February 2009   

The “Obama Socialists”

In different ways, most of the left in the United States fell into line behind the candidacy of Barack Obama. That required some interesting political contortions, since every one of them knew perfectly well what Obama was about: that he was not an antiwar candidate, no leftist by any stretch of the imagination but a “center-right” bourgeois politician in the Clinton mould, who was and is an admirer of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the most shameless were the ex-New Leftists from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), including Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Mike Klonsky, Carl Davidson, Bernadine Dohrn and the now notorious Bill Ayres. Hayden and Gitlin were on the right wing of SDS back when it called to go “part of the way with LBJ” (Lyndon B. Johnson) in the 1964 elections; Klonsky and Davidson led the little-red-book-waving Maoist “Revolutionary Youth Movement II,” while Dohrn and Ayres were leaders of the idiot adventurist, anti-working-class Weatherman faction. Having gone through a transmogrification from ’60s radicals to 21st century mainstream Democrats, their mantra is that Obama “needs a transformational movement to be a transformational president,” as Hayden put it (“Dreams of Obama,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 20 August 2008).

Unlike some of the New Leftovers, the garden variety liberals around The Nation and the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America (DSA), along with their closely associated Progressive Democrats of America, haven’t really changed in decades. A bunch of these “progressive” luminaries issued an “Open Letter to Barack Obama” (Nation, 18 August 2008), including Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, Marcus Raskin, Norman Solomon, Gore Vidal. They “recognize that compromise is necessary in any democracy” and “understand that the pressures brought to bear” on him are “intense,” but worry about “troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments ... toward a more cautious and centrist stance.” So they want to hold Obama to various stands he has taken, including “withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable,” “a response to the current economic crisis that reduces the gap between the rich and the rest of us,” “universal healthcare,” etc. (Nothing about Afghanistan, of course.) If he doesn’t come through, they will wring their hands in lament.

The ultra-reformist Communist Party U.S.A. of course supported Barack Obama, as they did John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and almost every Democratic presidential candidate since it embraced the program of the “popular front” and came out for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election. (The exception was its brief fling with the “Progressive Party” of FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace in 1948 and ’52.) No surprise there. Along with John McCain and the entire ruling class, the CPUSA declared the election of Obama “historic.” It added that this “people’s victory” spelled “the dawn of a new era,” comparing Obama to “another tall, lanky, transformative figure from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln” and arguing that “it was a transformative election representing the end of extreme rightwing Republican rule and the beginning of a new democratic upsurge which could move our country in a progressive direction.” “The best thing the coalition that won this victory can do,” editorialized the People’s Weekly World (8 November 2008), “is to stick together and help the new administration carry through on its promises.”

Among the professional opportunists of the not so “far left,” the name of the game was to identify as closely as possible with the masses who voted for Obama while coyly avoiding a direct call to elect him. The important social change registered in the election of a black president in this deeply racist country is labeled “historic” and “transformational” in order to attract some of his supporters by flattering them rather than telling the fundamental truth: that Barack Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party; that he will rule in the interests of capital that he is the new commander of U.S. imperialism, who presides over a system of racism, war and poverty for the millions; that it will take a socialist revolution to change that system; and that is why we must build a revolutionary workers party to lead that struggle, which won’t be decided in bourgeois elections and on TV but in the streets, in the factories, in the barrios and ghettos, and internationally.    

Various reformist groups take a different tack. Thus Workers World (13 November 2008) proclaimed, “Millions in streets seal Obama victory.” The article began: “It was truly a great day in Harlem.” After paragraphs of celebratory verbiage, only after the second jump of the article does the reader find out that “The Democratic Party is a party of the capitalist imperialist system, and Obama is now its main spokesperson.” Even so, “Such an outpouring of the masses, particularly oppressed people of color, warrants the full solidarity of the movement.” This is par for the course for the Workers World Party (WWP), followers of the late Sam Marcy, which in the 1980s was plugging black Democrat Jesse Jackson for president. A November 15 WWP conference in NYC originally billed as “Capitalism Must Go!” was retitled “The New Situation in the U.S. and the World” in the light of “the historic election” of black Democrat Obama as president. The WWP’s particular shtick is to call on the capitalist government to “Bail Out People, Not the Banks!”

Their fellow Marcyites of the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which split from the WWP in 2004, ran their own candidates, but not as a hard opposition to the bourgeois parties. On the contrary, they declared “Our campaign has absolutely no quarrel”  with those campaigning for “a Black president – regardless of his politics” (see “Socialists in Bourgeois Electionland,” 4 November 2008). Following the election of Obama (“an occasion of historic significance”) they wrote: “What is needed is a clear program focused on what the new administration should do to meet the needs of the working people; to fulfill the expectations its campaign has created” (Liberation, 21 November 2008) The PSL then lists a series of points – declare a housing emergency, no layoffs, extend unemployment benefits, health care for all, pass the EFCA, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – none of which challenge capitalist rule, and concludes: “It will be the failure of the new administration to carry through this program that will expose it before the eyes of the people as another agent of the capitalist system.” This is the method common to many reformists: rather than opposing Obama outright, they present a list of pious wishes and proposals for action by the capitalist government, calculating that if it doesn’t fulfill them, people will become radicalized. More likely they will become demoralized liberals.

“Yes, we can elect a black president,” crows the ISO, donning the mask of militant Obamaism. See inside pages for any mealy mouthed criticisms.

