Thursday, May 29

The new authoritarian left and Barack Obama

"I think that hostility to democracy is the danger in the apparent role of the new authoritarian left in the Obama campaign."

"The comments by Obama about bitterness and his inability to demonstrate sympathy with workers in states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, suggest that ... hostility to such voters from the authoritarian left may be carrying over to the Obama campaign."

-- Stephen F. Diamond

In the following letter Professor Stephen Diamond responds to my post of yesterday by elaborating on the distinctions he draws between the "authoritarian left" (AL) and communism. He also expands on his concerns about AL involvement in Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

His letter is a crash course on important issues that should have been under public discussion throughout the Democratic primary campaign. The AL movement, which is not monolithic, forms a kind of subculture in America that has been at the edges of the mainstream society except in the area of education, where it has made considerable inroads -- and mostly outside the public eye.

Yet Republicans also seem to be shy about discussing the issues, at least in the public forums of the blogosphere and other news media outlets. Considering that the issues involve public education in America, national security, foreign policy and federal spending, I believe that no small part of the dearth of public discussion stems from simple ignorance of AL, which Diamond's recent writings at his Global Labor blog seek to correct.

As I have noted before in my introductions to Diamond's writings, he has emerged as a kind of Eleventh Hour figure to warn and educate the American electorate -- and happily his writing style is highly readable.

Before turning to his letter, an aside to Republican/conservative readers. I think the tendency is to snort at the sharp distinction that Diamond makes between the left and communism/socialism. I myself am a skeptic on this point, as I made perfectly clear in yesterday's post.

But Americans should take a lesson from Canadians who are fighting to save what's left of their freedom of speech. Many Canadian conservatives and liberals have joined forces in the recognition that a united front is their only hope.

From that standpoint, I am willing to use the term "authoritarian" to describe leftists who represent the greatest threat from Senator Barack Obama's run for the White House.(1)

Thank you for your continued careful reading of my blog posts. I realize for many in your audience that coming across this discussion may resemble reading The Da Vinci Code or an Umberto Eco novel!

And certainly it would be a surprise to discover that these various “left” wing elements are floating around the Obama campaign inside such a mainstream political party like the Democrats.

Let me share with you and your readers some of my views of this issue to see if I can make my perspective clearer and helpful.

First, I wrote my most recent blog, “Believe me, Barack is no Communist, But... , in response to the article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post that surfaced the allegations of a far right anti-communist group about Obama’s links to Communism. Those allegations, I think, blur the line between who is and who is not playing a significant role in the Obama campaign.

I think members of what I have broadly described as the “authoritarian left” have some role in the campaign while “Communists” formally defined as such do not. By “Communists” I mean members and sympathizers of the American Communist Party. The American Communist Party was an arm of the Soviet Union here in the United States.

From its earliest days it slavishly followed whatever political “line” it was instructed to by Moscow. There is very good historiography about this, in particular the work of the late historian Theodore Draper and also the historian Harvey Klehr. The American CP often mimicked the proposals of traditional liberals or left liberals and that fooled a lot of people into thinking that the American CP was a political party worth joining, or at least working with.

Disillusion usually followed once the Party changed its line – sometimes a 180 degrees turn – with no explanation other than that the foreign policy of the USSR dictated the change. Of course, underneath the apparently defensible arguments for reforms (like racial integration or unions) was the real policy of the party, which was to impose a Russian style totalitarian political system here in the United States.

The American CP still exists but as a tiny insignificant organization, compared with a membership in the 1930s of 75,000. The party entered a long decline first after several rounds of disillusion affected its members and sympathizers as the party regularly switched its line in response to orders from Moscow but then as the realities of life in the USSR became clear, first with the show trials of the 1930s, the revelations about Stalinism that emerged in the 1950s, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, etc, etc. But with the collapse of the USSR in 1989, the death knell of the American CP was finally struck.

Thus, my first point in response to the WaPo article was that there is no meaningful basis to conclude the Obama could be a “Communist” in the sense used here since there is no American CP to speak of and there has not really been such a movement for most of Obama’s adult life.

It does appear that the “Frank” that Obama refers to in his memoirs is Frank Marshall Davis, a well known (at the time) black journalist and poet who was in the CP. He apparently befriended the teen age Obama via a friendship with Obama’s grandfather.

