Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 20, 2008

A panel discussion on Obama

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

Last night I attended a well-attended and fascinating panel discussion at the Brecht Forum in New York on the Obama campaign. With the exception of Doug Henwood, all the panelists were for voting for Obama to one extent or another. During the Q&A, there were some extraordinary contributions from the floor. The meeting was being videotaped as well. If it ever ends up the Internet, I will make sure to publicize the URL.

All the speakers were limited to five minutes in their initial presentation and Doug, unlike the others, read from a prepared text. Let’s hope that it is available online at some point since he had some very interesting insights, as you might expect. Basically, he called attention to the rather insubstantial character of the Obama “movement”, which rests on his charisma and built-up disgust with the Republican Party more than anything else. He also spoke about Obama’s turn to the right following his nomination, a familiar pattern with Democratic nominees for President. In a follow-up, Doug made a very useful point. He said that Reagan, unlike Obama, had a real movement behind him. Reagan was part of a well-organized conservative movement, while there is no counterpart on the Democratic side this year. That being the case, what sense did it make to talk about the “movement” keeping Obama honest?

Next to speak was Gary Younge, a Black Briton who is the Guardian correspondent based in New York and a contributor to the Nation magazine. Younge has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Obama and rather than trying to summarize what he said last night, I will instead refer you to one of his articles. Younge also made a point that was a leitmotif throughout from the panelists and the audience, namely that since the left was so weak it had no other option except to back Obama. We were impotent while Obama attracted 75,000 people to a rally. Fortunately, according to Younge, Obama was far better than the average Democrat so we would not be compromising ourselves so much. He saw the role of the left as organizing itself so as to keep pressure on him to hew to the left, even if we were kind of impotent.

Next to speak was Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American journalist who was decidedly skeptical about Obama even though one had the impression that he thought it was a good thing for 90 percent of African-Americans to have voted for him. That kind of unity was difficult to achieve in the past. He also admitted to feeling a swell of pride when he turns on the TV in the evening to watch a report on Obama sticking it to McCain. On the other hand, he was not happy about the “absent Black fathers” speech on Father’s Day, a topic that he has written about here:

The strain of black conservatism that Cosby evokes has also surfaced in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Early on, some commentators speculated that Obama’s Cosby-esque appeals to personal responsibility would cost him black votes. But if his admonishments for black kids to turn off the PlayStation and for black fathers to do their jobs did him any damage, it was not reflected at the polls. In fact, this sort of rhetoric amounts to something of a racial double play, allowing Obama and Cosby to cater both to culturally conservative blacks and to whites who are convinced that black America is a bastion of decadence.

(As it turns out, Coates has a blog entry inspired by last night’s meeting.)

Next to speak was Jo-Ann Mort, a hardened social democrat and Zionist who told the audience that she was not that upset over Obama’s AIPAC speech since he would very likely conduct a foreign policy dictated more by realpolitik than ideology. Somehow I did not find that very encouraging. Mort also made a point that I have heard only about 346 million times, namely that electing a Democrat would relieve the pressure on the left and allow us to move forward, especially the trade unions. With the Republicans, you get evil Supreme Court judges, etc, etc, etc.

The final panelist was Betsy Reed, executive editor of the Nation Magazine who made more or less the same points as Gary Younge, but was surprisingly open-eyed about Obama’s failings.

Although I found the presentations interesting, it seemed that an opportunity was lost by not including a Marxist defense of Obama. Younge, Mort and Reed have little interest in trying to explain their support for Obama in class terms–a function obviously of not having any background or interest in Marxism. That being the case, it would have been more useful to have, for example, Bill Fletcher on the panel. Fletcher has made the case for “critical support” of Obama on Black Commentator.

As some of you might know, “critical support” is a tactic employed traditionally by the Marxist left. However, it has been applied to social democratic candidates rather than bourgeois candidates. Yes, I know how pedantic this might sound for me to even refer to the hoary past.

During the discussion period, I tried to make some points within the 2 minute time-frame the chairman had understandably allocated. Let me expand on them now.

