Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Is it Fair to Call Obama a Socialist When He is Clearly a Progressive?

The answer is "yes." Let me explain why.

Socialism never really got off the ground in America in the late 19th century as it did in Europe. And after WW I socialism still didn't really find traction. However, progressivism did become a major ideology in American political economy from Woodrow Wilson onwards. Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as a socialist, predicted that Americans would never elect a socialist but they would elect someone with a socialist ideology who labeled himself a "liberal." In 2008 his prediction came true.

I want to deal with the objection that it is not fair to call Obama a socialist because he is really a progressive and there is a great deal of difference between the two. It is interesting how the Left insists on highly detailed nuance between the different shades of left wing politics, yet is hypocritically eager to label everyone to the right of center a "fascist" or "Nazi." But on their side of the spectrum a socialist is different from a communist and a progressive is different from a socialist and the criticisms which apply to one do not apply to the other.

The Left has taken over a perfectly good word "liberalism" and utterly corrupted it. Classical 19th century liberalism means free enterprise, limited government, the rule of law and individual liberty. Reagan and Thatcher were liberals and so are most conservatives. But the Left has co-opted this word from the New Deal era on and made it a synonym of progressive. Now, with the word liberal having become a dirty word, many US politicians such as Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are going back to the word progressive, the original meaning of which has been forgotten by many members of the public.

In the first half of the 20th century progressives were influenced by the ideas of the likes of Charles Darwin, John Dewey, and Margaret Sanger and were inspired by the Russian Revolution. During this period, however, it was expedient for the Left to portray progressive programs such as legislation in support of trade unions, the growth of the welfare state, and increasing government involvement in the economy as a way of staving off communist revolution. The idea was that if we give the working class concessions, we can buy them off and thus prevent their radicalization. Progressives wrapped themselves in the flag and heartily proclaimed their fealty to the American way and labor unions expelled communists from their leadership.

But progressivism has its roots in the same worldview as Marxism. In the late 19th century, ideas such as progress, Darwinism, materialism, and a dualistic view of the human person were the roots of a general tendency toward social engineering evident in various kinds of Marxism, various kinds of socialism and progressivism. An example was eugenics, the attempt to improve the human race by preventing the poor and the "inferior" races from reproducing and encouraging the rich, white population to reproduce more. The fact that such ideas were taken up into Nazism and led to genocide hurt, but did not destroy, their credibility on the Left in general. The late 20th and early 21st century has witnessed a comeback of racist eugenics as the most extreme form of the social engineering that has characterized all 20th century totalitarianisms, including socialism. This is why almost all socialists are pro-abortion.

So replacing socialism or communism with progressivism is like replacing deep fried foods in your diet with high salt prepared foods; you are eating differently, but not necessarily better. Progressivism should be understood as the form that socialism takes in a country in which it faces a strong and determined opposition from conservative Christianity and strong traditions of democratic capitalism. Just as democratic socialism is what you get when the socialist parties are not strong enough to seize total control, progressivism is what you get when even democratic socialism cannot win elections.

Why am I so skeptical about the possibility that progressivism is not really an alternative to socialism? Well, first it must be admitted that some progressives are totally sincere in seeing the movement of which they are a part in this way. In their mind, that is the truth; they truly hate socialism and all forms of totalitarianism. But the reason I think they are deluded, in the final analysis, is that they fail to recognize that that materialistic, evolutionary, worldview of socialism and communism is also the worldview of progressivism and that, in the end, this general set of philosophical beliefs will be far more important than any policy details such as whether the economy should be mixed or how much freedom the market should be allowed to have at any given time. The view of the human person common to communism, socialism and progressivism is antithetical to the Christian understanding of the human person.

For this reason, it is better to regard progressivism as a way station on the way to socialism and totalitarianism, than as a real alternative to totalitarianism. From Toronto you can get to San Francisco by way of Chicago or by way of Mexico City. One way is more direct, but you end up in the same place eventually. I'd rather not go to San Francisco at all.

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