The Clare Spark Blog

December 1, 2012

“Populist” radicalism and Obama

Black Jesus poster

Black Jesus poster

A spirited discussion broke out on my Facebook page over a recent article in the New York Times characterizing Thomas Jefferson as a “monster.” ( During the course of the discussion, I decried hatchet jobs in general, pointing out that there was usually a lurking target that was not obvious to the reader. For instance, in the case of Jefferson and slavery, the historian author (Paul Finkelman) might be solely interested in Jefferson’s racism and moral failures regarding slaveholding, or there might be a larger agenda:  namely the post-60s campaign to regard the Founding Fathers and the framing of the “aristocratic” Constitution as morally tainted, with subsequent Americans battening off their ill-gotten gains. (See )

As I have written frequently, for leftists and left-leaning corporatist liberals alike, America is seen as essentially racist, sexist, imperialist, and anti-environment. In other words, we not only fail to historicize the individual and intellectually diverse Founders in their 18th century context, we are reiterating the most virulent Soviet and even Nazi propaganda. (In the latter case, it was held that Jews controlled the US, pushing it to such atrocities as the extermination of the Aryan-like indigenous “Indians,” or, during WW2 and more recently, Nazis and their sympathizers argued that Americans were fighting what was in effect a war that solely benefited “the Jews.”)

Since the election that re-elected “the first black president,” I have seen much gloom emanating from Romney supporters. I myself have suggested that there is something proto-fascist about the current direction of our country, while others declare that POTUS is a straight out Communist/Third Worlder, seeking to destroy America, aiming at its very foundations as a free market society.

Both these pessimistic, if plausible, views are speculative, but perhaps we can get more precise if we understand the rationale behind “petit-bourgeois” radicalism (populism), both as it has existed in “middle class” America, and as an explanation for Hitler’s base in the so-called Mittelstand (i.e. the lower middle-class in Germany, dominating the working class and resentful of the haute bourgeoisie). For after WW2, liberal journalists and academics seized upon the petit-bourgeoisie as responsible for Hitler’s rise to power, stressing their mobbish susceptibility to propaganda and the class resentments that Hitler exploited so effectively. Unfortunately, they ignored the conservative nationalists who put him in power, and even worse, structural continuities with Weimar social democracy and Bismarckian strategies against the rising German Left. Instead, they depicted Hitler as crazy and/or as a failed artist/thug, and explained his popularity as the effectiveness of images and propaganda in general. (This was the legacy of German Idealism that held images to constitute “reality,” a view that ignored institutions and other structural and cultural factors.)

Young James H. Cone

Young James H. Cone

During the period of my life starting in 1969 at Pacifica Radio and on through getting my doctorate (1983-1993) and then shopping my expanded dissertation (1993-1999), I watched the direction of the civil rights movement/the women’s movement that had stirred me out of somnolence during the 1960s. What stunned me was the success of upwardly mobile persons of color and women in climbing the ladders of academe, the media, and to some extent, in business and the professions. What I was not prepared for was the failure of the integrationist project in favor of cultural nationalism and even black supremacy as urged by such theologians as James Cone and his allies in the Chicago Democratic machine. (See I was even more startled to see that black nationalism had pretty much taken over the civil rights movement by the mid-1960s (see, or

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now

What does this have to do with Obama’s character and motives, open or hidden? We might do better to see him as an ambitious petit-bourgeois radical, i.e., a populist, rather than as either a fascist-in-waiting or a communist. Like his wealthy liberal supporters, he protects his own reputation by attacking [Republican] elites as the originators of “inequality,” while he satisfies his minority constituencies by increasing public sector employment and supporting teachers unions who promulgate the anti-American history curriculum described above. The aim is to instill liberal guilt and hence unquestioning support of the first black president, even as he moves toward dictatorship and reverses prior economic positions that gained him support as a “moderate.”

But keep in mind that although Marxist-Leninism supposedly focuses on the working class as the agent of revolutionary socialism, there is a strong populist appeal to this ideology, for instance in the demonization of “finance capital.” (See  For more on populism see And right-wing populism was undoubtedly the decisive factor in Hitler’s rise to power and to popular support for his entire regime.  I remain worried about the transition from populism/progressivism to full-throated dictatorship, call it what you will.


