Obama Is No Socialist. I Should Know.

 

 

Obama according to Rush's  Ditto-Heads

 

 

This essay, coming from a perspective very different from the Kasama Project, nonetheless highlights the openings of this moment -- as the question of socialism emerges front and center, and as the crisis has wiped that ugly smirk off the faces of free market wingjobs. This article appeared in the Washington Post, a fact that itself is worth thinking over. (Thanks to Koba for pointing this out.)

By Billy Wharton Sunday, March 15, 2009; B01

It took a massive global financial crisis, a failed military adventure and a popular repudiation of the Republican Party to make my national television debut possible. After 15 years of socialist political organizing -- everything from licking envelopes and handing out leaflets to the more romantic task of speaking at street demonstrations -- I found myself in the midtown Manhattan studio of the Fox Business Network on a cold February evening. Who ever thought that being the editor of the Socialist magazine, circulation 3,000, would launch me on a cable news career?

The media whirlwind began in October with a call from a New York Times writer. He wanted a tour of the Socialist Party USA's national office. Although he was more interested in how much paper we used in our "socialist cubby hole" than in our politics, our media profile exploded. Next up, a pleasant interview by Swedish National Radio. Then Brian Moore, our 2008 presidential candidate, sparred with Stephen Colbert. Even the Wall Street Journal wanted a socialist to quote after the first bailout bill failed last fall. Traffic to our Web site multiplied, e-mail inquiries increased and meetings with potential recruits to the Socialist Party yielded more new members than ever before. Socialism -- an idea with a long history -- suddenly seemed to have a bright future in 21st-century America.

Whom did we have to thank for this moment in the spotlight? Oddly enough, Republican politicians such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain had become our most effective promoters. During his campaign, the ever-desperate McCain, his hard-charging running mate Sarah Palin and even a plumber named Joe lined up to call Barack Obama a "socialist." Last month, Huckabee even exclaimed that, "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born."

We appreciated the newfound attention. But we also cringed as the debate took on the hysterical tone of a farcical McCarthyism. The question "Is Obama a socialist?" spread rapidly through a network of rightwing blogs, conservative television outlets and alarmist radio talk shows and quickly moved into the mainstream. "We Are All Socialists Now," declared a Newsweek cover last month. A New York Times reporter recently pinned Obama down with the question, "Are you a socialist, as some people have suggested?" The normally unflappable politician stumbled through a response so unconvincing that it required a follow-up call in which Obama claimed impeccable free market credentials.

All this speculation over whether our current president is a socialist led me into the sea of business suits, BlackBerrys and self-promoters in the studio at Fox Business News. I quickly realized that the antagonistic anchor David Asman had little interest in exploring socialist ideas on bank nationalization. For Asman, nationalization was merely a code word for socialism. Using logic borrowed from the 1964 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," he portrayed Obama as a secret socialist, so far undercover that not even he understood that his policies were de facto socialist. I was merely a cudgel to be wielded against the president -- a physical embodiment of guilt by association.

The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies.

The first clear indication that Obama is not, in fact, a socialist, is the way his administration is avoiding structural changes to the financial system. Nationalization is simply not in the playbook of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and his team. They favor costly, temporary measures that can easily be dismantled should the economy stabilize. Socialists support nationalization and see it as a means of creating a banking system that acts like a highly regulated public utility. The banks would then cease to be sinkholes for public funds or financial versions of casinos and would become essential to reenergizing productive sectors of the economy.

The same holds true for health care. A national health insurance system as embodied in the single-payer health plan reintroduced in legislation this year by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), makes perfect sense to us. That bill would provide comprehensive coverage, offer a full range of choice of doctors and services and eliminate the primary cause of personal bankruptcy -- health-care bills. Obama's plan would do the opposite. By mandating that every person be insured, ObamaCare would give private health insurance companies license to systematically underinsure policyholders while cashing in on the moral currency of universal coverage. If Obama is a socialist, then on health care, he's doing a fairly good job of concealing it.

Issues of war and peace further weaken the commander in chief's socialist credentials. Obama announced that all U.S. combat brigades will be removed from Iraq by August 2010, but he still intends to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq and wishes to expand the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A socialist foreign policy would call for the immediate removal of all troops. It would seek to follow the proposal made recently by an Afghan parliamentarian, which called for the United States to send 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of more fighting forces.

