Outlook: Obama's No Socialist. I Should Know

Billy Wharton
Outlook Contributor and Editor of 'The Socialist'
Monday, March 16, 2009 11:00 AM

"It took a massive global financial crisis, a failed military adventure and a popular repudiation of the Republican Party to make my national television debut possible... Who ever thought that being the editor of The Socialist magazine, circulation 3,000, would launch me on a cable news career?... Traffic to our Web site multiplied, e-mail inquiries increased and meetings with potential recruits to the Socialist Party yielded more new members than ever before. Socialism -- an idea with a long history -- suddenly seemed to have a bright future in 21st century America... We appreciated the newfound attention. But we also cringed as the debate took on the hysterical tone of a farcical McCarthyism."

Billy Wharton, editor of The Socialist, was online Monday, March 16 to discuss his Outlook article on how the word "socialist" has been thrown around in the media and by politicians -- and to explain what a real socialist thinks of President Obama's economic policies being labeled as such.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Billy Wharton: Greetings, readers. My name is Billy Wharton. I am the editor of The Socialist magazine and author of the article "Obama's No Socialist. I Should Know."

I am happy to receive your questions about the specifics of the article, the Obama administration or the concept of socialism in general.

Thank you for participating.


Woburn, Mass.: Of course President Obama isn't a Socialist, but I question one of your proofs. Why would a Socialist Government be any quicker to remove troops from Iraq than President Obama? Since the USA broke Iraq, it's clear they are morally required to help fix it, and an immediate withdrawal wouldn't help things. Even if it would, how is that decision more socialist than delaying the withdrawal 18 months, or 10 years?

Billy Wharton: Thank you for your question. I believe that the very presence of US troops in Iraq has contributed much to the sectarianism. The logic of occupation is to divide off populations into controllable blocs. This was not done entirely by the US military - there were already existing divisions - but it suits their logic. But please do not take my word for it. Secular political groups in Iraq such as the Iraq Freedom Congress have consistently argued the same.

In general and quickly a socialist foreign policy would seek to do significant good will internationally by harnessing the vast economic and intellectual resources of this country and sharing them with others. So much of our national budget is dedicated to wasteful military spending which does nothing more than build ill will internationally. Only a determined movement against militarism can change this.


The Rabbit Hole, USA: Thanks for your column Sunday. I feel like the more sane media stands by enjoying the controversy built by this inane third-grade-playground scare-tactic "socialism" chant, while FauxNews eggs on the brainwashing, which of course is its main reason for being. But what gets me is how ridiculous the characterization is given the history of our tax policy.

If Obama is a "socialist" (cue scary music) for trying to revert the top tax rate to what it was during the 90s (39.6%), what was Eisenhower (90%), Reagan (70%) or Nixon (50%)? The memory of those commie pinko Leninist presidents must just turn rightwingers' stomachs, right? How come the media never points this out? How lame.

Billy Wharton: I agree. I think we are entering a period in which the politics of fear should be cast aside. This society needs an open fair hearing of all sorts of ideas - socialist or not. It is so ironic that FOX would initiate this process.


Fatherland, socialism, or death!: The left has been gaining ground the past few years in the Western hemisphere: Chavez, Morales, Kirchner, Lula, Lugo, Bachelet, and now the El Salvador chap. Obama is definitely tilting the US to the left. Do you see the US going further to the left toward socialism?

Billy Wharton: The left has clearly made great strides throughout Latin America. Most importantly these political projects are interested in creating democratic socialist projects.

The question of whether America moves to the left lies not with Obama but with us. Working people have the capacity to determine the future. This is the great lesson of Venezuela and Bolivia.


DC: I appreciated your piece but was disappointed you did not offer more in terms of a socialist agenda. It's well past obvious our banks should be nationalized given the economic crisis, that universal health care and free higher education are also overdue (see Finland, Sweden, and Norway for examples of how to implement)... we've subsidized money losing airlines for years, and oil companies make huge profits yet are subsidized by huge tax break.

What other industries should be nationalized and what should a socialist agenda look like?

Billy Wharton: What you describe is something like a "lemon socialism" where private industry lays off failing parts of the private sector onto the government and then reclaims them when they are re-organized.