Taking off from Gary Younge’s remark about Obama’s 75,000 person rallies, I observed that Ralph Nader filled Madison Square Garden in 2000 and spoke to enthusiastic rallies of 5 to 10 thousand people routinely that year.

After Gore lost the 2000 election for essentially using the same kind of Carter-Clinton triangulation that Obama is using now, the Democratic Party establishment waged war on the Greens, assisted by a fifth column inside the party that preferred the Democratic Party but did not have the honesty to spell out their political agenda. From within the pages of Reed’s Nation Magazine and other such venues, there was a crusade to isolate, demonize and marginalize the Nader campaign in 2004 while the Greens were happy to pitch in. This was a party that had demonstrated through its actions that radical opposition to the two-party system was okay, just as long as it didn’t cost the Democrats the presidential election. This year they have picked Cynthia McKinney as their candidate, who is quite worthy but I am afraid that the damage that the Greens have done to themselves over the past 4 years will rob this campaign of the vitality it so badly needs.

When backbiting articles by Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin proved insufficient to torpedo the Nader campaign in 2004, you could always count on corporate lawyers hired by the Democrats to do the job. In state after state, they challenged Nader’s petitions or otherwise threw a monkey wrench into his campaign. How dare this impudent egoist dare to spoil Kerry’s chances to become the next president of the U.S. when he was doing such a good job by himself?

Nader is running again this year with the excellent Matt Gonzalez as his running mate. No matter how much I support this team and plan to vote for them, I can’t help but think that it would be much better if there was some kind of institutional base beneath them. In other words, the movement that Doug Henwood spoke about at the Brecht Forum. Such a movement was in its infancy in 2000, but the Demogreens, the Nation Magazine liberals and the DP’s corporate lawyers did a very good job strangling it in its cradle. They should be prosecuted for political murder.

In the final analysis, the “left” is not all that weak in the U.S., but it is constantly being undermined by elements within its ranks who bow to pressure from the capitalist class. This, of course, is an old story. To prepare for an article on Lenin’s concept of imperialism for an introduction to Marxism class that I am leading in a yahoo mailing list, I am re-reading some chapters in Neil Harding’s excellent “Lenin’s Political Thought”.

Lenin was shocked to see the social democratic parliamentarians in Germany and France vote for war credits in clear defiance of their principles. So deep was the sense of social chauvinism in 1914 that it was impossible for revolutionary socialist opposition to the war to get a hearing. Eventually, the loss of life and treasure convinced workers to oppose the war and their misleaders, thus giving birth to a new, revivified socialist movement.

Nobody can possibly promise that such a movement will arise from the ashes of 8 years of naked imperialist rule by the Bush administration, but if it does it will need the kind of steely resolve that allowed Lenin to write in 1914:

An International does not mean sitting at the same table and having hypocritical and pettifogging resolutions written by people who think that genuine internationalism consists in German socialists justifying the German bourgeoisie’s call to shoot down French workers, and in French socialists justifying the French bourgeoisie’ call to shoot down German workers in the name of the “defence of the fatherland”! The International consists in the coming together (first ideologically, then in due time organisationally as well) of people who, in these grave days, are capable of defending socialist internationalism in deed, i.e., of mustering their forces and “being the next to shoot” at the governments and the ruling classes of their own respective “fatherlands”. This is no easy task; it calls for much preparation and great sacrifices and will be accompanied by reverses. However, for the very reason that it, is no easy task, it must be accomplished only together with those who wish to perform it and are not afraid of a complete break with the chauvinists and with the defenders of social-chauvinism.


  1. Really interesting. I think both Henwood’s and Adolph Reed’s takes on Obama are quite valuable for the left.

    For what it’s worth, Gary Younge was actually a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain (http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,,231934,00.html) for a brief period when he was a teenager. So, despite the hearty amount of naivite that figured into his encounter with Marxism (and the fact that a real understanding of Marxism does not and probably never did inform his thought), to say that he has NO background in Marxism might be a stretch.