Yet the president remains "the world's best salesman of socialism," according to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. DeMint encouraged supporters "to take to the streets to stop America's slide into socialism." Despite the fact that billions of dollars of public wealth are being transferred to private corporations, Huckabee still felt confident in proposing that "Lenin and Stalin would love" Obama's bank bailout plan.

Huckabee is clearly no socialist scholar, and I doubt that any of Obama's policies will someday appear in the annals of socialist history. The president has, however, been assigned the unenviable task of salvaging a capitalist system intent on devouring itself. The question is whether he can do so without addressing the deep inequalities that have become fundamental features of American society. So, President Obama, what I want to know is this: Can you lend legitimacy to a society in which 5 percent of the population controls 85 percent of the wealth? Can you sell a health-care reform package that will only end up enriching a private health insurance industry? Will you continue to favor military spending over infrastructure development and social services?

My guess is that the president will avoid these questions, further confirming that he is not a socialist except, perhaps, in the imaginations of an odd assortment of conservatives. Yet as the unemployment lines grow longer, the food pantries emptier and health care scarcer, socialism may be poised for a comeback in America. The doors of our "socialist cubby-hole" are open to anyone, including Obama. I encourage him to stop by for one of our monthly membership meetings. Be sure to arrive early to get a seat -- we're more popular than ever lately.

billyspnyc@yahoo.com

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    For all the current and former CUNY student activists here (and there are a bunch) Billy Wharton was a very dedicated and non-sectarian activist at the College of Staten Island and all around stand up guy.

  • Guest - christian-socialist

    Hey my friends, what we need is a United-Front of small alternative political parties in this country as an electoral strong option for 2012, or 2016. But time is running fast and if the left in USA doesn't unite into a United Socialist Front of small socialist parties, the right-wing lunatics, a far-right wing fascist leader might take over in 2012. At least we are a bit better now than with an ultra-right wing lunatic from the Republican Mafioso Party

  • Yes, Billy Wharton. What a mensch. Good to see him sticking it to the man in the pages of the Washington Post.

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    texts like this one always do remind me of Hofstadter's <i>The Paranoid Style in American Politics</i>

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    Christian-Socialist,

    There are many obstacle sto the Socialist United Front that you envision. Chief amongst these is that socialists in the US are far from united in their approach to elections, being divided into three broad camps:

    1. Those who believe that the winner-take-all system of US elections and/or the historic ties of the black and other oppressed nationality communities to the Democratic Party require that electoral work be conducted inside the Democratic Party.

    2. Those who believe it is neccesary to build a left electoral capacity independent of the Democrats (e.g. the Greens or other third party efforts).

    3. Those who for various reasons believe ALL electoral involvement is a waste of socialist energies in the US.

    I believe that all three positions reflect real facts about the political terrain on which we operate and that it is neecesary to develop a strategy that speaks seriously to all of these facts even where it does not embrace the particular conclusions drawn by all camps. I think it is important to distinguish more than we have in the past in these discussions between strategic orientation and particular tactics.

    My own view is that the key strategic task of revolutionary socialists in the US is to break away the main popular constituencies of the Democratic Party from the party's ruling class leadership and that this requires both the waging of struggles within the Democratic Party AND the development of independent electoral and extra-electoral organization that can serve as a pole of attraction for those forces that do break away.

    When I speak about waging struggles within the Democratic Party I am thinking of something considerably sharper than most of the efforts we've seen previously to constitute a left pole within the party. This is not an easy thing to do, though I think the present crisis creates real opportunities that did not exist previously. A tactic worth discussing at least is the organization of explicitly socialist primary challenges against sitting Democratic elected officials that would not turn around and deliver themselves over to established party apparatus as soon as they lose. While there may be a district or two where such challenges could prevail, the real purpose of them would be to develop an electoral organizational capacity that could at some not too distant point in the future break way from the Democratic Party and fuse with whatever independent electoral formations (like the Greens) can be built simultaneously. The critical thing in such a strategy I think has to be a commitment to sharply exposing the political role of the Democratic Party and its ruling class leadership and resisting alliances with fractions of the ruling class that obscure that role. Critical to all this, however, is the building of robust socialist organization OUTSIDE the Democratic Party that can advance such a strategy in a disciplined manner. What I think clearly will not work is for socialists in ones and twos and threes to operate within the Democratic Party thinking that they can pull it further to the left than it pulls them to the right.

