- Category: News & Analysis
- Created on Saturday, 21 November 2009 10:00
- Written by Barbara Foley
The following presentation was given at the Rethinking Marxism conference. It is detailed and nuanced -- but on hearing it delivered by Barbara Foley there was also a very sharp and even emotional impact. It lays bare the fact that Obama's politics and purpose are the opposite of the hidden socialism he is accused of. It shows the construction of a careful political ideology and persona -- familiar (in many way) with active radicals, but deeply different and systematically disdainful. And, in many places, like when the piece discusses Obama's approach to the Suharto massacre in Indonesia, you get a sharp sense of the unrepentant imperialism that underlies his overt anticommunism.
A more full version of this talk will appear soon on Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice. Readers interested in a fuller documentation of sources can consult there.
Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Anticommunism
by Barbara Foley
The subject of my talk today is the rhetoric of anticommunism that is both explicit and implicit in the writings of Barack Obama.
In the short time available, I plan to examine, first, Obama’s forthright statements about communism; second, some of the rhetorical maneuvers by which he caricatures radical alternatives to mainstream ideology; and third, his outright occlusion of leftist history when it is not amenable to dismissal. This talk is a much abbreviated version of an article forthcoming in Cultural Logic, in which I indicate the usefulness of Louise Althusser’s notion of interpellation and Pierre Macherey’s theorization of structured silences to a Marxist analysis of political rhetoric.
Before I begin, a few provisos.
(1) While it might be objected that the current absence of significant left-led movements makes this focus on the discourse of anticommunism a rearguard enterprise, I believe that the world’s rulers and their apologists remain acutely aware that their policies arouse intense and potentially revolutionary discontent among the world’s dispossessed. As a glance at most issues of the New York Times Book Review reveals, anticommunism remains alive and well, ready to be deployed as needed.
(2) In my discussion of Obama’s obfuscation of his family’s past radical connections—point three in this discussion—I will adduce pieces of information that have been trumpeted in the right-wing blogosphere as evidence of Obama’s plans to take over the United States in a dark-skinned-led communist conspiracy. I only wish! While I am aware that many of the attacks on Obama—like the current “birthing” movement—are deeply reactionary, xenophobic, and racist, I think it crucial to demonstrate that Obama’s purposes are anything but anticapitalist or on the side of the exploited of the world—quite the opposite. So I will be going where mainly only right-wingers have thus far dared to tread.
(3) Finally, it could be objected that it is a waste of time to focus on Obama’s autobiographical Dreams from My Father, or even on his pre-Presidential Audacity of Hope, when the urgent task facing leftists is to critique his current policies. But we should be aware that Dreams, in particular, has sold millions of copies, and that it is widely taught in both high schools and universities, usually as a narrative of ascent that testifies to the continuing promise of American democracy. If academic Marxists wish to engage in debates relevant to the vast center in U.S. political life, we need not to avoid but to teach Obama’s influential texts.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes it crystal clear that he views the twentieth-century history of attempts to build socialism and communism as utterly “bankrupt” (150), readily grouped with fascism (155). The Soviet Union, post-World War II, intended, he says, to “spread its brand of totalitarian communism as far as it could” (284); China was subjected to Communist “takeover” (286). Obama praises Ronald Reagan for his “clarity about communism,” even if it was “matched by his blindness regarding other sources of misery in the world” (288). Although he lightly chastises the U.S. government for supporting the likes of Indonesia’s Suharto, Obama observes that the post-1967 Suharto regime “never reached the levels of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.” (Conveniently bracketed in The Audacity of Hope is the role of the United States in the bloody slaughter of at least half a million communists and communist supporters that brought Suharto to power.) Obama’s declaration that the era of Cold War is past, requiring a new politics of multilateralism, is premised not on a repudiation of anticommunism but on a celebration of the triumph of “free-market” capitalism, which has produced, he says, “unprecedented economic growth at home and abroad” (285).
Beyond such open declarations of capitalist partisanship, Obama’s embrace of anticommunism functions on the level of epistemology. By now we are familiar with Obama’s tendency to posit himself as the middle ground between the extremes of “left” and “right”—his famous “one the one hand, on the other hand, but still” rhetorical mode—sometimes even manufacturing such ideological polarization when it does not exist. This pseudodialectical rhetorical strategy expresses not just Obama’s obsessive centrism, I suggest, but the heritage of Cold War-era rhetoric, which poses democratic pluralism as the site of existential and political freedom, and all other systems of belief as implicitly or explicitly totalitarian. Notably, Obama brings in attacks on 60s radicals to cover his political bases in his critiques of present-day “movement conservatives.” Referring to Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, et al as “true believers,” he charges that their “rigid doctrines, slash-and-burn style, and exaggerated sense of having been aggrieved” make them “eerily reminiscent of some of the New Left’s leaders during the sixties”; both right and left, he claims, see politics as “a contest not just between competing policy visions, but between good and evil. . . In this Manichean struggle, compromise came to look like weakness, to be punished or purged” (33-34).
