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.
It seems like most progressive commentators are never more visible than around election time, and Horne is no exception. With less than a month to go before the 18-month-long 2016 election finally ends, Horne has been made the subject of an in-depth career retrospective from C-SPAN’s Book TV. In the far-ranging talk, Horne discusses many things including his recent biography of Paul Robeson, the presidential election, and numerous topics related to the scholarship—chiefly the confluence of “both Communism and black liberation,” in the words of host Peter Slen. Professor Horne situates himself with the radical strand of black intellectual tradition, “that of Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois, et al,” and the scholastic pedigree shows when discussing American history. Unlike Noam Chomsky, who laments how contemporary America has become unmoored from its democratic roots, Horne situates the US’s legacy as that of a slaveholding, expansionist settler-colonial state. Horne opens his Book TV discussion with a radical counter-history of the United States: he roots America’s foundation as one in the interests of settlers and slave-owners, representing the rising power of the bourgeoisie, up to the 20th century, at which point white supremacy must bear a tactical retreat due to the geo-political counterweight, and threat of a good example, provided by the socialist world. He concludes the history by explaining that the best framework for analyzing the arc of US history is “from settler-colonialism to US imperialism,” linking America’s contemporary violence to tendencies at its core. This is the sort of critical material that dismantles the nationalist mythologies undergirding America’s white supremacist system, and it also sounds recognizably socialist—rooted in material conditions like the historical rise of the bourgeoisie and the economic imperatives that drive evils like anti-black racism.
The first red flags (the bad kind) go up when the conversation turns to socialism. Horne is discussing 2016’s Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary, a biography of the artist and activist Paul Robeson, and describes Robeson as “a socialist, thought to be a communist” (0:24.20). When the host asks if Robeson was a communist, Horne provides a long but inconclusive answer. One could attribute this caginess to the caution that a historian has to display when speaking about a deceased party, since there is a dispute over whether Robeson ever formally joined the CPUSA. However, a historian would be well within their rights to point out that Robeson described weeping upon seeing Joseph Stalin in person, so the hedging over Robeson’s communism might be unnecessary. However, having broached the topic of socialism, Horne then praises the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, “who went a long way to detoxify the concept of socialism and to clarify the concept of socialism” and in the process attracted many millennials to the cause (0:28).
Coming from someone who is usually described as an uncompromising Marxist or communist, this is a strange statement. Any discussion of Bernie Sanders has to start with the fact that he is objectively not a socialist. Socialism is not, as many Sanders-boosters would have people believe, a warm-and-fuzzy feeling that someone gets when they think about public projects like highways or the postal service. Socialism is a stage on the road to communism, involving public ownership of the means of production and a centrally planned economy. William Blum points out that:
Any improvement in the system has to begin with a strong commitment to radically restraining, if not completely eliminating, the profit motive. Otherwise nothing of any significance will change in society, and the capitalists who own the society—and their liberal apologists—can mouth one progressive-sounding platitude after another as their chauffeur drives them to the bank. But social democrats and democratic socialists have no desire to get rid of the profit motive. Last November, Sanders gave a speech at Georgetown University in Washington about his positive view of democratic socialism, including its place in the policies of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. In defining what democratic socialism means to him, Sanders said: ‘I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.’
If Sanders doesn’t believe that the government should own the means of production, then he is not a socialist. The closest thing to “democratic socialist” governments on Earth today are the Bolivarian republics of Latin America, which are pursuing redistributive policies that are almost as radical as is possible for a bourgeois capitalist state. This is too socialist for Senator Sanders, who derided Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” (which manages the impressive and economical feat of fitting two propaganda lies into three words). Even the American labor activist Eugene Debs, whom Sanders has long identified as his political hero, is too socialist for the Vermont senator, who repudiates Debs’ calls to overthrow the capitalist system (in other words, Debs’ core political convictions). Sanders also stresses that enough has changed since Debs’ time that the only “revolution” that should happen is higher voter turnout in support of the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ claim to the socialist mantle is based on the fact that he admires the governing models of the Nordic countries—but these are just capitalist countries with good welfare systems, which are subjecting their people to the same punishing austerity schemes as the rest of the capitalist world. Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen chastised Bernie Sanders for his misinformation earlier this year, reminding people that Denmark is not a socialist planned economy, but a capitalist market system. As someone on Twitter pointed out, even Forbes bloggers can figure out that what Bernie Sanders is selling is not socialism. According to a write-up on the Sanders campaign in the Wall Street Journal, “Rather than talk of national ownership of corporations, Mr. Sanders’s proposals are for Social Security increases, free college tuition and breaking up big banks”—in other words, stemming some of the excesses of the current neoliberal phase of capitalism. One professor quoted in the Journal calls this “21st century socialism,” which explains the surprisingly positive tone Sanders received in the official publishing house of American capital. What Sanders is advocating is a return to post-WWII Keynesian liberalism, or capitalism with a more robust social safety net. A capitalist economy with good welfare programs isn’t socialism, but the social democracy that characterized many Western states between the end of World War II and 1970s. Moreover, Sanders peddling the fantasy that somehow this is an option, and it’s one that can be realized by voting for Hillary Clinton. All this means that, as one libertarian think tank observed, “Sanders has convinced a great deal of people that socialism is something it is not.” Stephen Gowans explains that:
others talk about 21st Century Socialism as if it’s new, fresh and exciting, rather than a warmed-over version of something that has been showing up, and then fading away, regularly, like a full moon or a new season.
[According to Albert Szymanski,] “Indeed virtually all the basic arguments of (contemporary) reformists and progressives ….were more or less fully developed in 1899 (by Eduard Bernstein in his Evolutionary Socialism) and reasserted again in the late 1920s as well as in the 1950s and early 1960s” and later in the 1980s. And now in the 21st century as 21st Century Socialism.
While 21st Century Socialism claims to be a fresh alternative to the orthodox Marxist revolutionary approach that led to the really-existing socialism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it’s just an old, not terribly roadworthy car, with fresh paint.
So Sanders is only “detoxifying” socialism by redefining it as “the capitalism that white people’s parents enjoyed.” At a time when capitalism is promising more punishing austerity and illusory economic recoveries, and more naked brute force, there’s an obvious utility to confusing people about the alternative. What liberals-in-reds’-clothing like Sanders sell is the idea that socialism is just “the government doing something,” rather than a radically democratic society without the profit motive; and that by electing some more progressive politicians, capitalist societies can return to the boom-times of the mid-century. To this end, “Democratic socialists” like Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) argue that socialism is what exists in Western Europe, while “communism” is an evil form of socialism that’s marked by totalitarianism, as seen in the USSR, Cuba, and the DPRK. Like most liberals, Sanders and the DSA go as far as the political right in stigmatizing actually existing socialism: as the DSA’s Twitter account points out, the “DSA is anti-communist,” and their organization should instead be considered the inheritor to the Democratic legacy. If any further clarification is needed that this is a liberal idea, not a socialist one, see MSNBC’s Cenk Uygur “explain” the differences as he sees them between “socialism” and “communism.”
So it would be objectionable enough if Horne was using his radical credibility to praise Sanders for “detoxifying” socialism by robbing the word of its meaning and redefining it. But Horne goes a step further, and praises Sanders for clarifying the concept of socialism, while Sanders is doing the opposite. Sanders is actively deceiving his audience about what socialism really is, while slandering a more radical leader like President Chávez and sheepdogging young progressives back into the Democratic Party fold. Today, Sanders tells his supporters that the path to enacting a revolutionary progressive agenda will be realized by supporting the worst Democratic presidential candidate in living memory. To those who believe in socialism as the word has traditionally been understood, this is as much a victory as people switching from eating beef to pork is a triumph for vegetarianism.
