Op-ed: Obama's policies are a far cry from socialism

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Jacob Richter
Op-ed: Obama's policies are a far cry from socialism

[url=http://tnjn.com/2009/sep/28/op-ed-obamas-policies-are-a-fa/]Op-ed: Obama's policies are a far cry from socialism[/url]


Pay particular attention to "government-controlled meritocracy" and the stuff on democratic political measures:

By Richard Williams

People seem to identify President Obama with quite a few traditional American bogeymen these days. He has been accused of being a Nazi, an Islamist, a hippie, and basically everything in between. The average person probably doesn't take these labels seriously. However, there is one that seems to have stuck to him in the popular imagination:"socialist."

Since the McCarthy era, the Right has identified Democrats with socialists. Alongside common misapplications of the term to some foreign governments, this has led to the development of a rather skewed view of what constitutes socialism. Ask a random person what the word means, and you'll hear something along the lines of "big government," "government control of key industries," or, from virulent anti-communists, even "totalitarianism."

Government control of industry can be a part of socialism, of course, but it is neither a necessary nor sufficient feature. In fact, a large offshoot of the historical socialist movement--anarchism--advocates the complete abolition of government.

What is socialism, if not government control? The socialist movement developed in the nineteenth century in response to the exploitative conditions of "Gilded Age" capitalism. It was an incredibly diverse movement, encompassing all sorts of ideas. Ricardian socialists wanted a modified free-market economy; Henri de Saint-Simon wanted a government-controlled meritocracy; Peter Kropotkin wanted a system of free communes with no centralized, hierarchical authority whatsoever; the co-authors of "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, wanted temporary workers' states to replace the world's current governments.

One unifying principle ran through these differing perspectives: all socialists wanted the workers to control the means of production. They wanted to transfer ownership away from the current owners-the people known alternately as "the bourgeoisie," "captains of industry" and "robber barons"-and give "the land to the cultivator, the mine to the miner, the tool to the laborer, the product to the producer," in the words of French socialist Ernest Lesigne. The result would be the effective abolition of poverty and the expansion of the workers' liberty to control their own lives, independent of an owner or boss.

So, does Obama want to institute workers' control of capital, also known as socialism? Theoretically, nationalization of industry could amount to workers' control of industry, since the workers make up the majority of the people and the majority is supposed to control the government. However, even if nationalization of industry could be regarded as a socialist policy, Obama has never advocated the steps that would be necessary to establish a sufficiently worker-controlled state. Indeed, even a prominent socialist like Engels saw this worker-control as an impossibility for governments as they exist today.

"The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine," wrote Engels in 1877. "The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers-proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head." If even full nationalization of all industries does not meet the requirements of socialism, something as mild as the addition of a public health care plan to the market-the most "socialistic" policy Obama has ever attempted to institute-surely falls short.

In Engels' view, government as it exists today must be dismantled and replaced with a new government to control the means of production. This government, known as a "workers' state" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat," would be different from today's government in that it would be a direct democracy, with political power only delegated to representatives when absolutely necessary and with those representatives subject to instant recall at their constituents' whim.

Marx pointed to the Paris Commune of 1871 as a possible model for such a workers' state, writing, "The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class."

None of the safeguards that Marx and Engels considered necessary to maintain the democratic nature of the workers' state are on Obama's agenda. It should be apparent that the president does not want to nationalize all industry in America. Single-payer health care-which would amount to nationalization of one industry-was never even on the table with Obama, and he has recently signaled that he does not even consider such a "radical" measure as the establishment of a public option to compete with private plans to be an essential component of health care reform.

Even if Obama did support nationalization of all industry, though, the result would not be socialism, because the federal government is not sufficiently democratic. The representatives of the people are locked in place for two, four or six years rather than being subject to instant recall whenever the people wish. Representatives often receive substantial material rewards for occupying their positions of power rather than having wages no higher than those of the average worker. Perhaps most importantly, representatives are chosen from a small list of candidates nominated by party officials rather than being chosen from among the people themselves.

Nationalization would merely centralize power into the hands of a somewhat accountable government bureaucracy, creating a situation moderately better than the current centralization of power into the hands of unaccountable corporate bureaucracies; it would not establish workers' control of capital.

A common argument from the Right is that even if nationalization under the current government is not a sufficient condition for socialism, it is nevertheless an important step toward socialism. To support this, they point to the ten "planks" of "The Communist Manifesto," which include, among other things, centralization of the instruments of production into the hands of the state.

However, this ignores the previous paragraph, which states that the "first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy." In other words, the workers' state must already be established in order for the ten "planks" to apply. Marx did not advocate centralization of capital into the hands of the current system of representative "democracy," in which the government is a class above and separate from the people.

Barack Obama is no socialist. The ideals he holds are not socialist, and neither are the ideals people falsely claim he holds. Even the Right's wildest exaggerations of his intentions would not constitute socialism. However, the constant accusations of socialism have raised an interesting question. The president is not a socialist, but would it really be so terrible if he were?