  • Guest - selucha

    TNL, your example of the Greens begs the question, what happened to the Greens? They're a stagnant, miniscule political force with near no influence whatsoever. I don't see what you're trying to prove with that.

    <blockquote cite="The critical thing in such a strategy I think has to be a commitment to sharply exposing the political role of the Democratic Party and its ruling class leadership and resisting alliances with fractions of the ruling class that obscure that role.">

    So... The plan is to compete within the Democratic Party on a broad front, build an electoral base of your line of the party, then attack the political role of that same party and it's ruling class leadership? That is going to come off as extremely hypocritical and you'd essentially be condemning yourself, seeing as you are a part of that party. This goes without mentioning the fact that you still have to deal with the likelihood that the Democrats will not support you morally or financially, so there's not much point of working within the party in the first place. Like Immortal Technique says, when you try to change the system from within it isn't you that changes the system, it's the system that changes you. Infiltrating the Democratic Party will NOT work specifically because you will necessarily compromise your ideals to make "progress" and will lose your entire purpose in the meantime.

    Electoral politics are a waste of time for communists, especially in winner-take all, two party systems like the United States.

  • Guest - selucha

    Can one of the moderators delete that last post? It didn't format the way I wanted and the quote I put in didn't even show up.

    --------

    TNL, your example of the Greens begs the question, what happened to the Greens? They’re a stagnant, miniscule political force with near no influence whatsoever. I don’t see what you’re trying to prove with that.

    "The critical thing in such a strategy I think has to be a commitment to sharply exposing the political role of the Democratic Party and its ruling class leadership and resisting alliances with fractions of the ruling class that obscure that role."

    So… The plan is to compete within the Democratic Party on a broad front, build an electoral base of your line of the party, then attack the political role of that same party and it’s ruling class leadership? That is going to come off as extremely hypocritical and you’d essentially be condemning yourself, seeing as you are a part of that party. This goes without mentioning the fact that you still have to deal with the likelihood that the Democrats will not support you morally or financially, so there’s not much point of working within the party in the first place. Like Immortal Technique says, when you try to change the system from within it isn’t you that changes the system, it’s the system that changes you. Infiltrating the Democratic Party will NOT work specifically because you will necessarily compromise your ideals to make “progress” and will lose your entire purpose in the meantime.

    Electoral politics are a waste of time for communists, especially in winner-take all, two party systems like the United States.

  • Guest - Stanley K

    Bolsheviks didn't aim on making a Tsar and still, they did participate in Doma.

    A radical in Congress, local governing might have a usage but, stop dreaming acting within this rusty regime. Needs changing from top to bottom

  • Guest - James B

    Uh, you do realize most of the things you said Obama is not doing...well...he is doing.

    Guess he's a socialist.

  • Guest - Maeryn

    so...then....whats the purpose of Rockefellers Eugenics plan, the Builderberg group, and the 130+ concentration camps Homeland Security has stuck up all over the US?

  • Guest - n3wday

    TNL says,

    "A tactic worth discussing at least is the organization of explicitly socialist primary challenges against sitting Democratic elected officials that would not turn around and deliver themselves over to established party apparatus as soon as they lose. While there may be a district or two where such challenges could prevail, the real purpose of them would be to develop an electoral organizational capacity that could at some not too distant point in the future break way from the Democratic Party and fuse with whatever independent electoral formations (like the Greens) can be built simultaneously."

    And you're talking about this on a national or local level? I'm assuming you mean national. While I imagine that there is some potential for such ventures on the local level (possibility of actually winning a few, developing class consciousness is another issue), I really think such ventures on a larger scale have already been discredited.

    How are we going to respond to Michael Moore when he gets on his knees after 4 years of Palin and begs us not to divide the democratic party? And every sane democrat goes, "well fuck this, only moderates can win against the united right front"?

    I can only imagine something like that having any potential under conditions of mass upheaval, which then begs the question if elections are even where we want to be during those periods.

  • Guest - chegitz guevara

    N3wday, people will beg us not to divide "the left" whether we organize outside the Democrats electorally or we eschew the electoral strategy altogether. Democrats were furious with me in 2004 because I refused to support Kerry. That, in itself, is not a reason to not pursue an entryist tactic such as TNL mentioned (one that is specifically aims at breaking people away from the Democrats, rather then pulling the Democrats to the left, ala DSA). My gut reaction to TNL's proposal is to reject it. In fact, one of the few lines the Socialist Party USA has is to categorically reject any support whatsoever for the Democrats. That doesn't stop me from thinking about it, and whether or not it might be useful.