I do support strategic nationalizations but also think that workers' self-management will be a key part of any democratic socialist project. We need some dynamic tensions between actions taken by the national government and those taken at the base.


Bethesda, Md.: If he talks, runs for office, and makes policy like a socialist, chances are he's a socialist. No one in touch with reality would bet that he's not, unless he's being disingenuous.

Billy Wharton: One key point is that Obama has never claimed to be a socialist. This is a tag which has been foisted upon him to serve the political ends of the conservatives. My contribution is to suggest that any rational examination of his actual policy proposals will result in the conclusion that he is not a socialist. Politics of fear and paranoia or rational investigation? You decide.


Evanston, Illinois: Who is your favorite economist? James Galbraith, Robert Pollin, John Bellamy Foster, Rick Wolff, Hajo Chang, Michael Hudson, Hyman Minsky, Paul Sweezy, Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz?

Billy Wharton: Thanks for the question. I think that Rick Wolff has been ahead of the curve on the economic crisis. I would also recommend a local NYC economist named Doug Henwood who edits the very fine Left Business Observer.


NYC: Are you a socialist, or a right wing operative?

Of course Obama's no Socialist. However merely using the headline you did piece implies that you are debunking something widely held as true, or at least plausible.

In other words, you're putting the idea of Obama as a socialist into the minds of those who hadn't thought of him that way.

It's a clever way of making implications about someone while at the same time appearing to defend them.

Billy Wharton: That is quite an elaborate ruse. By the time I was done spinning the web I might forget exactly who I am.

No, I am a socialist - member of the Socialist Party USA.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What is your definition of socialism? I ask because I found it amusing in college that the socialists were a small group that intensely hated each other. The Trotsky followers hated the Leninists who both hated the Maoists who all did not trust the industrial democrats. There were the Socialist Workers, the Communists, the Progressive Laborers, and the Socialist Laborers. Not to mention the Democratic Socialists. Not to mention the Greens who none of the socialists considered as socialists although a few of the Greens thought themselves as socialists. All of which professed to be one true followers of socialism. It struck me that, united, they could have been a force, yet unity was impossible as they seemed to hate each other more than they hated capitalism.

Billy Wharton: There are plenty of divisions on the left. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my organization is multi-tendency so we have people with many different conceptions of what socialism is, or, more importantly, can be. I think this economic crisis is beginning to force groups and people who would not have spoken to one another last year to think about ways of cooperating for common goals.


Queenstown, N.D.: Why don't you try to beat me out of my money like a man rather than by electoral means?

Billy Wharton: Sorry, I am committed to making social change through non-violence. No beatings.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you believe the Federal government should insist on more employee involvement in the companies that are bailed out? For instance, now that taxpayers essentially own majority interest in AIG, how might we require that the employees have a greater say in how the company is managed?

Billy Wharton: There are many wonderful examples of the self-management of companies by employees. State nationalization can play an important role in the re-organization of failed businesses and in thinking about the ways in which different sectors might interact. Following this, it is essential that employees play a determining role in the functioning of the company. Here, I recommend looking at some examples from the occupied businesses movement in Argentina, the Mondragon sector in Spain and even the cooperative sector in the US.


D.C.: I enjoyed reading your article. As someone who actually lived for a number of years in a "socialist" country way back in the 1970s (Sweden), I've got a few comments on the health care angle. I most certainly am in favor of universal health care (note that I did not say "universal health insurance"), but we've got to be careful about its implementation. When I was living there, I found that in addition to the government-run health care scheme, there was also a privately-run health care scheme. I took part in both. The government-run scheme took my tax money (which was half my salary, approximately, then), and the private scheme took its private fee. A two-tiered system like that was fine with me. If I wanted to get to a doctor more quickly, I went private. Not a problem. Otherwise, I took my turn. But here, I've got a fabulous internist, who I wouldn't trade for anyone else. And I still want him on into the future!

What gets me is the whining on Capitol Hill about socialized medicine, when they are the ones who actually have it! And forget about being deprived of coverage for pre-existing conditions -- they have it covered. By, um, us. So, if it's good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for us?

Thanks for a very thoughtful article.

