David Weigel picks up on my post earlier today about Radical-in-Chief’s treatment of Marxism and its role in Obama’s life, and in the life of his community organizing colleagues. Weigel is right that you can be radical when you’re young and then turn into a mainstream liberal. But I don’t think that’s what happened to Obama, and I argue the point in detail in the book. As I said in my earlier rejoinder to Weigel, I don’t think Weigel has grappled with my argument about Obama’s presidency, or even about the years just prior to that.
Knowing that Obama was a conventional Marxist when he was young is important because it shows us that Weigel’s explanation for Obama’s work with socialist community organizers is unconvincing. Obama’s early socialism was sincere, and he was not merely fooling his community organizing mentors into thinking that he bought into their worldview. Later on I do think Obama adopted the more sophisticated socialist stance of his Midwest Academy mentors. But that doesn’t make Obama’s more traditionally Marxist past irrelevant. On the contrary, it shows us that Obama was not just a “liberal political hack” who tricked Chicago’s socialists into thinking he was one of them, as Weigel would have it. On the contrary, Obama was a true believer who became more sophisticated in his socialism, but never abandoned it.
Also, the Marxist undercurrent that has always infused “democratic socialism” in America has never entirely disappeared. That is a revealing fact as well. A significant threat to liberty that inheres in even the most reconstructed socialism. This comes out in various ways in Radical-in-Chief. The Marxism question is complicated. Marxism gets transformed and downplayed in modern democratic socialism, but it never goes away. That is the reality of Obama’s socialist community organizing world.
It would be a mistake to make too much of that fact, but also a mistake to deny it. The book does not score cheap points but lays out the reality of modern socialism in all its complexity. The result is scary, but it’s a legitimate concern, based on a fair and nuanced portrait of modern democratic socialism and its place in community organizing, not a bogus invocation of the Gulag.