Monday, March 09, 2009

The Republicans' "socialist" slogan

Eugene Debs: He actually was a Socialist

It's been hard not to notice that the Republicans have been frantically accusing Obama and his programs with of "socialist". Rightwing commentators have been sounding even more like drooling-at-the-mouth Birchers, calling Obama a Marxist, a radical communist, a Marxist-Leninist, a Bolshevik and so forth.

On the most obvious level, they are caricatures of themselves in doing that. And it's pretty obvious on the face of it that they are just slinging accusations to try to associate Obama's administration with something most American voters would tend to regard as "bad stuff". And they are sleazy accusations.

But now, the "quality" press steps up and incorporates this notion into their own regular usage, specifically the New York Times in Obama’s Interview Aboard Air Force One 03/07/09:

Q. The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?

A. You know, let’s take a look at the budget – the answer would be no.

Q. Is there anything wrong with saying yes?

A. Let’s just take a look at what we’ve done. We’ve essentially said that, number one, we’re going to reduce non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest levels in decades. ...

What we have done is in a couple of critical areas that we have put off action for a very long time, decided that now is the time to ask. One is on health care. ...

The second area is on energy, which we’ve been talking about for decades. Now, in each of those cases, what we’ve said is, on our watch, we’re going to solve problems that have weakened this economy for a generation. And it’s going to be hard and it’s going to require some costs. But if you look on the revenue side what we’re proposing, what we’re looking at is essentially to go back to the tax rates that existed during the 1990s when, as I recall, rich people were doing very well. In fact everybody was doing very well. We have proposed a cap and trade system, which could create some additional costs, but the vast majority of that we want to give back in the form of tax breaks to the 95 percent of working families.

So if you look at our budget, what you have is a very disciplined, fiscally responsible budget, along with an effort to deal with some very serious problems that have been put off for a very long time. ...
So the dirty blogging hippies will now have to start paying more attention ourselves to this political cuss-word and its variants, it seems. Some are starting already.

Dave Neiwert writes about the hysterical Glenn Beck's raving about "isms" on his FOX News program in Glenn "McCarthy" Beck tries to link Communists to Obama, but they don't cooperate Crooks and Liars 03/05/09.

And Hullabaloo's dday takes a particularly interesting crack at the current use of the "Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Bolshevik" slogan in "Is There Anything Wrong With Saying Yes?" 03/08/09.

This is one where actually knowing something about the history of socialism and about political theory may be more a hindrance than a help. But here's how I'm framing the rightwingers' "socialist" accusation right now.

As impossible as I've always found it to convince European friends and acquaintances of this, "socialism" in the normal American political vocabulary just means "bad". And not really anything else.

In American politics, you call something "socialist" when you want to discredit it as undesirable and at least vaguely unpatriotic and bad. I think that's the basic linguistic fact that we have to keep in mind in approaching this.

For one thing, there's no other way that you can make any sense at all of rightwingers stringing together socialism-communism-fascism as though they were all just names for the same thing. You have to be basically dumb as a rock to not be able to make some distinction between those things. Unless you're using the very low conceptual-level vocabulary that, say, reporters at our most prestigious newspapers apply.

For examples of such slogans, see's Walsh on Cramer's "insane" description of Obama as a "Bolshevik" County Fair blog 03/08/09; Savage: Obama "is a neo-marxist fascist dictator in the making" 03/06/09 County Fair; Obama's Ideological Father by Herbert London Human Events 03/09/09;

Not so long ago, this kind of thing was called "redbaiting". But one of the eccentricities of the American political vocabulary is that we use the color red as a symbol for the Republican Party. Whereas in most of the world red is the color of the Communist and Social Democratic parties. And once you get to the point of even saying something like that, you're already outside the strange OxyContin universe of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the like. But you're also outside the usual terms of American political discourse, too.

Now, most people literate enough to be able to read Time or Newsweek are at least vaguely aware that there are Social Democratic parties in Europe that are different from Communists. Assuming that Republicans who complain today about "European-style socialism" are actually making such a distinction would be a dubious assumption.

