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     May 3, 2011


BOOK REVIEW
Obama's hidden radical past
Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, by Stanley Kurtz

By Spengler

If Donald Trump had been hired by Barack Obama's re-election campaign, he could not have done a better job of distracting public attention from the president's sketchy past. The silly conspiracy theory about Obama's birth certificate has been put aside, but not his deep involvement in the radical fringe of American politics. Any number of investigators have delved into

 
Obama's past, but none as thoroughly as Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

A book's virtues are always its defects, and the great virtue of Kurtz' investigation - his exhaustive examination of archival material - make the present volume more a reference work than a rabble-rousing missive to the Glenn Beck audience. Kurtz bends over backwards to distinguish fact from supposition, and refers meticulously to documentary sources. This sort of scholarship does not lend itself to sound bites, but it should be required reading for anyone who wants to pierce the veil of Obama's self-constructed enigma.

From it we may conclude either that Obama secretly harbors a radical social agenda, or that he lied outrageously about views he held in the past. In either case, the president is not the man he claimed to be in the 2008 campaign, and has a great deal to answer for to American voters.

"Late in the afternoon of 1983," the story begins, "Barack Obama made his way into the historic Great Hall of Manhattan's Cooper Union to attend a 'Socialist Scholars Conference.' Within twenty-four hours, his life had transformed. There at that conference Obama discovered his vocation as a community organizer, as well as a political program to guide him throughout his adult life." Obama was then a senior at Columbia University.

As it happens, I was a senior at Columbia a decade earlier, and attended a couple of the annual Socialist Scholars' Conferences; in 1988, long after I had repudiated my youthful radicalism, I was in a PhD program at City University of New York, and ran into some of the conference organizers - as it happens, the same gang who ran the 1983 conference that Obama attended. At the time, they were making violent threats against art historians for the crime of wanting to reach classical Western art.

As a matter of personal experience, I can report that the Socialist Scholars Conference was not an academic exercise for the intellectually curious, but a Walpurgisnacht for hard-core activists. No-one came who was not prepared to kiss the goat's hindquarters.

Back in the early 1970s, during my days as a student radical, the wildfire student protests against the Vietnam War and black nationalism were the hope of American socialists. By the 1980s, when Kurtz picks up the trail, socialists had been forced deeper into the woodwork. ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and other vehicles for the young Obama's aspirations were born of the Marxist regroupment during the Reagan years. "The secret, well understood by leading organizers (Barack Obama included), yet still unknown to the vast majority of Americans, is that contemporary community organizing is largely a socialist enterprise - a novel adaptation of Marxist principles and practices to modern American realities," Kurtz concludes.

Obama, to be sure, was a radical before he turned up at the 1983 Socialist Scholars Conference. Kurtz observes that in Obama's memoir Dreams of My Father, "Obama speaks of carefully choosing his friends at Occidental College from among the 'Marxist professors,' 'structural feminists,' and other radical outsiders. Even in his early college years, Obama was determined 'to avoid being mistaken for a sellout.'"

Peddling socialism - a dirty word in mainstream American parlance - required some repackaging, and that is what the 1983 conference proposed. Peter Dreier, one of the speakers Obama heard, proposed to bring down American capitalism from below, by swamping governments with entitlement programs. Dreier envisioned "a revolution of rising entitlements" that "cannot be abandoned without undermining the legitimacy of the capitalist class". In the short run, Dreier claimed, "the process leads to expansion of state activity and budgets, and … to fiscal crisis in the public sector. In the longer run, it may give socialist norms an opportunity for expansion or at least visibility."

Obama went on to community organizing in Chicago, blending into a leftist web of foundations and front groups with an explicitly socialist agenda. Central to the Chicago nexus was the Midwest Academy, founded by activists from Students for a Democratic Society to make "community organizing" the springboard for a new socialist movement. "The Midwest Academy is the hidden key to Barack Obama's political career," Kurtz writes. "A bit of effort devoted to the Midwest Academy's hidden past opens the door to the heretofore secret history of contemporary American socialism - and to the heart and soul of Barack Obama's hidden political world." This prominently includes ACORN, as well as two foundations - the Woods Foundation and the Annenberg Challenge - where Obama worked with the unrepentant Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers.

The radical flamboyance of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, fit right into Obama's world, Kurtz reports. The ex-terrorist Ayers and Obama "jointly funneled foundation money to radical education programs that echoed Wright's anti-capitalist Afro-centrism".

