Selling Obama and Softening Socialism: a Lesson in Staying Within Bounds

With things as bad as they are, it’s valuable to have an academic and commentator like Professor Gerald Horne. In contrast to the vacuous talking-points that generally pass as critical commentary, Horne provides radical scholarship. For instance, where liberal pundits discuss Donald Trump as an inexplicable aberration, or someone cooked up by Vladimir Putin, Horne explains how chauvinistic appeals to “make America great again” are expressions of racism immanent to America’s foundation. The contrast is probably clearest when comparing Horne’s scholarship and commentary to those individuals and groups elevated as figureheads of the Black Lives Matter movement—who anyone with a modicum of media literacy could’ve predicted would be people that don’t pose any fundamental threat to the status quo. While liberals might curse the police for “misunderstanding” their role as protectors of the community, Horne points out that the police are doing what could be expected from an institution that evolved from slave patrols, as he tells radical audiences. Where a high-profile group like Campaign Zero offers “reforms” that one person called a mixture of liberal compromise, neoliberal opportunism and reactionary conservatism, Horne points out that “obviously radical surgery is called for, and unless radical surgery takes place, we’re always going to have the snuff film-of-the-week.” Where liberals celebrate improvements for an exceptional few, Horne calls this “reformation without transformation,” and stresses that it’s absolutely essential to keep anti-racism wedded to an analysis of class. With the retreat of the Jim Crow apartheid system, “you were allowed to enter these restaurants and hotels, but because of the battering of unions and radical movements, we didn’t have the income to pay the bills.”

Prominent Black Lives Matter figurehead DeRay McKesson argues that white supremacy doesn’t have economic roots, but has existed for almost half a millennium mostly motivated by irrational ill-will. In his most famous book The Counter-Revolution of 1776 Horne points out that there is a long history of African-Americans avoiding some of the strictures of Jim Crow by adopting certain foreign affectations, and that during the Cold War, the US State Department mulled giving African diplomats special badges that would exempt them from discrimination: “so the point that I’m trying to make is that if racism is a necessary explanatory factor in explaining what has befallen people of African descent in North America…it’s not a sufficient explanation, because if it was wholly sufficient then being able to speak French in Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era would not have been able to help you at all.” Thus, Horne argues, any discussion of race and racism shouldn’t be situated in biological or anthropological terms, but in political and economic ones. And economics are of primary import: where a new movement gatekeeper like McKesson argues that slavery would’ve existed even if it weren’t profitable, Horne reminds his audience that slavery boasted profits up to 1700%, and many capitalists would “sell their firstborn” for that sort of ROI. What should be clear from the disparity between a movement gatekeeper like McKesson and a radical scholar like Horne is that there is a push to denature any radical content from that which is understood as the political left, to turn “radicalism” into nothing more than an incoherent mish-mash of superficial postures. What the moneyed interests that elevate people like McKesson are trying to do is make activists deaf, dumb, and blind to the economic relations that are the system, and hobble any protest movement by dooming them to repeat the mistakes of past struggles. The drive to remove economics from politics is nothing less than an attempt to roll back socialism, which centers these relationships and is thus the ruling class’s greatest fear.

Horne currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and has been affiliated for many years with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). He has written over 30 books and more than 100 scholarly articles, and is a contributing editor to the CPUSA’a Political Affairs magazine. Horne’s rate of publication and the substantive nature of his critique is matched by his adeptness as a public speaker. Few and far-between are the commenters who articulate a radical critique of the American project to such diverse audiences. In fact, there’s likely no one else who can manage to simultaneously publish for so long in Marxist-identified journals like Political Affairs, condemn police brutality on RT, and get derided as a “Stalinist” while still receiving a career retrospective on C-SPAN’s Book TV, getting invited on NPR, earning rave reviews from Michael Eric Dyson, and staying in the good graces of so many large institutions.

Of course, even the most illustrious gig at C-SPAN is a far cry from a place in the MSNBC line-up. Still, Horne’s voluminous scholarship has rightly earned him a pre-eminent place among radical thinkers, and while he’s no household name, few in his line of work can boast of his prominence. One interviewer praises Horne for a body of work dealing with “unapologetically Marxist themes,” making it all the more remarkable that Horne can be so visible and can claim to generally be able to write unencumbered, with very little institutional interference. In his Book TV Q&A, a caller asks if he’s encountered any hindrances in tackling such radical subjects, and Horne only describes prickly archivists. According to Horne, “fundamentally what [having a chair at a university history department] means is that you have research funds,” which he enjoys despite the fact that with books like 2014’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776, “I’m flagrantly contradicting what [historians] think and believe.”

The reason Horne can enjoy such prominence among a radical milieu, and the skill he manifests in speaking to such different audiences, is due to his deftness at conceding to the status quo when he must and barely seem like he’s doing it. In short, while Horne has produced a tremendous amount of scholarship on 20th century communism, black liberation, and the true face of America’s settler-colonial nature, and the reason he is able to do so is because of how he respects certain top-down prohibitions, in order to avoid the sanctions that typically follow such work. Horne has clearly identified the red-lines that commenters are not allowed to cross, under penalty of marginalization, and he assiduously stays on the right side of those boundaries with a great deal of rhetorical skill.

This will be familiar territory for anyone who is interested in radical scholarship, who are used to certain people issuing lucid and damning critiques that end up conspicuously advocating compliance. Even people who issue blistering denunciations of the current system seem to pull their punches at certain crucial points—like the quadrennial “lesser-evilism” of Dr. Cornel West, or the steadfast Christian pacifism of Chris Hedges. Professor Horne is no exception, for the simple reason that the ruling class’ media system allows no exceptions.

In a series comparing the output of Professors Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti, six major differences were identified. These were areas where Chomsky, a household name, aligns with the mainstream view from which Parenti departs. By highlighting these divergent perspectives, it’s possible to see what ideas constitute genuinely unacceptable radical opinions. A thinker who stays within the boundaries gets to be heard, and beyond those lines lay marginalization and disrepute. Horne is an exceptionally useful case study because his scholarship is so radical, and his critiques so provocative, in almost every area. Where figures like Noam Chomsky and Leo Panitch largely hold America’s nationalist truths to be self-evident, Horne eviscerates these myths. While a Chomsky will draw a thick line between American imperialism abroad and its actions at home, Horne explains that “the foreign policy of the state is usually an extension of the domestic policy.” And where prominent liberals unanimously discuss actually existing socialism in demonic terms, Horne will argue that the worst of communism is no uglier than the worst of capitalism. Professor Horne is able to do the work he does because he stays within the boundaries of acceptability on at least two key issues: support for actually existing socialism and the “lesser evil” doctrine, the latter of which means perpetual support for the US’s Democratic Party and its affiliated organs. By virtue of being so radical, Horne helps show exactly where the lines are, and he has remained a prolific and prominent scholar by putting out radical work while deftly acceding to those establishment taboos which are absolutely necessary.

It’s important to note what this post is and isn’t trying to do. This isn’t a call to abandon Horne’s voluminous scholarship. The purpose here is definitely not to try and parse the morality or effectiveness of making compromises in order to be heard. This is what’s often said to be at stake when a prominent figure is criticized for saying decidedly un-radical things, and it’s not a question that’s germane here. What this post is trying to accomplish, as with the series on Chomsky, is to use those moments when a prominent radical says something power-serving, identify it as such, and shine a light on why radicals are being steered in that particular direction. If analysis of media is to provide any utility, it’s this.

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