    Comment by Eric — June 20, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  2. Henwood (see lbo-talk) also appears to ‘critically support’ Obama.

    Thanks for the reasoned support of Nader, and for noting the left complicity with the Democratic Party/SEIU et al. attempts to disenfranchise Nader voters.

    Not coming from left-socialist traditions, Nader stands for an idealized capitalism/Jeffersonian democracy in which I don’t believe, but can respect. Nader, in fact, is the kind of candidate who deserves the ‘critical support’ of the left in an anti-imperialist, anti-corporate front.

    Comment by john — June 20, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  3. If Doug supports Obama, it is like how the proverbial rope supports a hanging man.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  4. Great post Louis. It sounds like a well rounded panel, except they all support Obama minus Doug, and none of them were Marxist.

    I must ask why you think the panel needed a critical supporting marxist and not a critical non-supporting one? The one thing against Obama is class. He, like all democrats, fails to include class in their rebuttal of Republicans and all that ails the US. A marxist insight would have brought class into the debate as the fundamental simularity between McCain and Obama and undermined any notion of Obama as a ‘good’ democrat and easier to support.


    P.S. I have also never read anywhere Doug say he supports Obama.

    Comment by brad — June 20, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  5. Re: Henwood and Obama, see for example this exchange on lbo-talk:

    On Jun 18, 2008, at 7:26 PM, Marvin Gandall wrote:
    >> To the degree opinion from below can influence policy, I’d rather
    >> have a
    >> President Obama susceptible to the Democratic liberal base than a
    >> President
    >> McCain having to take into account pressures from his xenophobic
    >> Republican
    >> base. In the same vein, as far as the inner circle of policymakers is
    >> concerned, while I have no particular admiration for Albright,
    >> Christopher,
    >> Perry, and Hamilton as individuals, they still represent a more
    >> accomodating
    >> wing of the US defence and foreign policy establishment than do McCain
    >> advisors Robert Kagan, James Woolsey, Micheal Ledeen, Randy
    >> Scheunemann, and
    >> the other right wing zealots who brought us Iraq and are itching to
    >> bring us
    >> Iran.
    > Henwood:
    > I agree with that. But all the Progressives for Obama who thought he
    > was a transformative figure are having to cope with a lot of
    > disappointment in recent weeks. He’s a very smart guy and a very
    > skilled politician, but his agenda is mainstream Democrat. DLC-ish even.

    Henwood’s “I agree with that. But…” reasonably signifies ‘critical support,’ even if of the rope type.

    Comment by john — June 20, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  6. Well, I was there and, having been confronted with a panel largely supporting a candidate who favors the death penalty, NAFTA, pre-emptive strikes, Israeli annexation of Jerusalem, the recruitment of 92,000 new troops, “clean” coal, subsidies for corn based ethanol, etc, I thought I had mistakenly set foot in the Manhattan Institute.

    To find the “left” having reached this advanced state of psychosis was so dispiriting I had to leave before Louis’s comment, which hit exactly the right notes in my opinion, though mentioning the, might have been a tactical mistake in that they lent credibility to the underlying assumptions of a “debate” which by rights should have been laughed off.

    Incidentally, I second Louis’s recommendation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog as highly revealing of the mindset that informs what now somehow passes for a left ideology. This is now reduced to 1) opposition to intelligent design 2) “aggressive prosecution of violent criminals” and the belief that 3) “the guys who shot Sean Bell should (not) have gone to prison.” Other than that, outside of “social issues” Mr. Coates is at least honest that he is not sure if he has any politics at all.

    That’s more than one can say for the Nation editor Betsy Reed reissuing the utterly absurd characterization of Obama as a “peace candidate”. Daniel Lazare’s letter to the Nation in the wake of the Obama endorsement should have convinced anyone with his eyes open that nothing the Nation has to say on this subject (and much else) should be taken seriously. The mystery is why a place like the Brecht forum continues to do so.

