Is Obama a Socialist?

Reflection on the Degradation of Politics and the Ecosystem

For months, leftists have been pointing out the absurdity of the claim that Barack Obama is a socialist. But no matter how laughable, the claim keeps popping up, most recently in the form of the Republican Party chairman’s warning of “a socialist power grab” by Democrats.

Within the past year, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has called Obama “the world’s best salesman of socialism.” Conservative economist Donald J. Boudreaux of George Mason University has acknowledged that Obama isn’t really a socialist, but warns that the “socialism lite” of such politicians “is as specious as is classic socialism.”

Silly as all this may be, it does provide an opportunity to continue talking about the promise and the limits of socialism in a moment when the economic and ecological crises are so serious. So, let’s start with the basics.

As with any complex political idea, socialism means different things to different people. But there are core concepts in socialist politics that are easy to identify, including (1) worker control over the nature and conditions of their work; (2) collective ownership of the major capital assets of the society, the means of production; and (3) an egalitarian distribution of the wealth of a society.

Obama has never argued for such principles, and in fact consistently argues against them, as do virtually all politicians who are visible in mainstream U.S. politics. This is hardly surprising, given the degree to which our society is dominated by corporations, the primary institution through which capitalism operates.

Obama is not only not a socialist, he’s not even a particularly progressive capitalist. He is part of the neo-liberal camp that has undermined the limited social-democratic character of the New Deal consensus, which dominated in the United States up until the so-called “Reagan revolution.” While Obama’s stimulus plan was Keynesian in nature, there is nothing in administration policy to suggest he is planning to move to the left in any significant way. The crisis in the financial system provided such an opportunity, but Obama didn’t take it and instead continued the transfer of wealth to banks and other financial institutions begun by Bush. Looking at his economic advisers, this is hardly surprising. Naming neo-liberal Wall Street boys such as Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury and Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council was a clear signal to corporate America that the Democrats would support the existing distribution of power and wealth. And that’s where his loyalty has remained.

In short: Obama and some Democrats have argued for a slight expansion of the social safety net, which is generally a good thing in a society with such dramatic wealth inequality and such a depraved disregard for vulnerable people. But that’s not socialism. It’s not even socialism lite. It’s capitalism — heavy, full throttle, and heading for the cliff.

In reaction to the issues of the day, a socialist would fight to nationalize the banks, create a national health system, and end imperialist occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That the right wing can accuse Obama of being a socialist when he does none of those things is one indication of how impoverished and dramatically skewed to the right our politics has become. In most of the civilized world, discussions of policies based in socialist principles are part of the political discourse, while here they are bracketed out of any serious debate. In a recent conversation with an Indonesian journalist, I did my best to explain all this, but she remained perplexed. How can people take seriously the claim that he’s socialist, and why does applying that label to a policy brand it irrelevant? I shrugged. “Welcome to the United States,” I said, “a country that doesn’t know much about the world or its own history.”

Let’s take a moment to remember. Socialist and other radical critiques of capitalism are very much a part of U.S. history. In the last half of the 19th century, workers in this country organized against expanding corporate power and argued for worker control of factories. These ideas were not planted by “outside agitators”; immigrants at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to radical thought and organizing, but U.S. movements grew organically in U.S. soil.

Business leaders saw this as a threat and responded with private and state violence. The Red Scare of the 19-teens and ‘20s tried to wipe out these movements, with considerable success. But radical movements rose again during the Great Depression, eventually winning the right to organize. In the boom times after WWII, management was willing to buy off labor (for a short time, it turned out) with a larger slice of the pie in a rapidly expanding economy, and in the midst of Cold War hysteria the radical elements of the mainstream labor movement were purged. But radical ideas remain, nurtured by small groups and individuals around the country.

One of the reasons that “socialist” can be used as a slur in the United States is because that history is rarely taught. If people never hear about socialist traditions in our history, it’s easy to believe that somehow socialism is incompatible with the U.S. political and social system. Add to this the classic tactic of presenting “false alternatives” — if the Soviet Union was the epitome of a socialist state and the only other option is capitalism, then capitalism is preferable to the totalitarianism of socialism — and it is easy to see how people might wonder if Obama is a Red to be Scared of.

