By Victor Morawski
When dealing with the increasingly salient question of whether Barack Obama is, indeed, a Marxist, it is important to note that in recognizing him as one, we are not thereby claiming that he has accepted, or does now accept, the whole of Marx’s program. Nor is it necessary.
I have seen one blogger attempt to defend him against this charge by observing that, as far as he knew, Obama was not out there advocating the violent peoples’ uprising and overthrow of the government prescribed by Marx as the cure for Capitalism’s ills, so the charge must be false. As it is with many philosophical theories, there are varieties of Marxism. One does not have to accept every principle Marx espoused to qualify as a Marxist. Neither does rejecting any one of them necessarily get one “off the hook” from this charge.
As near as we can tell, Barack Obama’s own place in the Marxist landscape seems to that of a New Left, Neo-Marxist. This view expands traditional Marxism slightly by adding to it “Max Weber’s broader understanding of social inequality…to Marxist philosophy…” The assumption is that unequal distribution of wealth produces such social inequality, because “the lack of wealth in certain areas prohibits … people from obtaining the same housing, health care, etc. as the wealthy in societies where access to these goods depends on wealth.” Obviously, wealth redistribution becomes a paramount concern for this variety of Marxism.
A key indicator of the extent to which Barack Obama bought into the views of his early Marxist mentors is the degree to which he has written that he wanted to avoid “selling out” and “compromising” where, in addition to abandoning his true racial identity, these terms meant adopting as fair and legitimate American free-market Capitalism. The man Obama reverentially refers to simply as “Frank” in his memoirs (the Communist Frank Marshall Davis) warned Obama of this danger when he left Hawaii for Occidental College in Los Angeles.
To “Frank,” college was nothing but, “An advanced degree in compromise.” (Dreams from My Father[Hereafter, Dreams], p. 97) There, “Frank” warned his willing protégé, they would “train him” so good that he would start believing what he was told about, “equal opportunity and the American way.”
When Obama arrived at college, he determined to “put distance” between himself and other black and multiracial students he met there who were willing to be “assimilated into the dominant culture” and “lose themselves in the crowd, America’s happy, faceless marketplace.”(Dreams, p. 99-100) So he says, “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.”(Dreams, p. 100)
Those who believe that Barack Obama may have associated with radicals, but did not share any of their principles owe us an explanation for his ongoing attitude against selling out and compromising. If it doesn’t mean compromising his basically Marxist principles, what does it mean? Even after college when he took a conventional corporate job as a research assistant to help pay off his student loans, he said that he felt in it like a “spy behind enemy lines.”(Dreams, p. 134)
He continued to show an awareness of this need to avoid any compromise with capitalism when he later contemplated attending Harvard Law School. There he says essentially, that he would learn the basics of the American Free Market System, but without buying into it.
He writes, “I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed.”(Dreams, p. 276) Such knowledge, he goes on, “would have compromised me before coming to Chicago.” But now, he would bring this knowledge back to Chicago to obey his father’s imagined command to help in his people’s struggle. Other men he admits he could “love but never emulate.” They all fell short of his father’s “lofty standards.”(Dreams, p. 220)
Elsewhere, he notes, “most black folks weren’t like the father of my dreams.” They were too practical to live their own lives, “according to abstract ideals.”(Dreams, p. 278) And what sort of ideals were his father’s ideals? As a professional Marxist economist, his ideals were Marxist ideals. At this point the young Obama brings things full circle and makes an important connection with his father who had twenty-eight years earlier been faced with similar choices when he boarded a plane for America.”(Dreams, p. 277) As his father returned to Kenya to implement these ideals, so he would return to Chicago to do likewise.
That ideal which his father championed most and which eventually cost him his government job in Kenya, was the Marxist ideal of the redistribution of wealth. The then vice president, Odinga, was placed under house arrest as a Communist because he complained that, “Kenyan politicians had taken the place of the white colonials, buying up businesses and land that should be redistributed to the people.”(Dreams, p. 214 Italics mine.) While most of his father’s friends kept quiet, his father began to be vocal in his support for Odinga. As a result, he was fired by then President Kenyatta when he learned of it.(Dreams, p. 215)
Generally, his father believed that it was “government’s obligation” to “redistribute … economic gains to the benefit of all.” The elder Obama, like Marx before him, favored very heavy as a means of accomplishing this. How much taxation? Even inordinate taxation of 100 percent of income was justified so long as the benefits from such taxation were then commensurately redistributed to the people.
In short, Barack Obama’s father was a Marxist not just because he supported an isolated legislative measure or two, but because he firmly embraced the dogma of wealth redistribution as a guiding principle of his political philosophy. And, it is a principle his son has also fully embraced.
Victor Morawski teaches philosophy at Coppin State University. His column, “The Philosopher’s Stone,” is distributed nationally free of charge by the Liberty Features Syndicate. Should you wish to subscribe, contact Alex Rosenwald at firstname.lastname@example.org.