A gaggle of pseudo-Trotskyist social democrats (Socialist Alternative, Socialist Organizer) present variants of this program, but without doubt the past master in this brand of opportunism is the Internationalist Socialist Organization (ISO), which has developed acting as a pressure group on Democratic Party liberalism into a patented methodology. Here’s the formula: to come up with the ISO line on any particular issue, start with the liberal position, then (a) take one or two steps to the left; or alternatively, (b) take the same position, repeat the same slogans, but add some “socialist” rhetoric; or, best of all, (c) formulate a leading question: Will Obama bring change? Is Afghanistan the “good war”? Should we invade Iraq? (We kid you not – the last two were titles of forums by the ISO-led Campus Antiwar Network.) Thus the pre-election issue (September-October 2008) of the ISO’s International Socialist Review featured a sympathetic photo of Obama with the headline, “Politics of change, or Politics as usual” (see the inside pages for any critical remarks). And the latest issue of the ISR (January-February 2009) features Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can! ¡Sí se puede!

The ISO web site was filled with gushing coverage of Obama’s victory. A column on “Election Day in Harlem” by Brian Jones reported on an election party, “I felt like a tiny ship, tossed back and forth on a frothy sea of human emotion and pride in the historic election of the first African American president of the U.S. Raw joy was dominant, but there was also relief, pride, shock and wonder.” He concluded: “Huge numbers of people are energized by the fact that, yes, we can elect a Black president. What we get from this president depends mostly on what happens to this energy, and less on the president himself.” Well, actually, no. A Socialist Worker (7 November 2008) editorial on “The New Shape of American Politics” takes the same tack, asking:

“What economic policies will Obama pursue as the worst financial crisis since the 1930s drives the world deep into recession? Will the man who made his mark as an opponent of the Iraq war make good on his promise to pull out U.S. troops? Will there be the kind of fundamental change that his supporters so clearly want?...

“Will Obama call a halt to this colossal rip-off and fashion an economic program that puts the interests of working people in its center? ... Will there be an economic stimulus program that creates secure, long-term jobs?”

Will the ISO say that Obama is a capitalist politician who must act to defend the ruling class of U.S. imperialism? Instead, SW editorializes:

“Given the multiple crises that beset the U.S., change is coming – but what kind, and in whose interest, depends on whether and how working people get organized to fight for it.” 

Not a hint of the Marxist analysis of the state as the instrument of capitalist rule. For the ISO, it’s all about pressure.

For these social democrats, as for all liberals and reformists, the government is neutral, rather than being the executive committee of the ruling class. In antiwar marches in 2007 and ’08, after the Democrats won a majority in both houses of Congress, ISOers chanted, “Stop the funding, stop the war, What the hell is Congress for?” (Supporters of the Internationalist Group responded, “Congress is for imperialist war.”) Following Lenin and Trotsky, we characterize the present epoch as the imperialist era. The ISO has a different take: “What next for struggle in the Obama era?” (5 November 2008) they write, or “Antiwar organizing in the Obama era” (19 December), and “What’s in store in the Obama era?” (20 January). And like the Nation liberals who want to hold Obama “accountable” by holding him to his stated program, the ISO follows Obama’s agenda. Thus it writes:

“The left in the 1930s used the slogan ‘the president wants you to join a union’ to capitalize and amplify its position. Today, we should use President-elect Obama’s words in a similar way.”

Actually, that argument was popularized in the 1930s by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, who viciously repressed “reds” in the UMW (and ended up a Republican).

The masses learn through struggle, say ISOers. Yes, but only if the revolutionaries speak the truth plainly. And the plain truth is that it is necessary to draw a class line between the exploited and oppressed, on one side, and their exploiters and oppressors, on the other. And Barack Obama is on the other side of that line.

In the recent election, some “progressives” sought refuge in the Greens, a minor capitalist party, which ran former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for president. McKinney has taken some gutsy stands, calling for freedom for Mumia and traveling on a boat carrying medical supplies to Gaza in the middle of the Israeli bombing attack. But she remains a bourgeois politician and the whole purpose of her campaign was to pressure Obama to move slightly to the left. Thus in a TV interview after the Gaza-bound ship was rammed by an Israeli patrol boat, McKinney pleaded with President-elect Obama to “say something, please, about the humanitarian crisis that is being experienced by the people [of Gaza] right now.” Yet Obama’s refusal to condemn the massacre and his statement in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV that “Israel’s security is paramount” makes it clear where he stands – on the side of  the Zionist butchers.

For the last year, liberals and reformists of all persuasions have salivated at the prospect of a new layer of young activists for social causes coming out of the Obama campaign. But contrary to the delusions of a Tom Hayden of “an explosion of rising expectations for social movements – here and around the world – that President Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009,” the operation that elected Obama was not a “movement” for “social change from below.” Rather, it was a capitalist-financed, top-down electoral machine similar to the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) orchestrated by U.S. imperialism to undercut inconvenient governments from Venezuela to East Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. In any case, rather than a classless “movement” to pressure Obama, what’s urgently needed today is a revolutionary workers party to mobilize the exploited and oppressed against the attacks of the bourgeois rulers.

As in the 1930s, there is no “solution” to the economic crisis, imperialist wars and racist oppression without sweeping away the capitalist system that generates these plagues whether a Democrat or Republican president sits in the White House or controls Congress. As V.I. Lenin wrote in April 1917, when the mass of the workers had not yet broken from the bourgeoisie, “it is necessary most thoroughly, persistently, patiently to explain to them ... that without the overthrow of capital it is impossible to conclude the war with a really democratic, non-oppressive peace.” Now is a time to “patiently explain” to the masses, to swim against the stream. Let the opportunists chase after fleeting popularity, genuine Marxists follow the watchword of Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International.”

See also:  Obama Presidency: U.S. Imperialism Tries a Makeover  (23 February 2009)
Why Marxists Oppose All Government Intervention in the Unions  (23 February 2009)
                 Not a “New New Deal,” But a Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (23 February 2009)
Barack Obama vs. Black Liberation  (23 February 2009)

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com