This long-running campaign to eliminate critiques and/or critics of capitalism — using occasional violence and relentless propaganda — has always been a threat to basic human values and democracy. The promotion of greed and crass self-interest as the defining characteristics of human life deforms all of us and our society. The concentration of wealth in capitalism undermines the democratic features of the society. Socialist principles provide a starting place to craft a different world, based on solidarity and an egalitarian distribution of wealth.

But capitalism is not only inhuman and anti-democratic; it’s also unsustainable, and if we don’t come to terms with that one, not much else matters. Capitalism is an economic system based on the concept of unlimited growth, yet we live on a finite planet. Capitalism is, quite literally, crazy.

But on this question it’s not fair to focus only on capitalism. Industrial systems — whether operating within capitalism, fascism, or communism — are unsustainable. The problem is not just the particular organization of an economy but any economic model based on high-energy technology, endless extraction, and the generation of massive amounts of toxic waste. Extractive economies ignore the health of the underlying ecosystem, and a socialist industrial system would pose the same threat. The possibility of a decent future, of any future at all, requires that we renounce that model.

This reminds us that one of capitalism’s few legitimate claims — that it is the most productive economic system in human history in terms of output — is hardly a positive. The levels of production in capitalism, especially in the contemporary mass consumption era, are especially unsustainable. We are caught in a death spiral, in which growth is needed to pull out of a recession/depression, but such growth only brings us closer to the edge of the cliff, or sinks the ship faster, or speeds the unraveling of the fabric of life. Pick your metaphor, but the trajectory is clear. The only question is the timing and the nature of the collapse. No amount of propaganda can erase this logic: Unsustainable systems can’t be sustained.

To demand that we continue on this path is to embrace a kind of collective death wish. So, while I endorse socialist principles, I don’t call myself a socialist, to mark a break with the politics associated with industrial model that shapes our world. I am a radical feminist anti-capitalist who opposes white supremacy and imperialism, with a central commitment to creating a sustainable human presence on the planet. I don’t know any single term to describe those of us with such politics.

I do know that the Republican Party is not interested in this kind of politics, and neither is the Democratic Party. Both are part of a dying politics in a dying culture that, if not radically changed, will result in a dead planet, at least in terms of a human presence.

So, socialism alone isn’t the answer. In addition to telling the truth about the failures of capitalism we have to recognize the failures of the industrial model underlying traditional notions of socialism. We have to take seriously the deep patriarchal roots of all this and the tenacity of white supremacy. We have to condemn imperialism, whether the older colonial style or the contemporary American version, as immoral and criminal. We have to face the chilling facts about the degree to which humans have degraded the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain our own lives.

I’m not waiting for Obama or any other politician to speak about these things. I am, instead, working in local groups — connected in national and international networks — to create alternatives. There is no guarantee of success, but it is the work that I believe matters most. And it is joyful work when done in collaboration with others who share this spirit. But to get there, we have to find the strength to break from the dominant culture, which is difficult. On that question, I’d like to conclude by quoting Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” [Matt. 7:12-14]

I end with Scripture not because I think everyone should look to my particular brand of radical, non-orthodox Christianity for inspiration, but because I think the task before us demands more than new policies. To face this moment in history requires a courage that, for me, is bolstered by tapping into the deepest wisdom in our collective history, including that found in various religious traditions. We have to ask ourselves what it means to be human in this moment, a question that is deeply political and at the same time beyond politics.

At the core of these traditions is the call for humility about the limits of human knowledge and a passionate commitment to justice, both central to finding within ourselves the strength to pass through that narrow gate.

My advice to any of you who want to be part of a decent future: Find that strength wherever you find it, and step up to the narrow gate.

[This is an expanded version of a talk given to the University Democrats student group at the University of Texas at Austin, September 23, 2009.]

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on September 25th, 2009 at 10:11am #

    Good article here. The demonization of ‘socialism’ is currently costing many US lives. Single Payer would save them, but too many misinformed think Single Payer is socialistic. Of course, it is not. A failure of our educational system has led to this dumbing down of the citizens.

  2. Michael Kenny said on September 25th, 2009 at 11:58am #

    An amusing aside: if Mr Jensen’s criteria are correct, then none of the communist régimes, which always claimed to be “socialist” and which some contributors to this and other websites continue to claim were “socialist”, meet any of the three criteria!

