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The Obama Vision: Book review of "Radical-in-Chief"

Ronald Radosh

The charge by some conservatives that President Obama was and indeed still is a socialist has been met with disbelief or brushed aside as irrelevant by our liberal elites, most consequentially by the media. They have assigned it to the land of the “wing-nuts.” Even the conservative writer Andrew Ferguson could not resist throwing in a gratuitous remark about Stanley Kurtz’s new book, Radical-in-Chief, in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, arguing that “there is, indeed, a name for the beliefs that motivate President Obama, but it’s not . . . even socialism. It’s liberalism!” For Ferguson, “unchecked liberalism . . . is worrisome enough.”

I have to admit that before reading and evaluating the mountain of evidence Kurtz presents in his book, I too was skeptical of the charge, regarding it as a somewhat overheated smear word that Obama’s opponents liked to throw out in the heat of political debate. It held no more water with me than did the epithets of “fascist,” “Nazi,” and “un-American” hurled at Obama by his angriest enemies. But Kurtz’s book leads me to the inescapable conclusion that indeed Barack Obama started out his adult life as a socialist, functioned within socialism’s orbit for decades, owes much of his political rise to the socialist community, and has never repudiated the ideology he adopted so long ago.

Kurtz claims that when he began research for his book he knew that Obama had had some associations with radicals like Bill Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright in Chicago, but was dubious about the socialist label. These associations were brushed off by Obama and his supporters with such arguments as that he hardly knew Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, and, in any event, was only eight years old when the couple were engaging in their violent Weathermen activities. As for Wright, well, Obama just wasn’t in church when the reverend was damning America.

Kurtz wanted to find out whether there was anything behind the socialist charge by digging deeper and tracing Obama’s path to the presidency. He approached his subject as any good historian would, by going to the primary sources, looking at the records and internal publications of the many groups and organizations that Obama had been associated with: the Socialist Scholars Conference, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, ACORN, the Black Theology Project, the Harold Washington mayoral administration, the Midwest Academy, the New American Movement, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and the Woods Charitable Fund.

Kurtz traces Obama’s exposure to socialist politics and circles back to the early 1980s, when he was a student at Columbia University. A pivotal experience was Obama’s attendance at the 1983 and 1984 Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) held in New York’s Cooper Union. (This was a world I was most familiar with. At the time, I was on the SSC’s planning committee, which was based at the sociology department of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.) The SSC was attended by enthusiastic members of various socialist sects; there was in fact little scholarly about it. Most of the sessions addressed various pressing political questions: the state of rebellion in Central America, the strategies for moving America towards socialism, etc. It would be interesting to know what sessions Obama attended and why he went to it in the first place. After all, most attendees were activists, committed socialist intellectuals, or both.

The answers would never be brought forth, because no one in the media sought to ask him about it. Kurtz reports that Obama did address it once, in an offhand manner. In his bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote that while living in New York, he engaged in political discussions that “came to take on the flavor of the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union. . . . [They were among] the many diversions New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film or ice-skating at Rockefeller Center.” Since it was so inconsequential, why did Obama take care to mention it? Perhaps the ambitious Obama knew that since he had registered for it in his own name, someone might find he had attended; so “why not,” Kurtz writes, “acknowledge the fact in such a way as to minimize attention and defuse the power of eventual revelation?”

But, as Kurtz shows, after the SSC, where Obama was exposed to both Black Liberation theology and community organizing, he decided to leave the field of foreign relations and nuclear disarmament — about which he had written a now well-known article — and instead started on the new career path of community organizing. Moreover, the speaker at one of the major sessions developed the theoretical concept of working for “socialist incubators,” the effort to combine different community groups into one national movement, which would then “democratize control of major social, economic and political institutions.” This was not an old-style nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy; it was, rather, an attempt to achieve socialism from below. The theorist was Peter Dreier, who later became a major strategist for ACORN and, during the 2008 campaign, an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama. These groups, or “incubators,” would push the U.S. towards socialism and socialist programs like universal single-payer health care.

Dreier’s theory coincided with the popular view of the French Marxist André Gorz, who developed the concept of working for “transitional” or “non-reformist reforms,” seemingly small steps that would help destroy market capitalism and build the basis for complete structural change and the adoption of a socialist economy in Western societies. When a crisis finally occurred, especially a “fiscal crisis of the state,” the moment would be ripe to transform the economy into a publicly owned statist entity.

As the years went by, and Barack Obama moved from community organizing to Harvard Law and then back to Chicago, Kurtz shows that one thing remained constant: Obama continued to move in the same socialist circles that he had first come across at the SSC at Cooper Union. It was there that he probably heard a young Cornel West talk at a panel on race and class in Marxism, and was introduced to the father of Black Liberation theology, James Cone, the mentor to a minister named Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was also at the SSC that he most likely came across a leader of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America, the Yugoslav-born Bogdan Denitch, who wrote an essay on the importance of Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign in Chicago, in uniting the black and white Left in a new class politics that would produce victory and socialist momentum.

These ideas and theories motivated Obama and helped him choose his own career path — that of community organizing as the way to lead a coalition of blacks, whites, and Hispanics to create a socialist “redefinition” of America, with one caveat: The concept and advocacy of socialism as the final goal would consciously be hidden from sight. As Kurtz reveals, the socialist theorists openly talked about what they called “stealth socialism” or “incremental radicalism,” small steps that move the nation forward until the ultimate goal of a socialist transformation is obtained. One moves apparently without an ideological plan, but working for measures that will end with an irreversible move to a statist economy based on public control through groups run by labor and community organizations. As Kurtz writes: “Obama’s college socialism, the influence of socialist conferences on his career, his choice of a profession dominated by socialists, and his extensive alliances with the most influential stealth-socialist community organizers in the country give the game away. Obama has adopted the gradualist socialist strategy of his mentors. . . . Eventually, this will transform American capitalism into something resembling a socialist-inspired Scandinavian welfare state.”

