RADICAL-IN-CHIEF A Conference for Marx

This post continues the series of chapter summations of Radical-In-Chief by Stanley Kurtz.

The book takes the reader into the world of Barack Obama prior to his emergence as a national figure.  The Preface makes a bold opening statement.  The chapters that follow are evidential arguments that substantiate the statement.  The author’s documentation is exhaustive and the source attribution is impeccable.  The source notes alone number 1,119 and take up 63 pages.


Chapter 2
A Conference for Marx

Here Kurtz delves further into the nature of community organizing and how Barack Obama came to embrace it.

It was just a few months after the Marx Bicentennial Memorial Conference when Obama sent out letters in search of a community organizing job. In Dreams from My Father” Obama speaks of his decision – “I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.”

Given the influence the 1983 conference had on Obama’s life, it is important to understand the nature of the conference. It was a symposium where proponents of the purist form of socialism in the style of Marx and Lenin presented their various views in forums and break-out sessions.

Debate centered around two schools of thought about the best way to implement socialism in the United States, either by open advocacy of socialist beliefs culminating in a militant forced change or by the slower but more pragmatic method of working within the democratic process.

Michael Harrington was the leading proponent for the pragmatists. The principle voice for militant change was Stanley Aronowitz.  Aronowitz wanted to infiltrate the banks with employees loyal to the socialist cause, and then on a pre-planned day, literally burn the banks by setting fires within their confines. Harrington’s strategy was to engineer a non-violent form of redistribution using the banks as a conduit through which money could be controlled to flow to the cause.

In the end, Aronowitz won the argument. Harrington capitulated to the anxious Aronowitz who wanted to burn the banks with the simple statement “OK, if you think it will work.” Kurtz cites this as evidence that “even the greatest modern proponent of democratic socialism saw democracy more as a tactic than a principle – merely the most practical route to socialism in the United States.” Of course Aronowitz never followed through on his plan to burn the banks.

Peter Dreier led another panel entitled Socialist Movements.  Most likely this was the best attended panel at the 1983 conference. Dreier was a DSA National Executive Committee member and the “key strategist in ACORN’s campaign to pressure banks into funding high-risk mortgages to low-credit customers.”

Dreier proposed a twofold plan. First to implement legislative change democratically as “reforms” within the capitalist system. The “reforms” however, would be “so incompatible with capitalism that they gradually precipitate the system’s collapse.” He argued for “injecting unmanageable strains into the capitalist system, strains that precipitate an economic and/or political crisis,” to “gradually expand government spending until the country nears fiscal collapse.” And then, capitalism having failed, organizers would turn the people toward socialism as the solution.

Simultaneously, grass roots organizations like ACORN should be built to influence public policy through advocacy and by winning seats on corporate boards, municipal boards and various commissions. In addition to helping enable the legislation Dreier sought, this cadre-in-waiting would help to minimize the violence expected with the collapse of capitalism.

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