Monday, July 30, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “The Communist” (plus social justice and “The Death of Liberalism”)

The great danger in declaring that THE PRESIDENT IS A COMMUNIST is that most people will either think you’re crying wolf or think “Well, obviously” because they’re the sort of people who are themselves prone to crying wolf. 

Complicating matters, American liberals and leftists have, for over a half century now, perfected a form of popular doublethink whereby they spend half their time lauding people for their commitment to socialism and the other half of their time denying that there are any socialists.  Blame Joseph McCarthy, I suppose.

I suppose I got a small taste of this when I went to a Christmas party at Communist Party USA headquarters, which is right here in New York City (West 23rd Street, in fact).  For miles around us, there were well-meaning liberals who no doubt would call me insane for saying Obama is a socialist, as well-trained liberals are supposed to do – yet at CPUSA HQ, they were explicitly celebrating in part because they recognize Obama as (at least in a sympathetic sense) one of their own. 

But Paul Kengor’s surprisingly balanced and straightforward (and thanks to publisher Glenn Beck, popular) book The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story does not in fact assert that Obama is a communist, nor even a socialist.  Kengor is keen to avoid the Jerome Corsi route of making each factoid a tool of attack and shows some genuine sympathy for his subjects.  (In truth, I assume that anyone who reaches the office of the presidency must in some sense be an amorphous, moderate gasbag in order to survive and at least ostensibly represent a majority of the populace, whether his philosophical roots were left-wing or right-wing.) 

But the book documents in exquisite detail the fact that Obama’s elderly political mentor when he was a teenager in Hawaii, Frank Davis, was not merely a socialist but a literal, full-fledged Communist Party USA member – card-carrying, Stalin-defending, the whole nine yards – and that Obama would later refer repeatedly to the man as a sort of guiding figure in his mind (even while Obama delicately avoided naming Davis in those places where he was praised in Dreams from My Father).

Of course, as a survivor of left-wing Brown University, I would have to be at least a little wary of Ivy Leaguer Obama, even if he had never written anything besides this passage:

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.

Not that all of that’s bad, but spend four years at an Ivy League school in the late twentieth century and you should be able to predict what sorts of policy views will likely follow.  Then again, one of my young anarcho-capitalist friends responds to the revelation that Obama was at least a hardcore revolutionary Marxist-Leninist in college (as the Kengor book details and as has been suggested by at least circumstantial evidence in other books) with the question “Well, who wasn’t?”  The anarcho-capitalist in question also notes this video clip, which is a pretty good reminder of how sappy and nostalgic so-called Progressives can be about the Communist past without technically considering themselves (heaven forfend) Communists

They just don’t have anything particularly negative to say about Communism and feel compelled to spring to its defense – a bit like a charming Alternet editor and Huffington Post contributor I met at a Naomi Wolf-hosted event a few weeks ago, who bristled at hearing “fascism or socialism” uttered in the same breath and was armed with some anecdote about the Communist Party building some nice housing in part of Eastern Europe or something.  Similarly, if you ask Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel why the Soviet Union collapsed and listen carefully, you’ll notice she seems to blame all those (ungrateful) seceding republics for causing the economy to fall apart, instead of the other way around.


But none dare call these people Communists, of course.  They’re Progressives, dammit, which is also Hillary Clinton’s preferred self-descriptor – not “liberal.”  Perhaps she just calculates that “liberal” sounds too left-wing in modern parlance.  But
maybe she dislikes it for exactly the opposite reason – that it still carries a whiff of its older, more libertarian, more individualist meaning in some quarters. 

I honestly try not to get too bogged down in mere labels, though.  Politics should not be a game of “tag” where once you can attach some name (or out-of-context quote) to someone, you win, or at least bounce the rhetorical ball back into their court.  There are serious policy questions to be decided.

Let us be grateful, though, that Frank Davis is not deciding them (or at least not directly).  From a segment of the left that the NAACP repeatedly had to denounce and distance itself from for its covert pro-Moscow manipulations, Davis stood with the likes of Paul Robeson, a lifelong Stalinist, and Langston Hughes, who urged the hoisting of the Red flag over American and said, “The USA when we take control will be the USSA” (and in poetry praised “A real guy named Marx, Communism, Lenin, Peasant, Stalin, worker, me”).  Nothing all that subtle or secret about twentieth-century American communism, aside from the fact that a couple generations of liberals have trained us all to ignore it – and, even more strategically significant, to denounce viciously any conservative who mentions it.

As Kengor recounts, even Soviet officials themselves were amused and slightly baffled by the eagerness of American liberals to play the role of Soviet apologists.  But history is complex, and prior to FDR, Davis – like the NAACP and American blacks generally – often preferred Republicans (the party of Lincoln) to Democrats (the party of explicitly racist eugenics-supporters like Woodrow Wilson).  He always took his real cues from Moscow, though, even dutifully supporting the Hitler-Stalin Pact that carved up Poland while that was in effect and railing against FDR as an anti-German warmonger. 

(Kengor notes in passing numerous other figures who were overtly Communist then and are praised by Progressives as mainstream heroes today, such as Communist union activist Harry Bridges, praised by Nancy Pelosi, who said, “Today we can all hold our heads high and be proud of Harry Bridges’ legacy.”)

