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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Obama: Communist? Marxist? Socialist?

In his political and social views, Barack Obama appears to be not a communist, a Marxist, or a democratic socialist, as political theorists usually categorize such things, but a social democrat . Make no mistake: A social democrat is a kind of socialist.

People are calling Barack Obama a lot of names lately, because of his newly-publicized fondness for the redistribution of wealth, or "redistributive change," as he called it in a 2001 interview that surfaced this week. I've heard the word "socialist" a lot, the word "Marxist" a few times, and even the word "communist" once or twice. Mitt Romney has said that Obama isn't a socialist, just a very liberal liberal.

So let's consider the basic characteristics of these various -isms, and see which of them, if any, fits Senator Obama.


First of all, I see no evidence that Obama is a communist. Communists believe in the abolition of private property and the communal sharing of everything from freedom to farmland. That is a large leap beyond the redistribution of wealth.

Communism as the governing ideology of nations has earned a very bad name, thanks to the Soviets, the Chinese, and others who practiced a bloodthirsty, oppressive, and ultimately self-destructive version of it. But the idea of communism is at least as old as Plato, and it has not always been so malevolent. Voluntary communal living has been attempted over the centuries by religious groups and other gentle, well-meaning people, with some limited success. (Notice how the word communal seems a lot less threatening than communist.) In the nineteenth century and the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, everyone from the Tolstoyans to the Mormons tried it. (For their part, the Mormons experimented a bit, but ended up building their United Order, an economic system they practiced in some communities in the mid-nineteenth century, on the principles of private property and voluntary contributions, instead of collective ownership.)

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought, a handy reference I keep on my bookshelf, reports:

Examples of ideal communism in action are rare. Perhaps it has only been realized in religious communities, in some secular communes, and among the few 'primitive' peoples remaining in the world, where sharing is a way of life. It does not seem to have been realized in communist countries. ("Communism," pp. 87-88)

In other words, try this at home, if you wish, and among your friends, but don't try it in your country.

I don't see that Barack Obama wants to try it anywhere.


In Karl Marx's thought, history is an account of the elite minorities who have controlled economic forces and the working masses for their own (the elite's) benefit. Eventually, this exploitation gives rise to class struggle, culminating in a revolution in which the workers rebel against capitalist oppression. They become the government, and collectively take ownership of the means of production. The final object of this revolution is communism, but that is achieved only after an extended socialist transitional period under a "dictatorship of the proletariat."

I see no evidence that Barack Obama believes in Marxism's revolutionary version of socialism.


Not all socialists are Marxists. Socialism is a broad category of political thought, not a single, narrow strain. Still, some generalizations are possible. Socialism tends to emphasize that goods and services are produced by society, not individuals, and that all of society -- again, not just individuals -- has claim on them. (Think health care, food, housing.) It tends to value equality over freedom in the classical sense (freedom to  or freedom of ), though it does speak often of a different sort of freedom: freedom from want, hunger, poverty, alienation, etc. It proposes communal, cooperative, and regulatory alternatives to capitalism and individualism. It sees all concerns as political and therefore subject to regulation -- even those which an individualistic society usually considers private. It tends to identify people by their groups, particularly their gender and ethnicity. These general principles tend to lead socialists to advocate that government provide for a wide range of human needs, as opposed to the old liberalism, which preferred to leave individuals and families as free as possible to take care of themselves.

As you might gather from that description, there is a degree to which saying that a liberal Democrat such as Barack Obama is a socialist is old news. In terms of its willingness to sacrifice traditional freedom and individualism in service of equality, its hostility to capitalism, its politicization of practically everything, and its obsession with group identity, the dominant left wing of the Democratic Party has been socialist for a long time.

As noted, Marx (and Lenin) to the contrary notwithstanding, much of socialism sees itself as the fulfillment or logical extension of liberal democracy, not its opposite. It can be achieved by democratic politics -- by evolution, so to speak, without revolution. This seems to be Obama's view in the 2001 radio interview which came to light this week. There he laments the civil rights' movement's obsession with the courts, which distracted the movement and kept them from using political means to achieve the needed and important "redistributive change."

Obama seems willing to accept American history as representing some progress toward his ideal, but we now see that he not only decries the "failed policies of the last eight years"; he actually highlights the failed policies not only of the civil rights movement, but of the entire history of the United States as constitutional government. Despite these failures, he believes in the possibility of achieving his ideal through democratic politics -- and he believes he is one week away from a political watershed.

But is he really a socialist? If so, what kind?

Democratic Socialism vs. Social Democracy

The distinction between democratic socialism and social democracy is not just a word game. Once again, Blackwell gives some clarity, describing three branches of socialism:

To characterize the socialist left, we perhaps need a threefold distinction, between Marxism, democratic socialism, and social democracy. .  . . Democratic socialism shares the Marxist belief in the prime importance of bringing the means of production into social ownership but adds the view that this change can be secured by democratic means [instead of Marx's revolution]; social democracy shares the democratic socialist's commitment to democracy, but rejects the primacy of ownershp which both the Marxist and the democratic socialist hold as central, and defines socialism largely in terms of redistribution and greater equality within the context of the mixed economy. ("Social Democracy," pp. 484-85, italics and bold added)

The best fit for Barack Obama here is the "social democrat," who wants to control the economy and redistribute wealth, but who does not advocate government ownership of everything. (If Obama believes in government ownership of everything, he's not saying it publicly.) Because he is not a Marxist and not quite a democratic socialist, he can claim almost truthfully not to be a socialist at all. The social democrat, too,  is widely -- and reasonably -- considered a type of socialist, but the convenience of campaign rhetoric will trump theoretical categories any day of the week.

Whatever the rhetoric says, if a person is hostile to the free market (that is, capitalism); advocates expanded government control and regulation of the economy; thinks in terms of group identity and class warfare, placing little value on individualism; advocates the redistribution of wealth in pursuit of greater equality; and emphasizes an extensive government effort to provide for its citizens' basic needs; it is perfectly fair to call that person a socialist. In contemporary American politics, liberal has become merely a less ominous synonym.

What's bad about socialism, even the arguably less offensive social democratic form, which Barack Obama apparently embraces . . . is a good topic for another day.

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