Recently, Republicans have been saying that Obama is "socialist," and Democrats have been ridiculing the suggestion. As a former member of an avowedly socialist party in Canada, I find this discussion more than a bit confusing. This is a term of abuse in this context, an insult. But shouldn't even insults have meanings? I mean, if I say somebody is fascist, I could be exaggerating or dead wrong, but I'm making a statement. I mean that the person is undemocratic, excessively nationalistic, and in the background, I'm suggesting that the person might end up attacking or even massacring some minority. But in recent American political discourse, it's hard to see that the term "socialist" has any meaning at all.
When people say they are socialist, what do they mean? A lot depends on geography and history. The old Soviet Union used to take the Marxist-Leninist view that socialism is a stage on the way to the ideal state, communism, which was something like nirvana. That is, people share but the state has not as yet withered away. Effectively everything is nationalized, but this is a stage on the way to a situation with no government at all. That's why you see the word "socialist" in the name "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." I suspect (from bits and pieces I've heard from mainland students) that the Chinese equivalent appears in political theory classes in Mainland China in this sense, too, so it's not entirely consigned to the dustbin of history.
In the Western world since World War II, however, the word has been effectively synonymous with "social democrat." This is the case in Canada, where the first socialist government was elected in my province, Saskatchewan, in 1944. Like any political movement, it combined political sophistication with crudeness. The ordinary person blamed the greed of the rich for the Depression, and socialism was meant to be a way to bring the economy back to the control of the people. (Nationalism played its part, as corporate fat cats are always American in the Canadian imagination.) The early Canadian socialist party was called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and at the ground level, it was built on the co-operative movement: the distinction was in corporate governance. You couldn't buy a stake in a co-operative. You owned a share of the corporation in proportion to your use of it. If it's a grocery co-op, you get a bigger share when you buy more groceries. Once in government, the CCF targeted areas in which corporate control of a sector seemed to have bad consequences for the ordinary person. The party nationalized car insurance, for instance. I don't know what the situation is now, but when I owned a car in the late 70s, car insurance cost about a quarter of what it did in neighbouring Alberta, where they use the corporate system. In 1962, the party introduced socialized medicine (what we call "Medicare" and what Americans call a "single payer model"). By 1970, Medicare had been introduced in all provinces, Alberta included.
Socialized medicine has become the flagship program of socialist parties throughout the Western world. The success of socialized medicine means that no significant party, no matter how conservative, proposes to go back to the old system.
An important distinction: anybody who wants to nationalize the entire economy is not a socialist. That person is a communist. And there are not many of them left.
In recent American discourse, as I say, "socialist" has been thrown at Obama as if it were an insult. The strange thing about that is that the United States government is already socialist. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are each, in the fullest, richest sense of the term, socialist programs. They are very inefficient, unjustifiably expensive socialist programs, but socialist nonetheless. When George Bush expanded Medicare (in the American sense, this time), he was acting as a socialist.
On the other hand, many American commentators think that the partial nationalization of banks is socialist. This does not seem socialist to me, because the nationalization does not involve structural change in the relation between the government and the economy. Nationalization is connected to socialism, but it is a means, not an end. The same tool can be used by conservative governments for conservative purposes. A contrasting example: when the Socialist Party of François Mittérand came to power in France in 1981, they nationalized the 100 largest banks. That was a socialist move. It was quite possibly misguided, but it's fair to say that it was socialist, because it aimed to restructure the economy.
I am at a loss to understand what anybody is talking about when they say that Obama is or is not a socialist. Can anybody explain this to me?