From a friend of Frank to the “Inept Executive”
Horne’s comments about Sanders commendably clarifying socialism are part of a longer history of both boosting the Democrats du jour and doing so by extolling mostly illusory virtues. Famous radicals are a small group; those who espouse an unmistakably class-based view are even smaller. Among this group, those who inevitably counsel voting for Democrats like Prof. Adolph Reed and Dr. Cornel West spend much of their time outside the 18-month election season issuing blistering denunciations of the Democratic Party roach-motel. Horne is one of the few prominent radical commentators to avoid a radical critique of Obama and the contemporary Democratic Party. Someone might find such a criticism buried in one of his dozens of books, but if it exists, this is just narrowcasting to the base. In prominent forums, a.k.a. the ones which matter the most, Horne engages in the active whitewashing and counseling of compliance that accrue prominence to any Leftist without issuing the sort of searing criticisms common to his peer group.
In a speech in April 2007, delivered in honor of the CPUSA archive, Horne spoke on the history of the CPUSA, particularly in the Hawaiian labor movement, the subject of his most recent book. In a conclusion that later provided grist for countless right-wing misinformation mills, Horne connected America’s Communist labor history to a young Hawaiian named Barack Obama, through the figure of the socialist Frank Marshall Davis: “In his best selling memoir Dreams of [sic] my Father, the author speaks warmly of an older black poet, he identifies simply as ‘Frank’ as being a decisive influence in helping him to find his present identity as an African-American, a people who have been the least anticommunist and the most left-leaning of any constituency in this nation… At some point in the future, a teacher will add to her syllabus Barack’s memoir and instruct her students to read it alongside Frank Marshall Davis’ equally affecting memoir, Living the Blues.”
It’s interesting that there are at least two interpretations that one can draw from this coda. Someone who was skeptical of then-Senator Obama could see this as an attempt to put a bow on the speech by adding an interesting and timely historical synchronicity. However, for someone who was an Obama fan, or even just curious about whether his progressive image was a marketing scam or the real deal, the statement seems like sly confirmation that the candidate could be a closet socialist. Given that the speech was subtitled “Rethinking the future of the Communist Party,” Communists could have cause to be heartened by what Obama had to offer the socialist movement, since one Communist was apparently “a decisive influence in helping him to find his present identity as an African-American, a people who have been the least anticommunist and the most left-leaning of any constituency in this nation.”
This story was not a one-off; instead, it typified the way Horne would talk about President Obama. In a 2009 speech the CUNY Graduate Center, delivered two months after Obama’s inauguration, Horne talked about his new book on Shirley Graham Du Bois and touched on the subjects of Barack Obama and the radical tradition. During a discussion on how to advance the progressive cause, Horne praised “the efforts of the Obama administration to, really, reinvigorate a liberal tradition” (34:00), and portrayed Obama’s agenda as a complement to radical activism. During the Q&A portion of the discussion, one questioner identified herself as an Obama fan who is curious about why the candidate repeats the boilerplate propaganda of American exceptionalism, and whether Obama genuinely believes this or is just making a strategic feint. In response, Horne reiterated Obama’s communist past in the form of the Frank Marshall Davis anecdote, and added a few more biographical details about the President’s parents to further solidify the idea that Obama might be a closet radical.
While it’s true that by March 2009, Obama had only been in office two months, to praise him for “really” reinvigorating “a liberal tradition” was an extravagant statement. If it’s unbecoming for a historian to criticize Obama during his presidency, then surely it’s inappropriate to make a bold claim like this so prematurely. Of course, as any historian knows, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but at the time such basic truths had been rescinded for the Illinois Senator. In this case, such extraordinary claims didn’t require any substantiation at all, since billions of dollars were spent and all the noise of the culture industry was marshaled in order to sell a centrist neoliberal as a transformative progressive figure. Endless commentary was produced hailing the glorious Senator as a man whose very presence on the world stage was changing history itself: a typical piece praising Obama’s election gushed that “the election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.”
In reality, there was scant evidence beyond the Hope-and-Change marketing blitz that Obama was a progressive, and ample evidence to the contrary. By the mid-1990s, Barack Obama was fully integrated into the world of wealthy foundations; at this point he made friends with his first (of many) oligarch patrons, Chicago’s Pritzker family. By 2002, the Illinois State Senator had been named one of 100 Democratic politicians to watch by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). As Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon wrote at the time, then at The Black Commentator:
The DLC’s mission is to erase the last vestiges of social democracy from the Democratic Party, so that the corporate consensus will never again be challenged in the United States. …Every African American politician associated with the DLC should be considered suspect, and closely watched. There is no reason for them to be there except to make deals with the party’s right wing – which believes that Gore lost the 2000 election largely because he became too closely identified with Blacks and labor.
By 2007, when it was clear that Illinois Senator Obama was being primed for the presidency, Larissa MacFarquhar noted that Obama’s worldview was “deeply conservative.” This conservatism was manifested in everything from the traditional American exceptionalism that fills his memoirs to helping Vermont Senator Joe Lieberman fend off an electoral challenge from anti-war candidate Ned Lamont to frequently identifying Ronald Reagan as an inspiration. The Obama campaign pushed a profoundly centrist message, with a lot of ordinary moderate cant peppered with vague, soaring rhetoric and breathless marketing. When the Obama administration took office in January 2009, his economic policy was so driven by campaign donor Goldman Sachs that the firm earned the nickname “Government Sachs.” In other words, there was extensive evidence that the Obama administration was serving the moneyed interests that had placed it there, and not a lot of evidence that a reinvigoration of the liberal tradition was on the agenda.
Even after eight years, there are still millions of people who would whine that this is “unfair”—and the number of these people is sure to rise, since Obama has spent the last years of his tenure engaging in a wide-ranging legacy-building project to secure a more progressive reputation than he deserves. But the disagreement speaks to a fundamental divide between the liberal and radical narratives about the Obama presidency. Roughly speaking, it breaks down along these lines: according to liberals who support Obama but will criticize him at all, the President has made mistakes and been limited by greater forces. When Obama was able to do what he wanted, he passed landmark legislation like the Affordable Care Act and a slew of other progressive measures.
However, he made mistakes, like underestimating right-wing resentment towards his administration. Republican intransigence turned out to be one of many serious impediments he faced, and the shortcomings of the last eight years are largely due to factors like these. A hostile GOP, virulently bitter and racist red-staters, special-interest groups, apathetic voters who won’t “make him do it,” and “the system” conspired to hinder the president’s liberal agenda. Despite the fact that Obama was sold as a candidate who would change everything, and despite the fact that Donald Trump is an odious villain who must be stopped at all costs under threat of total disaster; between 2009 and 2016, the President was essentially powerless. It is an ironic paradox that there is a black President at the same time black/white wealth gap has soared to Jim Crow-era levels, or that police murders of black Americans are so visible. But on aggregate, the Obama presidency was mostly a success, since he was able to do good while being hobbled by enemies: the epigram of the PragProg manifesto has been “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the perfectly good.” And whatever else you want to say about him, he wasn’t George W. Bush.
The radical critique of Obama is radically different. To begin, there’s more than enough evidence that the president is more or less enacting an agenda aligned with his principles—it looks like he is a neoliberal who’s totally on-board to manage the Empire, so it’s not the House GOP’s fault that Obama is not politically progressive. Much of what his left critics object to, including deportations; expanding wars on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen; or bringing chaos to Honduras and Libya; are entirely the prerogative of the Executive branch, and thus can’t be blamed on Republicans. There’s also the fact that for the first two years of his time in the White House—that’s one quarter of his term in office—Democrats had both the Executive branch and the vaunted sixty-vote veto-proof “supermajority” in the Senate, which they had bleated about needing during the Bush years if they were to have any hope of enacting a progressive agenda.
In this reading of history, Obama and the Democrats aren’t the lesser evil but, as Glen Ford put it, the more effective evil. By virtue of their progressive reputations—by virtue of the fact that Obama isn’t George W.—the Democratic Party is able to go places the Republicans can’t, which is the case for the liberal parties throughout the English-speaking North Atlantic. Again, Ford:
George Bush could not have pulled off such an evisceration of the Bill of Rights, if only because the Democrats and an aroused street would not have allowed it… It was left to Obama to pass actual legislation nullifying domestic rule of law – with no serious Democratic opposition.
