Larry Holmes, Workers World, May 28, 2008
May 27—Though still not a certainty at this date, it now appears likely that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate and, even less certain but a possibility, the first Black president of the U.S.
Even for those of us in the U.S. and around the world who correctly view the crisis-ridden capitalist system, its political parties and its sham elections as the negation of democracy so far as the workers and the oppressed of the world are concerned, it is impossible not to acknowledge that the prospect of the election of a Black president in the U.S.—the center of world imperialism and racism—is an historic event.
Only six months ago, most thought they’d never see a Black politician get this close to the U.S. presidency in their lifetime. It’s not surprising that the overwhelming majority of Black people in the U.S. support Obama’s campaign.
It is surprising and revealing that so many white people also support Obama. Whether Obama’s white support will remain strong is a big question. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is still trying to bust it up, and if Obama is the Democratic Party candidate, Sen. John McCain and others will try to destroy it with a no-holds-barred racist campaign.
Still, however untested, fragile and contradictory, it is most welcoming and encouraging for anyone who is progressive and familiar with the depth and prevalence of racism in the U.S. that tens of millions of white people have voted for a Black person named Barack Hussein Obama in the Democratic party primaries and caucuses.
Obama is not a revolutionary and he poses no threat to the capitalist system. Still, in a relative sense, it is hard to imagine a more dramatic sign than Obama’s electoral success that the people of the U.S. want to break with the reactionary, warmongering, racist and xenophobic political climate that has endured seemingly forever and certainly since 9/11.
Obama is popular because the people want to end the war in Iraq and there is a belief that Obama is more likely to do that than Rodham Clinton, who only a few weeks ago vowed to “obliterate Iran” and is widely viewed as being tied to Bush’s endless war policy. As far as advancing the interests of U.S. imperialism goes, there is no fundamental difference between Rodham Clinton and Obama—or McCain, for that matter.
Many if not most of Obama’s foreign policy advisors are veterans of Bill Clinton’s presidency but, despite that fact, so far as the masses see the war, while Rodham Clinton seems to be for some change, Obama seems to represent more change.
The catchword here is “seems.” In fact, Rodham Clinton, McCain and Obama have all pledged to continue the occupation of Iraq after the elections. They have all also vowed to intensify the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, attack Iran “if necessary,” support Israel to the hilt and continue the blockade against Cuba.
Class character of Obama’s campaign
The masses did not launch Obama’s presidential campaign—a section of the U.S. ruling class and its political operatives did. Some in the ruling class got behind Obama merely to advance their faction fight against the Clintons inside the Democratic Party. And yes, some of those opposed to Clinton are misogynist, plain and simple.
But other forces in the U.S. ruling class have rallied behind Obama because they view him as better suited than Clinton or McCain to deal with a central crisis of U.S. imperialism. They need to find a way to halt the rapid deterioration of its position as the world’s dominant economic and military power.
The foreign policy debate among the candidates seems to have been reduced to whether or not U.S. imperialism should talk to its enemies, with Obama advocating the talk instead of—or in addition to—a war policy.
Fundamentally, this is a phony debate. Diplomacy or talking is just another weapon that every imperialist government uses to further its interests. Imperialists talk one day and bomb the next. From the perspective of broad strategy, however, there is something to the debate.
To Obama and his ruling class backers, the so-called neo-conservative policy of relying on U.S. imperialism’s military might to re-colonize the Middle East and dominate the world has been a complete catastrophe, leaving U.S imperialism’s power and standing in shambles.
Obama and his backers want to try a different approach. Obama is more attuned and reflective of the emerging new transnational capitalist order created by imperialist globalization.
To reverse the erosion of U.S. imperialism’s world position, Obama wants to pivot away from relying exclusively on military might, put a friendlier face on U.S. imperialism and strengthen its ability to compete economically with China, India, Europe, Latin America, etc.
The contradiction is that the problems of the capitalist system are so many and so grave that Obama, new ideas and all, can’t fix them.
The near collapse of the world banking system this past March, saved only by the massive intervention of the U.S. Federal Reserve, was not the end of the capitalist credit crisis. It’s the beginning of a new systemic crisis of world capitalism that’s likely to be bigger and more violent than the Great Depression of the 1930s. The only question is the speed with which the crisis will unfold and the events that will affect its course.
U.S. imperialism is bogged down in at least two wars that it can neither win nor abandon, with a possibility of war against Iran before the fall elections.
For the workers, things are only getting worse. The rate of home foreclosures and job layoffs is rising every month, only outpaced by rising gas and food prices.
Many are worried that racism will take down Obama’s candidacy. Others are worried that racist bullets could take Obama’s life. These are both serious things to worry about.
The most frustrating problem may be that because Obama is a captive of the awful system he seeks to serve as president, he can’t defend himself. The attacks have already been terrible and if Obama gets the Democratic Party nomination, from now until November he’s going to be called a traitor, a terrorist and a threat to Western culture, civilization, Christianity, “American” values and worse.