With this fundamental transformation finally obtained, wealth would be redistributed from individuals and businesses to the state and especially to the public-employee unions, which would effectively run state and national governments. Seemingly minor adjustments would be the effective “non-reformist reforms” advocated by Gorz and others, and would eventually undermine the current system. When Michelle Obama inadvertently let the cat out of the bag and told an audience that her husband was essentially a community organizer using politics to achieve the ends he always wanted, she confirmed Kurtz’s analysis.

All of this fit well with the political strategy developed by the late Michael Harrington, the last socialist leader of national prominence since Norman Thomas; Harrington’s followers play a major role in national government and the Democratic party today. Harrington favored what I call Browderism without Browder and the old Soviet tie; i.e., working in the Democratic party with non-socialists, helping to transform it into, in effect, an “invisible social democracy.” The so-called Democratic Left — under the guidance of conscious socialists who assumed leadership positions in various mass movements including unions, women’s groups, and community organizations — would help to develop their programs until all converged to create the structural socialist transformation of society.

Readers of Kurtz’s book will see example after example of how Obama’s otherwise inexplicable actions — such as pushing health care ahead of jobs in a time of economic downturn — make perfect sense if he is acting according to the theories and programs of the mentors he took along with him when he moved into the political arena. By keeping his real views hidden — the chosen policy of the descendants of Saul Alinsky who argue for masking socialist convictions — the political organizers can push the country in a direction it may not want.

Once one realizes that this is indeed Obama’s chosen course, it becomes clear why, during the campaign, he went out of his way to downplay and deny his actual close involvement over the years with major socialist players. In his important and detailed chapter on ACORN, for example, Kurtz spells out better than anyone has how the group fought tooth and nail to get banks to lower lending standards and to provide loans for those without good credit and even without any demonstrable ability to pay a mortgage. The housing group, despite its many denials, is shown by Kurtz to be a major factor in the development of the subprime-lending spree that crashed the housing bubble. ACORN pressured the banks by pressuring the Clinton administration and working with HUD secretary Henry Cisneros. Together, they used a direct-action campaign to draw the entire financial system into unwise lending schemes that helped foment today’s housing crisis.

Not only did Obama work closely with ACORN, he also cooperated intimately with the quasi-socialist Midwest Academy. He had lengthy and sustained relationships with both Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers — who, Kurtz demonstrates, knew and worked with Obama way before anyone else imagined. Ayers appointed him to boards that, in turn, quickly acted under Obama’s leadership to fund Ayers’s extremist and Marxist educational programs, as well as the radical projects of his wife, Bernardine Dohrn.

Thus does Obama’s past explain his policies today. He adopted the ACORN leaders’ strategy of transforming the economy through expanding entitlements, and combined it with Michael Harrington’s plan to realign American politics through polarizing the electorate along class lines. By radicalizing the Democratic party — a goal already pretty much accomplished — he would have the ability, once in power, to push America to a left-wing “social democracy” in which business would be demonized. (This strategy is very much in evidence in the 2010 midterm campaign, with the administration’s noxious attack on the Chamber of Commerce.)

As for health care, Kurtz speculates that Obama hopes that if Republicans succeed in repealing the new law, the repeal will ignite a political movement of the Left that will further radicalize the Democratic party — a class-based strategy that would put into effect Harrington’s “realignment,” in which, finally, the poor and the educated middle classes would push the country to socialism. Thus public-employee unions, minorities, and the poor would stop the “haves” from running the country, and — as Obama told Joe the Plumber in that eventful campaign stop in 2008 — we would move to fairness by redistributing the wealth to those who deserve it and don’t have what they need. In the Obama administration, we have Saul Alinsky, Richard Cloward, and Frances Fox Piven’s advocacy of pushing the system to its limits united with ACORN’s stealth socialism and socialist incubation.

Stanley Kurtz succeeds, then, in showing the “consistency of [Obama’s] convictions.” Beginning in his college days, and possibly even in late high school, Obama gravitated towards socialism as the answer for America. His entire political advance depended upon the backing, support, and work of the Chicago socialist community. It was a stealth-socialist circle, carefully hidden from the public, but now unearthed brilliantly by Kurtz. With a “thoroughgoing pattern of deception,” he misled the American people into believing that he was a post-ideological pragmatist. “Obama has made concerted efforts to hide his socialist convictions from the voters who put him in office,” in a “systematic deception” that “corrodes democracy itself.”

For these reasons, Stanley Kurtz has written what I believe is the most important political book in years. I would go so far as to say that had he or someone else done this work during the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama would not have been elected president — because it would have been clear that Obama is simply not who he claimed to be. During the election, Obama presented himself as a post-partisan figure who would unite the country and work with Republicans to find practical solutions to America’s problems. He would heal the country’s racial wounds. Instead, he has divided us. At a time when Europe is digging itself out from under the weight of its social-democratic policies, Obama is pushing us in that direction: out-of-control deficits, unsustainable entitlements, high taxes, and a sluggish economy. That is not where the American people want to go.

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