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Is Obama a Socialist? An Answer to Milos Forman

Take the case of Sweden. Joffe notes:

Remember Sweden in the 1990s, until then the emblem of democratic socialism, where the state grabbed more than one-half of G.D.P.? It pumped up a real-estate bubble in the late 1980s, which burst in the early 1990s, driving G.D.P. down by 5 percent and unemployment up to 12 percent. In 1994, the budget deficit soared to 13 percent. This was not America in 2008, but a statist country that fits [the social-democrats] dream to a T.

America’s preeminent socialist leader in the 1980s was the late Michael Harrington, who carried on as the spokesman for social democracy, a post he inherited from his predecessors, Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. Harrington was well-aware that the path to socialism, in which he ardently believed, was through continued extension of the American welfare state. He became a vigorous supporter of a meaningless bill passed by Congress in 1978 called the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which stated that it was the policy of the United States to strive to attain a full employment economy.

Testifying before Congress in defense of the act, the dying Senator Humphrey asked Harrington: “Is my bill socialism?” The socialist leader responded, “It isn’t half that good.” His point was that socialism needed liberalism as a focal point from which to grow. As Harrington argued at the time, by laying out the principle that it was the duty of the state to create full employment, socialists could build upon that to move liberal supporters to advocate more extensive social-democratic programs that would challenge the hegemony of capitalist social relations, making it easier to advance real socialist measures at a future moment.

What Forman ignores, and does not really address, is that Barack Obama came into politics from the precincts of the Harringtonian left wing. He was a member in Chicago of the socialist New Party, which grew out of the activism of the Democratic Socialists of America, which Harrington led. His past, ignored but addressed in particular by Stanley Kurtz and now by Paul Kengor, was that of the sectarian left wing of the 1970s and '80s.