02 July 2010
Stupid Question of the Week
The article that appeared in this week's Christian Science Monitor asking, "Is Obama Really a Socialist?" is actually fairly objective, to the extent that the author asked actual socialists as well as partisan liars and Tea Party paranoids, but the fact that this question remains a subject for debate is a poor reflection on this nation's collective intellect. To be more objective about it, the confusion testifies to our peculiar national history of blurring the issues. In America we have a reactionary element that opposes both government regulation of the economy and any effort to put government (or the economy) in the hands of the working class. The reactionaries have taken these threats to their "freedom" and blended them into one menace that they call "socialism." But during the synthesizing process the whole idea of workers' control seemed to get lost, so that socialism, as far as the reactionaries are concerned, is simply synonymous with statism. Ask one what socialism is and he'll tell you that socialism is when "the government" or "the state" controls the economy. Socialism itself begs the question of who controls the state. After all, the state can be said to have controlled the economy for centuries before there was such a word as "socialism." What makes socialism distinctive is the idea that the working class should control the state and the economy. Two historic developments helped confuse the issue. One was the decision by socialists to form political parties and run for offices in an effort to effect peaceful change through control of government. Another was the rise of Leninism, a more forceful determination that a "vanguard" party should control the state and the economy on behalf of workers who were presumed incapable of taking control on their own. These developments allowed the opponents of both socialism and the regulatory state to argue that any political party that proposed regulations designed to benefit working people was practising an insidious creeping socialism, as some people quoted in the Monitor story accuse the Obama administration of doing. In crudest form, this reasoning reduced any assertion of regulatory power by government to "socialism." If such people used the word "statism" instead their opinions would at least make internal sense, but "socialism" is still a scarier word for many people. It conjures up images of "godless communism," gulags and purge trials, and long lines for limited supplies of lousy consumer goods. Again, none of that follows from the concept of workers' control, and critics of socialism long ago forgot how to argue that workers' control unto itself was a bad thing. So maybe the advocates of workers' control should find a new name for themselves, insofar as "socialism" is discredited by association with the Democratic Party. Wouldn't it be ironic, then, if the ideal word for workers' control was "democracy?"