. In this case, the truth could lead to the demise of capitalism as we know it.
 
 
0 # Guest 2010-07-26 23:48
William F. Buckley's father told him that the enemy (of the petroleum class and its heirs) is "economic democracy".
 
 
+3 # Guest 2010-07-22 13:21
All I know is that if we don't do something to redistribute the wealth in this country in a more equitable manner, we will have a police state as a result of crime gone rampant! I was burglarized less than a year ago. I think they will be back, but instead of getting into my back yard to get in my house, they will just kick my front door down and walk away again with what little we have replaced. The police don't do anything about property crimes. Homeowners insurance doesn't give you very much back. There is no replacing some things like family heirlooms passed down from generations! All I can say is its one of the more traumatic experiences to have people go through everything you own and take what they can sell. Burglary is one of the bad ones and it will only get worse unless we start to help others less fortunate. There is no reason to be excessively wealthy! There is only so much you can have and experience in life! Helping others maybe the best feeling of all!
 
 
+3 # Guest 2010-07-22 15:34
I agree 100% Raoul! Stephen Eric Bronner needs to get a clue. Personally, I label myself as a socialist, but it's obvious that the righties have so distorted the meaning of fascism and socialism that no one can use either without being branded an extremist. Ironically enough we're already all too dangerously close to Mussolini's original definition of fascism (a collaboration of an strong, central authoritarian state and big business). What does democracy mean anymore when wealthy interests can buy or rig elections?
 
 
+1 # Guest 2010-07-22 21:26
I suggest viewers read the new book "Ill Fares the Land" by Tony Judt, an English professor and thinker. Mostly about European scene since WWII, but also links and events to US social-economic -political events. Right up to date, published this year. I never gave any thought to the Social Democrats of Europe before but lot of it makes sense. Neither socialism nor uncontrolled capitalism. Clears up confusing between social programs (of which we have many already) and socialism. The title is from the first lines of Oliver Goldsmith's long poem "The Deserted Village (1770) "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey; Where wealth accumulates and men decay." A perfect description of USA today.
 
 
+1 # Guest 2010-07-24 08:13
re "they [the 'tea party'] are openly hostile to all proposals for redistributing wealth":

No, they are openly hostile to some proposals to change the current redistribution of wealth. They have no problem with the ongoing massive subsidies to the energy industries, for example. They have no problem with the current low (or in the case of the estate tax this year, nonexistent) taxes on great incomes. They are quite happy with the current, highly successful program of redistributing wealth upward.

When wealth flows to the wealthy, it is said that they earned it or that they own it. When relatively modest sums flow to the middle and lower classes, it is called "redistributing wealth" or an "entitlement" (a word increasingly said with a sneer).

Professor Bronner is using the right-wing framing of the issue when he claims that the tea party is "openly hostile to all proposals for redistributing wealth".
 

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