The Obama administration, with the Federal Reserve functioning as a component of the executive branch, has funneled at least $16 trillion to domestic and international banking institutions, much of it through a virtually “free money” policy that could well become permanent.
These are world-shaking works of Obama-ism. Even Obama’s “lesser” crimes are astounding: his early calls for austerity and entitlement-axing (two weeks before his inauguration) and determined pursuit of a Grand Accommodation with the GOP (a $4 trillion deal that the Republicans rejected, in the summer of 2011) reveal a politician intent on ushering in a smoother, more rational corporate hegemony over a thoroughly pacified civil society.
Of course, Obama begins with the delegitimization of Black struggle, as in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech (”…there is no Black America…only the United States of America.”) To the extent that the nation’s most progressive, anti-war constituency can be neutralized, all of Obama’s corporate and military goals become more doable.
By virtue of who he was, Barack Obama was able to shut down the anti-war movement and institutionalize the endless war of the Bush administration—a 2010 CIA report leaked to Wikileaks highlighted Barack Obama as an asset uniquely able to sell the Afghan war to skeptics. Along the way, he was able to do things like get many black and white progressives to support the racist rationale of “stand your ground” killings, by asking them to argue for his drone strikes. While Republican nativism raises a hue and cry, Obama was able to deport more Latin Americans by an order of magnitude, and do it very quietly. Obama didn’t “stand up” to Wall Street for the simple reason that he would never do such a thing—not only for vague “systemic” reasons, but because he was the Wall Street candidate in 2008. He didn’t “stand up” to America’s right-wing forces not only because such a crackdown would never happen in a capitalist society, but because he is a fundamentally conservative person himself, as evidenced by the hundreds of prominent reactionaries who endorsed him in 2008. He didn’t come down hard on the Bush administration’s criminality because he didn’t think they had committed any crimes, as he himself claimed in 2007. It’s not an “irony” or a “paradox” that Black Lives Matter must exist under Obama, any more than it’s ironic that American “humanitarian” interventions leave failed states in their wake or that conspicuous wealth coexists alongside crushing poverty: these things are the intended effects, and the confusion comes from believing the public rationales.
When discussing Obama in prominent places, Professor Horne hews—seemingly invariably—to the liberal narrative and tacitly rejects the radical one. To begin with, he mostly accepts the idea that Obama’s election was a paradigm-shifting, once-in-a-lifetime political realignment. In his Book TV interview, he claims that in the arc of American history, Obama’s election is “very important,” though some may have overstated the case. But “given the US’s torturous path of slavery and Jim Crow, it’s earth-shattering, earth-shaking that a black president was elected” and “2008 was no doubt a turning-point in American history” (58:00). This positive view towards Obama’s impact on American racism informs much of Horne’s commentary on the president. For instance, in an interview with RT about the US police state and the murders it perpetrates on black Americans, Horne delivers a radical critique until the subject is the president. When asked about Obama responding to protests with standard placations, Horne explains that “I think people are chuckling or scowling at Barack Obama’s words. But to be fair to him, he is in a very difficult position. It is very difficult for him to acknowledge what increasingly historians have come to realize.” This Obama of 2016, who is just now waking up to the existence of systemic white supremacy, has apparently done a lot of backsliding from the 2007 Obama who allegedly gleaned a radical consciousness from his parents and Frank Marshall Davis, according to Horne at the time. “The problem is that when the black community—which is largely responsible for Barack Obama being in the White House—comes to him with specific and particular demands speaking to the black condition, he dismisses this community with a wave. Now, to be fair to Mr. Obama, he has to face down a very formidable white racist constituency that objects strenuously to any concessions to black people. However, he should be honest and just concede and admit that basic fundamental fact.”
There is a lot of misinformation here, beginning with to whom Barack Obama is beholden. For all the talk about how his 2008 campaign was driven by politically energized voters putting on their first pair of canvassing sneakers, the Obama presidency was from the outset backed by billionaires. A New York Times report claims that “Without Penny Pritzker, it is unlikely that Barack Obama ever would have been elected to the United States Senate or the presidency… For most of 2007, Obama trailed Hillary Rodham Clinton in polls, and yet his candidacy survived in large part because of the money collected by Pritzker and her team.” All the touching stories about college students breaking open their piggy banks for Senator Yes-We-Can couldn’t hold a candle to Pritzker, who according to the Times raised three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2007-8. Emails recently released by Wikileaks show that the White House is exasperated with NAACP head Ben Jealous for being “really hung up on Obama not caring about black people,” while Pritzker was awarded the role of Secretary of Commerce. So it should come as little surprise that Obama is not particularly receptive to “demands speaking to the black condition,” since the idea that he sees them as his patrons has little factual basis. Horne further attenuates Obama’s relationship to his chain-of-command by placing the blame on Barack Obama’s personal inability to grapple with history and America’s formidable constituency of white racists. How odd that this group could “make him do it” where so many well-meaning progressive fans failed.
In part two of a six-part 2014 interview for The Real News Network, titled “The Black Scare and the Democratic Party,” Horne delivers his take on the Obama administration and the two-party system, and it is a series of minimizing excuses and whitewashes that would fit snugly in a programming block between Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. Horne and host Paul Jaye blame Obama’s failure to reinvigorate the liberal tradition almost solely on intransigence from the Republican right and “systemic problems.” When facing pressure from the right, “what happens is the Democrats oftentimes are forced to attack their base, which is what Bill Clinton did.” According to Horne, Clinton, who oversaw an assault on America’s welfare system and explosion of the prison industry, was forced to do so by the GOP. Presumably he was forced to murder more than one million Iraqis and destroy Yugoslavia despite his best intentions, too. “And I don’t see that as necessarily a personal flaw, although it very well may be, of Obama or Clinton. I see it as a structural problem.” Horne does concede that Obama has made some errors in judgment: “particularly with regard to foreign policy Obama has made some significant mistakes. Those too are structural, but in part they’re individual. What I’m pointing to is the invasion of Libya, the bombing of Libya, 2011.” So Obama’s shortcomings are the result of “structural forces,” “the intensity of [right-wing] voters,” and partly individual “mistakes” in personal judgment like the NATO war that destroyed Libya. In multiple interviews it seems that the destruction of Libya is the only demerit Horne attributes to Obama directly, though he frames it as a mere error.
It’s important to clarify all this talk about “structural forces” and “systemic pressures.” The “structural” lens sounds fine on first glance—it’s obviously important to consider the class interests that drive policies that might otherwise look haphazard. However, when this talk about structures is invoked by defenders of Obama and the Democrats, it’s flak used to whitewash these figures by making them look like helpless bystanders, rather than actors with any sort of agency. The idea is to portray someone like Barack Obama as a cork bobbing aimlessly atop the sea (that would be “the system”), buffeted by roiling waves (these would be the Republicans). References to “structures” are there to add a smart-sounding, progressive patina to dumb, power-serving ideas. First, it’s disingenuous on its face. No one claims that Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican rapists are just a regrettable necessity since he’s helpless before the structural influence of nativist voters. Horne doesn’t think so, either, as proven in a discussion on America’s worst president. In his Book-TV interview, Horne discusses James Buchanan, and claims that even though Buchanan “didn’t write” the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, he still bears responsibility for the forces which culminated in the bloody slaveholders’ rebellion. Similarly, even though Andrew Johnson was of secondary import to the class of former slave-owners who derailed Reconstruction, Horne argues that Johnson “deserves opprobrium; deserves critique, searing critique” for the failures of the era (2:10-2:12). So this idea that US presidents are of minimal importance and absolved by systemic forces obviously isn’t a real analytical framework—it’s only a dispensation afforded to high-status, living Democrats who have recently resided in the White House.
