During the Cold War, there was almost no insult worse for an average American than to be called a communist. Anyone labeled with the tag might lose his or her job, be shunned by neighbors or undergo government surveillance.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy tapped into these fears in the 1950s to boost his political career, before his bullying and increasingly over-the-top ravings turned people against him.
Now that any threat posed by the defunct Soviet Union is long gone and only a few lone holdouts like Cuba still wave the communist banner, politicians prone to demagogue are turning to a new punching bag: socialism.
During last year’s heated presidential campaign, Republicans sensed an opening when Democratic candidate Barack Obama called for raising the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans to help fund pro grams he said would benefit the nation as a whole.
“Barack Obama calls it spreading the wealth,” said Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential candidate. “Joe Biden calls higher taxes patriotic. But Joe the plumber and Ed the dairyman, I believe that they think that it sounds more like socialism. Friends, now is no time to experiment with socialism.”
Apparently, most voters disagreed. More likely, they realized that Obama’s plans hardly constituted socialism — or at least what they remembered about it from their hazy memories of high school economics and government courses.
Just like most religions have different sects, socialism can mean slightly different things to different people.
Generally, socialism refers to an economic theory that supports state ownership and administration of the means of production as well as the distribution of goods. Such centralized control fosters equality for all individuals and leads to a classless, egalitarian society, advocates say.
Although pumping taxpayer money to prop up shaky banks might give the government some limited input into how they should operate until they’re fully solvent, it’s not true socialism.
If you ask the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Obama is giving socialism a bad name.
“Obama’s voting record in the Senate was very centrist, and really that’s how he’s acted as president so far,” says Shane Johnson, a member of ISO’s Cincinnati chapter. “He’s hardly a left-winger.”
The organization believes that the Democratic Party, much like the Republicans, primarily acts in the interests of Corporate America and to protect a privileged few who hold most of the nation’s wealth.
“There’s just a small bit of difference between the two parties,” Johnson says. “They have more things in common than they differ on. The differences are miniscule.”
Another local ISO member, Elisabeth Ampthor, says too many of Obama’s policies mimic those of George W. Bush.
“Socialism is more than just an economic system, which is why allegations that Obama is a socialist are ridiculous,” Ampthor says. “He’s continuing, if not expanding, the imperialist occupations in the Middle East; he is unflinchingly supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine with U.S. tax dollars when we desperately need them at home for education, jobs, healthcare; he’s opposed to same-sex marriage.
“Sure, he wants to ‘spread the wealth around,’ but that’s not really happening, at least not yet. Besides, he’s still a politician. The changes are still top-down, not brought about in a democratic, grassroots way.”
Formed in 1976, the Chicago-based ISO has about 70 chapters across the nation that are involved with grassroots organizing centered around helping working class people improve their lives. Their primary causes include confronting racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating, organizing anti-war and anti-occupation events, supporting workers’ right to organize and urging a more balanced approach to Middle East problems that includes input from Palestinians.
ISO’s local chapter formed in the early 1980s in response to some racist incidents on the University of Cincinnati campus.
The organization believes that capitalism is inherently exploitative, and it adheres to the ideas expounded by Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin that only workers can bring about socialist reform and it can’t be imposed from above.
“To me, it means human liberation,” Johnson says. “Everyone who needs to be fed will be fed, everyone who needs housing will be housed. Human beings are put ahead of profits and exploitation.
“It’s not just some pie-in-the-sky ideals. It’s a living, breathing movement concerned about the welfare of all people.”
Ampthor says capitalism seems to be based on the worst aspects of the human psyche — selfishness and greed — while socialism considers the best parts: cooperation, creativity and activity.
Some critics of socialism, like economist Ludwig von Mises, say it prevents the rational pricing of goods because the state owns all capital goods.
And some politicians, most notably the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, opposed socialism because they said it inevitably takes away civil liberties and individual choice.
ISO members counter that argument by stating it confuses pure socialism with totalitarianism. Johnson sharply dislikes the former Eastern Bloc communist nations and current-day China and Cuba.
“Those are not classless societies,” he says. “They still use the capitalist model. They’re state-run capitalist regimes.”
ISO members believe an increasing number of Americans are seeing the inevitable consequences of capitalism as the disparity between rich and poor grows and more jobs are shipped overseas.
“The policies of neo-conservatives over the past 30 years have failed,” Johnson says. “What have we gotten? We’ve gotten a shadow banking system that’s driven the economy to the brink of collapse. The only people who have gotten bailed out are the corporations and banks, not the workers.
“This is the reality of a free-market system that plays havoc with people’s lives. I think the human race can do better. Capitalism is a system of exploitation that relies on the labor of millions to provide resources for a tiny few.”