Almost every day I get a message from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele denouncing President Obama's "radical socialist" policies. Fox News relentlessly sounds this chorus, and some Americans agree, rallying with posters featuring hammer-and-sickle drawings and pictures of Stalin next to our elected leader.
For the rest of the world, this sounds pretty silly: they know what socialism looks like, and we have nothing like it. When Britain's then-socialist Labor Party won the 1945 general election, they created a cradle-to-grave free National Health Service and nationalized their leading industries. Cuba in the 1960s abolished all private businesses, and guaranteed a job, health care and education to all its citizens. Here at home, Eugene V. Debs, our most influential Socialist politician, took 6 percent of the vote for president in 1912 and called for a government takeover of our entire capitalist system, "expropriating the expropriators" in the language of Marx.
To compare George W. Bush's blank check for "too big to fail" banks or Obama's propping up Ford and General Motors and modest health-care legislation to any form of socialism makes little sense historically. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal went considerably farther in the direction of socialism than Obama has attempted, with jobs programs like the Works Progress Administration that kept one-third of American families from destitution. By these standards, President Obama governs not from the left but from the moderate center-right; to historians of global politics, calling him a "socialist" is so much demagoguery.
And yet, if we understand socialism as more than government control of industry (just as capitalism is much more than "markets"), we have to acknowledge that some emphatically capitalist countries, like France and Germany, have many socialistic features. Socialistic, in this definition, means publicly controlled economic institutions, and the democratic distribution of what economists call "goods," by making them public rather than private. A system of low-cost health care under state direction, government control of labor markets to ensure long-term employment, or free universities all qualify as socialistic. Just as here in the U.S. our free public school system (the first in the world), marvelous public libraries and massive government takeover of forests (the National Parks) to bar their exploitation for profit are also socialistic.
This is why Grover Norquist, a principal leader of the libertarian right, identifies "Teddy Roosevelt and his socialists" in the Progressive Era as the principal culprits in undermining laissez-faire capitalism in America. He's right, in a sense: the first Roosevelt (a Progressive Republican) initiated large-scale government regulation of private businesses in the name of what he called "social justice." And he did it when the American Socialist Party was steadily rising in influence, pulling both major parties to the left. A generation later, his Democratic cousin Franklin took it one step further with Social Security and his call for "Four Freedoms," including "Freedom From Want," which to conservative ears sounds a lot like Marx's argument that we should seek a society where we get "from each according to his (or her) ability" and give "to each, according to his (or her) need."
American conservatives invoke the insights of Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) and Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962) to suggest that any strong government role in the economy, or the guarantee of a social safety net, leads toward "statism" and thus eventually socialism. But these arguments fly in the face of history. It wasn't Marx's Social Democratic Party that introduced the world's first free health-care system in Germany in the 1880s, but "Iron Chancellor" Otto Bismarck, the epitome of the European conservative, hostile to socialism. Similarly, after World War II, anti-communist Christian Democrats built the European welfare states with their extensively socialistic features. Guess what: people of all ideological stripes like "socialism" when it provides for a stable, secure society with high consumption and social peace.
From this perspective, President Obama may indeed have socialist tendencies, if we consider guaranteed employment, free health care, free education at all levels and strong government participation in the economy as steps in that direction. Given the disorder, rapacity and corruption of what passes for capitalism in this country, many Americans who have never considered themselves "on the left" may end up thinking "bring it on."