Second, in the zeal to disentangle popular Democrats from the system they serve, it’s the pushers of the “inept Executive” who are being unsystematic in their analysis. It’s baseless and ahistoric in the extreme to assume that a white supremacist system is, for some reason, promoting well-intentioned progressives to places of prominence and only then forcing them to enact a reactionary agenda. A basic idea of how systems work would compel someone to think that people are rewarded based on how much they please those already in power—meaning that Obama is where he is because he demonstrated a fundamental alignment with the white supremacist project that he serves. In their discussion, Horne and Jaye advocate an alternative view of power based on the idea that the Democratic voting base is something that occasionally brings progressives to the pinnacle of the power elite. But there’s extensive evidence that Barack Obama is enacting a white supremacist agenda in line with his principles: from the years he spent currying favor with the white super-rich and fellow neoliberal politicians in Chicago to the finger-wagging scoldings he delivered to black audiences throughout his presidency.
Even Obama’s 2008 “speech on race” in Philadelphia (officially titled “A More Perfect Union”), celebrated as “too good for today’s media” and “reviving the spirit of the nation itself,” was a Eucharistic repetition of white supremacist lies. In this speech, the future president delivered an objectively white supremacist view of US history, deriding the idea that white racism is endemic, equating the liberation theology of Jeremiah Wright with the latent anti-black racism of his grandmother, and accusing black radicals and revolutionary anti-racists of fomenting “disunity” at a time when “we” need to come together—while pointing to his own candidacy as proof that racism had mostly been dismantled. Minus the well-worn details about the Senator’s life story and tedious speechifying, the basic lessons of the speech would have been at home on a Fox News panel about “race hustlers.”
Finally, the idea that Democrats try in vain to do good in order to placate their black voters seems extraordinarily unlikely based on their behavior. If Bill Clinton felt beholden to African-Americans and was only grudgingly making concessions to white racists, then why was one of these concessions a prison industry that disenfranchised countless thousands of black Americans on felony charges?
Horne is blaming “the system” here the way that liberals often do: to absolve the Democratic Party of its complicity in maintaining white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism by shifting blame to an amorphous structure and the usual rogues’ gallery of right-wing villains. Jaye nearly trips over himself to stress that “when I say Obama—it’s very important to say this—I mean his administration, I mean the whole alliance of forces that brought him to power. It’s not just him personally by any means.” The Real News likely has many donors who still harbor residual warm feelings for Barry O., and Jaye’s unctuous disavowal is a pro forma disclaimer to stay on their good sides. As one commenter observed, left-liberal outlets “don’t want to alienate the affluent liberals who make up part of their audience, so they have to stick to structural analysis and downplay ruling class agency. Rigorous attacks on Western imperialism tend to make liberals and ‘leftish’ readers uneasy, since questions of agency, collusion, and state violence are inevitably brought to the fore; imperialism gives the lie to ‘headless capitalism,’ a worldview in which hardly anyone seems to be directly culpable of anything.”
A systemic discussion of, for instance, the Libya war would involve facts like: a return to small-footprint “humanitarian” wars, waged through force multipliers like local proxies, was bipartisan gospel sometime around 2005. Obama was selected as a perfect salesperson because 1) he had, throughout his career, signaled total obedience to the imperial project and 2) through his progressive branding, he was able to sell this elite consensus as a radical transformation—the way that only a black Commander-in-Chief could get away with destroying Libya and overseeing the rise of AFRICOM and make it look to many like an accident. A systemic discussion would recognize the fact that countries like Libya are destroyed for the benefit of Western investors, and that while most Americans don’t profit from these wars, the few who do are the same few who drive the policies.
Instead, Horne lists the personal foibles that lead Obama to make the “mistake” of destroying Libya in 2011, a “disastrous invasion that not only uses tax dollars in a very unwise manner, but [has spread chaos] like a virus throughout Africa… Ironically and paradoxically, in a sense this is all the product of the first president of African heritage.” The idea that wars, even “dumb” ones, profit the rich is a basic part of a radical systemic critique. Any discussion that treats these fundamentals as “ironic paradoxes” or mere mistakes is no more rooted in “structural forces” than the idea that George W. Bush attacked Iraq because he was jealous of his father. Horne’s claim that destroying Libya—formerly the most implacable bulwark against Western meddling in Africa—was a “mistake” is so at odds with his lucid understanding of neo-colonialism, that it would be stunning and inexplicable if this segment wasn’t clearly a grand whitewash of the Obama administration’s murderous legacy.
“Notables-For-Hire” and the “Fake Left”
People often discuss individuals while analyzing power structures because systems work themselves out through individual actors. For instance, Horne is acting out structural prohibitions that have been imposed on acceptable debate, because these injunctions serve an economic interest. By observing how individual actors uniformly respect these taboos in order to gain a platform, we can see the structure. For an example of the penalties that come with not observing these prohibitions, Professor Cornel West provides an object lesson. The philosopher and academic Cornel West joined the Obama campaign in 2008; by 2011, he was prominently criticizing the administration as a Wall Street-and-drone presidency. That year, MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry blasted West in the personal and pathologizing terms that were always used on Obama’s progressive black critics, dismissing his arguments as “utter hilarity,” the result of “projection” and ivory-tower privilege, and accused West of “thin criticisms” springing from his “delicate ego.” West responded to Harris-Perry’s attack by calling her a “fake and a fraud,” comments that would later be used to paint him as a misogynist (though Harris-Perry’s ad hominem qualified her for both labels). West continued to excoriate the White House’s racist, imperialist, and neoliberal policies, while simultaneously criticizing pro-Obama media figures like Michael Eric Dyson and Al Sharpton. Dyson, a perpetual Democratic partisan and frequent White House visitor, took up Harris-Perry’s line of attack, culminating in an almost 10,000-word hatchet job in the pages of The New Republic. As always when liberals vigorously defend the president from the left, Dyson’s piece did little to engage West’s critiques and was mostly centered on policing his tone and speculating viciously about his emotional state. Turning the hatchet-job into a smear campaign, most of the liberal alt-branded media dutifully picked up and broadcast Dyson’s line of attack, with people like Salon’s Joan Walsh adding “sexist” and “anti-Semite” to the litany of charges. Prominent figures like Dave Zirin and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrung their hands about the “feud” and acknowledged the respective accomplishments of both West and Dyson, while grimly concluding that Dyson’s substance-free slander was mostly correct.
Glen Ford explained that “Dyson has resorted to icon assassination because West’s highly visible critique of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy is an embarrassment to the administration, to the Democratic Party as an institution, and to the sycophantic Black Misleadership Class that has been more loyal to Obama than to Black people as a group. Mostly, Dyson is mad because Dr. West called him out, personally…Dyson attempts to draw the reader into a discussion of the definition of a ‘prophet,’ and who is, or is not, one. But that’s just a long-winded way of asserting that West has no right to criticize Dyson, Harris, Sharpton and the other Black-notables-for-hire.” Had West just stuck to criticizing the president and taken his lumps quietly, it’s possible that things would have happened differently. But West didn’t just criticize Barack Obama, he criticized the constellation of media personalities who perform a role as vital as that of the Democratic Party in co-opting and silencing those to their left. People like Michael Eric Dyson and magazines like The New Republic and The Nation provide vital flak for the Democrats, steer skeptical people back into the two-party system, and translate messages from the White House for those to the left-of-liberal. By blowing the whistle on them as well as the president, West was damaging the reputations of two equally vital entities.
Even after Dyson’s smear campaign had declared West a “ghost,” West remained stubbornly committed to his cause. West critiqued The Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who had recently been anointed as a towering progressive figure when Toni Morrison called him the new James Baldwin. As with Harris-Perry, Coates was the initial belligerent, when in 2011 Coates compared Professor West to right-wing agit-prop peddler Dinesh D’Souza. During Dyson’s smear campaign against West, Coates implied that West’s belief that Obama is beholden to powerful interests is self-evidently absurd. Coates’ elevation to a modern-day Baldwin was a textbook example of how media figures get called-up to the major leagues: Coates was a writer for The Atlantic, then one day a high-status person declared him the new James Baldwin, and from that moment on it was common sense, and no one was allowed to say otherwise. During the adulation, West cautioned that the coronation was premature, writing on his facebook page that “Coates can grow and mature, but without an analysis of capitalist wealth inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, Imperial occupation (all concrete forms of plunder) and collective fightback (not just personal struggle) Coates will remain a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship and hence a distraction from the necessary courage and vision we need in our catastrophic times.” Given Baldwin’s reputation as a critic of American white supremacy, the claim to Baldwin’s more radical legacy is as yet unearned: Coates claims that his inspirations are the pseudo-libertarian columnist Andrew Sullivan and the neoliberal ideologist Matthew Yglesias, the latter of whom famously said that over a thousand dead Bangladeshi garment workers were just part of the cost of having cheap textiles.
