What Kind of Socialist is Barack Obama?

May 12, 2010 at 11:37 (Cool, Philosophy, Politics, Society)

**Update: Read the first comment. That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?**

Go read it all. It’s long, but very worth it.

But is it correct, as an objective matter, to call Obama’s agenda “socialist”? That depends on what one means by socialism. The term has so many associations and has been used to describe so many divergent political and economic approaches that the only meaning sure to garner consensus is an assertive statism applied in the larger cause of “equality,” usually through redistributive economic policies that involve a bias toward taking an intrusive and domineering role in the workings of the private sector. One might also apply another yardstick: an ambivalence, even antipathy, for democracy when democracy proves inconvenient.1 With this understanding as a vague guideline, the answer is certainly, Yes, Obama’s agenda is socialist in a broad sense. The Obama administration may not have planned on seizing the means of automobile production or asserting managerial control over Wall Street. But when faced with the choice, it did both. Obama did explicitly plan on imposing a massive restructuring of one-sixth of the U.S. economy through the use of state fiat—and he is beginning to do precisely that.

Obama has, on numerous occasions, placed himself within the progressive intellectual and political tradition going back to Theodore Roosevelt and running through Franklin Roosevelt. With a few exceptions, the progressive political agenda has always been to argue for piecemeal reforms, not instant transformative change—but reforms that always expand the size, scope, and authority of the state. This approach has numerous benefits. For starters, it’s more realistic tactically. By concentrating on the notion of reform rather than revolution, progressives can work to attract both ideologues of the Left and moderates at the same time. This allows moderates to be seduced by their own rhetoric about the virtues of a specific reform as an end in itself. Meanwhile, more sophisticated ideologues understand that they are supporting a camel’s-nose strategy. In an unguarded moment during the health-care debate in 2009, Representative Barney Frank confessed that he saw the “public option,” the supposedly limited program that would have given the federal government a direct role as an insurer in competition with private insurers, as merely a way station to a single-payer system in which the government is the sole provider of health care. In his September 2009 joint-session address to Congress on health care, President Obama insisted that “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” Six months later, when he got the health-care bill he wanted, he insisted that it was only a critical “first step” to overhauling the system. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was one of the relatively few self-described moderates who both understood the tactic and supported it. “There seems no inherent obstacle,” Schlesinger wrote in 1947, “to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.”

This prospect haunted the great economist and philosopher of liberty Friedrich von Hayek. There was little prospect, Hayek wrote, of America or the Western democracies deliberately embracing what he called the “hot socialism” of the Soviets. “Yet though hot socialism is probably a thing of the past,” he wrote in the preface of the 1956 edition of his masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom,

some of its conceptions have penetrated far too deeply into the whole structure of current thought to justify complacency. If few people in the Western world now want to remake society from the bottom according to some ideal blueprint, a great many still believe in measures which, though not designed completely to remodel the economy, in their aggregate effect may well unintentionally produce this result.

The non-hot socialism Hayek was describing often goes by the name of “social democracy,” though it is perhaps best understood as an American variant of Fabianism, the late-Victorian British socialist tendency. “There will never come a moment when we can say ‘now Socialism is established,’” explained Sidney Webb, Britain’s leading Fabian, in 1887. The flaw of Fabianism, and the reason it never became a mass movement on the Left, is that the revolutionary appetite will never be sated by its incrementalist approach. The political virtue of Fabianism is that since “socialism” is always around the corner and has never been fully implemented, it can never be held to blame for the failings of the statist policies that have already been enacted. The cure is always more incremental socialism. And the disease is, always and forever, laissez-faire capitalism. That is why George W. Bush’s tenure is routinely described by Democrats as a period of unfettered capitalism and “market fundamentalism,” even as the size and scope of government massively expanded under Bush’s watch while corporate tax rates remained high and Wall Street was more, not less, regulated.

Early in the 20th century, Webb drafted Clause IV of the Labour party constitution in Great Britain, which described its ultimate aim thus:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Clause IV was “holy writ” for British Labourites, to borrow a phrase from Joshua Muravchik’s indispensable history of socialism, Heaven on Earth. Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson compared amending Clause IV to excising the book of Genesis from the Bible. But in the late 1990s, Tony Blair, a leader in Britain’s Christian socialism movement, successfully pushed through a revision to the holy writ. His new version read, in part:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.

Blair’s revision of Clause IV elicited numerous denunciations. A leader of the miners’ unions said the changes amounted to tearing up the Ten Commandments. Even though he hailed from the Right of the Labour party, Roy Hattersley, a former deputy party leader, complained that Blair was abandoning the “bedrock principle” of “redistribution of power and wealth.” But Blair stuck to his guns. He argued that while he rejected doctrinaire “socialism,” he was committed to what he called “social-ism.”

