As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.
Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.
This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).
The scope of this disaster was amazing, unbelievable. Everybody should learn about this history -- Dikotter's book is a good place to start, or Jung Chang's Mao: the Untold Story, or, for a Russian variant, Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, which describes a similar, earlier program of rural starvation directed against Ukranian farmers by Stalin's Soviet Union.
Knowledge of these obscene programs of government-sponsored murder and totalitarianism do lend some depth to the rantings against socialism and tyranny that have been leveled against the Barack Obama administration, even though there's absolutely no evidence at all that Obama or the Democratic party wish to establish tyrannical government in America. Even though the links are ridiculously weak, the fact that there have been real-world models for these worst-case scenarios is relevant to discussions about America's future.
But fear is a blunt instrument. We see this bluntness when idealistic concepts of socialism (the word has a broad history, and many different meanings) are equated with the actual crimes of communist or fascist governments that called themselves socialist. Is "socialism" simply a dirty word, tainted forever? What does the word even mean? It is possible to hope for a better society and carry out a progressive agenda without opening the door to government's worst excesses? And if not, if the word should be thrown into the garbage (as many Americans believe it should be), then who will address the original problems -- social injustice, tyranny of the wealthy, government corruption, capitalist exploitation of the poor -- that "social" revolutions have tried to solve?
Words are probably failing us here, as they so often do when political stakes are high. As I write these words today, I feel the thundering imprecision of all these labels -- socialism, fascism, Marxism, communism, tyranny -- pounding on my head. I feel the ideological ground slipping under my feet. Could it possibly be true, as author Jonah Goldberg has alleged in his influential book Liberal Fascism. that Hitler's Nazi party was more rooted in left-wing socialism than in right-wing plutocracy? And how do we really know ... how can we know for sure ... that Barack Obama isn't a secret Maoist, ready to starve us all to death once he manages to tax Fox News into bankruptcy?
At times like this, we have to fall back into common sense. The specters of socialism are real, and we must be forever vigilant for our freedom. We're vigilant, but we're not dumb. Socialism has a terrible track record. But the word describes a general wish to find solutions to other big, horrible problems, other crimes against humanity. Those other specters haunt us today as well.
Most importantly, we must be fair to the hardworking politicians who we elected to be our leaders. Whatever "socialism" can manage to mean in the year 2010, it's pretty definitely the case that Barack Obama has nothing to do with it, and never has. The fact that he had some friends in Chicago who liked Karl Marx does not mean that Barack Obama wants to starve us all to death.
Nor does it mean that opponents of the Obama administration can be trusted simply because they reject "socialism". I've been reading up on the word "plutocracy", which describes an approach to government that is markedly not "socialist", yet leads to a different kind of tyranny. It's an important point that the plutocratic form of tyranny has a lot in common with the type of corporation-friendly government today's Republican party wants to empower. Maybe "socialism" shouldn't be the only scare-word in town.