Whatever substantive issues at stake are evacuated from analysis: Obama’s critiques of opposing viewpoints are routinely formalist, collapsing politics into epistemology; your handout lists some of the loaded binary—indeed, “Manichean”—oppositions that structure Obama’s political rhetoric: values versus ideology, concrete versus abstract, dogma versus flexibility, and so on. The brave person who inhabits the tension-ridden zone between the poles—like the skeptical heroes featured in such Cold War-era texts as Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center or Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer—realizes that truth is unstable, provisional, and evanescent. That this truth happens to coincide with the imperatives of U.S. capitalism need not be spoken.
While Obama characteristically uses the terms “right” and “left” to define any debate where he wishes to present himself as discerning the only rational and humane alternative, he reserves his most powerful rhetorical artillery for attacks on self-proclaimed 1960s-era radicals. At times Obama simply dismisses radicals as pathetic leftovers “pushing their papers on the fringes of college towns.” At times they are portrayed as rage-filled zealots: when Stokeley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) browbeats an innocent questioner for being “brainwashed,” his eyes “glowed inward as he spoke, the eyes of a madman or a saint.” Meanwhile student radicals outside the lecture hall trade the epithets “Stalinist pig” and “reformist bitch” (139-40). In face of this evidence that “the movement had died,” Obama decides that a “new politics” is needed.
Sometimes Obama’s dismissal of leftists poses as self-criticism, as in Obama’s account of his association with campus radicals during his freshman year, which he dubs “one big lie”:
"To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz [sic] Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated."
Obama’s point is, of courses, that he did not “choose [his] friends carefully,” but on the basis of the categories into which they fell. The insistent location of “we” as the subject of a series of sentences suggests the pressure of robotic group-think—an impression that is reinforced by the implied equation of lifestyle gestures (smoking, wearing leather) with the theoretical analysis and critique of such matters as neocolonialism and patriarchy, concerns which by association become aspects of mere lifestyle. What especially stands out is Obama’s description of the campus radicals’ legitimizing their anti-social behavior as rebellion against “bourgeois society’s stifling constraints”—when clearly it is fellow-students and campus workers, not the bourgeoisie, who have to pay the price of their self-indulgence. Leftist politics are, it appears, reducible to labels, and leftists are incapable of personal honesty.
There’s much more than could be said about Obama’s use of binary oppositions to position himself as the vital center of American political life. There’s also much that could be said about his treatment of the rank-and-file citizenry, whom he proposes as the “most important office-holders” in the U.S. political system but who figure as virtuous only when they behave according to the rules of the system. But I need to move on to a discussion of Obama’s “structured silences.” When a youth in Hawaii, Obama relies for mentorship on an older black man named Frank, a poet who “who had enjoyed some modest notoriety once” as “a contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during his years in Chicago.” A dashiki-wearing critic of white supremacy, Frank complains that his corns result from the futile effort to fit African feet into European shoes and reminds the young Obama of the unbridgeability of the racial divide, causing the youth no end of anxiety about how to view his white grandparents.
Obama’s Frank is, it turns out, Frank Marshall Davis, a red poet and journalist who moved to Hawaii in the early 1950s—at the suggestion of Paul Robeson—to escape the heat of McCarthyism. Davis had been an important participant in the proletarian and Popular Frontist literary movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Obama’s portrait of Davis as a cynical black nationalist misses the Marxist core of Davis’s outlook. In “Snapshots of the Cotton South” (1937), for instance, Davis had written,
The rich men grow richer
Big planters get bigger
Controlling the land and the towns
Ruling their puppet officials
Feeding white croppers and tenant farmers
Banquets of race hate for the soul
Sparse crumbs for their thin bodies
The feat of animosity
Will dull their minds
To their own plight.
Davis’s portrayal of the genesis of racist ideology in the divide-and-conquer political economy of capitalism hardly accords with Obama’s portrait of him as a biological essentialist living in a “sixties time-warp.” Obama also occludes the fact that Davis had been married to a white woman with whom he had five children—hardly the life history of a dyed-in-the-wool back nationalist.
