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Barack Obama, Marxist?

Obviously Tom Delay's remark is meant to be a smear, not a substantive point. But since there are so many people around who throw around the term "Marxist" without the first clue what the main principles of Karl Marx's philosophy were,* I'll take this as a teaching moment.

Let's look at some of the key elements of Marxism, and how Barack Obama stacks up:

The starting point of Marxism is the idea of historical materialism. Historical materialism means that the driving force of history is changes in the material conditions of existence, i.e. the economy. Historical materialism is opposed to the philosophy of Marx's mentor, Georg Hegel, who promoted idealism -- the idea that the development of ideas is the driving force of history. Marx also slammed a variety of other early socialists for being idealists, because they assumed they would create a socialist system simply by convincing people that it was a good idea. Looking at Obama, he appears to fall clearly on the idealist side -- what else is "the audacity of hope" than a statement of idealism? His campaign is built on changing the way people think and feel about politics. (Though ironically an Obama win may be due as much to the underlying economic conditions -- the looming recession -- as to Obama's idealism.)

The next key concept in Marxism is class struggle -- the idea that the way that societies obtain the material conditions of their existence (their economic organization, called the "relations of production") divides people into two or more groups with antagonistic interests. The struggle between them eventually results in changes in the relations of production, reshaping society. Under capitalism, Marxism holds that the two main classes are the bourgeoisie (business owners) and proletariat (workers). Obama is hardly a proponent of class struggle. He, like practically every politician in the US, worships at the altar of the "middle class" -- a nebulous concept that allows practically all Americans to feel like they're doing OK but aren't part of some snooty elite. Where Marxists would insist that the idea of the "middle class" is a false ideology that functions to disguise the basic class antagonism (John Edwards had shades of Marxism on this point), Obama deliberately promotes a rhetoric of unity.

Since economics are the real basis of society, Marxism regards cultures and belief systems as a superstructure shaped by them (though some later Marxists, like Gramsci, held that the superstructure played an important role in stabilizing the economic base). Marx famously declared religion to be "the opiate of the masses." A partial case could be made for Obama holding some Marxist views on this point -- his remark that Pennsylvanians are bitter and turn to religion can be interpreted as an endorsement of Thomas Frank's thesis in What's the Matter With Kansas, which was a basically Marxist argument. On the other hand, Obama is by all accounts a sincerely religious person -- indeed, much more so than John McCain. Whatever you think of his religious beliefs, it's hard to reconcile someone who proudly declared that "we worship a great God in the blue states" with standard Marxism.

Marx did not think that the present condition of society was a good one. At the root of Marx's beef with capitalism is the idea of exploitation of wage labor. The basic argument is this: Each hour he (in Marx's writing, it was always assumed to be "he") works, a laborer produces stuff worth a certain amount -- say $20. But the owner of the factory pays him a wage of, say, $5 -- enough to live on (to "reproduce his labor power"), but less than the amount of value his labor produced. The owner keeps the rest for himself. Thus wage labor is inherently exploitative. Obama certainly has concerns about workers getting a raw deal -- he supports things like the increase in the minimum wage, expanded health insurance coverage, and easier unionization, all of which would offset the tendency of owners to pay workers as little as possible (hence exploiting them more). But in no way does Obama see exploitation as inherent to the wage labor system.

Marxists believe that the contradictions in capitalism will lead it to an inevitable crisis. According to Marxism, the capitalist quest for profit through increasing exploitation of the workers will ultimately undermine its own basis (the less you pay your workers, the less stuff they can afford to buy), especially once the system runs out of new geographical and social areas to expand into. Obama would beg to differ. Rather than seeing economic crises (such as the current recession) as inherent to the system and likely to bring it down, he sees them as instances of mismanagement that can be overcome. He tells everyone that with a few adjustments around the margins, the capitalist system will bounce back and produce prosperity for everyone. A less Marxist view can hardly be imagined.

Connected to the inevitable crisis of capitalism is the idea of the proletariat as the agent of revolution. According to Marxism, the workers -- driven to desperation by the increasing oppressiveness of wage-labor exploitation -- will come together as a united class. They will sieze the advantage of capitalism's crisis to rise up and take over, smashing the bourgeoisie and doing away with the capitalist system. This is a key difference between Marx and other early socialists -- according to Marx, the revolution has to be carried out by people whose place in the system of material subsistence gives them the means and motivation to rise up, not by a social movement of well-meaning activists. With that in mind, let's look at Obama's electoral coalition. In the primaries, his base of support was not built on the oppressed workers -- indeed, just the opposite. As the "wine track" candidate, he built from the top down, starting with the rich and highly educated voters that, from a Marxist point of view, are inexplicably voting against their material class interests for idealist reasons. While he had support from blacks of all classes, he gained comparatively little support from working-class whites, Latin@s, and Asian-Americans. This is hardly the recipe for a proletarian revolution.

Finally, we come to Marx's proposed solution to the problems of capitalism and class struggle: collective ownership of the means of production. In other words, the workers -- on a business-by-business basis, or as a whole nation -- should own the factories and investment capital, etc., eliminating the separate parasitic, exploitative owner class. Can anyone imagine that this is in any way part of Obama's platform? Take health care, for example. Obama's health care plan was explicitly crafted in such a way as to not threaten the role of private insurance companies. If Obama's plan -- or even the Clinton/Edwards plan -- is passed, the US will still have a health care system that is further from the ideal of collective ownershup of the means of production than the health care system in practically every other First World (i.e. capitalist) country on Earth. Or consider environmentalism, often pointed to as a stalking horse for communism. Obama's key proposal here is a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Businesses may not like the added cost and regulation it would entail, but it does exactly nothing to transfer ownership of the means of production to the workers.

In sum, Obama is an idealist, class-struggle-obfuscating, religious, pro-wage-labor, pro-survival-of-capitalism, wine-track, pro-private-ownership candidate. Not a Marxist.

* Same goes for "postmodernist." And on the other side of the aisle, there's lots of misuse of the term "neoconservative" (hint: it doesn't just mean "conservative, but scarier-sounding").


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another attempt to scare people with the idea of someone being a "commie pinko". I thought we got over that already.

3:30 PM  

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