Philosophy Weekend: Specters of Socialism

As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about “socialism” in America. Opponents of Obama’s platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like “socialism”, “Marxism”, “fascism” and “tyranny” interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.

Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we’ve seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter’s history book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can’t quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.

This book will fill in the blanks, and you’ll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions — yes, tens of millions — of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).

The scope of this disaster was amazing, unbelievable. Everybody should learn about this history — Dikotter’s book is a good place to start, or Jung Chang’s Mao: the Untold Story, or, for a Russian variant, Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, which describes a similar, earlier program of rural starvation directed against Ukranian farmers by Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Knowledge of these obscene programs of government-sponsored murder and totalitarianism do lend some depth to the rantings against socialism and tyranny that have been leveled against the Barack Obama administration, even though there’s absolutely no evidence at all that Obama or the Democratic party wish to establish tyrannical government in America. Even though the links are ridiculously weak, the fact that there have been real-world models for these worst-case scenarios is relevant to discussions about America’s future.

But fear is a blunt instrument. We see this bluntness when idealistic concepts of socialism (the word has a broad history, and many different meanings) are equated with the actual crimes of communist or fascist governments that called themselves socialist. Is “socialism” simply a dirty word, tainted forever? What does the word even mean? It is possible to hope for a better society and carry out a progressive agenda without opening the door to government’s worst excesses? And if not, if the word should be thrown into the garbage (as many Americans believe it should be), then who will address the original problems — social injustice, tyranny of the wealthy, government corruption, capitalist exploitation of the poor — that “social” revolutions have tried to solve?

Words are probably failing us here, as they so often do when political stakes are high. As I write these words today, I feel the thundering imprecision of all these labels — socialism, fascism, Marxism, communism, tyranny — pounding on my head. I feel the ideological ground slipping under my feet. Could it possibly be true, as author Jonah Goldberg has alleged in his influential book Liberal Fascism. that Hitler’s Nazi party was more rooted in left-wing socialism than in right-wing plutocracy? And how do we really know … how can we know for sure … that Barack Obama isn’t a secret Maoist, ready to starve us all to death once he manages to tax Fox News into bankruptcy?

At times like this, we have to fall back into common sense. The specters of socialism are real, and we must be forever vigilant for our freedom. We’re vigilant, but we’re not dumb. Socialism has a terrible track record. But the word describes a general wish to find solutions to other big, horrible problems, other crimes against humanity. Those other specters haunt us today as well.

Most importantly, we must be fair to the hardworking politicians who we elected to be our leaders. Whatever “socialism” can manage to mean in the year 2010, it’s pretty definitely the case that Barack Obama has nothing to do with it, and never has. The fact that he had some friends in Chicago who liked Karl Marx does not mean that Barack Obama wants to starve us all to death.

Nor does it mean that opponents of the Obama administration can be trusted simply because they reject “socialism”. I’ve been reading up on the word “plutocracy“, which describes an approach to government that is markedly not “socialist”, yet leads to a different kind of tyranny. It’s an important point that the plutocratic form of tyranny has a lot in common with the type of corporation-friendly government today’s Republican party wants to empower. Maybe “socialism” shouldn’t be the only scare-word in town.

6 Responses

  1. I believe socialism has two
    I believe socialism has two sides to it – a benign socialism which we find within our military defense, the state and local police departments, the fire fighters, even our parks systems both local, state and national, public education and even Social Security. These types of social programs are benign, not a threat to society at all (except the extreme right wing, perhaps).. Contrast this with the militant socialism which demands from the citizenry much like what your initial piece speaking about Mao and even Stalin. Certainly those levels of extremes, the militant extremes, are a danger to freedom loving peoples everywhere. We must all be onguard against them.

    What about the Corporate Elite who quite literally own the political system thru their lobbying partnerships that bribe officials to vote their way? This is never discussed as any threat to the nation but has always had to be kept in check throughout our history. Obama, I’m quite sure, is well aware of this Corporate Power and how it even bought the Supreme Court with their ruling on corporate spending towards our election system. Our people really have no idea how damaging a ruling that was to the political system we had in place for years… to be casually overthrown by the chosen Justices by the Bush Admin, Justice Roberts.