But even if Davis was still in the CP (as opposed to being one of many who realized that the party was a disaster and dropped out in 1956 or 1968) there would be little purpose to “recruiting” Obama to an organization on life support. The American CP was a “dead parrot” as the Monty Python saying goes, by the time Obama was growing to political maturity.

Second, I have argued on my blog that rather than the American Communist Party, a different political milieu – the “authoritarian left” - is supporting Obama and may be influencing his campaign. This is the milieu of people like William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, of Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher.

These are people who were not part of the so-called “old Left” that included the American CP but were part of the so-called “New Left” that emerged in the 1960s.

There were, in my view, many very good aspects to the activities of the New Left, particularly in their use of non-violent organizing to support the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and the use of education, argument and peaceful demonstrations to oppose the United States’ invasion of Vietnam.

But some in the New Left began in the late 60s to move towards authoritarian and sectarian methods. They began to look to countries like Mao’s China and Fidel’s Cuba as potential models for the United States. This was the beginning of the “authoritarian left.” Some in this milieu called themselves “communists” - including individuals like Mike Klonsky, who was a slavish advocate of Maoism and who is now a close associate of Bill Ayers in Chicago education policy circles.

Others did not call themselves communists but were nonetheless very authoritarian and violent in their methods. From a review of some of the documents prepared by the Weather Underground at that time, it is clear that some in that organization did consider themselves “communists.” They looked to the new communist states like Cuba and China for their political models rather than the old Soviet Unions. Presumably that included Ayers and Dohrn at the time.

These new communists were not members of the American Communist Party – a distinction that sometimes gets blurred or ignored. In fact, they were opponents of the USSR and the American CP because they were, instead of slavishly following the politics of the Soviet Union, slavishly following the politics of Cuba or China or even Albania (really!).

What both groups shared was the authoritarian outlook – that they knew what needed to be done and that they were going to impose their views on the movements that they became a part of (such as the anti-war or civil rights or labor movements) no matter what the democratic instincts of the actual members of these movements. I have witnessed this firsthand many times, particularly in the labor movement. In this sense of acting undemocratically, both the American CP and the new authoritarian left, whether self-designated communist or not, shared a similar world view.

However, it is important to note that to the extent that this new authoritarian left is still in existence – and it is, though also on a smaller scale – it has no central organization or structure and it is hard to conclude that even if Ayers and Dohrn and others are still influencing Obama that Obama belongs to any such movement or organization, because there is no such organization to belong to.

Instead, I believe that on particular issues the authoritarian left has been able to influence the thinking of the Obama campaign. I have pointed to the one clear example of this: education, where a leading education advisor to Obama is pushing a policy (repayment of “education debt”) that is also the policy of Ayers.

I also think there may be other areas where this milieu is having some influence on the thinking of Obama, perhaps including the idea of “dialogue with dictators” - such as Chavez and Ahmadinejad. In addition, the authoritarian left milieu – and this is one area where they differ from the American Communist Party – has always been hostile to American workers, in particular to their unions.

The Weather Underground argued that unions were part of a “labor aristocracy” that fed off the backs of the third world. The comments by Obama about bitterness and his inability to demonstrate sympathy with workers in states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, suggest that that hostility to such voters from the authoritarian left may be carrying over to the Obama campaign. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote a very interesting column on this issue in the Huffington Post recently.

Finally, third, let me just briefly address the larger theoretical issue behind a lot of this discussion. Is there a difference between “Communism,” “authoritarian leftism” and other ideas about socialism, communism and the left? In short, yes.

I believe both Soviet-style Communism and the other forms of Communism found in Cuba, China and North Korea all share totalitarian features. But when one moves into regimes like that in Venezuela or that of the Sandinistas in the 1980s in Nicaragua, the parties or organizations in control of those governments are/were authoritarian but not totalitarian. The control and power, for example, of the Sandinistas was not absolute as it is in North Korea or was under the old USSR. Thus, I use the word “authoritarian” to describe these regimes.

Some in the FSLN or in the Chavez movement might favor total control of the society but they have not been able to achieve that goal yet. There is still some room for opponents of those regimes to act politically in support of their goals.

