I realize for many in my audience that coming across the discussions here about the authoritarian left, communism, socialism and democracy may resemble reading The Da Vinci Code or an Umberto Eco novel! And certainly it would be a surprise for many to discover that these various “left” wing elements are floating around the Obama campaign inside such a mainstream political party like the Democrats.
First, I wrote my most recent blog, “Believe me, Barack is no Communist, But…,” in response to the article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post that surfaced the allegations of a far right anti-communist group about Obama’s links to Communism. Those allegations, I think, blur the line between who is and who is not playing a significant role in the Obama campaign.
I think members of what I have broadly described as the “authoritarian left” have some role in the campaign while “Communists” formally defined as such do not. By “Communists” I mean members and sympathizers of the American Communist Party. The American Communist Party was an arm of the Soviet Union here in the United States.
From its earliest days it slavishly followed whatever political “line” it was instructed to by Moscow. There is very good historiography about this, in particular the work of the late historian Theodore Draper and also the historian Harvey Klehr. The American CP often mimicked the proposals of traditional liberals or left liberals and that fooled a lot of people into thinking that the American CP was a political party worth joining, or at least working with. Disillusion usually followed once the Party changed its line – sometimes a 180 degrees turn – with no explanation other than that the foreign policy of the USSR dictated the change. Of course, underneath the apparently defensible arguments for reforms (like racial integration or unions) was the real policy of the party, which was to impose a Russian style totalitarian political system here in the United States.
The American CP still exists but as a tiny insignificant organization, compared with a membership in the 1930s of 75,000. The party entered a long decline first after several rounds of disillusion affected its members and sympathizers as the party regularly switched its line in response to orders from Moscow but then as the realities of life in the USSR became clear, first with the show trials of the 1930s, the revelations about Stalinism that emerged in the 1950s, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, etc, etc. But with the collapse of the USSR in 1989, the death knell of the American CP was finally struck.
Thus, my first point in response to the WaPo article was that there is no meaningful basis to conclude the Obama could be a “Communist” in the sense used here since there is no American CP to speak of and there has not really been such a movement for most of Obama’s adult life. It does appear that the “Frank” that Obama refers to in his memoirs is Frank Marshall Davis, a well known (at the time) black journalist and poet who was in the CP. He apparently befriended the teen age Obama via a friendship with Obama’s grandfather. But even if Davis was still in the CP (as opposed to being one of many who realized that the party was a disaster and dropped out in 1956 or 1968) there would be little purpose to “recruiting” Obama to an organization on life support. The American CP was a “dead parrot” as the Monty Python saying goes, by the time Obama was growing to political maturity.
Second, I have argued on my blog that rather than the American Communist Party, a different political milieu – the “authoritarian left” – is supporting Obama and may be influencing his campaign. This is the milieu of people like Ayers and Dohrn, of Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher. These are people who were not part of the so-called “old Left” that included the American CP but were part of the so-called “New Left” that emerged in the 1960s.
But some in the New Left began in the late 60s to move towards authoritarian and sectarian methods. They began to look to countries like Mao’s China and Fidel’s Cuba as potential models for the United States. This was the beginning of the “authoritarian left.” Some in this milieu called themselves “communists” – including individuals like Mike Klonsky, who was a slavish advocate of Maoism and who is now a close associate of Bill Ayers in Chicago education policy circles.
These new communists were not members of the American Communist Party – a distinction that sometimes gets blurred or ignored. In fact, they were opponents of the USSR and the American CP because they were, instead of slavishly following the politics of the Soviet Union, slavishly following the politics of Cuba or China or even Albania (really!). What both groups shared was the authoritarian outlook – that they knew what needed to be done and that they were going to impose their views on the legitimate democratic movements that they became a part of (such as the anti-war or civil rights or labor movements) no matter what the instincts of the actual members of these movements. I have witnessed this first hand many times, particularly in the labor movement. In this sense of acting undemocratically in democratic movements, both the American CP and the new authoritarian left, whether self-designated communist or not, shared a similar world view.
Instead, I believe that on particular issues the authoritarian left has been able to influence the thinking of the Obama campaign. I have pointed to the one clear example of this: education, where a leading education advisor to Obama is pushing a policy (repayment of “education debt”) that is also the policy of Ayers. I also think there may be other areas where this milieu is having some influence on the thinking of Obama, perhaps including the the idea of “dialogue with dictators” – such as Chavez and Ahmadinejad.
Finally, third, let me just briefly address the larger theoretical issue behind this discussion. Is there a difference between “Communism,” “authoritarian leftism” and other ideas about socialism, communism and the left? In short, yes.
In the United States today the “authoritarian left” sympathizes with Chavez, the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. Some around the US authoritarian left express that sympathy naively because they oppose US foreign policy and gravitate to anyone who opposes the United States. But others are sympathetic with authoritarian politics more deeply and they express this view through their hostility to what actual Americans want.
It is because of that hostility to the democratic instincts of most Americans that I have suggested that the “authoritarian left” is no real left at all. I consider democracy the critical component of any constructive left or progressive movement here and abroad. Democracy means transparency, accountability and the protection of the rights of dissenters and minorities within the body politic. That hostility to democracy is what all of the tendencies I have discussed here share, whether old style American Communists, the new communists of the new left or today’s authoritarian leftist sympathizers with Chavez and Castro. And I think that hostility to democracy is the danger in the apparent role of the new authoritarian left in the Obama campaign.