Billy Wharton: Thank you for sharing your experiences. The single-payer bill HR 676 is all about providing more choices for patients. In our current private system, an administrator with no background in medicine determines an approved list of doctors for your plan. Under HR 676 you would have access to any physician you wished. More importantly, people would be given access to the kind of preventative care needed to prevent larger traumatic illness.


Anonymous: This is the Republican game plan for over half a century: make voters fearful of Democrats. They are communists (McCarthy), lovers of rights of minorities (anti-civil rights agenda vs. LBJ), weak on the Cold War (used against McGovern, Carter, Mondale), will release frightening inmates into your community (used against Dukakis), etc. Why should we not be surprised they are reaching back for the Red scare tactics that worked so well from the in the past?

Billy Wharton: I would not just point to the McCarthy period. The post-911 political environment in this country was frightening. Only now are we taking some tentative steps away from that latest rendition of the politics of fear. The more the better.


D.C.: Am I mistaken, or weren't these "socialist" actions, such as propping up the banks and the auto industry, initiated by Bush? Am I the only one who thought it was ironic (or hypocritical) that in the fall, the Republicans were painting Obama as a socialist while Bush used taxpayer money to support private industry?

Billy Wharton: I would like to be clear here. Pouring public money into a failing private enterprise without demanding a determining voice in how that enterprise works is not socialist. One could argue that it was necessary to prevent a larger economic calamity. Fine. But, please do not confuse this with socialism.


Saginaw, Mich.: Not sure the "cooperative sector" you mention is the same thing, but I've noticed:

Farmers (in the midwest anyway) tend to be very conservative. And yet, they understand the value of "co-ops" as a way to combine resources. And they don't seem to shy away from government subsidies.

Are they socialist and in denial?

Billy Wharton: No, not exactly. This is a complicated question so I will plug a book. Consider picking up Gar Alperovitz's America Beyond Capitalism. I do not agree with all his conclusions but he does an excellent job describing how the co-operative sector works in America.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: This whole talk about Obama being a Socialist has nothing to do with socialism. It has to do with "labelism" and "labelists."

As a result of the soundbite era, political operatives (the right has perfected it) have to find quick, easy ways to negatively portray the opposition. Over time they beat into the American psyche a new meaning for various words - negative meanings. Liberal, which really means "open-minded" became a swear word in the 80s, and still is.

Socialism makes people think of communism, which we've all be taught is evil. However, at the same time the vast majority of our allies in Europe incorporate socialist concepts into their government and this doesn't seem to bother anyone here.

Obama opponents are merely practicing labelism here. It didn't have to be socialism. It could have been anything they could make into a label.

Billy Wharton: Yes, but labels are connected to real political projects. Though, as you say, much of American politics can pass as a not so highly skilled public relations campaign - see especially Joe the Plumber - there are real issues at stake here.

Wanda Dunn committed suicide last October because she was being evicted from her home. Her family lived there for three generations. The policies and politics have real human costs. It is not just about discourse or fine tuning language.


Annapolis, Md.: It would seem that "Bethesda" is intent on continuing the name-calling without understanding the terms.

I firmly believe Obama is a pragmatist, as he describes himself. Which is to say, he wants to fix the problems he has inherited, and will do what he thinks will work.

I think he may prefer a one-payer health system, but knows that would be a political dead-end. So, we'll see what congress comes up with, and move forward from there.

Billy Wharton: I do not share your view of Obama as a pragmatist. I think there are larger ideological considerations at work here which are preventing him from taking steps that the American people desperately need. Please check his campaign contribution list and keep a keen eye on receipts from the private health insurance industry.


D.C.: Workers are the ones being victimized by these bailouts..."contracts cannot be abrogated"...says Summers about AIG bonuses, while UAW workers are taking both wage and health care hits...

Obama is obviously no socialist, but he seems to be getting farther and farther from "Change we can believe in" too.

Billy Wharton: Yes, but there is a give and take here. In Latin America the term "presidentialism" is used to describe the sentiment that one person can solve all the societal and people's personal problems. There is a similar process underway with Obama.