Horne was asked about the issue between West and Coates during his Book TV interview. His answer is diplomatically phrased: he says he admires his friend West, calling him “one of the towering intellectuals of this era”; he also admires Ta-Nehisi Coates, thinks he’s a very good writer, understands why his “anti-racist” book is a best-seller, and then segues neatly into a description of a vaguely defined cadre of Coates’ left-wing critics. Horne alludes to Leftists inexplicably criticizing Coates for being “anti-racist,” and laments that it’s a symptom of the “ideological confusion that we find ourselves in. So, I guess the bottom line is that despite my utter admiration for Cornel West I don’t share his critique of Mr. Coates” (2:39).
What Horne accomplishes here is a very deft tightrope walk between a genuinely radical public figure and an elite-approved imitation. But by the time Prof. West criticized Coates, West had been subjected to a series of high-profile hatchet-jobs, while Coates had been designated an untouchable cultural giant. So even though Horne begins with a seemingly evenhanded approach, he comes down decisively on the side of the media’s designated black dissident voice. While praising Coates, Horne not only ignores the substance of West’s criticism, he subtly attaches Cornel West to these bizarre and unnamed Leftists who object to Coates’ anti-racism. Anyone whose only exposure to this issue was Horne’s interview would probably conclude that Cornel West wanted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book to be more racist. In reality, Cornel West is objecting to Coates’ ersatz centrist version of anti-racism that doesn’t include a critique of capitalism.
As a political activist with a class-based perspective, West was forced out of the mainstream for insisting that progress for an exceptional few is failing to translate into results for the many. Worse, he had the audacity to articulate this progressive view in prominent places like the Late Show with David Letterman, where he told viewers that “there’s a difference between substance and symbol,” and pointed to the killings of one black person every 28 hours as proof that symbolic change isn’t good enough. By leaving out a critique of the capitalist system which relies on white supremacy, West argued, Coates’s “anti-racism” could only hope to provide more symbols, not substance. As a radical himself, Horne understands this. But given his behavior, it seems that he also understands that members of the proxy-Left ecosystem like Coates are not to be criticized if someone wants to keep working unencumbered. It’s a delicate balancing act to navigate between the real left and the permissible version, but Horne manages to do so with aplomb, while still discretely validating the elite-approved avatar.
There’s a fascinating interaction from the Question & Answer portion of a Gerald Horne discussion from February 2013, titled “Teach-In on Africa, From Mali to Congo.” The questioner asks Professor Horne to draw on his experience as a candidate for the left-wing Peace & Freedom Party and explain the difference between the “fake left” and the genuine article. Upon saying the words “fake left,” many in the crowd laugh at and jeer her, which is a strange response for a crowd who chosen to spend an evening learning “what the mainstream media won’t tell you,” as the moderator said in her opening remarks. When it comes time to answer, Horne takes a very long time considering her question, then explains that “my personal M.O. is, even though I’ve made these pointed comments about Pacifica [Radio Network] etc., my personal bent is to avoid commenting on other Left forces. If we were to have a private discussion… your point is well taken, and my argument is certainly not with you.”
Others might find the Pacifica network, home of Democracy Now, to be a worthwhile target for criticism, particularly in a talk about “colonial histories, U.S. and other western interests, and proxy wars” in Africa. Less than two years earlier, Democracy Now had joined numerous other progressive-branded outlets like Al Jazeera English and (of course) MSNBC as the left flank of the US State Department propaganda machine. During what was called the Arab Spring, Democracy Now featured a slew of guests like Professor Juan Cole to sell progressives on a series of “humanitarian interventions” that would “reignite the flame of liberty in the Arab world,” as Cole said about Libya in an August 22, 2011 broadcast. The destruction of Libya, which turned the African country with the highest standard of living into a failed state, contributed directly to the subsequent conflict in Mali—which brought Horne before his audience. So a critique of Pacifica would have hardly been irrelevant to the topic at hand; instead, it’s an issue of personal preference to forego such criticisms. But Horne understands that if someone wants to avoid the sort of hit that was put out on Cornel West, they’re best off leaving outlets like Pacifica and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates well enough alone.
The Liberal Tradition
Like any figure to whom young radicals might look for direction, in his 2009 speech CUNY Graduate Center, Professor Horne was asked how to move the progressive cause forward. Horne stressed that “to the extent that we’re able to revitalize and reinvigorate a radical tradition, you’ll be able to reinvigorate a liberal tradition… I don’t think there’s a contradiction between trying to revitalize and reinvigorate a radical tradition and the efforts of the Obama administration to, really, reinvigorate a liberal tradition” (34:00). Horne claims to see no contradiction between radicalism and liberalism—which is to say, no tension between socialism and the centrist-wing of capitalism. One could charitably say that Horne is just describing the concessions that the ruling class will make to placate radical mass movements, where protests hold the Democrats’ proverbial feet to the fire.
But it’s clear how the irenic philosophy of liberalism and radicalism co-operating plays out in real life. In practice, this means not criticizing high-status Democrats or the leftish media apparatus that steers people back to the two-party system. Whatever someone wants to say about this, it’s a recipe for being able to publish voluminous amounts of radical scholarship while staying employed and relatively visible.
Unfortunately, this view of harmonious coexistence between liberals and radicals isn’t borne out by history, or the present moment, for the simple reason that liberals want to preserve the system that radicals want to uproot. Liberalism will no more tolerate radicalism than the capitalist West has tolerated the second and third worlds pursuing courses of independent economic development and national self-determination. With so many social democratic politicians like Bernie Sanders and SYRIZA laying claim to the radical tradition, there’s a grim joke among communists online asking social democrats why they killed Rosa Luxemburg—the German communist who was murdered by members of the proto-Nazi Freikorps at the behest of Germany’s Social Democratic government. One could write 30 books of their own detailing how liberals co-opt and crush radicalism. For the sake of brevity and in honor of his time in the august walls of the White House, let’s turn to Barack Obama one more time.
According to his supporters, there is a cherished myth for explaining what liberals see as President Obama’s “shortcomings.” Horne repeats this in not only his Real News interview with Paul Jaye, but seemingly any time he has to answer about Obama’s legacy directly. Bruce Dixon explains that “the myth of course, is that President Barack Obama really does want to do all these things and more, but if they haven’t happened it’s because we the people have abandoned our responsibility to somehow ‘make him do it.’ Applied to the Obama presidency, ‘make me do it’ is a popular myth. It’s popular because the president and his lackeys repeat it endlessly. It’s a myth because it’s not true.” As with so much about his presidency, people believe the idea that Obama wanted to be pushed from the left solely because it was endlessly repeated. The truth was just the opposite, since prior to his becoming POTUS, Barack Obama had a long and little-discussed history of disciplining his left-wing supporters. In 2005, Obama posted a letter to his supporters on the Democratic Party-affiliated site Daily Kos, telling them to tone down their criticisms so that he could make their dreams come true once elected. Obama admonished the faithful to criticize the GOP and not him, so that he could masquerade as a moderate, become president, and then “usher in a new progressive era.”
In 2008, Paul Street observed that Obama had a long record of profound conservatism. Where Obama did interact with left-liberals, it was to chastise and belittle them: Street points out that Senator Obama “did things like lecture ‘bloggers’ (Obama’s new code name for the growing number of activists and voters who dare to openly disagree with Him from the left) on their need to show proper respect for U.S. Senators who approved the appointment of arch-reactionary opponents of womens’ and civil rights to the rule-for-life Supreme Court.”
