Among the many accusations leveled against Barack Obama by the political right, few have become so commonly accepted as the claim that he is a socialist and even a Marxist. Even in what passes for mainstream political discourse one can accuse Obama of being a socialist without raising any eyebrows. For those old enough to remember the Clinton years, the idea that Democrats, or more accurately liberals, should be rightly associated with socialism is not exactly a novel concept. Yet these days it seems like every criticism of Democratic policies from the right must include the label of “socialism.” How did it come to this?
For starters, during the Clinton years, figures who accused Clinton of being a Marxist or Communist tended to be marginalized and isolated on the fringe of the political spectrum. Mainstream conservative pundits implied that liberals were the fellow travelers of Communists, but “liberal” and “socialist” had not become interchangeable at that time. Clinton being a “liberal” was sufficient for his right-wing attackers. It also did not help those who would have accused him of being a potential Communist that his administration happened to roughly coincide with the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, an event which ushered in a long period of capitalist triumphalism as the ruling class sought to cash in on the demoralization of the working class all over the world. The Cold War was over, Marx was said to have been totally discredited, and the “end of history” was declared.
Obama, in stark contrast, campaigned and later took the reins of power just at that crucial time when the capitalists’ castles in the sky began to crumble, posing a serious threat to the idea of the infallible free-market which would lead the world to general prosperity. The failure of neo-liberal economic theories, and the subsequent resurgence of discussions on alternatives to capitalism, necessitated an all-out offensive against the idea of socialism, and in particular Marxism, all over the world. When propaganda fails, force becomes a necessity. Hence, it is not possible for the right to acknowledge Obama for what he is, i.e. slightly right-of-center with some more progressive social views, but rather he must be made into a radical Communist and demonized as such.
The effect of this is twofold. First, if Obama is a radical leftist, then by default anyone who is actually to the left of Obama is automatically excluded from mainstream “respectable” politics. If Obama’s healthcare plan, written and edited by healthcare industry lobbyists, can be labeled as “socialist medicine” in the mainstream discourse, advocates of a single-payer system can be marginalized as fanatics. On the other side of the coin, the success of a “far-left,” “socialist” radical on the Democrat side can be used to justify a more radical far-right candidate for the Republican Party. Many leftists in America, at least those who acknowledge and are aware of Obama’s centrism, are often shocked at the fanaticism of figures such as Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann. This is only because they are comparing a very moderate liberal Democrat with raving right-wing fanatics. Unfortunately there are many people, who may not necessarily be hardcore conservatives, who accept that Obama is, to some extent, a “socialist.” As such, the idea that a left-wing socialist should be opposed by a passionate, more extreme conservative is only fair.
Let the reader consider what it would mean if the right-wing were to cease their accusations that Obama is a socialist, Marxist, and so on. Suppose they highlighted the many compromises he has made with their party, as well as his solid record of supporting corporate and capitalist interests via tax cuts, stimulus money, and so on.* Suppose they declared that while they still have some minor disagreements with the President, particularly on social matters, they find him on the whole to be satisfactory. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if the above were to happen, the whole game would be over. The American political system would have declared itself illegitimate, and only the willfully ignorant could deny that the two-party oligarchy exists to serve one class. Moreover, at a time when the system requires iron-fisted tactics, selective “austerity,” and most of all the reactionary leaders capable of bringing such things, it is essential to juxtapose increasingly radical reactionary candidates with far-left “socialists.” A figure like Bachmann can only be justified insofar as the opposition is presented as equally fanatical. If the socialists cannot be found, they must be invented. Ergo, we have Obama the Marxist Socialist.
Why then, does the claim that Obama is a socialist gain so much traction? After all, he has been accused of everything from being born in Kenya to being some kind of “Manchurian candidate” (of whom we’ll never know), charged with bringing down the American Republic. Not all of these views necessarily get aired regularly on cable news, and some that do often find derision even on networks such as Fox. There is one simple reason why the charge of socialism sticks, and that reason is that Americans simply know little about socialism. This includes not only the generations born during the Cold War who were inundated with anti-Communist propaganda, but even those coming of age in the last few years who are expressing curiosity toward alternatives to capitalism. Ask a conservative for his or her definition of socialism, and you will most likely hear that it is an “evil” system which rewards the lazy at the expense of the hard-working, it is enforced equality, it spreads nothing but human misery, and though it has been totally discredited and found to be responsible for the murder of one-hundred million people in the 20th century, we must remain ever-vigilant against those who would attempt to repeat socialist revolution and kill another hundred million people. Nothing surprising there.