Simply put, the UAW bears an important responsibility here. They should refuse - in the clearest terms possible - to accept givebacks. They should take the workers out if the company persists. They might even lead the call for the government to nationalize the plants and sell them back to the union re-constituted as a cooperative.


Cannon Falls, Minn.: In most examples of socialism, the companies that are nationalized are profitable companies, with their proceeds then going to "the people." How does what we are talking about with failed banks get anywhere near that definition?

Billy Wharton: Obama's strategy with the banking sector does not get us anywhere close to a policy which will benefit the American people. A nationalization which seeks to run the banking sector as a highly regulated public utility would. The banks could then be spun out into local cooperatives which would provide valuable services to working people. For instance, they could undercut the scandalous practices of check cashing and pay-day loans. In this way, a nationalized banking system with local manifestations would return direct dividends to us all.


Orlando, Fla.: Is the Federal Reserve a threat to the citizenry and perhaps, government itself?

Billy Wharton: No, I think that Ron Paul may be a bigger threat to the citizenry than the Federal Reserve.


Jefferson City, Missouri: Say hypothetically all government involvement in the economy went away, and as a result all these mega-corporations we deal with now collapsed, with what's left over broken up into much smaller units, to be controlled by actual workers on a local level. With that revolutionary base, would you then see a true free market as a good idea?

Basically I'm asking what you think of anti-capitalist, anti-state philosophies like agorism or mutualism. Any brief thoughts?

Billy Wharton: I would say the scenario you propose is far too sanitary. You cannot just have say 50% of any economy collapse and then be re-built overnight. There would social trauma so serious that they would overwhelm the best of our theoretical formulations or future-painting.

For these questions I would defer to Michael Albert's interesting, but also too sanitary, ParEcon.


Long Beach: We understand the need and benefit of social services, yet are taught to hate socialism. We are naturally in support of American workers, yet are taught to hate the unions. Are we a conflicted nation, thanks to Right Wing propaganda? (maybe you should call yourself a social serviceman?)

Billy Wharton: Social serviceman sounds a bit too militaristic for me. I will stick with democratic socialist.


Anonymous: Do you feel as though Americans are blind to real history? When WWII started, workers made huge sacrifices, but large companies demanded, and got, huge "retooling" bonuses from the Govt., holding out until they got the money. This is just one example of our ignorance of how the American workers are the true patriots, and the Financiers and Plutocrats are money grubbers. Your thoughts?

Billy Wharton: No, I do not think that anyone is "blind" to history. I think we all live inside of history - as both observers and creators. The challenge is to develop a view of the world which allows one to understand things which are often contradictory. For me, socialism provides that framework.


Alexandria, Va.: Considering the hostility of people like the guy from N.D. who thought you want to take his money, wouldn't you agree that your biggest PR problem is that the USSR and the GDR claimed to be "socialist" as a matter of propaganda, to disguise to the uneducated that they were totalitarian?

Billy Wharton: Oh, sorry, I thought the USSR collapsed! Damn. Is it back?

Seriously, my organization opposed the USSR and GDR when they existed. The quote which was used when we were formed in the 70s was - "nothing is more revolutionary than freedom." This still applies, I think.


Reston: Don't you think this labeling of Obama as a socialist is just a way of narrowing the political spectrum to the point where what is considered the far right and far left are just different parts of the middle?

Obama's no socialist, and his actions indicate he's not much of a liberal either. But if the right can define him as such, then they create an artificial political boundary that allows them to depict anyone left of Obama as going overboard - a whack job.

For example, I'm sure you've heard the New York Times and the Washington Post referred to as liberal. But do you really think these are liberal publications? Not remotely. However, if the public is convinced they are left, then that would mean anything left of them is unreasonably left and not worth considering.

At least that's my take on things.

Billy Wharton: I think there is a serious and not often spoken of crisis in liberal ideology. We have seen Obama speaking in favor of massive bailouts and balancing the budget and cutting taxes. This is ludicrous. Neo-liberal ideology is meeting with a crisis in which a Kensyian commitment to deficit spending is required. One or the other will have to break eventually.

On another point, I am hopeful that the conservative accusations will allow for a broadening of the political spectrum. If socialists play their card right we might even get some press coverage in a mainstream newspaper like the Washington Post.


