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Obama vs. Marx

Hint: One of them's not a socialist.

The word "liberal" was first used in its modern political sense in 1812, when Spaniards wrote a new constitution liberating themselves from monarchical rule. As it happens, the word "socialism" originated in roughly the same period; it came into existence to describe the utopian ideas of the British reformer Robert Owen. Such timing suggests two possibilities: Either the fates of liberalism and socialism are so interlinked that one is all but synonymous with the other--or the two are actually competitors developed to meet similar conditions, in which case victory for one marks the defeat of the other.

These days, one could be forgiven for believing that the former conclusion is correct. It was not so long ago that conservatives were equating liberalism with fascism; today, they have executed a 180-degree swing in order to argue that liberalism is actually synonymous with socialism. "Americans," proclaimed Republican Senator Jim DeMint at the recent meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, "have gotten a glimpse of the big-government plans of Obama and the Democrats and are ready to stand up, speak out, and, yes, even to take to the streets to stop America's slide into socialism." But it isn't just the right that has worked itself into a frenzy; on the question of whether we are approaching a new age of socialism, there seems to be remarkable political consensus. In recent weeks, the covers of National Review ("OUR SOCIALIST FUTURE"), The Nation ("REINVENTING CAPITALISM, REIMAGINING SOCIALISM"), and Newsweek ("WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW") have--respectively--lamented, heralded, and observed the coming rise of socialism.

But all these commentators--right, left, and middle--may want to take a deep breath. We aren't headed for an era of socialism at all, since socialism is not a natural outgrowth of liberalism. Liberalism is a political philosophy that seeks to extend personal autonomy to as many people as possible, if necessary through positive government action; socialism, by contrast, seeks as much equality as possible, even if doing so curtails individual liberty. These are differences of kind, not degree-- differences that have historically placed the two philosophies in direct competition. Today, socialism is on the decline, in large part because liberalism has lately been on the rise. And, if Barack Obama's version of liberalism succeeds, socialism will be even less popular than it already is.


Socialism was born in political conditions that no longer exist. In its most radical form, the one associated with Marx and Engels, it had far more in common with European romanticism than with the moderate reformism of a John Stuart Mill or a Thomas Hill Green, two of Great Britain's most important liberal thinkers. Socialism seemed possible when anything seemed possible. It was an ideology of progress when progress was an unquestioned good. Even its less revolutionary adherents, those more likely to call themselves social democrats rather than socialists, believed in economic planning and social transformation in ways that seem embarrassing now. Once it appeared possible for government to control the major means of production. Now it seems impossible to build a high-speed rail between Boston and Washington.

The story of socialism's decline is essentially a European story. Socialism has never had much appeal in the United States, but that was not always the case on the other side of the Atlantic. The temptation toward socialism was not just on display in Eastern Europe; in the western half of the continent, too, left-wing governments and parties quite openly embraced socialist programs for much of the twentieth century. Those days, however, are largely over. In Britain, the Labour Party no longer pays much homage to its socialist roots. Tony Blair revived the party only after leading a campaign to alter its notorious Clause IV, which had explicitly endorsed the "common ownership of the means of production." The revised version proclaimed Labour a "democratic socialist" party, but the wording was so vague, and Blair so consistently ignored it, that its purposes were symbolic only. On this crucial point, Gordon Brown has not backtracked in the least.

Elsewhere in Europe, the same movement against socialism dominates the political landscape. Socialism in the form of social democracy was long the governing ideology of Scandinavia, but Swedes never much liked the idea of nationalizing industries, and the Danes have for some time been governed by conservatives--called, in European parlance, liberals. Angela Merkel is anything but a socialist; the same is true for Nicolas Sarkozy. "Americanization" was once a dirty word in France. Now it fairly well describes Sarkozy's domestic program. There is talk of reforming the country's Napoleonic legal system with something more resembling our insistence upon rights. Public bureaucracies, including France's complex system of higher education, are to be reformed along more "modern"--read American--lines. Spain, meanwhile, does have a socialist government; but its leftism is a reaction to the extreme conservatism that governed the country for much of the twentieth century. For their part, the Eastern European countries now outdo each other in their love for the free market.

It is true that European societies are committed to an active role for government and that a number of their public policies, such as national health insurance, owe something to the socialist tradition. But the roots of the European welfare state are much more complex than is commonly acknowledged. European ideas about government have Christian as well as socialist origins. Two great papal encyclicals--Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931)--spurred Catholic countries to adopt the idea that government should protect the rights of workers and that society has an obligation to help all. One of Great Britain's most eloquent defenders of equality, the Fabian socialist R. H. Tawney, was a devout Protestant. After World War II, Christian parties siphoned off votes that might have gone to more radical politicians by emphasizing traditions of solidarity and community. If Obama is really leading us down the road to Europeanization, an equally accurate Newsweek headline might be, "WE ARE ALL CHRISTIAN DEMOCRATS NOW."

