Pundita asks: What do I mean by "authoritarian" leftism?

I replied to Pundita today with the following email and thought I would share it with readers of Global Labor.

Thank you for your continuing interest in my writing on the Ayers-Obama connection.

Regarding your question about the nature of authoritarian leftists: well, in fact, these people are not, in my view, leftists at all but they pose as leftists. Instead they have a view of society which says that the only way to respond to inequality and other social problems is to impose, from above, radical restructuring that allows them to take the reins of social and political power. Probably the best essay on this issue ever written is The Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper.

Examples of “socialism from above” today are found in Cuba, China, North Korea, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. These are bureaucratic regimes that face deep-set problems of economic development but respond to them with authoritarian “solutions” that end up limiting the ability of those countries to advance economically or politically. When capitalism enters into a crisis, which is more frequently than is widely accepted, then these authoritarian approaches tend to become more attractive. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the rise of authoritarian politics in Nicaragua during the period of Sandinista domination in the 1980s.

Of course, there are many examples of right wing authoritarianism as well – the dictatorships throughout Latin America in the 60s and 70s, for example. One of the tragic dynamics that emerges in these countries is a kind of symbiotic relationship between “left” and “right” wing authoritarians – they feed each other in ways that can lead to near genocidal results as in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s.

In my view, a genuine left would embrace democratic efforts to respond to social and economic problems. Thus, I support independent trade unions and human rights as a precondition for solving the problems of economic development in such countries. Here in the United States I was genuinely shocked to learn of the dominance of variations of the FSLN’s or Chavez’ or Mao’s approach to politics inside our graduate schools of education.

During a recent academic conference on labor issues, I attended a panel on “social justice” education and heard first hand from professors, a high school teacher and graduate students how this authoritarian model is (mis)used in the classroom. It was an eye opener. Just as Sol Stern has written, they still really do rely on the work of Paolo Freire (who developed an educational program to teach illiterate Brazilian peasants to read) as a model for 21st century hispanic inner city advanced placement high school students headed to some of our best colleges and universities. These students – a group of whom attended the conference session in question – come from working class backgrounds and only a handful had parents who attended college. They attended an allegedly poor performing inner city Los Angeles high school and were apparently examples of “the oppressed,” to use Freire’s term and the one used by several of the panelists. Yet in a generation their parents had left destitute lives in Mexico and Central America and found a way for their children to enter the University of California system – despite the malicious role of standardized tests.

As I joked in one of my blogs, I could have skipped the (dangerous) fieldwork I undertook during a civil war in Nicaragua if I had known that I could have studied neo-stalinism right here at home! Of course, the joke is on us since these people have an undue influence over research and policy initiatives in education. For example, the President elect of AERA – of which Ayers is to be a Vice President in charge of Curriculum Studies – is Carol Lee, whose work has influenced the racialist rants of Jeremiah Wright.

The great unanswered question which remains is: what is the education policy of Senator Obama and what role is Bill Ayers playing today in shaping it? My contribution to the debate has been to point out that there is a long and close relationship between Obama and Ayers precisely on the question of education policy – as evidenced by the Annenberg Challenge. I believe the campaign of Obama owes the American electorate an answer to that question.

I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to post this reply.


Stephen Diamond

Pundita: The William Ayers plan to turn America’s schoolchildren into Maoists and how Barack Obama helped him