  3. Don Hawkins said on September 25th, 2009 at 2:26pm #

    Capitalism is, quite literally, crazy. My advice to any of you who want to be part of a decent future: Find that strength wherever you find it, and step up to the narrow gate. Robert Jensen

    Robert I agree 100% and read this sort of feel good article in the New York Times. Paul and what he writes is correct in some things and a big one that he is not correct about is that cap and trade will do the job. It will take harder choices than cap and trade. We are all out of time and should be fighting this like kind of a war. Yes a feel good article and very soon we get to see the left and right in many way’s the same fight and lie like dog’s. What needs to be done will not happen so far as the whole way of looking at the problem is going to be fixed by the system that got us here, insanity and crazy. We get to see this crazy very soon and then what. Men in black with black truck’s with these flat screen things and very sure only the start. I still don’t think most people understand how bad things will get as the ecosystem changes. We are now under Capitalism and how do things look to you? Schools, health care, so called leaders, our minds, corruption, the illusion we are told everyday, and now this side and that side Capitalists pitting one side against the other for power and just debt in an out of control system. Let’s just watch the next few months. ABC did a program a few months back called Earth 2100 and the people who did that have very good minds and so far it’s moving in just that direction not a good ending. After the fighting and lying here in the States on the climate bill just maybe the best minds we have scientists, thinkers and do they have ego’s yes some very big one’s but just maybe can put that ego aside and show these so called leaders for what they are. Old thinkers with old ideas that will send the human race down the drain in not such slow motion. Either way strange day’s ahead.

  4. Don Hawkins said on September 25th, 2009 at 3:38pm #

    I was just watching MSNBC and this newsman just said that the leader in Iran is no longer the head crazy person at the UN now that Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader just talked, what. These people must never stop and think for a minute that many people look at our so called leaders policy makers here in the States and think they are stark raving mad crazy. The health care bill is bad enough in the twenty first Century but next the climate bill where on the right it’s a hoax and on the left cap and trade the best they can do because of special interest as the human race goes down the drain in not such slow motion. Now some just might think that is a little crazy. Prince Charles in England just told people to stop driving cars is that crazy not in my book. Is the problem that serious yes it sure is. I guess in a dictatorship you only have to listen to one form of crazy but in American we have 3 or 4 crazies maybe more. You can’t fight crazy with crazy doesn’t work but it looks like they are going to give it a hell of a try anyway on the third one from the Sun.

  5. rosemarie jackowski said on September 25th, 2009 at 4:03pm #

    Don Hawkins…I too have been noticing how unprofessional the US so-called journalists are. It has been that way for a long time now – but seems to be getting worse. And they never mention that the US bombed and killed Gaddafi’s baby daughter, Hanna.

    Also, its rather amazing how they call it health care reform to consider fining and jailing people if they can’t afford to buy health insurance. They should be calling it “The Insurance Company Protection Act”.

    Watching the TV news is like watching a parallel universe.

  6. phuque yew said on September 25th, 2009 at 4:07pm #

    Michael K,
    More confounding and troubling than amusing. For anyone who’s studied the least bit about political philosophy and ideology, we’ve known for a long time that equating Soviet, Chinese, and other communist regime policies and practices with socialism was a capitalist-promoted red herring. Any statement that socialism has proved unworkable by virtue of the systemic Soviet failure is a calculated lie — more evidence of the denial, and craziness cultivated on the altar of capitalism.

  7. Marc Schlee said on September 26th, 2009 at 12:43am #

    I am an American.

    I am a Patriot.

    I am a Socialist.



