Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics: A revolutionary
moment in the USA
(New York: Pluto Press, 2010), 319 pps. $29 paperback,
Campbell has produced a rigorous, thought-provoking look
at the political moment in which we find ourselves. Barack
Obama and Twenty-first Century Politics: A Revolutionary
Moment in the USA 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
The first ‘book’
is a provocative examination of the uniqueness of the moment.
It opens, interestingly, with a discussion of revolution.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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-à-vis Lincoln in the 1860s, as Campbell points
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’
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president
of TransAfricaForum and co-author of,
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which
examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click
to contact Mr. Fletcher.