    But yet, it is the loud and persistent cries of the wolf, the Conservative Right Wingers and their media stooges who love to cast suspicion on the opposing side without regard to facts or figures to back their warnings up. Their public anxiously awaits their next feeding sitting in front of their tv tuned in to Faux News… never knowing or at least acknowledging the Number One man, Rupert Murdoch, an Australian by birth, who “became a naturalized citizen to satisfy the legal requirement that only United States citizens could own American television stations.” Does anyone really believe Mr Murdoch has any real concerns about this country other than how much money he can make off our citizens? If he has any interest in America I would guarantee that interest is purely financial. I doubt if that man has ever read even the Bill of Rights.

    No, it’s not socialism we need to be concerned about getting out of hand with the Obama Administration. On the contrary, it is the current Republican/Tea Party gang that should be kept in check… the closer the better for America. I hear Haley Barber today speak of President Obama “taking us to the extreme left, closer to socialism than the country has ever been…” this to a television audience of millions. I trust the majority of the viewers will pass that remark off as utter stupidity on the part of Mr Barber… another scare tactic fed to the masses who spend too much time worrying instead of learning what the truth of the facts are.

  2. Levi,
    You are much more


    You are much more patient with the right and with people in general than I am and for that I applaud you.

    It used to be that common sense could lead people to the truth…not anymore. We are in an era of “willful ignorance” (I forget who coined that term) and it’s going to take a miracle to shake us loose.

    The truth is that this “socialist” cry and other popular fears are matters of narrative. The right is down right masterful at controlling and directing public and media narratives for its purposes. Until the left learns to properly counter that our debates will always be tilted towards the ridiculous.

    It’s a pleasure reading these political posts precisely because I can’t engage with folks who think like this (ohh Obama socialist, foreign puppet) beyond classifying them immediately as “morons” (typical lefty arrogance on my part).

    Thank you for thinking things through and making the discussion possible.

  3. I think the arguments about
    I think the arguments about ‘socialism’ and such things are totally irrelevant. We have a much deeper and more dangerous problem that cares not for who is in power at any given moment. It’s a new kind of totalitarianism. It is a systematic totalitarianism that is steadily growing within an outer construction that represents a democracy.

    This system requires no particular leader with any particular charisma. It simply requires a general inability to defeat the system once it is in place. It is in place already. You can see it in full operation if you look in the most obvious direction. It is more dangerous even than the Nazis. The Nazis were not a system yet. They were a man with a small and frightening group of friends who took control for a time.

    I sort of feel sorry for Obama because I view him as peripheral. Look at how he functioned in the BP crisis. He functioned as a mid-level employee of the company. That’s your answer right there. It’s not Obama that wants the tyranny. Not at all. He doesn’t factor even slightly.

  4. What is the purpose of
    What is the purpose of government? It is to serve the people. The Tea Wingers want a government that serves business. This is wrong, and it is a perversion of the constitution that they allegedly hold so dear.

    Why do common Americans race into the arms of the Twingers? In 1964 Barry Goldwater was considered a dangerous radical when he said ‘extremism in defense of liberty is no vice’. Today he would say extremism in defense of global capitalism is the greatest good, and would be applauded by all.

    Communist, socialist, terrorist: if you don’t have a legitimate political platform, try to discredit the people who do by calling them names!

  5. But all the while we fret
    But all the while we fret over ‘socialism,’ ‘healthcare’, etc., we have an efficient juggernaut gradually taking over foreign territory and efficiently killing anyone who so much as innocently drives a car just over the speed limit on a road owned and built by people that are quietly being killed – by our death machine – our ‘soldiers.’






    Who cares what Obama wants or does.

    We are quite simply and very efficiently dangerous because we believe our own bullshit.

  6. I think the fear of
    I think the fear of Western-style socialism is misguided and often deployed as propaganda by conservatives in this country. I come from communist Romania and fear totalitarian communism as much as anyone can. It destroys people and cultures from the inside-out. But Western socialist countries seem to be thriving (even though the recession adversely affects everyone, of course). Many are ahead of the U.S. in medical care and general standard of living.

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