And if Obama wants to win the election, he’s going to have to take it and smile because it’s not really the approval of the masses that he needs to get to the White House; it’s the approval of the capitalist ruling class and the election campaign is his audition before them.
One of the reasons that Clinton—once the status quo candidate of the Democratic Party hierarchy—was able to pose as the populist champion of workers (not Black workers and immigrant workers, but U.S.-born white workers) is because Obama was forewarned that if he wanted to be the first Black president, he’d better not sound like a civil rights leader or a fighter for the working class.
It’s a widespread misconception that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, almost torpedoed his presidential campaign. This is not true. Rev. Wright didn’t play those sound bites from several of his sermons over the airwaves non-stop. All of this was deliberately and carefully orchestrated by the ruling class media as a kind of loyalty test for Obama.
There is no logical reason why the U.S. ruling class need question the loyalty of Obama. However, the U.S. ruling class is not logical; it is deeply suspicious and paranoid, as one might expect from a deeply racist and reactionary class of exploiters and oppressors who have built an empire through slavery, colonialism, war, robbery and repression. The U.S. ruling class is acutely conscious of what it has done and continues to do to Black people.
The U.S. ruling class knows and fears the deep anger that Black people have for them. The purpose of the Rev. Wright affair was to force Obama not only to repudiate and break with Rev. Wright, but more importantly to promise that he would never give voice to or even acknowledge the existence of racism and the anger against it if he’s elected president. Racism is all too alive, but Obama must pretend as though it’s a thing of the past.
Relationship of working-class, anti-imperialist & Black liberation movements to Obama
Suppose Obama is elected president. One of the first orders of business for the next U.S. president will be presiding over massive cuts in social programs including Medicare, Medicaid, education and Social Security.
Moreover, these cuts will be taking place at the same time that workers are being pummeled and bloodied by a deepening economic crisis.
It isn’t hard to imagine the ruling class setting up the first Black president to take the blame for all the pain, suffering and crisis that is sure to come.
This brings us to the question of the relationship between the working-class movement, the anti-imperialist forces, all progressive forces, and especially those who are working to reconstitute a working-class-centered, anti-imperialist Black liberation movement in the U.S., and the Obama phenomenon.
For the broader movement, clearly we cannot get carried away with our criticism and exposure of Obama when mass support for him is essentially progressive and opposition to him is largely of a racist and reactionary character. Neither can we afford to be deluded by the class nature of Obama, and all the other contradictions.
The contradictions also make it difficult if not futile for revolutionaries to work inside his campaign as a vehicle for advancing progressive demands. Obama does not yet feel pressure from the mass movement. The pressure he is sensitive to is coming from the ruling class.
By way of historical comparison, Jesse Jackson’s two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s were full of contradictions as well. The difference, however, is that Jackson’s campaigns came from below and as such were subject to the pressure of the masses. That is not the case with Obama’s campaign, at least for now.
Actually, the only way that progressives can defend Obama against racism and reaction, if and when that’s necessary, is to be positioned outside of and independent of his campaign and the Democratic Party.
It will be up to Black activists to take the lead in explaining Obama’s contradictions and challenging them. If there was ever a time for progressive and revolutionary Black forces to forge some strategic unity, now is such a time.
It is possible that the independent presidential candidacy of former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney could serve as one of the poles to unite around. McKinney was until recently the most progressive and militant Black person in Congress. Indeed, she lost her congressional seat twice as a direct result of her militant antiwar and anti-racist work.
Clearly, for all those on the left who realize that the deepening crisis of imperialism is bound to produce a resurgence of the working-class struggle sooner than many think and radicalize more and more workers, swelling our ranks, the need to foster working-class-centered and anti-imperialist organizations independent of the ruling class’s political parties and rooted in the struggle is beyond essential. It’s urgent.
More than ever, workers are starting to view imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as major aggravating factors deepening the economic crisis, and rightly so. The reality is not lost on workers who know that, to pay for imperialist wars, they are forfeiting not only social programs but the gas they need to drive to work.
The war crisis and the economic crisis together are laying the basis for the next phase of the anti-war struggle. It will be more than a marginal protest movement that can be absorbed and derailed by the capitalist elections. The next phase of the anti-war movement, if working-class militants prevail, will be centered in a working-class upsurge.
The sisters and brothers of the International Longshore Workers Union gave us all a glimpse of the potential of this next phase when thousands of them shut the docks down all along the West Coast of the U.S. this past May Day to protest the war. Of no small significance, particularly in light of the contradictions of the 2008 presidential campaign, this walkout was led by Black longshore workers who, along with immigrant rights workers, invited Cynthia McKinney to be the guest speaker at the main May Day rally in San Francisco.
The writer is a leader of Workers World Party and a member of its national Secretariat.