Of Guns and Bitterness: Obama and the Authoritarian Left

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. 

Let me see if I can make my perspective clearer and helpful.

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. 

There were, in my view, many very good aspects to the activities of the New Left, particularly in their use of non-violent organizing to support the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and the use of education, argument and peaceful demonstrations to oppose the United States’ invasion of Vietnam.

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. 

Others did not call themselves communists but were nonetheless very authoritarian and violent in their methods. From a review of some of the documents prepared by the Weather Underground at that time, it is clear that some in that organization did consider themselves “communists.” They looked to the new communist states like Cuba and China for their political models rather than the old Soviet Unions. Presumably that included Ayers and Dohrn at the time.

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.

As Ayers told the left leaning Chicago magazine In These Times:

“That’s how you use electoral politics. Not as an end in itself, but as an organizing mechanism. Our deepest belief, I think, is that we need to connect all these good projects and build the movement. …we should always be positioning ourselves, thinking, okay, if I’m involved in this next election, how am I positioned to help contribute to building a movement, raising consciousness, making the connections, and that’s a real tricky business.”
However, it is important to note that to the extent that this new authoritarian left, formed in the late 60s and early 70s, is still in existence – and it is, though also on a smaller scale – it has no central organization or structure and it is hard to conclude that even if Ayers and Dohrn and others are influencing Obama that Obama belongs to any such movement or organization, because there is no such organization to belong to.

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. 

In addition, the authoritarian left milieu – and this is one area where they differ from the American Communist Party – has always been hostile to American workers, in particular to their unions. The Weather Underground argued that unions were part of a “labor aristocracy” that fed off the backs of the third world. The comments by Obama about the guns and bitterness of the working class and his inability to demonstrate sympathy with workers in states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, suggest that that hostility to such voters from the authoritarian left may be carrying over to the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign opposed the gas tax relief proposed by Clinton but Clinton knew this bread and butter policy would fall on welcome ears among workers feeling the impact of rising oil prices. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote a very interesting column on this issue in the Huffington Post recently.

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. 

I believe both Soviet-style Communism and the other forms of Communism found in Cuba, China and North Korea all share totalitarian features. But when one moves into regimes like that in Venezuela or that of the Sandinistas in the 1980s in Nicaragua, the parties or organizations in control of those governments are/were authoritarian but not totalitarian. 
The control and power, for example, of the Sandinistas was not absolute as it is in North Korea or was under the old USSR. Thus, I use the word “authoritarian” to describe these regimes. Some in the FSLN or in the Chavez movement might favor total control of the society but they have not been able to achieve that goal yet. There is still some room for opponents of those regimes to act politically in support of their goals. 
For example, recently an attempt by Venezuela’s Chavez to appropriate more control for his regime failed in a constitutional referendum held there. Such a referendum would be impossible to hold in Cuba or China or North Korea today. Historically, when movements like that of Chavez have not been able to centralize their power more fully they either lose power (as happened in Nicaragua to the Sandinistas) or they use force to impose their power (as happened in eastern Europe in the wake of the Second World War – with the assistance of the Russians, of course).

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. 

Thus, as one example, there is a great deal of hostility from the authoritarian left towards the American labor movement, which is still a generally democratic movement.

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. 

(For readers who want to know more about the nature of the differences between a democratic left approach to politics and an authoritarian approach,  the best short introduction to the distinction is probably the essay Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper, an online version of which can be found here.)