Horace Campbell has produced a rigorous, thought-provoking look at the political moment in which we find ourselves. Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics presents challenges to a reviewer because it is three books in one. This is not to be taken literally. But content-wise, there are three very distinct components to this book such that each could have been a book in its own right. One ‘book’ deals with how Campbell understands the moment; the second ‘book’ concerns the nature of the Obama campaign; and the third ‘book’ is a post-election analysis.
The first ‘book’ is a provocative examination of the uniqueness of the moment. It opens, interestingly, with a discussion of revolution. Campbell challenges what he sees as outmoded and/or problematic 20th century notions of revolution which often had at their cores the assertion of the necessity for a vanguard political party and, in most cases armed struggle. In fact, Campbell, though grounded in Marxism, offers something called Ubuntu as a philosophical construct that he suggests is necessary for a 21st century revolutionary project. He defines Ubuntu as a Southern African-originated philosophy of communalism that represents a means for cooperation, forgiveness, healing and a willingness to share. The definition is a bit vague but seems more than anything else to reflect the need to get away from both political militarism and patriarchal politics which have often arisen in the context of revolutionary projects. Additionally, Campbell is very concerned with the question of democracy in a post-revolutionary society, a point about which he has had great courage in espousing, particularly in controversial contexts (such as his criticisms of the authoritarian regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe).
Campbell’s emphasis on the nature of revolution and a revolutionary moment is fundamental to the ideas that he elaborates in the book. His conception of a revolutionary moment does not automatically equate to a moment when one force or another is prepared to seize power in a traditional sense. Rather the revolutionary moment is, to borrow from the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, overdetermined. There is a convergence of crises that cannot be easily resolved, at least using traditional methods. As such, a revolutionary moment is one that holds the potential for tremendous breakthroughs, as well as historic defeats. There is nothing that is inevitable in such a moment.
The second ‘book’ is an in-depth look at the Obama campaign that is preceded by an examination of race and the history of the USA. What attracts Campbell to this campaign is how unique it was in US political history. Campbell sees in the campaign a level of unprecedented self-organization among activists combined with the galvanizing of a base to look for substantive political and economic changes in the USA. All of this with a Black candidate at the head of the ticket. But he also sees in Obama a figure who, at least during the 2008 campaign, represented a different sort of politics, a politics that could excite a dramatic social movement.
The third ‘book’ emphasizes the post-election period. This third ‘book’ focuses on both a critique of Obama-as-President but more importantly on the unwillingness or inability of many progressive social forces to retain the level of mobilization that was evident in the 2008 election. Instead there has been an overreliance on Obama-as-individual rather than treating him as an instrument which needs to be pressured. Campbell, in contrast, points out the manner in which Abraham Lincoln was forced, through a combination of social forces, to become more than he had anticipated being.
Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics is a must-read, but I offer this with important qualifications. On the one hand, I have not read a piece about the Obama campaign that has been as insightful and gripping as Campbell’s narrative. He wrote as a participant-observer who was deeply impressed by the wave of enthusiasm and self-organizing that emerged during the campaign. He attempts to link the unique organizational style of the Obama campaign with the unusual moment in which we find ourselves where old styles of politics are collapsing and new forms are being created.
Yet here is where I have several differences with Campbell. The first has to do with social movements, organization and the nature of the moment. While I agree with Campbell that the vanguardist approaches of much of the radical Left is both outdated but also highly problematic, it is far from clear how Campbell believes that the radical forces need to organize themselves in conducting and leading a struggle for social transformation. In this context his notion of Ubuntu remains vague though pointing in the direction of the need for a re-formed radical politics.
The second concern revolves around the nature of the Obama campaign itself and, to some extent, how Campbell saw Obama-the-candidate. Though I count myself without apology as having been someone who, with reservations and criticisms, supported the Obama candidacy, I am far less sanguine on the campaign than Campbell. I was and am less sanguine for several reasons, which include:
1. Campbell tends to see the campaign as the embryo of a social movement. I did not and do not. The Obama campaign was a highly innovative campaign that brought together very diverse forces, but it did not constitute a social movement. The objectives of those who supported Obama were often quite different and as a result it would be difficult to identify the core belief system of this alleged movement. What seemed to unite the supporters was their (a)anti-Bushism, (b)demand to address the economic crisis, (c)searching for a different relationship of the USA to the rest of the world, (d)a hope for a new politics that differed from traditional inside-Washington, DC approaches to change.
2. Obama himself was programmatically not very different from Hillary Clinton. In 2011 this is becoming more clear as we look at recent appointments, but if one examined the program of the respective candidates, there was no ‘Chinese Wall’ between their views. Obama saw himself as a reformer of neo-liberal capitalism not as even a New Deal ‘revolutionary’, contrary to the irrational claims of the political Right.
3. Though Obama built a unique mass base, he also received significant support, financially and otherwise from Wall Street.
All of these factors were in evidence during the 2008 campaign. Obama was not only NOT on the political Left, he was not a political progressive. He was a liberal, slightly to the left of center. This does not mean, contrary to the ultra-left, that he should have been opposed. Rather it spoke to the sort of administration that one needed to anticipate, certainly in the absence of real mass pressure and specifically pressure from left/progressive forces.