Americans know that Cuba is Communist, which is of course also taken automatically as bad, very bad. In general, the American political vocabulary dealing with communism and socialism is a product of the Cold War. And Cuba still looks to most people like part of the Other Side from the Cold War days.

A headache-inducing variation is that what was called "Red China" in the 1950s and 1960s achieved the status of honorary capitalist country in the US political vocabulary beginning with their tilt during the Nixon administration toward supporting the US in the conflict with the Soviet Union and even urging the US to intensify it. Chinese foreign policy positions in the 1970s and 1980s were frequently very much in line with those of the most hawkish American hardliners in the US.

Today China is regarded in the American press as a "free-market" country though it still has a Communist government.

And during the 1990s, even the word "capitalism" largely receded from the American political vocabulary, replaced by "market economy". As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his last book published during his lifetime, "market economy" is a particularly serviceable term for defenders of corporate power because it basically means nothing at all.

I've been reading quite a bit the last six months about events in 20th century German history, including the 1918 democratic revolution, the postwar history of Communist East Germany and its relations to West Germany, the student movement of the 1960s, and the German terrorist groups of the 1970s, particularly the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), better known as the "Baader-Meinhof gang".

To understand any of those on anything beyond the most superficial level, you have to have some sense of what socialism, social-democracy, communism, and fascism were, both conceptually and historically. Real historians generally don't confuse the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) of the early 1930s with the German Communist Party (DKP) of that time. Nor do they confuse the economic and political goals of the SPD and DKP, even though both stood for "socialism". Those two parties never had trouble distinguishing themselves from each other and they considered themselves mutual enemies.

Nor do historians confuse the SPD and DKP with Hitler's National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), whose name included the word "socialism" only because they hoped to attract working-class voters, and working-class voters generally liked the "socialism" of either the SPD or the DKP. ("Nazi" is a short form of "National Socialist".)

But in line with their general strategy of dumbing-down American politics to schoolyard-type slogans, Republicans are out to blur the distinction between any of those things. The result is apparent in idiotic slogans like "Islamofascism", a conceptually empty concept whose only apparent purpose is to associate violent Sunni Salafi groups like Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida with the Other Side in the Second World War, which most Americans consider to be the Good War.

A similar piece of idiocy appeared from the computer of the National Review's Jonah Goldberg in his 2008 book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Dave Neiwert analyzed its many failings in a series of posts to which he provides links in 'Liberal Fascism': The response Orcinus blog 01/27/08. By merrily conflating concepts and historical realities like fascism, socialism, liberalism and "left", he basically uses the book to say liberals are fascists.

At the conceptual level, Goldberg's notion of "liberal fascism" is even less meaningful than one of the German RAF's only two real political ideas, the notion that the West German democracy of the 1970s and that of the later reunited Germany were only a thinly-disguised version of Nazism.

Here in the real world, I generally try to avoid using the term "fascism" altogether unless I'm talking about specific historical regimes like Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, or Austria under the "Standestaat" (corporate state) dictatorship of 1934-38 which is also known as "Austrofascism". I guess you would have to use the concept of fascism to talk about Juan Perón's first government of 1946-55 in Argentina. But ever there its gets to be an awfully squishy concept, even though Perón was an open admirer of Mussolini and Franco. I discussed some of the difficulties in actually trying to define fascism as an historical phenomenon in a post of 04/15/07.

The American use of the word "liberal" for the pro-labor and popular-reform party and movements also complicates these sorts of theoretical discussions. In the early part of the 20th century, left and right in American politics was mainly a matter of "progressives" and "conservatives". The mainstream left generally began to adopt the self-description of "liberal" after the First World War because the concept of "progressive" had become too vague and too confusing in the party environment (Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party ran against both Woodrow Wilson's Democrats and William Howard Taft's Republicans in the 1912 Presidential election.)

