Socialists and Barack Obama

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Malik Miah

NOW THAT ILLINOIS Senator Barack Obama has become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, what does it say about U.S. civil society? What stance should progressives and socialists take?

When Obama crossed that 2118-delegate threshold with the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, all African Americans — Democrats, Republicans, independents and socialists — understood the meaning of a son of a African immigrant from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, to get this far in American politics. Martin Luther King, Jr., may have had a “Dream” that it could happen, but few believed it could occur in the lifetime of those who marched in Selma.

An Important Discussion

In the previous issue of Against the Current (ATC 134) I explained why Obama’s campaign was an important indicator of changes in U.S. society. At the same time, I noted that racism is still alive and well as reflected in the virulent attack on Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

I particularly explained the fact that Obama did not immediately throw Wright under the bus when Wright used old fashioned Black Nationalist rhetoric to criticize U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on the history of race relations was noteworthy coming from a major capitalist politician having a chance to become president.

In response to my article in the May-June issue, which included a look at the history of Black Liberation Theology, some on the left felt my stance implied sympathy for lesser evilism — perhaps that saying independents and socialists should embrace and engage the supporters of Obama, especially his young backers, was a move toward supporting a candidate of one of the major Big Business parties which have a global policy of neocolonialism and neoliberalism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the Obama ascendancy reflects some fundamental changes in society that must be recognized by those of us seeking a working-class government and state. The societal changes are based on the victory of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

We are not in a “colorblind” society as the neoconservatives pretend. The fact that most of his supporters, and Obama himself, are a by-product of an era where young people increasingly mingle with other races and ethnic groups is new. That a Black man or a woman can be elected president is a direct result of real changes. They are not simply cosmetic or temporary.

At the same time, racism is a daily occurrence for the typical Black. A tall Black man walking down the street who is not known still strikes some fear in many. Going into an all white area where a Black person is not known strikes a similar response. However, what’s “new” is you can now do that without necessarily being attacked or arrested. An African American can now move into those neighborhoods if you have the wealth to do so.

The power structure, of course, is still controlled by white men. But the rise of a middle class of all races is real. The fact that Hillary Clinton received 18 million votes, and had a fervent following of women who grew up in the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, means that young women believe a woman can now become commander in chief of the United States.

The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert observes in a June 7 column, “Savor the moment,” that 40 years ago, the same year that  Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, “The notion in ’68 that a Black person — or a woman — might  have a serious shot at the presidency would have been widely viewed as lunacy.” He adds, “A Black man president? You must be joking.”

A woman as president? “According to the National Organization for  Women, in a statement of purpose issued in 1966, fewer than 1 percent of all federal judges were women, fewer than 4 percent of all lawyers, and fewer than 7 percent of doctors,” Herbert notes.
Sexism and racism are still prevalent. But the real progress is evident everywhere — the majority of medical school graduates are now women, and there are many women on Fortune 500 Boards and officers, and a few dozen in the U.S. Congress.

Young people have been galvanized by the Obama phenomenon. The stance toward Obama thus should be of positive opposition, not “critical support” as some progressive Black leaders have advocated.

My Stance — Positive Opposition

I cannot vote for a Democrat or Republican candidate, as each party represents the policies of the ruling class. As a socialist, I will not vote for an African American or woman as the head of either party that is responsible for wars of aggression and occupation in Afghanistan or Iraq and threatens Iran and Palestine. I firmly believe we need to build a mass labor party and political party of the left that can defend the true interest of working people.

I reject “critical support” to Obama for that reason. But since we don’t yet have the labor or mass left party, and we don’t have mass social movements or a large-scale active antiwar movement, the challenge is to raise the class issues in the context of the electoral arena.

How? It means positively engaging Obama’s supporters and his campaign on the broad agenda issues. It means attending the campaign’s events and talking to the young supporters about upcoming rallies against the war, solidarity with striking workers, and for single payer health care.

Electing the first African-American president, like electing the first Black mayors 40 years ago, is relative progress but not a solution to underlying class and social issues.

That’s why the campaigns of progressive third parties are important electorally. But for me the stance of attacking Obama as a Democrat, quoting Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, and going all out for a small socialist group’s campaign on ideological grounds, or the Green Party campaign of Cynthia McKinney or the independent candidacy of Ralph Nader, is not the most effective way to influence those who will become disillusioned.

While I will likely vote for one of these options (although pure electoralism is not the road to mass independent working-class action), I consider the priority to be positive engagement with Obama supporters.

The challenge is to recognize history in the making while not moving away from the goal of a mass labor party and working-class based government.

ATC 135, July-August 2008