Alma Sheppard-Matsuo artwork

Socialist Politicians In A Capitalist World

by William C. Anderson, Race, Class and Immigration, Contributing Editor

When President Obama was running for office to secure his first term in the White House, an age-old claim used to smear politicians, activists, and celebrities in the U.S. appeared about him. He was labeled a socialist. As far back as McCarthyism and even before that, people have been blacklisted, imprisoned, and even killed for being described as such.

President Obama denies the “charge” of socialism, but the term itself was favorable with 36% of people across the country around the time. Socialism was still overwhelmingly viewed as negative by conservatives, but not with liberals.  A more recent poll found that 43% of millennials favor socialism as opposed to capitalism. Though much more will be needed than good approval ratings from millennials, a steadily progressing acceptance might be aiding the slow growth of openness around this political identity. Still, despite the excitement created by candidates and politicians who identify as socialist, we should reserve praise for their delivery of socialist policy and not just for the title.

Politicians who claim socialism as an identity or something they identify with have been a breath of fresh air to many people growing frustrated with the limits of some mainstream Western political systems. The openness and popularity of someone like Bernie Sanders who doesn’t vehemently deny the “socialist” label may come as a shock to some in U.S. politics. Overseas, Britain’s new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been staunchly attacked by the conservative establishment upon securing his seat. The same has been true for other socialist and left-wing politicians here in the United States and abroad like Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Washington, France’s Francois Hollande, or Pablo Iglesias Turrión in Spain. However, whether or not a politician identifies as socialist, actions speak louder than words.  If one believes that socialism offers an alternative to capitalism, we have to question whether it is possible to pursue one set of values within a system dominated by an opposite set.

Black Lives Matter activists protest at Bernie Sanders Rally in August, 2015. Photo Credit: Alex Garland

A socialist identity is not a guarantee that a politician is able to seek liberation, freedom, and justice for all. For instance, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has struggled to connect with Black voters. Until he was publicly confronted and pressured by Black activists, he failed to openly embrace a racial justice platform. Even though Sanders is ideologically a “radical” step away from the norm – like Obama – his appeal to some white voters may in fact depend on him not addressing racial injustices. Although he has shifted some in response to Black Lives Matter activists, early on in his campaign he appears to have also shown limited understanding in his approach to addressing Black issues.

Francois Hollande of France, who many progressives were very excited about as a socialist leader, has continued many of France’s colonial policies. His original socialist ideals, including being against “big finance,” have not impacted France’s national policy, especially in aiding corporate interests in Africa.  Earlier this year Hollande abandoned hopes of unison and solidarity across the Socialist Party and pushed a “pro-business” economic overhaul

Politico also reports that these business friendly reforms, called “Macron law,” “raised socialists’ ire by lowering high labor costs for companies via a system of tax credits, easing hiring and firing rules and trying to bring the public deficit in line with EU deficit-to-GDP ratio targets.”

France is just one example of many countries and their leaders who disappoint along these lines. Though politicians who claim to be socialist aren’t always destined to disappoint, in a capitalist world they are situated where compromising such a position might be inevitable. Even anti-Western governments that are socialist or communist in name, like China for example, deal in the policies of possession, disenfranchisement, and colonialism while others like Brazil play both sides.

Take into consideration what happened in Greece this year with the heralded progressive Alexis Tsipras and his political party SYRIZA. In an uphill battle against austerity, the party faced savage backlash from international capital. The Tsipras leadership’s rejection of austerity policies beholden to European creditors gave way as the strong front of global capitalism showed its face via the European Union and its banking entities. The party was ultimately embarrassed when Tsipras was forced to backtrack, ultimately agreeing to compromise with those who the party was fighting against.

Professor Noam Chomsky recently summed this up as it relates to Bernie Sanders:

“Suppose that Sanders won, which is pretty unlikely in a system of bought elections. He would be alone: he doesn’t have congressional representatives, he doesn’t have governors, he doesn’t have support in the bureaucracy, he doesn’t have state legislators; and standing alone in this system, he couldn’t do very much. A real political alternative would be across the board, not just a figure in the White House….It’s a serious mistake to just to be geared to the quadrennial electoral extravaganza and then go home. That’s not the way changes take place. The mobilization could lead to a continuing popular organization which could maybe have an effect in the long run.”

If we hope to secure real substantial change in the United States and around the world, we should put faith in ourselves and not political saviors. We shouldn’t get in the habit of conditioning ourselves or others to rely on political hopefuls to deliver us from the miseries of oppression and state violence. We need to envision the future that we want and mobilize towards that rather than put all our eggs in one person or one electoral system. Based on recent history, one socialist inside a capitalist system has not led to substantive change. We all have to take a stand against the immorality of prioritizing capital above humanity itself, rather than hope someone else will do it for us.


2 thoughts on “Socialist Politicians In A Capitalist World

  1. I am in full agreement with the author of this article. Nothing short of an ongoing progressive movement can we even begin to deal with setting this country on a sensible path of people before profits. The statement by Chomsky in the article pretty much sums it up, as far as individual impact on the system of capitalism producing a meaningful fightback. However, there are many parts to building a movement that can challenge the system of capitalism, and these parts are getting stronger, but they are just that–parts. Those parts consist of; Environmentalist, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Peoples, Immigration activist, Fight 4/15, Education activist, the Labor movement, are all key components to building a strong movement for change. The key question is how do we all come together under one roof? We have all experienced the negative impact of capitalism and the decay of this system of greed will continue to impact negatively upon us all. The parts for meaningful fightback against the system do exist, but do not connect sufficiently with each other to get greater results.

  2. Great article. I agree we need to BE the Change! I also believe that these labels of socialism or capitalism do not work for us. It is not a choice of one or the other but rather transitioning our system to one that seeks to eliminate intolerance and huge income disparity and create justice for all as we make real change in our tax, justice (as in the New Jim Crow book definition) and governance systems.

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