    For what it was worth, having the Nation’s official position on the Obama candidacy represented also provided some insight to Gary Younge’s constantly reasserted refrain that “the left is weak”. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone on the panel, including Younge, that a major part of the explanation for where the left finds itself has to do with the positions taken by the left’s “leading journal of opinion”, though Louis’s observations, one hopes, might have precipitated at least a few sidelong glances in the mirror by the relevant parties, though probably not.

    Finally, we had a dollop of apologetics for the extreme Likudnick position on Jerusalem issued by a self-professed Zionist. What’s next at the Brecht forum? A speaker supporting the white citizens council position on Dixie?

    Enough. If it weren’t for the minimal voice of sanity emanating from Henwood, I’d be going upstairs to slash my wrists.

    Comment by John Halle — June 20, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  7. I think an Obama presidency would be marginally better for the world than a McCain presidency. I’d say the same about Hillary Clinton probably. Is that critical support?

    I said in my closing comments, which I think Lou missed, that presidential politics is the wrong place for American leftists to get involved. The office almost runs itself, especially on the crucial questions of class relations and the imperial order. The occupant is, as the Sparts say, chief executive of the world bourgeoisie. Even the best person would be eaten alive by institutional realities. I wish Nader had spent the last 12 years building the Green Party instead of running for president.

    Gary Younge had a copy of Lenin’s essay on left-wing Communism – he said he had a quote he wanted to read from it but he never did.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — June 20, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  8. Doug, I wouldn’t expect Nader to know how to build a political party. He is just not trained to do such things. But the ISO’ers, the ex-Leninists like Camejo, etc. could have. They were foiled, however, by Cobb, Glick, Benjamin and company. Benjamin finally figured out that the DP was what she was really interested in building and became a DP’er. She should have spared the Greens her confusion.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  9. Any chance of the revolutionary left getting their act together for a united candidate? I’m not holding my breath …

    Comment by a very public sociologist — June 20, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  10. My own personal armchair analysis of the Russian socialist revolution is that the struggle for socialism was dealt a major setback in Europe when Lenin was betrayed by the social democrats when they gave “war credits” to France and Germany. I am also supporting Nader/Gonzalez.

    Comment by Doug — June 20, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  11. Interestingly the ISO buys into this “there’s a movement here” position and decided about 6 months ago in an SW editorial to not support Nader as they had in 2000 and 2004. The ISO now holds that the US is undergoing a significant shift to the left and that this is crystallizing around the Obama campaign. Nader and McKinney conversely are running strictly marginal campaigns so socialist organizations need to “engage” Obama’s supporters (as per Socialist Worker). While careful not to support Obama they offer no independent course for the left. Presumably, the ISO’s young recruits will be selling SW at Obama’s ralles. As you ask, whatever happened to “critical support”? Not that I support that as I’m with Nader (again).

    Comment by bob Montgomery — June 21, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  12. Nader formulates the question correctly: not whether one is better than the other (he would agree with those who say Obama is not as bad, as he agreed with those who said Kerry was not as bad) but is the candidate good enough? On whose scale is Obama good enough? Approval of mass murder can’t be acceptable. If the slaughter he approved was of one’s family and neighbors, would one be calibrating the relative impacts of Obama and McCain, or rejecting them both?

    It’s a considerable compromise for the socialist left to support Nader, but he meets the first test: human slaughter is off the table. All the decent people in Congress, and their supporters, who would never tolerate torture and slaughter of their neigbors, have cheerfully or passively OK’d massive projects of human destruction.

    Living in CT, I was ready to vote for Ned Lamont until he OK’d Israel’s war crimes in Lebanon – all it took was a look at the pictures of his ‘good war,’ available on the web.

    “Advanced state of psychosis” describes it well, for the ‘left’ seems as susceptible as the rest – how many look back fondly on Clinton, not having noticed the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq under his regime. I have even see comments about how much better Humphrey would have been than Nixon – now that’s a diagnosable thought.