The masking and distortion accompanying Obama’s portrayal of “Frank,” however, are minor when compared with the omissions involved in his depictions of his African grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, and especially his father, Barack Obama, Senior. In Dreams from My Father, Obama professes to have gone to Kenya hoping to affirm his view of his grandfather as “an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule.” But he presumably learns from his grandmother, Granny Sarah, that Onyango was skeptical of the independence movement because “the white man was always improving himself, whereas the African was suspicious of anything new.” In the version of events given in Dreams, Onyango’s arrest and approximately six-month detention by the British in 1949 was caused not because he harbored revolutionary sympathies, but because he had been falsely accused of sedition by a fellow-Luo who was attempting to seize Onyango’s land. Granny’s portrait of Onyango leads Obama to relinquish the idealized image he had had of his grandfather. He laments, “That image was now “scrambled . . . causing ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger.”
It bears noting, however, that, in a December 2008 interview with the London Times, Granny Sarah states that her husband “had been denounced to the authorities by his white employer, who sacked him on suspicion of consorting with ‘troublemakers.’” He was imprisoned by the British for two full years in Nairobi’s maximum security Kamiti prison, where as a political prisoner he was regularly tortured to reveal what he knew about the growing insurgency. Many prisoners did not come out of Kamiti alive. While this information indicates that Obama’s original conception of his grandfather was closer to the truth than his later assessment of Onyango was a “house nigger,” apparently he felt more comfortable with admitting to a family legacy of Uncle Tomism than with celebrating one that linked him with the Kenyan Liberation Movement.
Still more problematic, however, is Obama’s treatment of the figure of his father, who looms large over the entire narrative, which is structured along quasi-Oedipal lines as a son’s search for reconciliation with his father. Dreams portrays the senior Obama as, finally, a broken and pathetic man. Initially energetic and brilliant, he is shown to have been defeated by the “tribalism” of post-independence Kenyan politics (dominated by the rivalry between Kikuyus and Luos), as well as by his personal ambition and arrogance. He descends into alcoholism, wife abuse, and loud-mouthed boasting about empty achievements. What Obama’s narrative utterly occludes is the reason for his father’s having been blacklisted by Jomo Kenyatta and thrust into the depths of alcoholic depression. For the senior Obama was a distinctly leftist voice in the mid-1960s debates over the direction that post-independence Kenya should take. In 1965 he contributed to the East Africa Journal a paper titled “Problems Facing Our Socialism,” a polemical critique of a widely debated policy document authored by the prominent Luo politician Tom Mboya. Here the senior Obama queried whether agricultural development had to be based upon a policy of “land consolidation” that ruled out “communal ownership.” Decrying the growing polarity between “the haves and the have-nots in Kenyan society,” he called for the government to “tax the rich”—even up to 100% of their income—and “find the means by which we can redistribute our economic gains to the benefit of all and at the same time be able to channel some of these gains to future production.”
Obama explicitly invoked Marx’s critique of the centralization of political power under finance capitalism as he countered the apologists for Kenya’s emerging neo-colonial elite. The “dreams” of Obama’s father were distinctly radical, connected with the same global leftist matrix from which Frank Marshall Davis had emerged. It is not incidental that the pro-Communist radicalism of both the surrogate father and the biological father are utterly expunged from Obama’s text. Both men emerge, instead, as embittered alcoholics, victims of the inability of 1960s leftism to achieve the universal humanism that their son and mentee has learned, largely by their negative examples, to cherish.
I can anticipate various objections to this brief analysis, not least of which is the fact that the current principal “enemy” in Obama’s sights is—or is proclaimed to be—Al Qaeda, or Islamic fundamentalism, not the Red Menace, and that his critique of dogmatism and fanaticism, whatever its rhetorical roots, has a newfound legitimacy. But what I would respond is that the binary logic governing Obama’s anticommunist-engendered rhetoric has the same effect now that its cold war-era forebears had in the wake of World War II—namely, to deflect attention away from capitalism as the root cause of the oppression, indeed, the agony, facing so many of the world’s people. To understand, and then contend with, this oppression and agony, what is needed is not a dogmatic liberalism, posing as pluralism, that formalistically opposes values with dogma, ambiguity with orthodoxy, but instead a set of binary oppositions between genuinely contrary entities—proletarians versus capitalists, internationalists versus nationalists—oppositions, that is, that have the potential to liberate the world’s people from the source of their pain. These oppositions—dialectical and materialist—Obama is surely not going to supply.
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Barbara Foley (bfoley29 @gmail.com) is a Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers-Newark; member of the steering committee of the MLA radical caucus; member of the manuscript collective at Science & Society; and, more generally, as an unreconstructed 60s leftist who does scholarship on literary radicalism, Marxist theory, and African American literature.