  8. Don Hawkins said on September 26th, 2009 at 4:51am #

    Rosemarie watching the TV news is like watching a parallel universe you can say that again. The news the media have been told by crazy people people who are stark raving mad that the average person can’t handle the truth and it is better to just show them how the other half lives could be less than that and act’s and 15 seconds on us the little people who live in trailers and drink beer and go to ball games and take drugs. In the eye’s of the media it’s ok what the so called leaders do the stark raving mad part because in many cases they are leaders in the crazy department and they think us the little people like to watch this it’s good for ratings and makes them money. Remember not so much money anymore but debt. I think the stark raving mad we see now on a grade scale from so called leaders even more than say in the 20th Century is very sure they see that we now face the biggest problems the human race has ever faced and with the help of the media kind of want to skip facing the problems as we all go down the drain in not such slow motion. They like the system the way it is as it keeps them in power I guess that’s what they call it and they don’t have to use knowledge, reason, wisdom make very hard choices work together but instead use the same old crazy talk and the story of the human race goes on at least for a little while longer. It’s the easy way out something they seem to know. Like this Iran part now boy they are in seventh heaven bomb bomb Iran something they know but to change the system with a complete new way of thinking I don’t think they are up for the job. We should be fighting the problems we face kind of like a war without the weapons and instead we need to keep the same system that got us here that is a tad bit crazy. A Herculean effort with knowledge the real thing not illusion, reason, working together goes against the very fiber of there being lies the big con, illusion of knowledge, arrogance, and the little people can’t handle the truth. Myth is there friend and the truth there enemy. Anyway think of this as kind of a war calm at peace because these so called leaders are anything but calm at peace and the knowledge the truth is are friend. What is the truth well here’s a good one is Obama a Socialist no he sure is not but the money/debt given to the bank’s was socialism on a grade scale for only a few people and how does that story play out not well for us the little people. Another good one the tea party’s well the people of wealth don’t pay tax’s we do the little people and Obama want’s the people of wealth to pay more tax’s that they don’t pay anyway but if he does raise tax’s the people of wealth have to raise there tax on us and that hurts the bottom line. Why do you think climate change is a hoax?

  9. Socialism: Only Salvation for USA said on September 26th, 2009 at 8:21am #


    Dear Robert Jensen and friends: Obama is more capitalist, and more far-rightist than Bush-II. In fact i don’t know if you’ve noticed but Obama and the US fascist government has been doing the same scaremongering tactics that Bush’s government used. Last week the FBI planted some fake-explosives in the car of a Jordanian Citizen. Arrested him without a reason, and set him up.

    What kind of “Democracy” is US government when it does all kinds of evil shit against its own people.

    Another thing like that that US cops use is that they pass around a black people’s neighborhoods and throw small bags of cocaine and mariguana cigarettes in the front yard of black people in order to throw them in jail for years.

    I live in Tennessee and the people around here are real hard working, nice and noble, and they are too scared of cops and scared against the US government’s fascist repressive regime.

    I don’t know if all states in USA are the same. But in Tennessee the fascist pig cops are inside supermarkets harassing, abusing and molesting americans.

    US government is a criminal government, where the US government’s burocracy steals money, rape girls, abuses people and gets away with it.

    Americans live in pain and a lot of suffering because of the fascist Obama who is 1000 times worse than Bush-II.


  10. Socialism: Only Salvation for USA said on September 26th, 2009 at 8:32am #

    Dear Robert Jensen: I am an absolute Marxist, absolute Leninist and Trotskist. And i believe 100% in what they wrote. They said that political-systems change thru time, and by stages. I would like to ask you, when do you think that a Socialist Workers Party will rise to the US government. And how? Do you think that USA can be socialist electorally? Or as a result of a big, big crisis an a sort of breaking of the system, where a socialist coronel or socialist military out of the US Armed Forces takes power in USA?

    I mean how and when do you think that we might see a socialist-system in USA?


  11. bozh said on September 26th, 2009 at 8:48am #

    Perhaps we shld supplant the words “imperialist occupations of iraq and afgh’n” with “planetarial or terrestrial occupations of iraq/afgh’n”, fully approved of by terrestrial plutos, most christian, and ALL multos!