So, while Obama tapped into a current among the people that sought progressive and significant change; and while he and his campaign were able to galvanize millions, this did not mean that at any point he represented a politics that could or would transcend current elite politics irrespective of the desires and wishes of much of his base. Confusion around this among progressives led to a mis-estimation of what would, on its own, result from an Obama victory.
Yet Campbell correctly identifies something very peculiar and particular about the moment. There were, in effect, two Obama campaigns. There was the official campaign which was highly centralized (a fact that Campbell seems to downplay). While it was true that there was much room at the base for creative activity, the campaign was led by a centralized core that was ideologically cohesive. In that sense it reminds one of some of the on-line non-profit organizations that have a formal membership but that membership exerts no actual control over the direction of the organization. It differs from the Jesse Jackson Presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 which, while centralized, provided significant space in which the political Left could operate, not only at the base but also at higher levels in the campaign itself.
There was also an unofficial campaign. This was the campaign of individuals, social groups, labor union members, etc., who established their own forms of organization operating outside of the realm of both the Democratic Party as well as the official Obama campaign. These two campaigns co-existed. The unofficial campaign did not ask for permission to exist; it came into existence and served as a base for those seeking a new politics and a progressive administration.
The existence of these two ‘campaigns’ is critically important in both upholding part of Campbell’s thesis, i.e., that there was an ‘Obama moment’ that led to the upsurge of a collection of forces looking for a different way, plus the idea that these forces could have and could even today serve as a social pressure on the administration, along the lines of the abolitionist movement vis a vis Lincoln in the 1860s, as Campbell points out.
It is nevertheless important to acknowledge that there was a major tendency for individuals and social forces to see in Obama what they WANTED to see rather than correctly analyzing who he was and what he represented. The failure to correctly analyze Obama led to a significant strategic mistake upon victory in November 2008: the willingness of the troops to return to the ‘barracks’ and provide Obama with a so-called ‘honeymoon’ period. The failure to keep pressing the Obama campaign/Obama administration led to the materialization of neo-Clintonian politics in the White House and, ultimately, the rise of a right-wing counter-offensive against Obama and the Democrats that has thrown everyone off balance.
This is, perhaps, a good segue into the ‘third book’ for it is in the final part of Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics that Campbell introduces a significant and sober critique not only of the performance of the Obama administration, but of the social forces that made it possible for Obama to get elected. It is here, in the ‘third book’, that Campbell makes it clear that left and progressive social forces cannot collapse themselves into the Obama motion. He additionally and correctly affirms that the performance of the Obama administration on key issues largely depends or has depended on the political pressure placed on it.
To a great extent this ‘third book’ was, for me, the most important. While I found the analysis of the workings of the campaign enlightening, the affirmation of the need for independent politics to the left of the Obama administration having its own voice and program points to precisely what is needed at this moment. Campbell expresses no sympathy for those who have fallen into despair due to the weaknesses and back-stepping of the Obama administration. Campbell places the burden on progressive social movements as being the key to bringing about the change that is necessary.
At the same time, Campbell’s paralleling Obama and Lincoln has its limitations and, as a result, one must be careful as to the conclusions one embraces. The parallel of Obama and Lincoln works to the extent one understands that Lincoln did what he did not due to ideas in his head but due to both the nature of the moment PLUS the social forces that were pressing him (largely from his left). An individual who, in 1861 hoped to preserve the union and not touch slavery became the person who was forced to open the Union Army to Africans and lay the foundation for what came to be known as “Radical Reconstruction.”
Obama can certainly be pushed to be more than a neo-Clintonian and this is where so many forces, including but not limited to organized labor and the Black Freedom Movement, have largely dropped the ball. At the same time, Obama presides over a global empire and the sorts of politics that are necessary at this moment are those that actually challenge the prerogatives of empire, not to mention the polarization of wealth within the USA and on a global scale. Even if one examines the history of the near mythical President Franklin Roosevelt it becomes clear that while he introduced—as a result of mass pressure—very significant reforms, he was also jockeying for US global hegemony, even if not necessarily in the form of the direct colonialism that was characteristic of the European imperial powers. Despite his “Good Neighbor Policy” in Latin America, for instance, it was under FDR that the Dominican Republic witnessed the emergence of a key ally of the United States: the notorious Rafael Trujillo.
This point of view is not articulated in order to promote any form of cynicism, but rather to encourage a realistic assessment as to potentials at any particular moment. While there is good reason to believe that pressure from left and progressive forces in the USA (and globally) could result in shifts in US policy, there is no particular reason to believe that Obama himself will be the transformative force advancing the new progressive program. It is for this reason that I have highlighted the comradely differences that I have with Campbell. The question that remains for the reader of Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics focuses on how to take the progressive politics that Campbell advances and turn that into a national popular-democratic bloc that can supersede the politics of Obama? The idea for such a strategic bloc does not even assume, at this particular moment, an immediate anti-capitalist transformation, but at a minimum a left/progressive alignment that goes beyond nostalgia for the New Deal. What Campbell accomplishes in his book is to lay the foundation for the answering of just that question.
By challenging both left and liberal paradigms Horace Campbell has offered not only a very interesting reading, but a very though-provoking work that compels the reader to grapple with far more than the ideas and activities of one Barack Hussein Obama, but instead to focus on the nature of the moment and what possibilities exist if instead of passivity or hero-worship, left and progressives engage in well-grounded but nevertheless audacious politics that focus on the fight for power.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is on the editorial board of BlackCommentator.com, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided.