Is Barack Obama a socialist? Part One

On several occasions, I have strongly recommended Radical-In-Chief, Stanley Kurtz’s excellent study of Barack Obama’s political ideology. My recommendation is based on what Rich Lowry calls Kurtz’s “political and ideological excavation” – the information Kurtz has unearthed about Obama’s political past and about the history of the American Socialist movement. Those who are interested in either subject will likely find Radical-In-Chief a compelling work.

This is true whether or not one agrees with Kurtz’s conclusion that President Obama is a socialist. Nonetheless, the question is hardly beside the point. Thus, having written so much about the book, I thought I should state my view of the matter.

Kurtz has persuaded me that Obama probably is a socialist. Before reading his book, I did not believe this to be the case.

The question can be approached in at least two related ways – biographically and doctrinally. I will begin by approaching it biographically. I will ask first whether there are points in time when it is reasonably clear that Obama was a socialist. Then, after finding that there are such points, I will ask whether there is a point in time when there is good reason to believe Obama stopped being a socialist.

In our culture, we are, perhaps, conditioned to regard this approach as unfair, at least as applied to leftists. But there is nothing unfair about it. A socialist is a socialist until he or she stops being one. And when someone stops being a socialist – or a neo-conservative or whatever – there are likely to be clear indicators of the change.

For example, I was a socialist in college. But in law school, I stopped going to the meetings and stopped associating much with socialists. After law school, I took jobs that a committed socialist would have been very unlikely to perform. Thus, well before registering as a Republican or writing conservative commentary, my biography provided clear evidence that I was no longer a socialist.

In Obama’s case, the evidence is strong that he was a socialist, or worse, during his college days. He began at Occidental College. There, according to John Drew, an acquaintance of Obama’s who himself was a radical, the young Obama was a pure Marxist-Leninist. According to Kurtz, David Remnick’s sympathetic biography of Obama confirms that the future president and many of his closest friends at Occidental were socialists. Obama himself says in his autobiography that he gravitated towards “Marxist” professors and other radicals.

Obama completed college at Columbia. There, as I noted in this post, Obama by his own account attended major socialist conferences. It is possible to attend such meetings (or at least one of them) out of curiosity. But since Obama almost certainly was already a socialist when he came to New York, it is highly unlikely that Obama attended on that basis.

Moreover, the career he chose after leaving Columbia – community organizer – was the career path being pushed by the socialists at these conferences. In fact, the importance of community organizing was a major theme at a socialist conference Obama acknowledges attending at Cooper Union. For example, an all-star panel on “Social Movements” was devoted to community organizing. One of the panelists, Peter Dreier, characterized such work as developing “socialist incubators.”

The idea was to combine diverse community organizations into a national grassroots movement to “democratize control of major social, economic, and political institutions.” In this vision, a grassroots movement for such public control would gradually overcome American cultural resistance to state-run enterprises. This would only happen, though, if the “socialist incubators” developed by community organizers moved into the political arena. Thus, Dreier’s vision pointed not only to Obama’s first important career — community organizer — but also his second — elected office holder.

From the time he became a community organizer until the time he became a political candidate in 1996, there is nothing to suggest that Obama stopped being a socialist. Rather, the evidence strongly suggests that he continued to be one.

First, Obama’s work as a community organizer conformed closely to the goal of developing “socialist incubators” – grassroots movements “to democratize control of major institutions.” One such institution was the church. Obama worked closely with an organization called UNO (United Neighborhood Organization) of Chicago. According to Kurtz, under Jerry Kellmann, Obama’s first organizing mentor, UNO sought to transform local Catholic congregations into “progressive” political shock troops. In his autobiography, Obama makes a villain out of a minister (“Reverend Smalls”) who rejected the idea of an alliance with Alinskyite organizers on the theory that “it was a political thing” and that the organizers just wanted to “take us over.” Kurtz shows that, regardless of the unpleasant traits Obama attributes to him, “Reverend Smalls” was right.

Another such institution was the banks. As I discussed in this post, Obama was, by his own admission, allied with ACORN. Its major mission was to “democratize control” of banks (and indeed other parts of the financial system) by coercing them into making subprime loans. While Obama’s substantive work with ACORN centered around voting issues, Kurtz shows that Obama also helped train ACORN personnel. ACORN leader Madeline Talbot summed things up nicely when she said in 1995: “Barack has proven himself among our members; he is committed to organizing, to building a democracy.”

A third institution was the schools. Kurtz demonstrates how Obama worked with Bill Ayers (no longer a terrorist, but still a communist) in his crusade to transform the Chicago public schools in accordance with Ayers’ radical vision. It was Obama who directed foundation money to Ayers for this purpose.

Second, as should be clear by now, Obama’s key associations in Chicago during the period before he entered electoral politics were with socialists. The list is a long one. It includes, in addition to Kellman, Ayers, and Talbot, the likes of Heather Booth, Ken Rollling, Greg Galluzzo (another of Obama’s mentors), John McKnight (who wrote a law school recommendation for Obama), and Alice Palmer. In a sense, it also includes Jeremiah Wright whose black liberation theology is, as I discussed here, aligned with socialist doctrine.

Third, when Obama went into electoral politics as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate, he did so as the hand-picked successor to the aforementioned Alice Palmer, an avowed socialist. (Palmer, however, decided to fight Obama for the seat after she lost a special election for Congress; Obama kept her off the ballot by successfully challenging her petition signatures). Palmer is the author of such articles as “Socialism Is the Only Way Forward.” And she attended the Twenty-seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986.

Palmer picked Obama to succeed her after lengthy conversations with him. Moreover, Palmer, like Obama’s other socialist supporters, was well aware of Obama’s record as an activist (including the aspects of it described above) and of his political convictions. As Kurtz argues, it’s difficult to believe that these savvy socialists would have trusted Obama with their seat in the Illinois Senate unless they were convinced, as Madeline Talbot said she was, that he was one of them.

Obama, then, was a socialist when he left college. As of 1996, there is no good indication that he had abandoned socialism. To the contrary, the best evidence is that he was still a socialist at that time. My next post on this subject will consider the post-1996 biographical evidence.

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