    I wonder how many New Communists initially thought they would pursue such a strategy, however, and ended up getting sucked into the DP. How much of a slippery slope is it? Could it actually work to present a real communist alternative inside the Democratic Party which completely opposed the Democratic Party? I don't know. Maybe we should try? We should certainly give serious thought to what the results to our movement could be. Will we become another FRSO? Would it look more like the Militant Labour tendency that waged a similar struggle inside Labour until they were expelled?

    I do believe that revolutionaries should pursue every avenue open to them to get their views out in front of the public. I shouldn't categorically reject such an entryist strategy, but I find the prospect extremely dangerous. Many revolutionaries have ended up social democrats (consciously or not) this way.

  • "I do believe that revolutionaries should pursue every avenue open to them to get their views out in front of the public. I shouldn’t categorically reject such an entryist strategy, but I find the prospect extremely dangerous."

    I actually don't disagree with you hear (on the subject of not outright dismissing some strategies).

    Perhaps my use of the word "fuck" came off a bit more rigid than I intended it to. But, whatever the case, my questions were meant to open the discussion rather than close it.

    I will try and respond regarding some of the strategic questions a later.

  • Guest - Paul

    Of course Obama isn't a "socialist".

    This is a tag used by the Right to discredit him in the eyes of the public. Obama actually would be more of a Corporatist or centrist Democrat. He has kept the Bush tax cuts (which benefit primarily the top 3% of wage earners) and the stock market is doing well while others suffer. The 'socialist' thing is an attempt by the GOP to slander him. What is sad is that so few people challenge this nonsense.

  • Guest - karen wiltshire

    I think this one is funny - speaking of Obama being a socialist: http://www.rockcellarmagazine.com/2012/07/17/is-obama-a-socialist-or-not/

  • Guest - Gary

    I think it's important to try to politically define Obama, particularly in talking with his supporters who (of all ethnicities) prioritize his status as "the first Black president" and make this the principal aspect.

    One should emphasize that he is a great friend of the bankers, at a time when the masses of people have become to varying degrees dissillusioned with the banking system. He can not even be depicted as a proponant of "financial reform."
    http://www.thenation.com/article/162930/obamas-deal-bankers-amnesty-indefensible

    He is a great friend of the Pentagon, taking the generals' advice about dramatically escalating the criminal war in Afghanistan and expanding it well beyond George W. Bush's actions in Pakistan. He wanted to maintain a large U.S. military force in Iraq requiring revision of the Bush-era agreement signed with the Iraqi regime of al-Maliki but was thwarted in that by the complexities of Iraqi politics. His current campaign claim that he "withdrew US forces from Iraq and ended the war" is bullshit. He didn't want to remove them; he wanted to maintain bases. He has vastly expanded the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and has from the beginning of his term totally embraced the fiction that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and hence a threat. He hasn't embraced the "Bomb Iran" faction dominant in the Israel Lobby but he has danced around with it and continues to do so.

    All US presidents are imperialists, just due to the nature of the system and the job, but he's arguably more imperialist than his predecessor as he sends troops of various types into Yemen, Uganda, Mali... there's no end. And he's overseen changes in law that drastically curb constitutional protections on privacy and freedom from arbitrary arrest.

    He's not a "liberal" in the usual U.S.-context sense---the Ted Kennedy sense (not that Kennedy was anything but an operator trying to mitigate the contradictions in the system in order to preserve it). He's another cutback president in the mold of Bill Clinton. He doesn't even talk about the poor and working class but about the "middle class" (as his social base). He's come late to support for gay marriage, thinking this will rally some of his disillusioned antiwar and liberal supporters to vote for him in November. But in general he's a studious middle-of-the-roader, thinking strategically that it's best to line up the positions on his desk, and choose a middle position.

    He is not a man of principle. He is an opportunist whom a section of the bourgeoisie backed when they were frightened by the loss of respect the whole system had incurred as a result of the disaster of the Iraq War (and the previous president's abyssmal ratings) and the plummeting U.S. economy. While he received a huge number of small campaign donations he also receive huge corporate donations (more than John McCain, I believe). His historical function has been to revive a measure of support for the system, to put a smiling black face on it while it maybe careens off the cliff. It's just sad that some people, including friends of mine, see his presidency as some sort of realization of Black Power. It's anything but that.

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