A final example, from Harry Belafonte by way Bruce Dixon: “Longtime activist Harry Belafonte, who played a key role in the Freedom Movement of the fifties and sixties, exploded the myth in a Democracy Now interview broadcast on May 16. Belafonte was asked by host Amy Goodman whether he’d used his occasional access to directly share his many critical and valuable public policy insights with the White House. Belafonte replied that his only access to the president has been for a few seconds at a time, not long enough for any substantive discussion. But, he said, at one such event President Obama approached him to inquire when Belafonte and Cornel West were going ‘to cut me some slack.’ ‘What makes you think we haven’t?’ Belafonte replied to the president. At this point the brief encounter was over.”
It’s one thing to sound like J. Sakai when speaking to small groups of radicals and then turn into Jay Rosen when given a more prominent platform. However, no matter what someone thinks about making certain tactical concessions, when someone protects the pseudo-left from those who would unmask them, portrays social democratic-liberalism as socialism, or whitewashes Barack Obama’s service to capitalism and white supremacy, they cross the line from merely making compromises into actively propagandizing. And at that point, all the excellent radical scholarship turns into currency that’s cashed-in to authenticate these lies. Because unfortunately, simply declaring neutrality in liberalism’s war on radicalism isn’t an option. There are certain issues in which compliance is mandatory. By virtue of being so good on almost every topic, Horne shows exactly what those no-go areas are.
Here are three further lessons that can be learned from this:
- The importance of elections, the Democrats, and the progressive media ecosystem
If you asked the vast majority of the world’s people if they would rather have a roof over their heads and clean water for their children, or for their country to have an “independent” judiciary, it’s hard to imagine more than a small percentage choosing the latter over the former. For example, Mark Brzezinski, son of Zbigniew, conducted an exercise with a class of students while he was a Fulbright Scholar in post-socialist Poland: “I asked my students to define democracy. Expecting a discussion on individual liberties and authentically elected institutions, I was surprised to hear my students respond that to them, democracy means a government obligation to maintain a certain standard of living and to provide health care, education and housing for all. In other words, socialism.” Socialist societies generally afford positive rights, like a right to an eight-hour workday and guaranteed pension upon retirement, or the right to medical care and subsidized necessities, or the right to a state-subsidized vacation every year (yes, it’s true). Bourgeois capitalist societies are defined by negative rights; like the right to not have your printing presses seized or the right to not have your religious practices hindered—to quote Anatole France, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” And as A.J. Liebling said, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only for those who own one,” because a capitalist society is structured to benefit a wealthy class that own almost everything. Thus, for a country like the United States, its electoral procedures—which is to say, voting—is most of its claim to being democratic.
For this and other reasons, the ruling class places a tremendous emphasis on voting, especially the quadrennial spectacle known as the presidential election. The election is a $2 billion+ event that takes one-and-half years to run its course, and during this time every event is parsed through the lens of the election; differences between the two capitalist, imperialist parties are manufactured and magnified; people receive an endless stream of nationalist propaganda; and dissenters are savaged with every kind scorn that zealous true-believers can muster.
The election is invaluable not only because of the legitimizing effect it has on the entire system, but how it figures in social control. One commentator observes that “a two-party system, from the capitalists’ viewpoint, is generally viewed as the ideal system, avoiding both the pitfalls of the ‘excessive democracy’ of the multi-party system and the dangers of one-party rule. There are two ruling parties but at any given time only one them controls the central government. As the governing party accumulates unpopularity, as it inevitably does under the capitalist system, the people are told that they after all voted for that party and they must patiently wait until the next election to vote it out.” According to excellent Soviet book The US Two-Party System: Past and Present: “the two-party system firmly neutralizes popular attempts to break free of the ruling class’ political control. No wonder Lenin called it ‘one of the most powerful means of preventing the rise of an independent working-class, i.e., genuinely socialist, party.’” Stephen Gowans observes that:
strategic voting by left-wing voters strengthens conservatives by pushing politics increasingly to the right. This happens in two ways. First, those who would otherwise vote for an authentic left alternative throw their weight behind a party which represents a position to the right of their views, in order to defeat conservatives who are even further to the right. This alone represents the skewing of political positions in electoral contests to the right of the base of political positions held by the voting population. Second, the parties that receive the votes of left-wing strategic voters (Labour in Britain, the Democrats in the United States, the Liberals and NDP in Canada), are given permission to move further to the right, in an effort to expand their appeal to cover right-wing voters, since they know that no matter how far right they move, left voters will move with them, so long as there are conservatives even further to the right who must be blocked.
For this reason, progressive commentators, academics, and activists are frequently featured around election time, provided that they can be relied on to recommend an alliance with the Democratic Party. It’s a testament to the strength of reactionary forces that the rejection of both capitalist parties, once a cornerstone of a radical perspective, has been not only put up for acrimonious debate but viciously stigmatized. Just as the election machine has a paralyzing and pacifying effect on politically engaged people, the Democratic Party and its related organs have a crucial role in co-opting those to their left. Thus, the Democrats are as important as elections themselves. Horne is interesting because he inverts the typical model of a progressive lesser-evil advocate: instead of criticizing Democrats but suggesting voting for them, he doesn’t advocate voting but praises Democrats. Regardless, he leaves the door wide open for progressive activists to head back down the dead-end road of the Democratic Party, and his praise of Democrats frequently enters the territory of whitewashing and deception.
Horne’s continued success owes a lot to his personal modus operandi of not criticizing a third vital filter: the “Left forces” who comprise the progressive-left media ecosystem—or what his questioner uncharitably characterized as “the fake left.” By virtue of being such low-hanging fruit, MSNBC is useful. After the ruling class had turned on the Bush administration for accumulating so much bad publicity, MSNBC marketed itself as the left-leaning cable network, with hosts like Keith Olbermann lamenting the end of American democracy in order to get dissatisfied progressives interested in their programming slate. As far as major media outlets, MSNBC was outsized as far as both selling Obama’s centrist agenda to people to the president’s left and rationalizing compliance. Through a lot of smoke-and-mirrors, the stable of MSNBC talent helped justify the White House’s agenda to thousands of progressives. Using a tactic I call “conferred credibility,” Melissa Harris-Perry could appear with bell hooks, then use that radical branding to smear Cornel West and conclude that drone strikes weren’t “fundamentally problematic.” When not going after Republican bogeymen, Rachel Maddow, for instance, would call the CIA’s spying on Congress “death of the Republic stuff,” and then sandwich such a segment in between Joe Biden photo-ops and her continuing coverage of Rand Paul’s plagiarism scandal.
These left-seeming celebrities help remake compliance as transgression, and as Cornel West found out, the penalty for calling them out is marginalization. Earlier this year, Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka received a hatchet-job treatment similar to that of West, featuring the same substance-free accusations of derangement. Baraka was obscure enough that he could get away with calling out pop star Beyoncé Knowles’ appropriation of Black Panther imagery during the Super Bowl halftime show, but by virtue of his place on the Green Party ticket, he was violating the taboos against criticizing both the Democrats and a “fake left” figure.
However, Baraka knows the rules as well as anyone: as Kevin Dooley points out, at a CNN town hall for the Green Party candidates, Baraka’s critiques of Bernie Sanders and Obama shifted from radical to liberal. Where Baraka once called Sanders a sheepdog and said that Obama was playing his role, once on CNN, Sanders became a flawed candidate and Obama turned into an inept executive. Anyone who wants to stay visible has to consider these boundaries sacrosanct.
- Permissible radical critiques and impermissible ones
In his C-SPAN Book-TV interview, host Peter Slen explains that the two pre-eminent motifs in Horne’s work are communism and black liberation. According to Horne, “in some ways, it’s more difficult to write and publish about slavery in the United States than it is to write about Communists,” since slavery happened in America and anti-communism is “a shadow” of its former self (31:20). Horne doesn’t elaborate on the constraints, but the implication is that communism is a more permissible subject to discuss than slavery. Later in the interview, Horne praises the new mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, crediting it with depicting the brutality of slavery much more realistically than the 1970s iteration. He also praises the BET series The Book of Negroes for “an accurate portrayal” of the role of African-Americans who sided with the Crown during America’s War of Independence. He says he’s thrilled to see the new Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation, and stipulates that though he hasn’t seen it himself, he’s heard good things about the slavery portion of the new African-American Museum in Washington, D.C.
