The far right trotted out some representatives from their rusting anti-Communist machinery last week to try to suggest that Barack Obama is a “communist” or is controlled by some kind of communist apparatus. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported on it this week.
Since I have been a critic here of some of the policies the Senator appears to support and people that he appears to be close to – and precisely because of their potential authoritarian implications – I thought I should address this issue.
In addition, for many years I have studied and, through my work in the labor movement, interacted with/debated/confronted both Communist ideas and actual members of the Communist Party.
The first important consideration is to understand what the problem was, in my view, with “communism” in the United States when it was, in fact, a problem. [By the way, I usually put communism in quotes or capitalize it to distinguish the pseudo-communism of the Soviet stalinist variety of communism from actual socialist ideas – that is, of course, a much longer and different issue.]
The reason that the American CP was a problem* when it was of any significance in this country was that it was, at its heart, an arm of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. The party would turn its politics around 180 degrees on a call from Moscow. Usually its nominal policies were relatively mild, even liberal sounding, certainly by today’s standards, but the party would not hesitate to argue one way or another on an issue (for example, whether to enter World War II) depending on the “line” from Moscow.
(*Of course, at its heart the “policy” or ultimate goal of the American CP as with all the CP’s was to impose from above an authoritarian state on society, against the democratic instincts of most people. But I refer here to the “problem” of dealing with the CP in the actual political arena like the labor movement or elsewhere. There, one did not ever hear the “full program” of totalitarianism. That was only for the inner circle of true believers. Instead you heard of things like the need for racial integration or support for Roosevelt.)
That meant that for many years the CP could attract thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of well intentioned liberals to its cause when it supported liberal demands like democratic trade unions but then would alienate those supporters when it called for revolutionary trade unions because Moscow had deemed that the situation in the United States had “turned” to a “revolutionary” one (this really happened in the early 1930s). These were the moments when the totalitarian heart of the Communist movement would reveal itself.
What that meant is that once the USSR fell apart, as it did in the late 80s, the American CP – what was left of it after alienating hundreds of thousands over the years – fell apart, too. There is no American CP to speak of today and of course it is absurd to think that Obama is influenced or “controlled” by such an entity.
There are some indications that Obama brushed up against CP members or fellow travelers in Hawaii (apparently Frank Marshall Davis, the black CP poet and journalist was friends with the Obama family in Hawaii) or in that Berkeley-lite, Hyde Park, over the years and these people may have influenced him to be more on the left side of the spectrum rather than the right. But that is a far cry from becoming a CP member or even a sympathizer. Believe me, the American CP had long stopped attracting young people to its cause by the time Obama was a teen-ager.
Of course, one strong sign of the political impotence of the American CP as Obama was growing to political maturity was the emergence of new activists in the 1960s who specifically opposed the CP and its politics. A battle cry of this milieu was opposition to both US and USSR foreign policy, for example. Thus many thousands of young activists (including me) opposed both the US invasion of Vietnam as well as the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
But within that movement, another strand emerged as well. That strand gave birth to a new authoritarian form of politics on the left. This strand took the view that the U.S. was the main problem on the global scene and drifted into an outlook that said that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This paralleled an interesting global development – the emergence of authoritarian regimes with “left” sounding politics that were independent of and even at odds with Russia. The earliest example was Tito’s Yugoslavia but that was soon followed by China’s split from Moscow and the emergence of other independent stalinist states like Cuba. These regimes had the same totalitarian instinct as that of the USSR but often used different tactical approaches.
One leader of this new movement was Che Guevara. Some have argued that he and Castro had broken politically with each other over the close ties between Cuba and Russia. Guevara left to start revolutions elsewhere, with disastrous results, of course. But the fact that Che became a hero to new authoritarian movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and to many in the United States as well is evidence of the perverse attractiveness of this development.
In the United States the emergence of the Weather Underground was an example of the rise of an authoritarian (stalinist but non-Communist) left in the United States. This movement had to develop its own raison d’etre and for the Weather people, it was the race based notion of “white skin privilege” and “white supremacy” and the crazy tactics that followed – for example, the role that the WU played in the 1981 bank robbery led by the Black Liberation Army in which three people were killed and led to the jailing of WU leader Kathy Boudin for 22 years and her partner David Gilbert for life. These are the kinds of events that Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn were also involved in (well, murderous bombings not murderous robberies it appears).