Ask your average self-identified leftist what socialism is, and you may get equally if not more ignorant definitions for socialism. In general it is commonly mistaken for the welfare state, the creation of which did not necessarily require the presence of leftists, much less socialists, in the seat of power. In fact it is the reactionary Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck who is commonly credited with the construction of the first welfare state as we know it. Europe is full of right-wing figures that not only uphold their countries’ various welfare schemes, but even use the preservation of such programs as a prop to bash and blame immigrants. These days it has become common, if not somewhat fashionable, to flirt in public with the term socialism. While this causes no small amount of amusing rage from the right, it tends to muddle peoples’ understanding of what socialism is. Government-sponsored initiatives such as the New Deal or the Great Society are trumpeted as evidence of successful “socialism.” Europe, particularly France, is promoted as an example of functioning socialism. Occasionally one runs across a condescending liberal explanation which claims that Communism didn’t work, but socialism, a more moderated, mixed economic system, can work. This is wrong on so many levels that refuting it would require another article entirely.
In any case, not only does a large portion of the American left, through no fault of their own, not understand what socialism is, but those who advance the aforementioned arguments or variants thereof are actually playing directly into the hands of the right. Such people are not disputing the claim that government intervention in the “private sector” is in fact, socialism, but rather they are merely arguing that this “socialism” is positive and not negative.
What’s so “socialist” about Obama?
For all the ranting and raving about Obama being a socialist or Marxist, those who insist that he is have a hard time explaining why he deserves the label. There are no writings by Obama where he praises or even writes favorably about socialism or Marxism, nor are there any quotes. We can rest assured that if Obama ever uttered a good word about Marx or socialism in public, the conservatives in America would be repeating those words constantly; they’d probably even have bumper stickers with the quote printed on it. For conservatives it is not necessary to have any evidence that Obama is a socialist; he just is, because that’s what liberals are. It’s totally par for the course; these are people who knew that Obama was raising their taxes even when he lowered them.
Now if the reader were to point out the obvious lack of Marxist activity on the part of Obama to a conservative, the conversation most likely wouldn’t end there. Proof of Obama’s socialist politics is said to be his alleged desire to redistribute or “share” the wealth. Indeed, Obama did at least once, on the campaign trail, talk about spreading the wealth around. There are several problems with this claim though; the most important one being that socialism is not merely “redistribution of wealth.” This myth about socialism was dealt with in a previous Red Phoenix article. The second problem with this claim is that the social welfare programs that Obama voices support for don’t necessarily redistribute wealth. Lastly, in connection with the previous point, any time the government collects taxes for anything, wealth is being redistributed. The bailouts of America’s banks, which was supported both by both parties, was a massive redistribution of wealth. In fact when we get paid wages or buy products we are redistributing wealth, in a sense. Wealth can be redistributed in a myriad of ways but when we look at the inequality of wealth in America we can see that nearly four years of Obama has done little to redistribute it, at least among the working class. Strike one for our allegedly “socialist” president.
So what is strike two? This would be Obama’s donors, the individuals and corporations who helped him achieve the office of the president in 2008. When looking at a list of Obama’s top campaign contributors in 2008, we see that the second highest donation came from Goldman Sachs. Other major donations came from Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase & co., Morgan Stanley, and General Electric, to name a few. Now this poses no problem for the conspiratorial fantasy so prevalent in conservatives circles these days; far from being a word with a concrete meaning, “socialism” to conservatives simply translates to “bad” or “evil,” a system by which “big government” takes from hard-working “middle class” Americans and hands it over to the undeserving, lazy poor.
Since it is typically in the interest of large corporations to avoid paying taxes and support deregulation, we can logically conclude that these donors expected something in return from Obama. Indeed, they have been rewarded for their generosity in a number of ways, from additional taxpayer funded bailouts to key appointments within Obama’s cabinet and as economic advisors. It is when we consider Obama’s donors that the absurdity of the claim that he is a socialist becomes clear. What interest do large corporations have in electing a socialist who would expropriate their property? Can we imagine a scenario where the board of directors at General Electric decides that they have too much money, and that they would rather have all their assets seized and put under the control of workers? That someone could label Obama a socialist in light of these indisputable facts betrays a level of political ignorance that would be hilarious if it weren’t such a tragic, biting reminder of historical and political illiteracy in our country.
Obama’s answer to the economic crisis which weighs heavily on the working class is in fact the same as that of the Republicans, specifically, give more tax cuts and credits to private businesses in hopes that they will feel confident enough to hire more people. This strategy of handing more taxpayer money over to private capital is the only solution allowed in our modern neo-liberal system and no matter how many times it fails to do what it promises, no alternatives may be considered.