    Comment by john — June 21, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  13. Perhaps four years from now when Obama will have failed to withdraw from Iraq, and failed to institute any kind of national health insurance, and failed to move anywhere with any progressive policies, then the left will be able to gain some traction with some progressive policies and candidates? I agree with Henwood above, the left needs to be building movements, and not worrying too much about who is president. Although it would be great to see Nader/Gonzalez win the presidency, we all know that isn’t going to happen. In 2000 it felt like a movement behind Nader, now not so much. I still might show up and vote, maybe for Nader, a relatively meaningless protest vote. It does seem that Obama winning would lessen the likelihood of an attack on Iran, which would be good.

    p.s. Is it still possible to get on that Marxism class list?

    Comment by Sheldon — June 21, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  14. On one level it would be cool to have a black president, and it truly brings me joy to see Obama humble the disgusting and despicable Clinton gang. Nonetheless, Obama’s evolution since sewing up the nomination is proof positive that he doesn’t represent a real break with the status quo. In fact, the person he reminds me of the most is Bill Clinton circa 1992.

    Comment by John B. — June 21, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

  15. Great descriptions, Louis – fine reporting. However, the idea that Ralph Nader is “running” is comical – I think he could make about four steps before calling for the nurse. What is he “running” for is not in the least a serious proposition, and never was – he has his money, his fame, his hermetic, self-referential world. To second John’s comment, Nader always stands for his beloved Princetonian monasticism, yet we need to “respect” (a cheap word) that?
    As for Matt Gonzalez hitching his red wagon to this charade, what’s the point? Why would the estimable Doug Henwood go to such a farcical “forum” in which a “Zionist” has equal weight? Could we we get some honest public disgust at the absurdity of our politics, not just some reading from paper? Why should the people in the comments section (that is, the great unwashed anonymous horde) be the only ones with passion and integrity? Still, thanks for airing this out – Obama’s AIPAC was the worst speech I have heard – beyond horrible.

    Comment by MJ — June 22, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  16. Interestingly the ISO buys into this “there’s a movement here” position and decided about 6 months ago in an SW editorial to not support Nader as they had in 2000 and 2004. The ISO now holds that the US is undergoing a significant shift to the left and that this is crystallizing around the Obama campaign. Nader and McKinney conversely are running strictly marginal campaigns so socialist organizations need to “engage” Obama’s supporters (as per Socialist Worker). While careful not to support Obama they offer no independent course for the left. Presumably, the ISO’s young recruits will be selling SW at Obama’s ralles. As you ask, whatever happened to “critical support”? Not that I support that as I’m with Nader (again).

    Some of this is right, some is wrong. The ISO still argues for a vote for someone to the left of the Democrats – I can’t recall a candidate being endorsed explicitly in SW, but most comrades I know like either Nader or McKinney – but it’s not planning to make a major political intervention around the Nader campaign, as it did in 2000 when there appeared to be the beginnings of a movement and again, for somewhat different reasons, in 2004. The SW editorial you cite made the case for why it would be a misplaced use of resources.

    We do want to engage Obama supporters, because his campaign has energized so many people with left-ish ideas, but Obama rallies are not the right strategic terrain to do so. I don’t think you’re likely to run into an SW seller at one. Rather, we’re meeting a lot of Obama supporters in the antiwar movement, the immigrant rights movement, the anti-death penalty movement, and so on. And the Obama campaign plays a different role in those movements than the Kerry campaign did, and the way we talk to supporters of the Democratic nominee has to be different.

    Comment by Kalkin — June 22, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  17. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood Henwood’s position. I now guess he’s for sitting this out and building a movement outside of electoral politics, but maybe I’m wrong again.

    Comment by john — June 24, 2008 @ 11:55 am

  18. I’m a bit confused. What movement? There are plenty of blogs and websites out there, and various fundraising schemes, fueled by a kind of vague sentiment for “change” or else an anti-corporate stance coupled with a weariness with some of the more vicious aspects of the status quo, but again, what movement? doing what kind of work and taking what sorts of actions? Perhaps the question we need to ask is whether or not Obama’s candidacy, if not his election, could help to create a space where social movements might be able to reconstitute themselves, and hopefully move forward.

    Comment by ldw — June 24, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

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