By 1950, long after the Hitler-Stalin Pact collapsed but also several years after the U.S.’s wartime alliance with Russia had ended, Davis would be denouncing Truman as himself a fascist and pioneering the tactic of declaring any opposition to the left a form of covert racism.  At about the same time, numerous duped Hollywood celebrities would spring to the defense of any and all accused Communists, defending them in the name of a First Amendment that many of those accused wanted to eliminate once their very real handlers back in Moscow took over the U.S.

As Kengor notes, when Humphrey Bogart realized he was in some cases defending the honor of real, paid Soviet agents in Hollywood, he snapped, “You f---ers sold me out!”


As mainstream enthusiasm for Communism waned, Davis and allies would pursue a conscious policy of stealthily infiltrating the Democratic Party – and a surprising number of Obama advisors including David Axelrod come from multi-generational families of these Progressive and once overtly Moscow-allied leftists (even Moscow-visiting, in the case of the Axelrod family).

Decades later, all of this translated into a notoriously father-figure-craving teenager in Hawaii seeing an elderly Davis as a mentor figure, and according to a few comrades who remember Obama from college, may have contributed to an impressionable future president being so hardcore a Marxist-Leninist circa his freshman year in 1981 that he would argue forcefully against those who believed a real Communist revolution was not imminent. 

Of course, the 80s was a time of bourgeoning ethnic identity politics on Ivy League campuses, and Obama may quite understandably have been more interested in racially-conscious mentors than in abolishing property rights per se.  From all three of his parents, as well as Davis, he might well have absorbed an anti-imperialist mindset (Davis hated Winston Churchill, as did Obama’s biological father, and there’s no denying Churchill was an arch-imperialist) even without caring too much about economic details. 

Indeed, maybe we’d be better off right now if he had cared more about economics.  I suspect sometimes that Obama doesn’t really care about the economy, not in any substantially material sense.  A true child of 80s Ivy League activism, he may see all of economic reality as symbolic.  If he can deal what he sees as an inherently righteous blow against the economic elites – if he changes the “power relationships” he sees permeating society – then maybe mundane things like the amount of goods produced, the number of mouths fed, the number of jobs created, are trivial. 

In that sense, he may still think, or feel at heart, a bit like a change-desiring, crusading Progressive or Communist (indeed, more like the idealistic American kind than the more plentiful, bureaucratic, and disillusioned Soviet kind), with a purifying mission that renders messy real-world consequences irrelevant.  He may be, on some level, a conviction politician of the worst kind, and I suspect nothing will ever make him worry that he might be wrong, which is why he projects that weird combination of icy confidence and slight detachment from reality.

(And what did he mean when he told Medvedev he’d be able to act with greater flexibility after the election?  I suppose it may have been completely harmless.) 

Maybe Republicans aren’t the only ones who should be worried about Obama.  Maybe he cares as little about the mainstream core of the Democratic Party as he does the GOP.  He has a different sort of mission than the Democrats as a whole do.


As an aside, Kengor notes that “social justice” – particularly for the oft-overlooked but very influential religious left – was the deliberately-vague slogan by which Progressives lured mainstream liberals toward socialism.  I would hate to see the same pattern unwittingly repeated among libertarians by the BleedingHeartLibertarians crowd.  They get very annoyed if you accuse them of having mere PR as an endgame, but if that’s not it, perhaps we should be even more worried. 

Seriously, though, if even libertarians begin to treat the language of free markets as boring – and then leapfrog over the language of mainstream liberalism to adopt “social justice” rhetoric with a very unpleasant and socialistic history – aren’t we all in some danger of repeating the original, late nineteenth-century decay of market-oriented thinking into social-democratic thinking?  Are the liberal-tarians trying to confirm the fears of some conservatives that liberalism inevitably decays into left-liberalism, mere individualism into welfare-statism?

Well, on the bright side, if the state one day announces that all intellectuals must proffer pro-government arguments, the BHL crowd will be ready when other libertarians are not.


Charles C. Johnson, the Andrew Breitbart of the rising generation, gave me a copy of R. Emmett Tyrrell’s The Death of Liberalism, a shorter, slighter, more free-associative book than Kengor’s, sort of a rant about anything and everything that’s wrong with modern liberalism – Obama on one page and Ted Kennedy on the next, etc., with all left-wing principles supposedly sputtering to their death in the failed presidency of Obama.

The book does provide some interesting historical reminders of things like the circa-1950s conflict between Americans for Democratic Action (which was fairly moderate and pro-union) and outright communist sympathizers like those influenced by former FDR v.p. Henry Wallace (some of them Davis allies). 

As Chris Hedges, author of the similarly-titled but left-wing book Death of the Liberal Class (about which I blogged a year ago) might lament, the more moderate liberals won in that clash – but a later, circa-1970 conflict ended with moderates and the New Left merging, and the rest is goofy, sometimes incoherent history.

We are a product of countless strands of historical influence, and which ones are looked upon as causally significant sometimes simply hinges on what we expect to happen next.  If the next four years bring no big surprises, the stranger elements of the American left may seem like minutiae.  If the whole economy collapses, we may find ourselves wondering why we didn’t see this coming for a hundred years. 

Speaking of which: tomorrow would have been Milton Friedman’s hundredth birthday, so I will blog of him then.

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