  1. […] During the presidential campaign of 2008, I wrote an essay for History News Network I am posting the unedited version, which is also slightly updated and retitled. Two recent events have prompted this move: 1. David Plouffe’s memoir of the campaign will be released on November 3, and 2. the Anti-Defamation League has conducted a poll concluding that antisemitism in America has declined. I am wondering about the veracity of Plouffe (could he not have been aware of how black politics have moved away from integrationist to nationalist tactics)? I also doubt that the ADL sampled enough of the black population (a powerful force in both local and national politics when it is unified), nor do I believe that the pollsters were sufficiently skeptical of the tendency to deny bigotry when persons are asked such loaded questions by pollsters. So I am presenting this blog to remind visitors that black liberation theology annexed Martin Luther King, Jr. in a frightening synthesis that is undoubtedly appealing to much of the anti-imperialist Left, long famous for its view on “internal colonialism” and also “multiculturalism” (in my view, a resegregation of minorities who either were moving into the middle-class, or who participated in urban riots in the 1960s, prompting their co-option by major universities).  (On multiculturalism and its origins, see [added 8-27-13: for more on James Cone and the conception of the Black Jesus see […]

    Pingback by The Offing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 27, 2013 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

  2. Well, someone has not read Donald’s biography of Sumner as it is not “mostly hostile” or hostile at all to its subject, but a fair minded and excellent study of this great man. I highly recommend it.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — July 17, 2013 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  3. Clare,

    Teachers and their unions are not very happy with President Obama right now. They call him a neo-liberal (which sounds like a form of conservatism when you read about it in the education war blogs).

    Comment by cindy0803 — June 11, 2013 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  4. This is on the right path and is consistent with Obama’s affinity for the Ayers/Dohrn wing of the Chicago left.

    Comment by btraven — June 11, 2013 @ 6:11 am | Reply

  5. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog and commented:

    Populism is pervasive, yet it rarely identified in the mass media. It leads to paranoia and irrational hatred of “experts” and “elites” solely on the basis of rumors spread by demagogues.

    Comment by clarelspark — June 11, 2013 @ 3:45 am | Reply

  6. It’s probably time to go back and read “Rise & Fall of the 3rd Reich” (Shirer). I don’t think the words “left” and “right” had the same meaning then as now. And the Nazi Party was the “National Socialist Party”.

    One thing about dictators &c is that when they decide to follow Communism, Socialism, or any other “ism”, they don’t study the books and say, “Well, it says here that X-ism belieeves this and follows that, so we have to do everything on that list”.

    Just as Obama, leaning hard to port, doesn’t follow the Encyclopedia of Socialism to the letter. He picks and chooses from various “isms”, favoring those that give him and his fellows the most power over the rest of us.

    Comment by ZZMike — February 12, 2013 @ 11:52 pm | Reply

    • I posted this because a lot of readers believe the same as ZZMike. But see, especially the last segment that explains what “socialism” meant to Nazis. There is a reluctance to study the history of politics out there in the electorate that I find distressing, though I do agree with the point that “Left” and “Right” need to be contextualized, as Mike asserted.

      Comment by clarespark — February 13, 2013 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  7. Hitler was not right-wing.

    Comment by Publius — February 12, 2013 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

    • What is your evidence that Hitler was a man of the Left? He was put in place by conservative nationalists, and was in all his views, a racist and right-wing populist.

      Comment by clarespark — February 12, 2013 @ 5:33 pm | Reply

      • There actually was a faction within the Nazi Party which was widely acknowledged to be leftist in political orientation. Until the Night of Long Knives, June 30 (?) 1934, when Hitler purged it, most conservatives and rightwing Nazis regarded the Sturmabteilung (SA) as the “left wing” of the NSDAP. The openly homosexual Ernst Roem served as SA leader when Hitler brought him back from Bolivia the year prior, 1933, not long after Hitler was elected / appointed Reichskanzlor. Of course, on that late June night, Hitler put an end not only to the power of the SA, but to Roem’s life. Any notion that the Nazis would be the true “socialists” their party name implied probably died with Roem and his SA associates, and rather quickly, I imagine. While Adolph Hitler was himself hardly a leftist, the argument can be made that until June 30, 1934, there was an ideological faction within the Nazi Party which in fact seriously advocated, even demanded, policies which were undeniably socialist in character. Some have speculated, and I think with some authority, that Hitler eliminated Roem and other SA leaders to consolidate his own power. In any case, socialism was always consistent with statism either of the left or the right wing variety.

        Comment by DV — June 13, 2013 @ 5:57 am

      • DV’s was a very good posting. Still I think that the Strasser brothers are better understood as populists. Populism infected all of the factions of the Nazi Party. Populism is not socialism. Mussolini was a Socialist before the Great War, and then slipped into fascism without missing a beat. And he was not the only one.

        Comment by clarelspark — June 13, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  8. […] Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see […]

    Pingback by Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 4, 2012 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

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