These highlights barely suggest the flavor of Kurtz' account, which provides detailed organizational charts, histories, and smoking-gun documentation about the world of left-wing organizations in which Obama circulated through the formative stages of his career.

The documentation is exhaustive, and the source attribution impeccable. What conclusion can the reader draw after wading through this dossier?

It seems whimsical to assert that Obama and his fellow socialists - starting in 1983 - really intended to swamp the federal budget with entitlements and bring down capitalism by bankrupting the state. Nonetheless, transfer payments went out of control on Obama's watch. Nearly a fifth of all personal income receipts by Americans now consist of transfer payments, which is to say that a fifth of all personal income received by Americans is redistribution of tax payments from other Americans.

Transfer Payment Receipts as a Percentage of All Personal Income

Source: Commerce Department

The Johnson administration's Great Society program doubled transfer payments from a mere 7% of income to an average of 13% during the four decades from 1976 to 2006. The last spike to the 18% level is ominous.

Government spending now comprises 40% of American national income, up from 30% in 2000. That's the same proportion as in Germany; "socialist" Sweden is at 47%. By contrast, ex-communist Russia is at just 34%, and China at 18%. Since America's victory over Russia in the Cold War, in a sense, America and Russia have switched places. Comparisons of this sort, to be sure, can be misleading, for most of the increase in US government spending reflects the aging of the US population and the consequent demands on Social Security and Medicare.

If we consider the state of the credit markets, though, the de facto socialization of the US economy seems all the more alarming. In effect, the US Treasury under Obama borrowed an extra trillion to trillion-and-a-half dollars, while private credit markets cut their borrowing by a similar amount. That is entirely without precedent.

Bond Market Issuance by Sector (Billions of Dollars)

Source: SIFMA

These changes occurred before Obama's health care program kicked in. This will add several more percentage points to the government's share of GDP, pushing the US towards Swedish levels. By design or not, the US is in fact moving toward socialism. That alone makes it imperative to consider Kurtz' claim that Obama came to office as a socialist with malice aforethought.

Of course, the president may not be a convinced socialist; he may simply be a talented liar, happy to throw his old comrades under the bus, as he did to Reverend Wright during the 2008 campaign. One might argue that a convinced socialist would not have passed up the chance to nationalize the banking system in early 2009, when the market had priced in a high probability of bankruptcy. The left-leaning Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman advocated nationalization, as did the International Monetary Fund's former chief economist Simon Johnson. Had Obama announced that bank nationalization was the only way to save the economy, no-one could have stood in his way. That he did not do so might suggest that he is less concerned about Marx than the main chance.

Perhaps the designation "socialist" does not quite capture the essence of Obama's radicalism. Unlike the unreconstructed Marxists with whom Obama made common cause during his community organizing days, Obama's concern may not have been economics. As he arrived in Chicago to begin organizing at the Altgeld housing projects in Chicago's rundown South Side, he compared the poor blacks of Chicago to the even poorer Muslims of Indonesia with whom he lived for five years: For all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself.

Obama's mother spent her career as an anthropologist trying to protect the traditional craftsmen of Indonesia from the encouragement of global capitalism, "putting her body on the line," in the quaint lingo of 1960's radicalism, by marrying two Muslim men. Perhaps, as I argued in 2008, Obama's motivations stem less from Marxist economic views than "anti-colonial" rage at perceived American imperialism.

In practice, socialist and radical Muslim networks around Obama overlapped. As Kurtz reports:
Obama's ties to University of Chicago professor Rashid Khalidi are part of a broader web of connections between Obama, Ayers, and Chicago's leftist foundations. Although Khalidi denies having been a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, the evidence that he was is very strong. To make sense of the ties between this prominent Palestinian activist and Obama's radical world, keep in mind that Obama was a frequent dinner guest in the Khalidi home. At the same time, Bill Ayers was a friend to both Rashid Khalidi and his wife, Mona … In 1999, Obama brought Ayers onto the board of the Woods Fund. In 2000, the Khalidis hosted a fundraiser for Obama's congressional run against Bobby Rush. Soon after, Obama and Ayers began channeling Woods Fund money to the Arab American Action Network, a group founded by Rashid and Mona Khalidi.

This dimension of Obama's radicalism is mentioned but not elaborated. In fairness to Kurtz, an examination of Obama's "anti-colonial" sympathies would require another book. I hope he writes it, and soon.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. View comments on this article in Spengler's Expat Bar forum.

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Apr 21, '11

 

 
 


 

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