Socialists in Oklahoma are not necessarily celebrating Barack Obama’s recent victory in the presidential election, despite the claims of many conservatives that President-elect Obama is a socialist. One Oklahoma socialist contends that Obama is less of one than Dwight Eisenhower.
Christopher Henderson is a student at Oklahoma City Community College and a member of the Socialist Party USA, one of three large socialist organizations in the United States, along with Democratic Socialists of America and the Workers World Party. None of the three has a local chapter or office in Oklahoma. Henderson describes Obama’s plans as modest compared to the goals of socialism, and believes Americans fundamentally misunderstand how the new president’s policies will differ from a socialist agenda.
“He wants to let Bush’s tax cuts to the ultra-rich expire and raise taxes on the top from 35 to 39.6 percent,” Henderson said. “In comparison, under President Eisenhower, taxes on the rich were 51.2 percent. Obama’s proposed raise is very, very modest, historically. I fail to understand how the right can scream ‘pinko’ or ‘commie’ about Obama, yet the charge was never made toward Ike. Ike’s policies on countless issues are to the left of Obama.”
Henderson listed several other points in Obama’s platform that don’t mesh with a socialist agenda, including the continued privatization of health care.
“A genuine socialist views health care as a fundamental human right and would fight for a single-payer national system along the lines of Canada, the UK or France,” he said. “All of his proposals are extremely modest, to the left of Clinton, but to the right of JFK or Johnson. None of it challenges capital or the profit system.”
Socialism, which is not synonymous with communism, is a collection of economic principles, the primary of which is the belief that workers control the means of production and the profits derived from production are distributed equally. It is technically an economic theory, rather than a political one.
Larry Eberhardt, a professor of political science at Oklahoma City University, said socialism “is most precisely a description of how you organize the economy. Ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the government, and costs and prices are determined by government planning.”
It is not uncommon for Americans who lived through the Cold War to conflate socialism and communism, as the United States’ primary adversary in the Cold War years, the Soviet Union, used many of Karl Marx’s socialist ideas to organize its economy. Eberhardt said communism is a political system that incorporates socialist economics with an authoritarian, single-party government.
He said he doesn’t believe Obama is a socialist. “If Obama were to move toward a single-payer health care system, that would be a move toward socialism,” he said, “but that is not part of his plan. We have socialist pieces in our government ” the Postal Service and Amtrak ” but our economy is dominated by private ownership.”
Socialism is a feature of many other Western democracies to varying degrees, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Sweden.
Henderson believes that socialism, over capitalism, is a better fit with democratic ideals.
“Socialism is radically democratic,” Henderson said. “It’s about the deepening of democracy, not the elimination of it. Representation in the national soviet (the governing congress in a socialist democracy) is directly related to the workplace, and delegates to the soviet make no more than the average wage of the workers.”
Fair wages and the destruction of the profit systems are two core ideals within socialism. It is an unwillingness to attack the profit system, among other reasons, that leads Henderson to conclude that Obama is not a socialist.
“None of his policies challenge capital or the profit system,” Henderson said. “He is open with his ties to labor in ways that Clinton never was, which is nice. But that’s not socialism. All of his talk is simply to make the system more ‘fair,’ not to end or fundamentally change it.”
Henderson, who is one of only 30 or so registered socialists in the state, according to the national secretary of the Socialist Party USA, said he has discovered an openness to socialist ideas, especially among Oklahoma’s young people.
“When I describe socialism without using the word, the majority of people I talk to love the idea,” he said. “Even those who are older and remember the propaganda still, for the most part, have no idea what it really is. But when the arguments are stripped to their core and laid out simply, most argue that the idea is grand, but humanity is too greedy.”
AGRARIAN SOCIALIST ROOTS
There was a time in Oklahoma when the Socialist Party was very strong. Prior to World War I, agrarian socialism was a thriving movement that included elected politicians and regular candidates on state ballots. In his book “Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920,” author Jim Bissett chronicles the rise and fall of the Oklahoma Socialist Party. According to Bissett, socialists won more than 50 state and local elections between 1904 and 1913.
William W. Savage Jr., professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, said the West was traditionally a radical area. Settlers were attracted to the possibility of reshaping society in the Trans-Mississippi West. A look at Oklahoma’s Constitution shows how the region was clearly influenced by that thinking.