Cleveland Park: I lived under national health care in England. Going to the doctor was no more difficult than it is here. It was free. My taxes were lower than they are over here.

Of course, as an American I believed national health care meant cr*ppy service and sky high taxes.

Hats off to the medical industry's years of lobbying and propaganda to keeping these facts away from the US public. They are soooo good at what they do.

Billy Wharton: Thank you for the contribution.

The private health insurance industry has a quiet efficiency. They have successfully circulated the notion that healthcare should be a personal responsibility without all the bluster of right-wing radio or FOX news. One of the most important propaganda campaigns of the 21st century.


Washington, D.C.: What brought you to Socialism? Just curious.

Billy Wharton: Conditions brought me to socialism. I attended a public university in NYC and the governor attempted to raise the tuition by 40%. We were all fighting for our educational lives and came to understand that this was not an isolated attack. Some people come through ideas and others through social conditions.


Chicago, Illinois: Every modern economy is a mixture of central planning and markets. Where do you think we should fall on that continuum? What useful functions do you see markets playing?

Billy Wharton: I am skeptical of markets because of their inefficiency. They do a good job of matching a buyer and seller but perform very poorly when thinking about things like social costs and long-term planning. Human life is far more complex than buying and selling. We need an economic system which attempts to address these complexities.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Wharton, Having spent time living in Eastern Europe, I noticed the interesting phenomenon that democracy is often conflated with capitalism -- folks fail to see them as separate phenomena and feel as if, in order to have democracy, they need to have capitalism. From where do you think this sense of inevitable pairing has come? Thanks.

Billy Wharton: I am not sure about the historical origins. I am sure that it is a very useful marriage for those wishing to maintain privileges. There is not a necessary connection between democracy and capitalism.

However, I think the experiences of the 20th century teach us that there must, necessarily, be a connection between socialism and democracy.


Bel Air, Md.: No, Obama is not a socialist.

He was, when he was a student, community activist, and congressman.

Once he became a senator and thus in the select group of hundred, all of who consider themselves to be qualified to be president, he ceased to be a socialist. As a president, it is forbidden to be a socialist, or so is the accepted premise.

Once he is finished with the presidency, he will go back to being a socialist. But not now.

Billy Wharton: I suppose Jimmy Carter is a model.

As a president he lead the charge into the deregulation of all kind of industry. He bears an amount of blame for the current economic crisis. Yet, as a "citizen" he became a human rights campaigner.

Which contribution made the largest impact on history?


Arlington, Va.: Clearly the politicians and commentators throwing around the "socialist" label ought to know better. Are they really that dumb or just relying on the fact that most people in this country have no real idea what socialism is so they are free to be fear-mongers and score political points? Is this another failure of our education system? People always look shocked at me when I mention that I am basically a socialist. Once I explain what that really means most of them more or less agree with the philosophy.

Billy Wharton: Political expediency is driving the socialist labeling. There is no question about that. However, there are also some deeper cultural issues at hand. As someone mentioned earlier, there is no USSR to make jabs at. As a result, it is more difficult now to discredit the idea of socialism. It was far easier to point out the negative aspects of a Soviet project which had degenerated into an authoritarian dictatorship by the 1920s and was in steep decay in the 70s.

The problem is that there is a whole generation of young Americans who never experienced this process - those born after 1990. I suspect that red-baiting will be far less effective on them. They are more concerned with the concrete problems of capitalism. As it becomes ever more difficult to live a decent life, they will search out alternatives.

The intellectuals behind the Conservatives understand this. They are attempting to forestall the development of a serious alternative. However, I think they are misjudging the way political culture is currently configured and are opening an ideological door.


Silver Spring, Md.: One of the more ludicrous exchanges I had recently with a Fox News afficionado was his conflation of "socialism" with fascism. I don't think it's possible to be both a socialist and a fascist -- but maybe it is. Can you educate me?

Billy Wharton: No, I do not think that is possible. Communists and socialists were among the first victims of the Nazi regime in Germany for instance.


Woodbridge, Va.: After reading your answers here, seems you still a fan of capitalism, although somewhat regulated. Not me, I chose to stick with Marxism.