    Imperialism/nationalism died once nato had been formed. US war planners knew they cld not obtain the planet on own capabilities.
    Planetarians also espied that in order to go for the planet or as much of it as possible, they needed crooks to cook the books; so as to be able to wage several wars at one time and at the same increase their own wealth.
    In short, it wll have been the lower classes who wld have paid for the obtainment of the planet for the world plutos.
    They have dreamt for just that for at least 10k yrs! tnx

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 26th, 2009 at 2:46pm #

    I find what is happening to Obama worthy of a Greek tragedy, as produced by Orson Welles in full ‘F for Fake’ mode. Nemesis is at work. The clever, agile, but essentially duplicitous ‘black’ confidence-man is being brought undone. Not by the awakening of those suckers who he conned-no they remain mesmerised by the ‘audacity of hype’, too confused, too frightened to admit that they were sold a pup, yet again, by a corrupt and unreformable political system, and too reluctant to criticise a ‘black’ President, to confess their mistake. Picking a ‘house Negro’, as Malcolm X would have said, to front ‘business-as-usual’ was a master-stroke by the US power elite. We are witnessing the GW Bush third term, but performed in Minstrel Show style.
    Yet, even having as Rightwing, as grovellingly pro-Israel, as belligerently aggressive a President as any reactionary could hope, has not satisfied the ultra-Right lunatics. No, they just cannot accept a ‘neegrah’ as President. The innate tendency of stupid, ignorant, people to be easily moved to hysteria by clever manipulation is once again in evidence. The mass imbecility and chilling beligerence on display over Obama’s pathetically unambitious healthcare proposals is ludicrous as well as sinister, but, believe me, it will be as nought when Obama attempts to introduce an emissions trading system, itself a ludicrously inadequate proposal. If the level of mass stupidity, ignorance and allied, but incomprehensible, arrogance displayed by our anthropogenic climate change denialists here is mirrored in the US, and who can doubt it, and if the Right are as vicious and unprincipled in exploiting this cretinism as they are here, then Obama will face an even crazier eruption of mass delusion and popular madness. It will be the beginning of the end of his one-term Presidency. The funny thing is, I keep getting the impression that this was in the plan for the Obama phenomenon all along.

  13. Don Hawkins said on September 26th, 2009 at 3:22pm #

    I to am getting that same impression that this was in the plan for the Obama phenomenon all along. Strange day’s ahead.

    Life in the greatest nation on Earth during this Age was very hard. Very few people could read or write and nobody expected conditions to improve. The only hope for most people during this Age was their strong belief in Christianity, and the hope that life in heaven would be better than life on earth.

    How far is the moon from Earth in miles?
    What is the speed of light?
    How many Senators does it take to make a quorum?
    Who is Steven Hawking?
    Who is James Hansen?
    How many years in a decade? Nine or ten
    Fox News is fair and balanced? Yes or no will do.
    The age of the Earth in years?
    The banks need more money?

  14. Deadbeat said on September 26th, 2009 at 7:01pm #

    This is a very important article and helps to explain why the Left is so damn weak and how the Left can redeem itself.

  15. joed said on September 26th, 2009 at 7:28pm #

    The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, And the Will of the People, a wonderful book by Jonathan schell talks about the very same ideas presented by Jensen in this article.
    Too bad so very few will step thru that “narrow gate”.
    Sacrifice and hardship are the starting place for a better future.
    If everyone that reads this article bought only the things necessary to sustain their lives then the system would … blah, blah, blah…

  16. Don Hawkins said on September 27th, 2009 at 5:09am #

    Almost Monday and we get to see the bad and the ugly fight like dog’s and lie like dog’s on heath care then the big one climate change next and the try to divert attention to more pressing things. Socialism for the top 1% feed the system it had to be done it was the only way. The TV news a parallel universe a reality of an old way of thinking will be amazing to see if nothing else for those that know.

  17. Tom Poe said on September 27th, 2009 at 3:58pm #

    What is it about corporate welfare you don’t understand, Jensen?

  18. RRH said on October 26th, 2009 at 9:22pm #

    The author writes:

    “[W]hile I endorse socialist principles, I don’t call myself a socialist…. I am a radical feminist anti-capitalist who opposes white supremacy and imperialism, with a central commitment to creating a sustainable human presence on the planet.”

    Trying to get a Communist to admit to being a Communist is like trying to get a pedophile to admit to being a pedophile.

    And, btw, capitalism isn’t “based on unlimited growth”, but on unlimited imagination. I can understand how such a mistake can be made by a limited mind.

  19. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on October 27th, 2009 at 8:34am #

    Neither do fascist ever admit that they are just that. They all are democrats.
    And in an evil empire, whose pop is 98% fascist, admitting to being a communist might result in even homelesness.