And the origins of big government in Europe run deeper than either Marx or Christian politics. It is not exactly socialism that has stifled so much of French economic life with cumbersome regulations but a blunderbuss government that dates back to the ancien r egime. Socialist politicians in France did not invent the idea of big government. They instead relied on traditions of etatism that had long preceded them. Given all this, it's no wonder that liberalism is experiencing a comeback in Europe. The revival of liberal sentiment is as much a reaction against both Christianity and feudalism as anything else.


As for Obama, it is absurd to view his program as a step toward socialism. First of all, while he is planning to raise taxes, they will still be lower than what is common in other Western countries. And, according to Brian Reidl of the Heritage Foundation, Obama's budget would increase government spending from 20 percent of GDP to 22 percent. Is it really possible that a society is capitalist when government spending represents 20 percent of GDP--but socialist at 22 percent?

Next, consider Obama's stances on the defining issues of our time. At most, his administration might nationalize banks temporarily; a socialist would nationalize them for good. He proposes to fix free trade, not abolish it. He does not favor a single-payer health care system, and any proposal he eventually puts forward is going to involve competition in some form. (It is worth noting that arguably the biggest beneficiaries of health care reform will be businesses, many of which struggle to pay their employees' health care costs.) To address global warming, Obama favors cap and trade, a market-oriented solution to our gravest environmental problem. That's right: This alleged socialist has so much faith in capitalism, he is willing to put the future of our planet more or less in the hands of a market.

What these ideas have in common is, first, an attachment to economic freedom that no self-respecting socialist would countenance. In fact, most of Obama's measures are designed to save, not destroy, the instruments of capitalism-- businesses and the markets in which they compete. Should Obama get everything he wants, liberals will have once again--as has happened so often in the United States--gone a long way toward rescuing capitalism from its worst excesses.

Moreover, it has for some time now been established that the moderate use of government to improve the lives of large numbers of citizens, while producing minor advances in equality, is primarily about giving citizens more liberty. People who, with the help of government, need not postpone medical care or can avoid going into lifetime debt to pay for it are freer people. Progressive taxation, especially the way Obama talks about it, is not about confiscating the wealth of the rich but about giving those at the bottom of the ladder more opportunity. Modest enhancements of what has been called "positive liberty" do not come anywhere close to socialism; they instead make liberalism's benefits more widespread.

Conservatives seem to think that any increase in the size of government means a step toward socialism. But, if this is the case, then George W. Bush ought to come out of the closet as a socialist. It is not just that Bush spent uncountable sums on his Iraqi adventure. Nor is it that he put Keynes to shame by spending money he did not have. Bush, at least at the start of his presidency, wanted to be known for his compassion and sponsored reforms of both Medicare and education that, had a Democrat proposed them, would have been widely denounced by conservatives as socialism run rampant. Socialism, in the Republican imagination, is only something Democrats do, never something they themselves do.

In the United States, liberalism is the alternative to which we turn when conservatism fails, just as in Europe it is what people look to when socialism sputters, Christianity no longer appeals, and the old feudal statism appears moribund. Liberalism has always been more comfortable finding its place between the extremes than mimicking either one of them. Americans tend to be most familiar with the ways in which liberalism distinguishes itself from conservatism. But liberalism has gone to great lengths to distinguish itself from the left as well--from the gulag, the Soviet occupation of Eastern European countries against the will of their people, and all the various forms of socialism from Baathism to Castroism associated with Third World tyrants. These distinctions have reaffirmed the liberal dedication to human rights--and this at a time when conservatives like Bush and Cheney were prepared to dispense with them. Conservatives may denounce Obama for his socialism, but it is he, and not they, who is returning the United States to such liberal commitments as the separation of powers, habeas corpus, and transparency in government.

If Barack Obama is a socialist, he sure is good at fooling people. Americans seem to like his quiet demeanor, his sense of caution, his efforts at inclusion. With its emphasis on intellectual modesty and pragmatism, liberalism is a temperament as well as a set of ideas; and Obama's disposition is quintessentially liberal.

We cannot at this point know what his legacy will be. But we do know what it will not be. Eight years of Obama, and the United States has its best chance in decades to return to the liberalism that has long defined its heritage. There would be no greater blow to socialism--in America, in Europe, or anywhere else--than for this venture to succeed.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Alan Wolfe