Blair’s hair-splitting got at an important distinction. Socialism, sprawling and inchoate as it may be, is still a doctrine. “Social-ism” is something different. It is an orientation, a way of thinking about politics and governance—it is oriented toward government control but is not monomaniacally committed to it as the be-all and end-all. Social-ism is about what activists call “social justice,” which is always “progressive” and egalitarian but not invariably statist. As a practical matter, “social-ism” works from the assumption that well-intentioned leaders and planners are both smart enough and morally obliged to, in Obama’s words, “spread the wealth around” for the betterment of the whole society in general and the underprivileged in particular.

But at a far more important level, “social-ism” is a fundamentally religious impulse, a utopian yearning to create a perfect society unconstrained by the natural trade-offs of mortal life. What Blair’s doctrinal revision recognizes is that public ownership of the means of production—the central economic principle of socialism—is not necessary as long as private interests and private businesses can be compelled to follow the designated road to utopia.


  1. Robert said,

    Obama isn’t anymore a socialist than McCain is a fascist, a leprechaun or sincere. Sure, Obama wants more government control of economic matters. But as even Obama said if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. Capitalism administered by the state is still capitalism. Duh

  2. Man in the World said,

    See, this is why folks. The previous comment is so obviously by someone who didn’t actually read the article.

    So let’s parse the answer, shall we?

    1. Is Not!
    2. Gratuitous reference and halfhearted insult of someone he assumes would be ‘on my side’, complete with colloquial reference that came up at some point in his campaign. Hahah clever, that.
    3. Statement reflecting no clear thinking understanding of the real world.

    Well, I don’t think there is much I can do here. I can give a definition, I guess. That might help:

    Main Entry: cap·i·tal·ism
    Pronunciation: \ˈka-pə-tə-ˌliz-əm, ˈkap-tə-, British also kə-ˈpi-tə-\
    Function: noun
    Date: 1877

    : an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

    But you know, here we have the problem. Right here! How did the Nazis come to power? How did the fascists, of the soviets, or any other totalitarian or destructive regime come into power? This guy! This guy and all those like him. It’s fascinating, but horrible to think of. It can make you lose hope for the future to contemplate just the sheer lunacy of it all. How very sad.

  3. Robert said,


    I am old enough to have travelled on Britsh Rail trains when they were nationalised i.e., under public ownership. That I had to pay each time I wished to travel by train then & now proves the point that public (or State) ownership has nothing to do with the free access (common ownership) of Socialism. When the state takes over an industry it does so, not on behalf of the people, but on behalf of the capitalist class as a class and runs it for their collective benefit. The whole history of the nationalised industries in Britain is confirmation of this . Nationalisation is neither socialism nor a step towards it. It is state capitalism.

    Yours for a world of free access,


    • Man in the World said,

      You confuse plutocracy (a government or controlling class of the wealthy) with capitalism (an economic system). They do not necessarily go hand in hand.

      Plutocrats may indeed use the economic system of capitalism in their rise to power, but they soon abandon that in favor of cementing themselves into power and wealth. We have seen in the last few decades especially a definite trend toward plutocracy, but as can be seen from Obama’s bailouts of corporate entities (many of who are his friends and belong to the same social circles) and his attempts to ‘lessen risk’ he demonstrates that he is far from a capitalist. Most of his policies are in fact anti-capitalist.

      I suppose the confusion is because capitalism is about profit and plutocrats are usually wealthy. Regardless, capitalism as an economic system does not in and of itself lead to plutocracy. Human nature leads to plutocracy. And as a matter of fact it is the same in all socialist countries as well. All systems of government, especially socialist and communist style governments, lend themselves very easily to rule by a certain class of the wealthy or privileged. So also does our system here, but the system is designed so that (if the people care and pay attention) there are enough safeguards so that such a thing can be caught and reversed in time. I hope that such an awakening is occuring now.

    • Man in the World said,

      I actually got sidetracked and didn’t address the original comment. Sorry! Anyway, there is no such thing in the real world as ‘free access’. It has to be paid for somehow. If you aren’t paying out of pocket to buy a ticket from an individual, you are paying in taxes to the government and telling them to use your money for that purpose. And which do you think would be more efficient and create something of lasting quality? An individual who is concerned with making himself competitive and profitable, or a massive government entity spending someone else’s money? Perhaps we should ask Greece.

  4. Robert said,

    Hi again!

    Your semantic point about capitalism v. plutocracy is a moot one for most workers and reminds me of an old East European joke: under capitalism man exploits man but under ‘communism’ it’s quite the other way around!

    A useful primer covering such topics as free access is to be found here:

    We’ll leave discussion of human nature to another day

    Let us hasten that glorious day
    When man on man no more shall prey
    When prophets, priests and kings
    Shall be numbered with forgotten things.


    • Man in the World said,

      I’m sure that my reality will never convince you that your Utopia is invalid. I suspect nothing short of actually experiencing the true consequences of your ideal when applied to reality will ever change your mind, so I suppose we shall agree to disagree. As a Christian I also await that day you mention, although I suspect I mean something different than you 🙂

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