Multi-Cultural 4th of July Picnics versus Museum Marxism
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 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.
Obama, Fitch complains, is trying to step around the Socialist/Capitalist fight and find a different “third” path - a path that both Marxist and Conservative ideology claim does not exist. Fitch cites Obama’s pitch thusly:
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.
Why in my day people had traditional political vocations, not these fancy pants things these smart-ass kids talk about! People were Leftists or Rightists, by golly! Grumble, Grumble. But catch the promotion of Joe the Plumber, who really was an unskilled laborer dreaming of a future as a business owner to the ruling class.
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 Proletariat
- Communist Manifesto -Marx and Engels
If you agree with this “two great hostile camps” stuff then there is no third way. But it’s striking to see a white leftist attack an African-American Democrat for dissenting from an ideology that is disproved every day by the lived experience of African-Americans. Mr. Joe the Plumber said of Mr. Obama, ” I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance. Almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.” Joe belongs to a traditional vocation called “racist white guys”. He does not see billionaire looters like Mitt Romney as the enemy because he is spellbound by his white privilege. Lyndon Johnson explained:
If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
But Barack 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.
Fitch’s argument is that the “third way” is a fraud because battle between the working class and capitalist class is reality - all else is lipstick on a pig. I think Fitch is dead wrong, but he identifies a key point:
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 picnic
Obama claims, not that people do not have different interests, but that class is not everything.
For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.
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.
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.
If people were solely motivated by maximizing their wealth or the wealth of their class, 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.
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 epiphenomena that are side shows to the class struggle.
The feminist movement was not a “third way” distraction from class struggle any more 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 the Roman Catholic Hierarchy (although there is truth in both).
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.
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
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).
ORIGINALLY: Jun 3rd, 2012 1:31pm
REVISED Aug 6 2013.