The Common Good

What Is and Isn't Socialism

When President Obama took questions from Congressional Republicans recently, he spoke about Republican characterizations of his health-care reform plan as something akin to a "Bolshevik plot." There was a smattering of applause. I did not know what to make of this. A few days later, the DailyKos, a liberal blog site, released the results of a poll of Republicans where one of the questions was: "Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist?" Sixty-three percent of the respondents answered yes. Twenty-one percent said no and sixteen percent answered not sure.

This made me wonder whether or not our political discourse is so polarized that many Republicans actually think that Barack Obama's politics stand on the extreme left of the ideological spectrum. They seem not to be aware that there are people on President Obama's left that see him as much too much in the center, or too far to the right. And let us be clear: President Obama did not campaign from the left.

Let us consider socialism. To think that President Obama is a socialist displays an ignorance of the facts of socialism. Basically, socialism as explicated by Karl Marx is a political and economic system where the means of production are owned by the state and run by a dictatorship of the proletariat, the working class. Marx saw socialism as an interim step between capitalism and communism. Communism, in his mind, was a utopian ideal where people were free from providing the basic needs of life for themselves, and work would be an exercise of self expression.

There is nothing in either of the health-care bills passed so far by Congress that calls for the United States to take ownership of hospitals, medical centers, or medical practices. Doctors would not become government employees. President Obama told the Republican Congress members that he based much of his health-care proposal on suggestions made by former Republican senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, along with former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle. This approach left private, employer-based insurance at the heart of the system. President Obama took criticism from people on his left for this.

When we look at socialism as a political philosophy, we see thinking that minimizes the importance of private property, especially private ownership of large businesses and of natural resources. It calls for the equitable distribution of wealth that is created through labor turning raw materials into useful goods. Marx thought that one way to move from capitalism to socialism was through class warfare. V.I. Ulyanov Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Worker's Party. He and later Stalin brought one-party rule to Russia through violence and oppression. Socialism linked to violent repression, failed planned economies, famine, and even genocide have given it a bad name.

But the history of socialism is full of various theories and experimental communities. Some of these were Christian: Anabaptists, Diggers, and Christian socialists in Europe, many of whom entered the political process and became part of the government. Latin American liberation theology and African-American liberationist thought teaches that God is a God of the oppressed, and that Christianity calls for a political economy that takes care of the least among us.

Socialism is not evil. Political and economic systems are amoral, neither moral nor immoral. It is what we do with them that make them moral or not.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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