For example, recently an attempt by Chavez to appropriate more control for his regime failed in a constitutional referendum held there. Such a referendum would be impossible to hold in Cuba or China or North Korea today.

Historically, when movements like that of Chavez's have not been able to centralize their power more fully they either lose power (as happened in Nicaragua to the Sandinistas) or they use force to impose their power (as happened in eastern Europe in the wake of the Second World War –- with the assistance of the Russians, of course).

In the United States today the “authoritarian left” sympathizes with Chavez, the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. Some around the US authoritarian left express that sympathy naively because they oppose US foreign policy and gravitate to anyone who opposes the United States. But others are sympathetic with authoritarian politics more deeply, often they express this view through their hostility to what actual Americans want. Thus, there is a great deal of hostility from the authoritarian left towards the American labor movement, which is still a generally democratic movement.

It is because of that hostility to the democratic instincts of most Americans that I have suggested that the “authoritarian left” is no left at all. I consider democracy the critical component of any constructive left or progressive movement here and abroad.

Democracy means transparency, accountability and the protection of the rights of dissenters and minorities within the body politic. That hostility to democracy is what all of the tendencies I have discussed here share, whether old-style American Communists, the new communists of the new left or today’s authoritarian leftist sympathizers with Chavez and Castro.

(As I have suggested before, the best short introduction to the distinction between a democratic approach to left politics and an authoritarian approach is the essay, Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper.)

And I think that hostility to democracy is the danger in the apparent role of the new authoritarian left in the Obama campaign.

I hope this is of some help. Please feel free to share these thoughts with your readers and I would be happy to discuss these ideas with you or your readers.

Stephen Diamond
Associate Professor of Law
Santa Clara University School of Law
Global Labor blog

"Dr Diamond:
First, thank you so much for writing all this up so quickly. It is extremely, extremely useful for the general public. I will publish your letter.

I note you do not mention the Revolutionary Communist Party -- the USA branch. Bill Ayers has perched at their Revolution publication on at least one occasion to hold forth. And consider this quote:

"We begin by releasing our most hopeful dreams and our most radical imaginations: a better world is both possible and necessary." -- William Ayers

"Note: Ayers is very likely quoting Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, with the phrase ‘both possible and necessary’ in regards to a communist overthrow of the US government. See Yahoo search results for "bob avakian" + "possible and necessary"
–Eye On The Left"

My question to you is whether you are Double-Dutch sure that the American communist movement is deader than a doornail. The RCP may be little more than a form of radical chic at this juncture, but again I don't know.

Again, thank you for all the time you've spent on this education project for the general reader.

Thank you! Sorry, I know less than you about the RCP!

1) As I was about to publish this I received a letter that was clearly in response to my post of yesterday, in which I fumed about the labyrinth of definitions related to the left, communism, and socialism. I include the letter here as a reminder that a labyrinth is a perennially useful blind.

An ex-communist friend of mine says that his cel [sic] (a "creative" cel of artists) was constantly told from the forties to the sixties that their mission was to "disrupt capitalism" in whatever way that they could.

They were given considerable freedom to decide how to do it. Only when they strayed too far from orthodoxy did the Politburo put their foot down, with shocking firmness. The HUAC trials of the Hollywood Ten were a walk in the park compared to the private trials that Dalton Trumbo and the CP-USA held to pressure other filmmakers.

Most party members never get close to the real decision-making process, despite the endless meetings. This is the mechanism by which they operate; it is intentionally difficult to follow from the outside. Struggling to differentiate the terminology and Byzantine hair-splitting definitions of words is a distraction which, while it reveals something about the players, keeps one from seeing the simple truth -- there is no real difference among them.

They all want to make America their bitch.


somercet said...

Sadly, Stephen Diamond's blog is invite-only.

Pundita said...

Steve has a new blog called "King Harvest." To my knowledge the Global Labor blog is not really invitation only; I think he's just suspended the blog.

Several weeks ago I asked him to keep Global Labor so that people who come across his writings from last year can research other of his essays.

Perhaps he'll eventually open the blog again. His email address is at his new site. You might want to write him to request that he reopen Global Labor. If he receives enough such requests, he might reconsider.