Socialism 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 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 U.S. 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 (2/20/10) 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 Glen 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 consider 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 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.