“If you look at the 1910 census figures, you’ll see there’s a fairly large number of first- and second-generation Europeans listed and many of those came from places where socialism had some support,” Savage said. “As workers, they brought those elements into Indian Territory and stayed on, apparently. You can tie that in to the business that went on with the Green Corn Rebellion. Some of that thinking influenced the agricultural community, which was largely Southern American. It reaches the apex in 1912.
“Look at the state’s motto: ‘Labor conquers all things.’ It doesn’t tell you money and politics conquer all, does it?”
Rachel Jackson, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, is writing her dissertation about Oklahoma’s agrarian socialist roots. She is focusing on rhetoric rather than political science, and as such, her work is concerned with what she calls “the power of political persecution.”
“The study of socialism in Oklahoma is a study in the rhetorical power of the word versus the intellectual content of the message,” Jackson said. “Many Oklahomans don’t know that we had socialists on the ballot into the 1930s. That is partly due to a shift in attitudes toward socialists that started after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.”
President Woodrow Wilson instituted the draft during World War I. Socialists responded by resisting the draft, coining a slogan that remained part of their platform throughout the war years: “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” According to Jackson, this resistance to the war would be used against Oklahoma socialists when their motives were challenged following the Green Corn Rebellion in 1917.
“Tenant farmers were discontent with the amount of rent they were charged by the landowners,” she said. “The landowners also paid less than fair market value for the crops, creating a situation in which there was no upward economic mobility for the farmers.”
Add the draft of World War I, and the rural Oklahoma farmers reached a tipping point. They staged a march on Washington, D.C., to protest their treatment. It was stopped, violently, in Seminole County.
“The opponents of the march said that the farmers were marching to Washington to stop the war,” Jackson said. “It gave the anti-leftists powerful rhetorical tools to undermine the socialist movement.”
Combined with the first Red Scare in the 1910s and 1920s and the emigration of farmers during the Dust Bowl, socialism in Oklahoma suffered a series of setbacks from which it never recovered. Candidates remained on the ballot until the mid-1930s, but the power of the movement was destroyed in the early ’20s, according to Jackson.
She said the resurrection of the term during the recent election convinced her that the term has become meaningless in political rhetoric. “It’s laughable, the way it was used,” she said. “There are valid, helpful ideas in socialist theory, but no one will hear them because the listening stops once the word is used. It’s the power of rhetoric.”
Jackson said that this year’s election pointed to how far socialism had fallen in the public’s estimation.
“The evangelical parts of Oklahoma embraced socialism at one time,” she said, addressing evangelicals’ overwhelming support of Republican candidate John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin.
“Happiness and property are now somehow connected in our historical identity. They killed Jesus for questioning this system, because property and money are power, and the people with those things have the ability to reinforce their power.”
The bailout of Wall Street has been called socialistic by pundits and politicians on both the political left and right. Gloria Rubac, a graduate of Bishop McGuinness High School, Oklahoma State University and a lead organizer for the Workers World Party in Houston, said the bailout is nothing like socialism because of whom it benefits.
“The working people are paying billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street banks,” Rubac said. “It is the workers who should be bailed out. This is capitalism melting down.”
Christopher Henderson, an Oklahoma socialist, agrees. “The current crisis isn’t the fault of a lack of regulation, but of the inherent flaws within capitalism,” he said. “With a quest for ever-expanding profits, all other concerns are marginal. Crisis is an inherent feature of capitalism. Mere nationalization of a few banks is not socialism.”
This concern for maximization of profits leads to a lack of concern for the rights of workers, according to Rubac.
“This is a corruption of the term socialism,” she said. “It’s just trying to keep the system afloat; bankers were never in danger of losing their homes, unlike working families who are facing increasing rates of foreclosures.”
Oklahoma has had fewer foreclosures than many other states, so the impact of the economic crisis and bailout has been less obvious here. Zane Swanson, a professor in the School of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma, said that is partly due to Oklahoma’s position as a producer of natural resources like oil and gas.
“People are still driving cars,” Swanson said, “but that doesn’t mean that Oklahoma will be producing or selling more than in previous years. The demand side is down, so anything dependent on growth ” new homes, infrastructure improvements ” is not going to happen.” “Greg Horton