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Scott Galupo on Socialism


Over at US News, Scott Galupo joins the debate kicked off by my exchange with Slate’s David Weigel over Obama and socialism. Specifically, Galupo takes off from Jonah’s contribution to the debate. I appreciate Galupo’s thoughts, but they don’t seem to be based on a reading of Radical-in-Chief.

According to Galupo, even if what I say in my book is right and Obama once believed himself to be a socialist, he isn’t one and never was. Galupo insists that socialism can only mean the total elimination of private property. According to Galupo, mixed economies, even ones that lean heavily toward public ownership, don’t count as socialist.

There are a lot of problems here. First, my book argues that when Obama attended Occidental College, he was a socialist of the classic Marxist-Leninist variety. At that time, Obama looked forward to a revolution that would completely overthrow American capitalism and replace it with a system that would fit Galupo’s “high bar” definition of socialism. So if my book is right, Galupo is clearly mistaken about Obama’s past.

But the problems go deeper. My book argues that the mature Obama has adopted a gradualist vision for achieving socialism that largely matches the one adhered to by Michael Harrington, the most prominent socialist in recent American history. By Galupo’s definition, Michael Harrington would not be a socialist either, whether he believed himself to be or not. Many “sectarian” socialists who retain a revolutionary vision and work outside of American electoral politics would agree with Galupo here. Yet a huge swath of people who do call themselves socialists idolize Harrington and consider him to be the most consequential American socialist of the past fifty years. I say that qualifies both Harrington and Obama as socialists. But even if we accept Galupo’s strict definition, Obama would, at minimum, be guilty of deceiving the American people if he was in fact a socialist on the model of Michael Harrington.

Finally, I think the “mixed economy” reply is a dodge. There is a huge difference between an economy in which the government controls 5 percent and an economy where the government runs 95 percent of the show. Both might be technically “mixed,” yet in reality they represent qualitatively different social and cultural worlds. Our biggest and most important arguments about what kind of society we want to be hinge on the “mix” of private and public influence. There are tipping points where the nature of an entire culture, as well as an economy, transform. All of that is disguised and disregarded in the “mixed economy” dodge.

But my main point is that American socialists changed their vision in the eighties. They took a new approach, this time running through community organizing rather than through direct nationalization. If some of America’s most die-hard socialists expanded their definition of socialism–or at least the pathway by which they hoped to achieve “classic” socialism over the long-term–Galupo ought to be willing to rethink his definition as well. The only way to decide is by reading what I call the “untold story” of post-sixties socialism in America.