In contrast, is it possible to name even one single positive mainstream portrayal of the communist movement in 2016, much less four? Not counting small independent works like John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), the last major American film to feature a positive depiction of socialism is most likely Warren Beatty’s Reds, which came out in 1981, took decades to make it to screens, and was only produced due to the monomaniacal drive and studio clout of one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. Outside university professors and historians like himself, commentators who have any sort of class perspective whatsoever, much less a communist one, are almost entirely nonexistent—Professor Cornel West is one of very few, the rest of whom could probably fit comfortably in a diner booth. Thomas Picketty borrowed a title from Karl Marx and claims to have never read him.
Of course, books “about” communism continue to appear on the shelves, and often become heavily publicized bestsellers: books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, or Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story being two recent successes. Now, as always, there’s plenty of space for books that produce the most repulsive horror stories about socialism and ever-higher body counts (and specious sourcing and methodologies that critics will helpfully ignore).
Horne has dealt with the subject of socialism—as it was understood in the 20th century, not the Bernie Sanders version—in numerous books, including Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party; Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950; and Fighting in Paradise: Labor Unions, Racism, and Communists in the Making of Modern Hawaii. Though he writes often about socialists and labor activists, he covers American or Western Communists—not communists who held power in capitals from East Berlin to Pyongyang. When the subject is socialism in an actually existing People’s Democracy, the rules are very different than they are for writing about the Communist Party USA (which has long been, as the joke goes, a party comprised of FBI informants and Democrats who like the color red). Horne most recently covered actually existing socialism in his book on Paul Robeson, and one reviewer points out several sections in Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary where Horne downplays some of Robeson’s commitments to the Soviet Union, accepts mainstream historiography on the U.S.S.R., and omits nearly all mention of Joseph Stalin (whom Robeson fulsomely praised).
Acceding to official anti-communism and writing about socialists who didn’t hold power has long been a template for how to write a book on actual communists and get it published. Another example that comes to mind is progressive author Karen Ghodsee’s The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Ghodsee’s book covers four Bulgarian communist partisans and a British comrade, and claims to attempt a resuscitation of the socialist project in Bulgaria. However, as Stephen Gowans writes in a review of The Left Side of History, Ghodsee engages in “shockingly puerile, anti-communist rhetoric” in order to tell a typically Western story about the revolution betrayed: “After touting the achievements of Bulgaria’s communism, she brands communist Bulgaria ‘a brutal dystopia ruled by paranoid dictators.’ Rather than examining the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union from the perspective of the multiple and almost insuperable challenges the country’s leadership faced, she offers a sophomoric psychological reductionism, transforming Stalin into a kind of cartoon character Dr. Evil, who she depicts as a ‘megalomaniac’ who ‘hijacked the communist cause.’… Ghodsee wants us to believe that everything good about communism in Bulgaria is traceable to the pure and angelic heroes of her book and the good communists, and all the bad is due to ‘Stalinists.’”
So in a way it’s true that there’s space to write about communism, as long as an author repeats official anti-communism and sticks to noble failures like the CPUSA (Paul Foot once observed that Hollywood “made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him”). But in the same sense, there’s plenty of space to write about slavery, as long as someone gives it what Horne calls “moonlight-and-magnolias” treatment. When broken down, the idea that slavery is a more controversial subject than actually existing socialism doesn’t wash, and the work of Italian Marxist author and historian Domenico Losurdo is a testament to this. Among his many books, Losurdo has written Liberalism: A Counter-History, which covers 400 years of history to explain liberalism’s central role in the twin horrors of slavery and colonialism. Several years earlier, Losurdo authored Stalin: History & Critique of a Black Legend, which debunks a great deal of bourgeois anti-communist history and goes a long way towards explaining the leader’s early reputation as the “leader of progressive humanity.” Liberalism has been published by Verso books, Stalin has still never been translated into English.
Grover Furr is a university professor who has published numerous books debunking accusations of Soviet atrocities during the Stalin period, including Khrushchev Lied, The Murder of Sergei Kirov, and most recently Blood Lies, a refutation of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. In doing so, he has been derided as a “Stalinist,” but it has made him an expert in, amongst other topics, the contours of mainstream Soviet historiography. Furr claims that in the US, the space for dissenting views on Soviet history is essentially nonexistent: “In Russia, there is a little space for counter-hegemonic [ideas], discussions, historical writing and so forth of Soviet history during the Stalin period. There is almost none anywhere else.” In a talk on his book Khrushchev Lied, Furr also elaborates on exactly how and to what ends the field of Soviet studies is constrained:
Evidence and research are what I have to offer here, and there are very few people doing the work that I do. Almost everyone else researching the Stalin period in the Soviet Union; and who can read Russian fluently, as I can; and who has the research skills, and who has the institutional affiliation, like a university that can provide them with library facilities and vital and very expensive inter-library loan facilities; and who has the interest and motivation to do this kind of research—almost everyone else is an anti-communist, and lacks all objectivity.
The few who do have access to these facilities, and are not anti-communists, are for the most part in the field of Soviet or Russian history themselves. And in that academic field, it’s a basic requirement that you be an anti-communist. In the very few instances where that is not so, you simply have to steer clear of writing anything that will upset, much less contradict, the anti-communists, because the anti-communists dominate this field. I have been told by two fine researchers in Soviet history—researchers who are not leftists but who strive to be objective—that no book that is not hostile to Stalin can be published by an academic publisher.
Let me put it another way to you: if you were in the field of Soviet history, let’s say you taught Soviet history at a university history department, you could not do the research that I do. If you did, you could not be published in the standard journals or by mainstream academic publishers, and you would soon not be in the field of Soviet history anymore, because you must publish in these journals to keep your job, and therefore you would not be able to keep your job. That’s why my position is unusual: I teach at an English department. My academic livelihood does not depend in any way on my research into Soviet history.
I have recently been told by the provost at my university that I will never be promoted, but at least they’re not threatening my job.
In the past year, the same government that is currently working to return Assata Shakur to the US in chains announced that it was going to change the $20 bill. The face of President Andrew Jackson, slave owner and Indian-killer, is to be swapped with that of black liberator Harriet Tubman. At the same time that certain symbolic expressions of white supremacy are changed, the American state is purging its “liberal” form of governance, meaning nominal rule-of-law protections like habeas corpus, traditionally declared military interventions, a social safety net for the white bourgeois, the trappings of representative democracy, etc. It all adds up to something that could be called “intersectional fascism.” To sugar the pill, and to dissuade people from exploring the system that offers them hope, communism is being stigmatized more, rather than less. Writers like Timothy Snyder and publications like The Economist are moving anti-Soviet propaganda from the fascist fringes where they once dwelled and into the mainstream, so that in the future, Hitler’s Third Reich will look like a lesser evil against the Soviet Union. Given that leftism is being denatured of anything resembling socialism, these stories will be enthusiastically signal-boosted by the current and coming crop of celebrity leftist commentators.
All this indicates that there’s space to issue damning indictments of America’s foundation myths, provided that the accuser stops short of condemning the entirety of the contemporary system and defends the Democrats. And there is also space to write about certain aspects of the labor movement, even avowed Communists, as long as someone observes the cordon sanitaire around actually existing socialism.
- The Value of Superficial Signaling
Radicals who spend any time consuming media are probably familiar with the eye-rolls that most left-branded commentators will occasionally induce. This is because, unlike creatures of the right whose political core is favorable to capital, highly visible celebrities designed to appeal to leftists can only be so progressive. In order to rope in those who might be receptive to anti-capitalism, there are people like SYRIZA finance minister and self-described “erratic Marxist” Yanis Varoufakis; “communists” who sound suspiciously like fascists in the Slavoj Žižek vein; and others in an ecosystem which Horne’s impertinent questioner characterized as “the fake left.” In practice, a leftish reputation is cobbled together due to marketing, superficial signaling, and a lot of tactical vagueness when necessary. An excellent blog post on “the ‘courage’ of no convictions,” described the phenomenon, common to academia, of “making seemingly profound pronouncements but concluding with vague, difficult to categorize conclusions. This then allows them to easily slither away from being pinned down to a position when called out. It’s probably present in all political strains but I’m most concerned with its appearance among writers who position themselves as representative of the left.”
