Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama, Pragmatic Socialist

Published in National Review Online on December 21, 2010



“Is the president still a Marxist if he cuts taxes?” That's the question posed by Slate's David Weigel in his critical review of my new book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.

I'll answer with a question of my own: Is Lawrence O'Donnell still a socialist? O'Donnell confessed his socialism last month in the course of arguing that, in the face of electoral pressure, intelligent radicalism puts on a moderate face. This week, he took Alan Grayson to the woodshed for opposing the president's tax deal. That looks like intelligent radicalism to me, not a retreat from socialism.

Weigel has approached Radical-in-Chief with a skeptical eye, but also with an appreciation for the quality of its reporting. He put the book at the top of his Christmas gift list, and his review is thoughtful and respectful. He agrees that Obama has “palled around with socialists…more than [he] has admitted,” and that Obama's campaign “fact-checking site,” FightTheSmears, was wrong to dismiss various reports of Obama's radical ties. (“Alinskyite character-assassination site” would be a more accurate term for FightTheSmears.)

Weigel quickly moves past these concessions, as though they have nothing to do with his larger argument. Yet the fact that Obama has consistently disguised, suppressed, and lied about his socialist ties has everything to do with the question of whether the president actually is a socialist. In view of the many revelations in Radical-in-Chief, Obama's credibility on the matter of his radical past is just about nil. The president is clearly hiding a great deal.

That stealth creates a presumption that the past reveals something of significance about the present. Obama could easily have confessed his youthful radicalism and explained how he'd come to abandon it. As a man with national ambitions, we might have expected him to do so. Instead, Obama has consistently identified himself with a profession, community organizing, he knew to be quietly socialist.

At various points, Weigel seems reluctant to plainly state my argument. The socialist conferences Obama attended were filled with talk of community organizing as the key to socialist strategy. Every socialist faction at those conferences was entranced with the idea that African-American political leaders could emerge out of socialist-run community organizations and move the country to the left. You needn't be certain of Obama's behavior at those conferences to see how profoundly they could have shaped him.

Also, Weigel mangles my account of the subprime crisis pretty badly. I don't call ACORN solely responsible for the debacle, but I do point to its underappreciated role in laying the foundations of the crisis. I focus less on what Cloward and Piven did in welfare offices in the Sixties than on what socialists such as Peter Dreier (an Obama adviser in 2008) did with ACORN during the banking campaign itself.

Most of all, Weigel gets me wrong on Obama's presidency. I make a full-spectrum case, and it doesn't depend on seeing a Soviet-style hammer and sickle everywhere. A great deal of Radical-in-Chief is devoted to showing how American socialism has changed since the Sixties. The “democratic socialism” that stands behind community organizing is not a carbon-copy of Soviet-dominated Marxism. On the other hand, Obama's socialist colleagues and mentors did retain a soft spot for Cuba, Nicaragua, and other Third World Marxist regimes. The book grapples with that complexity in both the past and the present. I use socialism not as a scare word, but rather to illuminate Obama-administration policy across the board. Weigel doesn't begin to deal with my actual analysis of the Obama administration.

Do I see socialism as “the only way” to explain Obama's determination to press the health-care issue during his first year? Not at all. I do think it's the best way to explain it, however. Obama overrode the advice of his key political advisers on that issue, so something more than liberal-Democratic business-as-usual was likely at work.

Yet my argument rests not on any one decision, but on the total picture: from Obama's suppression of his socialist past, to his lifetime spent in a socialist political world, to the connections between Obama's socialist past and his administration's present. Once you understand that Obama embraced the stealthy, pragmatic, and gradualist socialism of his mentors, my explanation makes a lot more sense than Weigel's glib claim that Obama is just a “liberal political hack” who fooled Chicago's socialists into thinking he was one of them. That story can't stand up to the facts of Obama's life.

As I show in Radical-in-Chief, the young Obama was no hack, but a committed, hard-core Marxist. He didn't fool his organizing mentors into believing that he shared their views; rather, those mentors taught him how to do socialism the pragmatic way, the sellable way, the Lawrence O'Donnell way.

At the time, these organizers were slammed by their less secretive socialist pals for their gradualism and stealth. So if a chunk of America's Left insists on slamming Obama the same way — as Alan Grayson naïvely does — neither O'Donnell nor Obama are a whit less socialist for it.

Stanley Kurtz is author of Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.

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