Meanwhile, in Europe and most of the rest of the world, "liberal" means pro-business and anti-labor, a leaning toward "laissez-faire" economics, and in some countries more than others a commitment to civil liberties. There really is no direct comparison between the meaning of political "liberalism" in the United States and its meaning in Europe.

Probably unbeknownst to most Americans, there are international associations of socialist (social-democratic) parties and also of liberal parties, called respectively the Socialist International and the Liberal International.

So, blog trolls may be asking, does that mean that I think the Democratic Party and/or the Obama administration can be directly compared to the European social-democratic parties?

Let's put it this way: the official of Spain's conservative party responsible for international issues, the People's Party (PP), which is the current opposition party to the majority social-democratic government, said during the US Presidential campaign last year year that Obama was more conservative than the PP on several major issues. (Jorge Moragas (PP): "Me atrevería a decir que Obama está casi a la derecha del PP" Cadena SER 05.11.08) He explained that Obama, "está a favor de la pena de muerte, en contra de los matrimonios homosexuales, propone un sistema de protección social mucho más liviano que el que puede defender un partido de centro derecha como el PP en España o en Europa. Me atrevería a decir que Obama está casi a la derecha del PP". (supports the death penalty, opposes homosexual marriage, proposes a system of social protection much less substantial than any party of the center-left like the PP or the [conservative Christian Democratic] parties of Europe could defend. I would venture to say that Obama is almost to the right of the PP.)

Let's say this again. Spain's conservative party sees itself as less conservative than Obama on a number of important issues. Obama and the Democrats are barely even "left" enough to be conservatives in Europe. And our Republicans are calling them "socialists" and "Marxists"!

Getting back to the Republican slogan-slingers who don't give a flying [Cheney] for what concepts like socialism or social-democracy may actually mean, the Democrats have to respond to the "socialism" slogan by saying that it's not true, as Obama did to the New York Times. Because while Obama knows what social-democracy, communism and fascism actually are, he also knows that in American politics, "socialism" is mainly just a synonym for "bad".

But I think the Democrats will have to get more aggressive, too. For instance, by responding in ways that make it clear that Republicans tossing around the "socialist" slogans are clueless about what they are actually saying. To borrow a memorable comment of Lyndon Johnson's, most of them wouldn't know what a socialist was if one came up and bit them on the leg.

Obama's response quoted above also reflects that fact that to the extent "socialism" has any conceptual meaning beyond "bad" in normal American political talk, it's vaguely associated with state ownership of stuff. Stuff like banks and businesses.

But taking over (nationalizing) a failed bank to dispose of the bad assets and reform to management so it can be re-privatized as a healthy institution is not a distinctly social-democratic program, though in Europe both social-democratic and conservative governments are facing the same issues and are like to do more nationalizations. If the government were to decide that it was going to take over all major banks and run them on a permanent basis, that could legitimately be called a social-democratic program. But even though "European socialist" parties the Republicans dread so much don't generally propose large-scale state ownership of finance or industry these days.

Would universal health-care coverage along the lines that Obama has discussed be "socialized medicine"? Since the plan he's outlined up until now would continue to rely on private hospitals and private insurance, there's no meaningful real-world sense that could be called "socialized medicine"? If Congress decides that most doctors and other health-care providers would work for the government as in Britain's National Health Service, that could legitimately be called "socialized medicine". Canada's (highly-effective and efficient) state-run health insurance system as I understand it could be called "socialized health insurance". but neither of those things are on the political agenda in the US.

The bottom line is that the current round of sleazy McCarthyist name-calling from the Republicans is just that, a bunch of sleazy Bircherite name-calling. And the Democrats need to deal with it straightforwardly as such. Hopefully by getting into the Republicans' faces and not by finding some of their own allies to criticize as too far left (see the case of vs. the infallible Gen. Petraeus) in order to try once more unsuccessfully to get the Rush Limbaughs and Mitch McConnell's of the world not to call them names any more. I mean, the Dems are bound to figure out one of these days that the fact that the tactic hasn't worked for decades now is probably a pretty good indication that the tactic doesn't work. They need to shove it back in the Republicans' faces instead.

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