Column on Revisiting Socialism

Revisiting Socialism

Tibor R. Machan

During the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, held in
Washington, D.C., several speakers laid in on President Obama for his
alleged promotion of socialist policies. They were referring to various
provisions of his bailout program as well as elements of his admittedly
highly dubious neo-Keynesianism, the idea that it is best now for
government to create demand for goods and services to offset the
proclivity of Americans to withdraw from the market, to stop buying stuff
and thus to impeded employment and economic growth. These conservative
Republicans, especially radio talk show star Rush Limbaugh, allege that
bringing the government into the economy as President Obama and his team
are bent on doing is tantamount to socialism.

Well, that’s not quite right and by making the charge one thing these
conservative Republicans are certain to achieve is to discredit
themselves, to demonstrate their ignorance.

Socialism in the sphere of political economy amounts to the public
ownership of the major means of production. Nationalizing banks and car
companies and farms and so forth would qualify as socialist. But what
Obama & Co. are proposing is in fact what has been called over the last
century a system social democracy. Yes, much of the free market is
undermined by social democratic policies but that’s not quite socialism,
not what most of us think of when invoking that term.

In the non-economic realms of society, too, what Obama & Co. are pushing
for doesn’t quite qualify as socialism. That would involve the complete
abolition of a system of individual rights, including civil rights, and
the collectivization of the bulk of society. Under socialism actually no
individuals are even recognized to exist. Society is the focus of
attention and it is even contended that society is a living entity of
which the population are the cells. No independent individuality is
recognized because socialists claim that people are integral parts of
society, just as someone’s organs, limbs, and related biological
constituents are integral parts of a human being.

Certainly there is no direct attempt to bring about this socialist vision,
not at least so far, although bits and pieces of the vision presented by
President Obama come close. Furthermore, there is something to the claim,
which is perhaps what these conservative Republicans are referring to,
that an American version of socialism is being promoted by the current
crop of Democrats in Washington. Consider, in this connection, what Normal
Thomas, the leader of the American Socialist party and six time
presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, said in a 1944 speech:

"The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the
name of ‘liberalism,’ they will adopt every fragment of the socialist
program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing
how it happened."

Thomas then continued: "I no longer need to run as a Presidential
Candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democrat Party has adopted our

So, arguably, a certain version of socialism could be said to be the goal
of President Obama and the leaders of the Democratic Party. However, this
is not Soviet Socialism–so when Rush Limbaugh refers to Lenin and Stalin
in his criticism of President Obama’s regime, he is engaging in hyperbole,
even in demagoguery, rather than helping his audience understand what is
happening in America today.

As with many political systems, socialism has several versions. That’s
true with capitalism as well, although in its pure, unqualified version
capitalism is, plain and simple, an unregulated economy with full
protection of the right to private property (including in the major means
of production) and freedom of contract. But most people call various
system with significant protection of the right to private property
“capitalist,” including the current American or Canadian or English
welfare states.

It is true that under the leadership of President Obama the American
government is very likely to move closer and closer to a full scale
socialist regime, so much so that in time many of the non-economic aspects
of society will reflect socialist, collectivist principles. Perhaps in
time there will not even be much room for the right to freedom of speech
since a socialist government could well regard the exercise of such a
right as a very serious obstacle to bringing about various goals of the
government. Even totalitarian socialist measures could be coming down the
pike if the government believes that it needs to micromanage the country
so as to achieve its objectives.

But that’s not where we are now and to claim otherwise renders those
making the claim disingenuous and robs them of credibility. It may be
tempting to simplify in the realm of day to day politics but it is very
doubtful that the distinctions warranted need to be abandoned, even in the
heat of political debate.

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