He explains that “many people find the ally or enemy they need in Glenn Greenwald, almost regardless of what he says or does.” This is largely due to Greenwald’s political substance being a blend of liberal social positions and Constitutional conservatism, which enables him to appeal to everyone from the ISO to the Cato Institute. Ta-Nehisi Coates is another perfect example of an icon whose politics are a mish-mash of the mainstream. Coates’ reputation as an invaluable anti-racist writer is based on his Atlantic column and the imprimatur that Toni Morrison lent to him as the heir to James Baldwin. Even though Coates’ comments about Obama’s independence are enough on their own to dismiss him, there is the issue of his slanders comparing Cornel West to Dinesh D’Souza, and the fact that his self-professed inspirations are Andrew Sullivan and Matt Yglesias. Coates used his most celebrated piece, the 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case For Reparations,” to repeatedly praise Israel and the Nakba as reparations for the Holocaust implemented successfully. Not only does Coates use his credibility as a commenter on race to dismiss “socialism,” but he agrees with the increasingly prevalent view that Nazi Germany may have been a “shade of grey” lesser evil to the USSR.
Since he’s been thanked for “clarifying” socialism, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders’ socialist reputation has also been assembled from a lot of signaling. Though he’s repudiated the content of Debs’ radicalism, a piece in Business Insider proclaims that “a documentary that Bernie Sanders made about a socialist politician 36 years ago says a lot about his politics today.” Many of his fans might say the same thing, or offer the similarly irrelevant detail that he honeymooned in Moscow.
No one in human history has exploited this smoke-and-mirrors technique to greater effect than Barack Obama. As he acknowledged in his second memoir, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Obama remained a political cipher throughout his career—strategically voting “present” rather than yea or nay during his time in the Illinois State Senate. “Few political careers and presidencies have been more defined by speeches than Barack Obama’s,” according to a fawning Washington Post piece, and these speeches were a stream of moderate cant and American exceptionalist bromides. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama frequently positioned himself to the right of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, such as when candidate Obama opposed any moratorium on home foreclosures. Sometimes his positions were to the right of the GOP, such as when he called for Israel’s capital to be a unified Jerusalem, bombing targets in Pakistan, or extending the death penalty to child rapists.
How did a Senator with a record like Evan Bayh get turned into a cross between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jesus of Nazareth? His paper-thin record was augmented by both his own identity—which seemed to embody his transformative narrative—and a lot of vague social signals, many culled from his past. There’s a very revealing passage from his first book, though it’s not revealing in the way his supporters thought, in which the future president discussed maintaining his credibility and image by cultivating relationships with “politically active black students, foreign students, the Chicanos, the Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets” and spending long hours discussing “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” Much of the political right came out and endorsed Obama in droves because he looked like a putative Reagan, while progressives disgusted by Bush could almost see a covert Maoist.
Horne, with the tact of a university academic, added periodic puffs to the smokescreen, even once Obama was in office and governing like a blend of the worst of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In a 2009 Q&A, a young woman identifies herself as an Obama fan perturbed by the president’s frequent genuflections before the Founding Fathers: “I read Dreams of My Father and thought it was so brilliant, and I want to ask you: is it possible that he actually believes that stuff?” Horne reiterates his earlier story about the socialist Frank Marshall Davis, and adds a little spice: “as you know, Barack Obama Sr. and Stanley Ann Dunham met in 1960/1961 in a beginning Russian class” (0:36). So this young woman could go home safe in the knowledge that Barack Junior didn’t really believe in the ends of white supremacy—after all, his parents were practically Marxist-Leninists.
In 2014, Horne was interviewed by a patriotic conservative vlogger named Cliff Kincaid, and the conversation touched on the Frank Marshall Davis anecdote. The right-wing host asks Horne about Obama’s history with Davis, whom Horne indicated played a formative role in the future president’s development. Horne dismisses this as right-wing conspiracism, but Kincaid reads Horne’s words from 2007 back to him. Kincaid correctly points out that if Horne wasn’t implying that Obama had some sort of radical content, then why would he say that someday “a teacher will add to her syllabus Barack’s memoir and instruct her students to read it alongside Frank Marshall Davis’ equally affecting memoir,” at which point a student will be “moved to come to [the CPUSA] archive”? Kincaid and others suspicious of Obama’s closet Bolshevism may be reactionaries, but they’re not inventing a story out of whole cloth—in this case, they’re responding to the words that Horne wrote in what’s really the only way to interpret them. In addition to the subtext clearly indicated by the statement, Horne was still telling progressives about the Obama family’s alleged communist sympathies even after the election, so the professor is dissembling.
When Kincaid reads Horne’s words back to, he points out that “you seem to have been holding out some faith, at least at that point, that Barack Obama would fundamentally transform the United States, hasn’t he?” Horne either unintentionally or deliberately misinterprets the question, claiming that “I wouldn’t say he’s fundamentally transformed the United States.” Interestingly, this answer is in stark contrast to his higher-profile Book TV interview, in which he called Obama’s election an “earth-shaking turning-point.” In his interview with a right-wing host, Horne claims that Obama “hasn’t fundamentally transformed” the US—possibly because such a claim wouldn’t pass muster with a right-wing audience, while C-SPAN viewers are more receptive, and thus more willing to believe that Obama has been an earth-shattering transformative force without the requisite evidence that such an extraordinary claim requires.
Horne himself can sound like a revolutionary in front of a radical audience while sounding like a progressive Democrat to a liberal audience. In his Book TV interview, host Peter Slen asks Horne directly how he identifies himself politically. Horne replies “my late friend Manning Marable calls himself [a] radical democrat. I accept that term.” He tells Slen that he identifies himself according to many labels, including socialist, anti-fascist, black liberation militant, peace activist, feminist, and humanitarian: “I think I have multiple identities I embrace.” When the interviewer asks point-blank if he’s a Communist, Horne jokes that “some of my best friends are Communists. I don’t run in horror from the label,” and leaves it at that (0:28). So by his own account, Horne identifies as neither a Marxist nor a Communist, though he doesn’t explicitly repudiate either.
In his essay titled “The New American Socialism,” collected in the 1996 anthology Radical Democracy: Identity, Citizenship and the State, Marable lays out a programmatic vision for an American leftist movement for the 21st century. This “radical democratic” platform reads a lot like a boilerplate manifesto for an inclusive, non-sectarian, non-Communist left; Marable specifies that one of its foundational principles should be that the “Leninist vanguard-party model of social change, evolving in the context of a highly authoritarian, underdeveloped society devoid of any tradition of civil liberties and human rights, has finally been thoroughly discredited,” promising “simply a recipe for disaster.” Marable was writing this only a quarter century after the explicitly Leninist vanguard party known as the Black Panthers posed what J. Edgar Hoover called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States”; their ideological comrades included numerous other black Marxist-Leninist groups like the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Black Guerilla Family. In a critique of Manning Marable’s 2014 book on Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka says that “whatever Marable is saying or pointing out, in the end, is to convince us of the superiority of social democracy which he refers to as ‘the Left,’ which is anything from DSA to the Trotskyists,” over anything more radical or revolutionary. In other words, the “radical democratic” Left is an agglomeration of the same factions that have always constituted the permissible Western Left, from social democrats to “democratic socialists,” who have always said the revolution will not be revolutionary.
If Horne is a communist or Marxist, and he feels compelled to hide it, then his earlier claims that official anti-communism is a shadow of its former self is misinformation. If, however, his words are taken at face-value, then it’s further testament to how much those who occupy the commanding economic heights fear Communism more than anything.
Special thanks to Kevin Dooley for discussing ideas and offering proofreading help.