The late Robert Fitch's Obama speech from 2008 has been widely circulated and it should be because it really sums up the dead end confusion and wounded class privilege of the American Left as the 21st century gets under way. Fitch begins with an examination of Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention speech:
The Third Way is expressed very well in Obama’s 2004 convention speech.Marxism sees history in terms of class struggle and Fitch is making the case, in somewhat less than straightforward language.
Are traditional political vocations now obsolete? The Left stands for the interests of those who have to work for a living; for the tenants and the poor. For the victims of discrimination. The Right in America stands for the interests of the employers and the investing class. For those who own the land, the houses, the banks and the hedge funds. For Joe the plumber who was really Joe the plumbing contractor. And for those who see themselves as the victims of affirmative action.
Well, I say…tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America…there’s the United States of America. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and ProletariatBarack Obama is a Democrat not a Marxist - he does not believe that society is split into two great hostile camps and so on. Call the EMTs: 10 New York leftists are fainting from anger and a couple of million tea party nitwits and their minders are fainting from shock. Fitch didn't need to quote the speech at all, most people could have deduced that Obama was not a Marxist from "he gave a speech at the Democratic Convention". One has to wonder whether leftists think Obama is supposed to be a class warrior because he's black (which is what the right wing thinks) or because he gives inspirational speeches or maybe it's the combination. Whatever the reason, the bitterness and anger with which the US left confronts Obama's stubborn insistence on his own path has been irritating and embarrassing. Especially since the left's class struggle ideology is a Victorian relic.
- Marx and Engels, NOT Barack Obama.
Fitch's argument is that to reject class struggle is to embrace a communitarian "third way" in which the poor are asked to sacrifice their interests to the "common good". Making this argument required editing Obama's remarks, including the passage just before the one that Fitch quotes:
For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.Obama is here not advocating some mish-mash "third way" or "communitarianism" or even "neo-liberalism", another favorite Left cliche, he's advocating the moral vision of Martin Luther King who was a far deeper and more illuminating thinker than either the Left or Right wants to believe.
It is that fundamental belief -- it is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.
- If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child.
- If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent.
- If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
As Thomas Huxley said, knowledge often begins as heresy and ends as superstition and Marxism is a beautiful example of that process. Class is an important part of historical dynamics, and when politicians try to pretend that class doesn't exist (or that mentioning class is "class warfare") they are generally being duplicitous, but Marx's reduction of history to class struggle was an example of Victorian Era European oversimplification. The Communist run mine workers union in South Africa in the 1920s used the slogan "White Workers of the World Unite". The German SA was working class and populist as was the segregationist movement in the neo-confederate South. Race/ethnicity, gender, sex, nationalism, religion and other forces in human culture and history are more than what the Marxists called "superstructure" - distractions from an all explaining class analysis. The feminist movement was not a "third way" distraction from class struggle anymore than the Civil Rights movement was - no matter what middle class white men who consider themselves experts on class analysis would like to believe ( and the reluctance of Marxists to apply class analysis to themselves is somewhat amusing). And catch that effort to smuggle "Joe the Plumber", who was essentially an unskilled laborer with an instinct for publicity and racial resentment, into the ruling class of owners because, of course, if he was a real member of the working class he would, according to doctrine, have to be a leftist!
In 1971, when the US Left began its current form as an impediment to progress, Murray Bookchin wrote:
All the old crap of the thirties is coming back again--the shit about the "class line," the "role of the working class," the "trained cadres," the "vanguard party," and the "proletarian dictatorship." It's all back again, and in a more vulgarized form than ever. - "Listen Marxist"Forty years later, the terminology of the 1930s Marxist left is again out of fashion, but the underlying reductionist, mechanical view and the claim to be able to define the terms of debate is still there. Marx and Engels reduction of history to class struggle now functions as the basis for a claim to authority by "leftists" - it serves exactly the same purpose that Church Doctrine serves for any religion (although there may be truth in both).
In a way, though, the Left and the Right have more in common with each other than they do with the advocates of the Third Way. The Left and the Right argue that different interests matter. The Third Way says they don’t. According to them, the oppressed and the oppressors, the lions and the lambs should set down together and celebrate their unity in one great post-partisan, multi-cultural 4th of July picnicLeft and Right have in common something deeply false that is taken from Ricardian economics: a theory that economics dominates culture and morality. If people were solely motivated by maximizing their wealth, an idea Marxism adopted from what has become Neo-classical economics, then Fitch would have been right: The classes ("interests") would determine politics and efforts to find something that transcends class would be naive and foolish. But people are more complex than that. The socialist movement that seemed so powerful at the beginning of the 20th century met defeat after defeat when working class people were motivated to prize nationalism or racism over economic interest. Marxism had to develop a silly theory of "false consciousness" to try to explain why the working class didn't cooperate (which, I guess, is better than the Neo-Classical method of just ignoring contrary data).
Contrary to Fitch and a thousand leftist theoreticians, Martin Luther King was a hard headed realist. The naive and foolish idea is the one that economic self-interest is the only driver of human history and that morality and unity, human solidarity and human kindness ( and their ugly counterparts) are just fluff. So if the choice is between that multicultural 4th of July Picnic and another bitter gathering of the self-appointed vanguard, sign me up for the picnic. See you there.
POSTSCRIPT: Fitch was an interesting thinker- the speech covered here was a long way from his better work. Fitch's book "Assassination of New York" is an informative account of how Wall Street and government collaborated with Real-Estate investors to transform New York City into its current form. Fitch's critique of labor unions is also interesting (although not convincing).