The Corner

Answering Eugene Debs

A Democratic activist who writes under the pseudonym “Eugene Victor Debs” at the FrumForum has taken me to task for arguing in my forthcoming book and in a recent blog post that President Obama is a socialist. Apparently, to Debs I am one of those “almost demented” conservatives driven to something “verging on paranoia” by baseless fears of Obama’s plans.

Actually, when I undertook to write a political biography of Barack Obama, I had every intention of avoiding the socialism issue. I did my best to bracket the socialism controversy during the campaign. Alternating between openness and skepticism, my main thought was that the socialism issue is so tied up in messy quarrels about the definition of the term that it was best set to one side. During the 2008 campaign, I argued that Obama was vastly more left-leaning than the post-partisan pragmatist he portrayed himself as. Best to leave it at that and avoid difficult-to-resolve arguments about the meaning of socialism, I thought at the time.

Two years of research into Obama’s past forced me to change my mind. The truth is that Obama’s political rise is so profoundly enmeshed in a decidedly (if often stealthily) socialist world that the issue simply must be addressed. Radical-in-Chief is no mere rehash of my writings during the campaign. Overwhelmingly, it consists of new evidence, all of which forces us to explore the little-known world of post-1960′s American socialism. Organized American socialism may have limited public influence in the country at large (although its behind-the-scenes role is significantly greater than is generally realized), but it had an immense impact on the political development of Barack Obama. That is what I have discovered.

I was particularly amused by the argument that Obama has never openly advocated socialism in his various publications. One key difference between American and European socialists is that the American variety resorts far more often to deliberate stealth. This is particularly true of Alinskyite community organizers. My research has turned up plenty of new evidence that Obama has systematically deceived the American public about his ties to Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and ACORN. But that’s just the beginning of the many revelations of Radical-in-Chief. The real reason Obama’s extensive political partnerships with Wright, Ayers, and ACORN are important is that they are part and parcel of a still virtually unknown socialist world. Obama was intimately a part of that socialist universe. That is what I discovered, and that is why I changed my mind about the need to grapple with the socialism issue.

Contrary to Debs’ suggestion, I am well aware of the fact that many contemporary socialists do not recommend full nationalization of the economy. That is actually an important part of my argument in Radical-in-Chief. Precisely because most people work with an outdated definition of socialism as full government ownership of the means of production, they miss the many ways in which Obama’s policies do fit the model of what socialists call a “transitional program” (i.e., a plan to bring about a more complete socialism incrementally, over the long term).

It’s actually Debs who has presented this issue with insufficient complexity. First, Debs offers a sanitized and misleading portrait of the New American Movement (NAM). Although NAM had several factions with varying tactical preferences, on any reasonable assessment, it was an extremely radical group. Even the seemingly level-headed Michael Harrington and his followers, I shall show in Radical-in-Chief, were far less devoted to American democracy than they let on publicly.

It’s true that many in the New American Movement, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and in the later, merged group, the Democratic Socialists of America, favored a decentralized “grassroots” form of socialism. Yet this was by no means to the exclusion of a very strong element of nationalization. Individual socialists differed on how to blend control of capitalism by community groups (like ACORN) “from below” with economic control by the federal government “from above.” But most socialists favored some combination of both approaches. After all, ACORN couldn’t insert itself into the banking system without support from congressional Democrats and the Clinton administration. Radical-in-Chief goes into these complexities, and reveals the untold story, not just of ACORN, but of many other matters that tie President Obama to American socialism.

It’s surprising to see someone who writes under the name Eugene Victor Debs offer so shallow and unconvincing a definition of socialism. If being socialist means only that you support a mixed economy, then virtually everyone is a socialist and the term is meaningless. The truth is that contemporary socialists have reconciled themselves to a mixed economy for the short and medium term, while seeking to push that “mix” vastly farther toward public control, through some combination of decentralized and centralized means. The “differences of degree” at issue between socialists and non-socialists are anything but trivial. These differences of degree quickly shade into differences of kind, marking out distinctive national cultures and economic systems. Mixed economies notwithstanding, America is not Sweden.

With his incomplete and unconvincing definition (which would necessarily encompass virtually everyone, including President Obama), Debs actually seems more intent on making socialism seem harmless than in separating it from President Obama. If Obama had run for president saying, “Yeah, I’m a socialist, but really that just means I favor a mixed economy along the lines of Sweden, at least for the medium term,” I wouldn’t accuse him of deception. But of course, if Obama had said that, he never would have been elected president. Debs only appears to be denying that Obama is a socialist. Read closely, he’s actually saying something much closer to: “Socialism just means Sweden, and that’s a good thing.”

I have another bone to pick with a “Democratic activist” who attacks me from beneath a cloak of anonymity, but I’ll leave that discussion till next week.


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