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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What is Socialism? Is Barack Obama Socialist?

White House photo by Eric Draper

Using the four definitions of socialism provided below, even a cursory glance at Barack Obama cannot fail to yield the conclusion that his political framework for viewing the proper role of government in society is socialism. There can be little argument that Barack Obama is a socialist. But Republicans like John McCain and George W. Bush would do well not to apply this term as one of derision- they are socialists too. More on that later. The following list of definitions includes corresponding explanations as to why Obama fits each of them.

Socialism has been variously defined as:

  • Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy. [1]

Any Americans paying attention during the 2008 Presidential Campaign or to any of Obama's rhetoric in the aftermath of his electoral victory should be able to recall that the solutions he is proposing take for granted that it is the proper role of a centralized government to plan and control the economy in order to strengthen and improve it. Can anyone argue that Obama, McCain, Bush, and most contemporary politicians have not assumed it as their proper role to plan and control the economy? Just read the economics issue page at Mr. Obama's website. It is filled to overflowing with "tax this... subsidize that... invest here... fix that."

You may object that the definition above implies total government ownership of property and the means of production, and that Barack Obama does not advocate this. If you do so object, then I must ask what it means for us to own our property. When a government can control, appropriate, distribute, and dispose of a very significant amount of its citizens' property without their individual consent, is it not the operating premise that government owns everything and that you use your property only with government's tacit consent, and only as long as government doesn't presently wish to revoke your rights to this or that portion of your property? In such a society government presumes to be lord of all and the law of the land is "render unto Caesar whatever he says is his."

  • The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved. [1]

This definition is another, quicker answer to such an objection as that above. The word "socialism" does not necessarily imply explicit, total ownership of property by the state, but a society in transition from capitalism to communism, an economy increasingly controlled and governed by the laws and policies of the state. An entirely controlled economy would be more like true communism in action, an entirely free and uncontrolled one would be more like capitalism. The much-pined-for "middle ground" of a mixed market economy with the productive power of capitalism, but also plenty of government controls and intervention, is more akin to socialism. Obama and his political allies on "the American Left" are not alone in supporting such a state of affairs.

  • An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists. [2]

Here is another definition which serves as an excellent rebuttal to any objections that Barack Obama is not a socialist because he does not support an explicit and total government takeover of all the major industries and means of production in America. This definition really helps to clarify the nuances behind the meanings of the words "socialism" and "communism." Again, a quick reference to Obama's issue pages shows that he is categorically a socialist. It is not only in terms of policy, but in his broader approach to the role of government that Obama is clearly a socialist. For him, change means for government to change things. Fixing the economy means for government to fix the economy. Leading means leading from the Capitol Building and the White House. To Obama and most other politicians, a necessary precondition for prosperity is direct government involvement in the workings of the economy, as opposed to government acting only to maintain a civil society (i.e. one free of aggression).

  • A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor. [3]

Imagine conducting this survey:

Circle yes or no: Does the following statement accurately describe Barack Obama's message and self-portrayal?

A social reformer who seeks to fundamentally reconstruct American society to create a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor.

How many of the respondents do you imagine would circle "yes?" It's practically the bite-sized version of Barack Obama's entire campaign platform. And the key means of this reconstruction of American society that Obama envisions is government control and manipulation of the wealth and property created by its citizens. Can there really be any argument over Obama's socialist agenda? I don't think so because it is categorically true, it's a necessary conclusion based off of our definition of the word "socialist." It's also true that George W. Bush and John McCain are socialists. The three of them are more alike than they are different in their view of government, as few of their passionate supporters as there are who would be willing to admit it.

Now if you want, you can argue that it's not a bad thing to be a socialist. That's a great discussion to have, and I will say up front that one of the main focuses of this blog is why socialism is a bad thing, it's just not the focus of this particular essay. For that, allow me to refer you to the following:

Barack Obama's Victory and the Nature of Change
What is Capitalism? The Nature and Advantages of the Free Market
Libertarian Books: The Humble Libertarian's Recommended Reading

End Notes:

1. socialism. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from website:

2. socialism. (n.d.). The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from website:

3. socialism. (n.d.). Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from website:


  1. a few questions:

    just hypothetically, would a complete democracy be considered centralized government or does centralized government presuppose beurocracy?

    In most cases, the word government can be substituted for public citizens. According to marx, the communist revolution was synonymous to democratic revolution - that one could not be achieved without the other and therefore "that stage" has not yet been achieved. The final stage - communism - looks a lot like a supply-demand based market that determines the necessary level of production in order to prevent scarcity and the redevelopement of value, which everyone worked so hard to erradicate. Each syndicate (type of art or industry) would have its own democratic means of making collective decisions. The "central government" is simply a network of communication between syndicates.

    Another thing, socialism is about common ownership. If any beurocratic government privately holds title to land, even if it is all the land, that is still capitalism. It is just state-monopoly capitalism. common ownership is almost the same thing as no-ownership. Once the revolution succussfully destroys value/value theory - common ownership becomes no-ownership. One simply has stock (or a responsibility) in the the future of humanity and must take ownership of his or her actions. State ownership is only the same thing as common ownership if there is complete democracy.

  2. "A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor. [3]"

    Second question - who wouldnt want that?

    The employer-employee relationship is by nature oppressive and unjust. granted - in a personal anecdote - I applyed for a job at a common ownership firm. There wasnt just one interview, but 7. I wasnt being hired by one owner - but 23. They then voted on whether or not I would be hired. It was honestly more stressful than applying for a job at a corporate, hierarchical firm. Although being a socialist was in my favor, I didnt get hired.

    anyway, the next point. "Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise." While some seek to abolish government all together and allow the free exchange of goods and ideas between people without legal intervention.

    hey, dont you want that too? Same ends, different means, curious.

  3. Hey, David:

    "common ownership is almost the same thing as no-ownership"

    Exactly. If there is "common" ownership, there is no ownership.

    And if there is no ownership, then there is no capitalism. Capitalism is contingent upon the right of the individual to own property.

    As for who wouldn't want this: "A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor."

    I don't want it in the context of socialism, wherein someone with a gun gets to decide what is the most just and equitable distribution, and his final argument is his gun, and my disagreement with him be damned- I'll just have to go along with it because he has the gun!

    "The employer-employee relationship is by nature oppressive and unjust."

    As an employee at a restaurant, I must say that our relationship is mutually beneficial and voluntary, certainly not oppressive, and perfectly just. And if I thought it was unjust, I would be free to leave at any time. But under socialized medicine for instance, if I thought the single payer system was unjust, I would not be free to leave. I would certainly not be free to stop paying for it with my money.

  4. While I agree that most working relationships are mutually beneficial, and I agree that the Particular relationship (ie: this restaurant) is voluntary, the general relationship of the working class as a whole, is not voluntary. The un-propertied class (those who dont own the means of production) are forced by threat of starvation into the relationship of employee. Yes, it is possible that the immigrant dishwasher can eventually end up owning the restaurant. It is a classic romantic american story. But the fact remains that all humans have the right to live. That is unconditional.(which is why the gun comment made me chuckle) In capitalism it is also the people with guns who decide what is "just."

    Whether through active or passive coersion, in capitalist society, people are FORCED to work, whether they enjoy their labor or not. Im not objecting to work. I like to do stuff. I want to be an architect, I am currently learning how to do that. I am objecting to profits earned by the workers going to owners, often absentee owners. If the profits of a company went directly to those who really earned them - great. But I cannot defend a system that forces people to struggle day in and day out for their existance simply to maintain the hierarchical status quo. the labor market needs unemployment and poverty to keep wages (from an employers standpoint) competative and profits up. if there was no need to make a profit, there wouldnt be unemployment.

    All I want is for everyone to have enough of what they need and most of what they want. The more productive society is as a whole, the more everyone can have. (isnt that the gist of marge thatchers speech you posted) Yes there will always be struggle and conflict but shouldnt we be trying to minimize them? Capital needs the struggle to survive. It needs war to use up the surplus's in order to maintain the struggle. there is more id like to say, but later...

  5. I think i can sum up our argument. We both think statism is wrong. We both want the unrestricted free exchange of goods and ideas. We both want to live in a world where people are free to act anyway they chose so long as their actions do not deprive others of their freedom of action. Where we disagree is if property and value theory are necessary/counter-productive in achieving above said goal.

    So far, no society has ever been able to erradicate value theory. Never, not no one. Has not been done. Some have come close but failed. miserably. Leon Trotsky tried to explain why they failed - they tried to "silence" him. The reason is that the only way a revoltion can succede is if every wants revolution. revolutions cannot be won with guns - they are won with peoples hearts. Permanent revolution was a belief in global democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariate is a democracy where everyone (at least in their very long term goals) agrees with each other. They will bicker and rally and argue and then vote on how, but the what and the why are solid.

    We disagree on how, not the what and why. We are both compassionate human beings after all. Who, knows maybe were both right and one of us' timing is just off - near-tearm / long-term strategies. Or maybe were both wrong. We will both be dead by the time any of our bigger dreams become reality. The best we can do is just give our kids the best head start we can.

  6. in capitalist society, people are FORCED to work [or they'll starve]...

    On planet Earth people must work or they'll starve. Something must be produced before it can be consumed. Nature does not give us any guarantees of survival. A human being's continued existence is contingent upon an active process of self-sustaining growth achieved through production, i.e. you must work to eat. The only people for whom this is not true are people with benefactors or people with slaves- and even for them the principle still applies because someone had to work to produce their subsistence.

    "But I cannot defend a system that forces people to struggle day in and day out for their existance"

    Again, that system is called reality. It is not the contrivance of a greedy capitalist employer, it is a bare fact of our existence on planet Earth. Before capitalist employers you still had to work to eat, and the struggle for existence was much harder and much shorter-lived before capitalism exploded onto the scene and raised standards of living and hours of leisure for everyone.

  7. You missed the point. I am not arguing the condition of human existance, Im arguing the method. Historically speaking what you said is the truth and it still is today.

    Increased specialization has continually raised the standard of living but has subsequently produced a growing percentage of society that does not have to struggle to survive but skims of the profits of other peoples labor. These people are said to have a "right" to do this because they own the means of production. Although it is unfair, it has been legally sanctioned either as outright slavery (owning the labor too) or capitalist wage slavery where the labor is bought. No matter what the law says, this is unfair.

    "to each, his own" is a logically sound principle although not one I would agree with. If someone works so hard, he should be rewarded this much. But work is not the only means of financial reward. One can make money by not doing any work, simply owning property - real or intellectual - can produce vast sums of bullion. This is allowed in our society because certain classes of people and certain types of labor are valued more than others. A physician and a grabage collector are both essential to my physical health. No matter how hard or how long either of them works, the physician makes at least twice as much (probably closer to 4 or 5 times as much as the sanitation worker) per hour. Why. What possible reason could you give to say that this is fair. The doctor has to be smarter, he had to go to college. So does that mean we should punish everyone born with a low IQ? Why dont we just turn into the Brave New World Society? Not only can we have dumb people clean our toilets for us - we can brainwash them into enjoying being dumb toilet cleaners. Huxley already showed us that the logical conclusion of a consumerist class society will turn into a statist, consumerist, CASTE society. You could say it was socialism in that there wasnt any personal ownership of property but the government control the means of the most important production - people. You say margaret sangers population control methods were barbaric but you still see a need to keep the poor destitute in order to maintain a capitaalism. I didnt ever here you say it outright, but i said it above. Capital needs poverty, it needs hierarchy, it needs control. The capitalist class cannot exist without the working class. But the strange thing is, the working class doesnt need bosses skimming of the top. That is where my objection lies. The worker is always getting paid LESS than the value of what he produces. I am not objecting to having to produce -there is work that always needs to be done.

    To wrap up what I started, just because something has been around for a very long time, doesnt mean it will always be there. Archimedian historical probability. Says that there is a 75% chance that any meme will be around for another 75% of its current lifetime. Capitalism has been around for about 200 years give or take. That means there is a 75% chance it will be around for another 150. If we look at history with a progressive eyeglass, from hunting and gathering, to the relatively modern rise of the middle class, we can see increased specialization of labor leading to one conclusion: Where every works for everyone else and shares equally in the profits of others peoples and their own labor.

  8. I would like to end this debate by correcting something from my last post. I realized this error when reading a very informative transcript of a debate between a libertarian-communist (like me) and a supporter of participatory economics, aka ParEcon.

    Found here:

    The phrase is question is at the beginning of the 3rd paragraph of my last post. My usage was a shortening of a general theme and not a specific idea. I meant to say that value produces the idea of "to each according to his own value." Where people's labor time is valued by the market according to scarcity, and people are paid according to how long they work. Libertarian-communists, as you will find in the article, subscribe to the idea of "from each according to ability, to each according to need." Where people are treated as human beings and not as human resources.

    To anyone reading this, please read the article. It explains the position of libertarian-communism very clearly as well as explaining that the libertarian prenom is actually redundant. Parecon is considered a joke by everyone but pareconists, but the writer does a good job in setting up really good responses from the libcom writer. It also explains usage of the word socialism and how it is very inaccurate to always assume that socialism is synonymous with statism. Only marxist/lenninists approve of central state control. Most have learned from the mistakes of the 20th century.

    Unless you want to give me a 'communist corner' page to continue this debate, I will take my leave of THL.

    It was fun,


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