Closely linked to their racialist views, the WU types adopted an idea that the third world was the vanguard of the global revolution together with the black American community. The targets of this revolution were not only US “imperialism” but white workers inside the “belly of the beast.” They argued that white workers, and their politically compromised labor unions, fed off the backs of third world workers and black Americans (while never explaining why black workers are such strong backers of even white-controlled unions).
Historian Sean Wilentz has recognized the impact of these kinds of views on the Obama campaign. As he recently wrote on the Huffington Post:
“Having attempted, with the aid of a complicit news media, to brand Hillary Clinton as a racist — by flinging charges that, as the historian Michael Lind has shown, belong ‘in black helicopter/grassy knoll territory,’ Obama’s supporters now fiercely claim that Clinton’s white working class following is also essentially racist. Favoring the buzzword language of the academic left, tinged by persistent, discredited New Left and black nationalist theories about working-class ‘white skin privilege,’ a vote against Obama has become, according to his fervent followers, ‘a vote for whiteness.'”
Wilentz also notes the hostility of the Obama camp to white American workers:
“Culturally as well as politically, Obama’s dismissal of white working people represents a sea-change in the Democrats’ basic identity as the workingman’s party – one that has been coming since the late 1960s, when large portions of the Left began regarding white workers as hopeless and hateful reactionaries.”
An example of how this is playing out inside the labor movement occurred recently at a meeting of the large independent union, California School Employees Association (“CSEA”), which represents non-teaching personnel throughout the California public school system. Its president is Rob Feckner, who is also head of the giant public sector pension fund, California Public Employees’ Retirement System, Cal-PERS. As reported today on the No Quarter USA website, Adrian Gillies, the president of one of CSEA’s locals, Chapter #645 in Cotati-Rohnert Park, resigned earlier this month in protest over a presentation on “multiculturalism” and diversity by a consultant named Lee Wun Mah of Stir Fry Seminars & Consulting. According to the resignation letter of Gillies, Mah endorsed Obama, defended Reverend Jeremiah Wright and invoked “white guilt” in his presentation. CSEA has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential race.
Today this authoritarian left trend continues fed by the emergence of new authoritarian movements like the Mexican Zapatistas or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. [For those who are interested, my Ph.D. dissertation is an attempt to explain the rise of such movements. It is a case study of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. You can download a copy, all 500 pages, here; if you want a shorter introduction to the ideas you can download my paper, Will the Real Che Guevara Please Stand Up?, here.] And so it is no surprise to see Bill Ayers speaking in front of Hugo Chavez and the son of Kathy Boudin, Chesa, working as an intern in the Chavez government, co-authoring an apologetic tome for the politics of Chavez and translating for Ayers while Ayers was on a speaking tour in Venezuela.
But does this new “left” authoritarianism have the ability to control a presidential candidate, manchurian-style? Hardly, even if some in this movement had an interest in doing so. This new movement is very diverse in form and structure and plays in a variety of arenas, but has no central organizational structure or discipline. There is, instead, a kind of shared, almost cultural or instinctual, identity among its adherents. This accounts, in part, for what is broadly known as “politcal correctness.” But the reality is that you can find these new authoritarian types all over the place: in higher education where the “social justice” and “critical pedagogy” advocates have a foothold in Schools of Education, in the labor movement where SEIU leader Andy Stern advocates a relationship with the actual stalinist labor arm of the Chinese government or in the Chicago anti-war movement where Fidelista and Obama backer Carl Davidson, a former SDS leader, is active together with another ex-SDS’er and Obama backer, Marilyn Katz.
It is this non-Communist but nonetheless authoritarian milieu with which Obama worked in his rise from his mid-80s stint as a community organizer in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago to his all but cinched nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President in 2008. It is hard to believe that Obama really supports the full politics of Ayers and Dohrn (does he really believe, as they do, that living in the U.S. is “living in the belly of the beast”?) or Katz and Davidson.
Nonetheless, Obama has been unwilling to explain his relationship to them; his education advisor advocates one of Ayers’ key policies: repaying the “education debt” – race based reparations in the form of dumping more money into a broken school system; and Obama himself has spoken sympathetically of the same idea.
Rather than charting an independent and progressive path, he has allowed and even encouraged the racialisation of an issue that cannot be solved on racial grounds alone. That is music to the ears of those on the new authoritarian left who view “racism,” “whiteness” and “white supremacy” as the heart and soul of their politics.