Billy Wharton: I am happy you are willing to save Marxism from the Marxists.


Belgrade: When I was a college student in the '70s, I went to Yugoslavia as part of an Economics study group. Under Tito, workers self-management was the norm there as well as non-alignment in world politics. Have the lessons learned in those days been lost? Are any other countries still keeping the faith?

Billy Wharton: My biggest problem is the "under Tito" part. I do not want to be under anyone. We need political freedom.

That said, there were some remarkable experiments in worker self-management in Yugoslavia. There is much to learn from this experience.


Washington, D.C.: One of the things that many people fail to recognize (and your piece only hints at this), is that socialism -- but Marxism in particular -- is not only an ideological position, but also a CRITIQUE. That is, looking through a Marxist lens (even if one is not a Marxist), one can discern problems in capitalism, including the development of monopoly capitalism and its consequences and the ways that abuses of workers on a global scale are made more probable when there is a reserve army of labor. Would you consider yourself a Marxist in this spirit?

Billy Wharton: Yes, this is an important way to understand theory and ideology.

Rick Wolff, for instance, has done a wonderful job of describing the 1970s basis of the current crisis. The short version is that two things happened in the 1970s. The average rate of profits hit historical lows. In addition, workers had experienced increases in wages for every decade from 1830 until 1970. The employer class made a conscious decision to break this cycle. From 1970 forward productivity outstripped now flat real wages. To make up the difference and allow workers to continue consumption levels debt was extended broadly.

As a result debt financing has infiltrated every part of the economic system and we have the most indebted working class in the history of the world.


Pleasanton, Calif.: Regardless of labels, Obama wants to confiscate money from those who earn it and hand it over to those that don't. What is the moral justification for socialism? Why should I work hard and sacrifice in order to pay for someone else's health care, education or housing?

Billy Wharton: Two responses.

First the moral justification for socialism is that we are human beings. As such, our species -- or any species for that matter -- should seek out ways to enhance our lives. The better the life of each individual the better the society. Solidarity, compassion and caring would enhance this goal. People who practice these ideas under the current system are punished -- in the economic or even judicial sense.

Second, your health is directly related to the health of your neighbor. Your ability to exercise your intellect is enhanced by having others to engage with. Your ability to appreciate your housing is contingent on living in a community in which others do so. The more people who can experience these things the better the society.


Wokingham, U.K.: You seem to be an advocate of workers' control rather than of state or government control: mines for the miners, shops for the retail staff, banks for the bank clerks. But doesn't Marx, whatever his faults, show fairly conclusively that there has to be a central pool of capital (surplus value extracted from the workers) if there is to be social progress? Thus banks are crucial, and it seems unfair that bank workers, rather than governments, should be in charge of allocating the precious juice on which progress depends?

Billy Wharton: Thanks. I am sorry if I was unclear. I advocate creating a nationalized banking system run as a highly regulated public utility. This system would allow for the development of rational plans to restructure the society. Workers' self-management would be an important part of this.


Havre de Grace, Md.: So what is your example of the most successful Socialist state? What would be your ideal model for the U.S.?

Billy Wharton: My example is social security or Medicare. These programs have provided millions of Americans with important benefits for generations.

There is not an exact cookie cutter model which could be exported into the US. The proposals I have made here are general ones. Many of the details have to be developed as the process unfolds.


"labelism" and "labelists." : You have made my day, Brooklyn.

Billy Wharton: And a fine day it is!


SE: Frankly, I'm probably fairly socialist myself, so I may be biased, but what's so frightening about socialism? Why do you think it's become, all of a sudden, an epithet?

It there a national history of socialism-bashing that a youth like me is unaware of?

Billy Wharton: Thank you for this question. This is wonderful evidence of the limitations of red-baiting.

A study of the anti-socialist episodes in US history might begin with the Palmer Raids, include the repression of the labor movement, the McCarthy period and end with the 9/11 hysteria which featured important aspects of this process.


Billy Wharton: OK folks. Thank you very much for participating. Keep up the struggle for a democratic socialist future!

Please visit us at http://socialistparty-usa.org/


Billy Wharton

Editor, The Socialist


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive