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Obama’s speech in Denver

Published Sep 3, 2008 11:05 PM

Holmes is a Workers World Party Secretariat member.

According to reports, 40 million people watched Barack Obama’s televised speech on Aug. 28.

Along with everyone else who watched the speech was virtually every person of African descent with access to a television, not just in the U.S. but everywhere. Black people tuned in to watch Obama’s speech as well as that of his marital partner, Michelle Obama, earlier that week.

Obama is a gifted orator, but that’s not the reason why Black people wanted to see and hear his speech. It was about being part of a landmark event in the struggle of Black people. It was about witnessing a giant step towards the election of the first U.S. president of African descent.

Michelle Obama is a formidable person. But for the most part, it was not her words at the Democratic National Convention that made her speech important to Black people; it was the possibility that she might be the first Black woman, who was neither a slave nor a maid, to live in the White House.

The tears in U.S. House Representative John Lewis’s eyes, who was among the 84,000 people in Invesco Field where Obama spoke, were like the tears in so many other eyes that night, real and bittersweet.

Lewis still bears the scars on his head from being beaten almost to death when he and hundreds of others were attacked on a bridge by legions of the Alabama state police as they were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., for the basic right of Black people to vote. There was so much blood spilled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that March 7, 1965, that the day came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Most African Americans of a certain age, and many born since then, understood that the stage that Barack Obama stood on that night in Denver was paid for with the blood of courageous Black people and their allies in the struggle for freedom.

The historical significance of his speech was not in the text; it was that it happened.

The purpose of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech—and he understood this more than anyone—was to reassure the U.S. capitalist ruling class that he would defend and promote their imperialist class interests as enthusiastically as his opponent. Obama needed Wall Street to understand that you don’t have to be white, a “war hero,” super rich, or a Republican like John McCain to wage war.

The level of bourgeois politics in the U.S. is so low that it’s a liability for a presidential candidate to appear to have a sense of the world, of history, or to think too much. This is an obvious problem for Obama, so he’s trying to act more “manly.” It’s important that whenever Obama talks about pulling troops out of Iraq, he qualifies this by promising to send more troops to Afghanistan.

What Obama didn’t say

If anyone was expecting Obama to say anything of interest to progressives, his speech was a huge disappointment. If he was going to give a progressive speech, it would have been hard for him not to express his outrage over the Department of Homeland Security’s latest act of war against immigrant workers—the arrest of 600 workers at an electrical equipment factory in Laurel, Miss., which happened on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention.

He would have also talked about the racist criminality of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the continuation of that crime in the scandalous way that survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are being treated three years later.

He could have taken a little time in his speech to explain that when he gave that awful speech a few months ago, where he blamed Black people for the fact that they don’t have jobs and so many of them are in jail, he wasn’t an apologist for the capitalist system’s unbridled war against Black youth.

He might have used his speech to criticize the Denver police for attacking, brutalizing and arresting demonstrators every day of the Denver convention, but that wasn’t going to happen. With home foreclosures and layoffs, cutbacks and the pauperization of the working class, there is so much that Obama might have said if he had any other objectives than getting elected. But the fact that he didn’t say what we wanted to hear should come as no surprise to anyone at this point because Obama wasn’t talking to the workers; he was still auditioning for the ruling class.

The danger that the Obama phenomenon poses for the Black struggle and the independent political development of the U.S. working class is the prospect that his ascendancy will breathe new life into the capitalist political system and its Democratic Party. For three quarters of a century, the Democratic Party’s main function has been to subordinate the U.S. working class, the Black struggle and all progressive movements to the leadership of U.S. imperialism.

Indeed, in the wake of the developing capitalist economic storm, the need on the part of U.S. imperialism to revitalize the Democratic Party so that it can continue to thwart the development of the working class is clear.

True, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton falsely embraced their enemy, Barack Obama, at the DNC in order to save their political careers and legacy. But they also gave those phony speeches to preserve the Democratic Party.

Political activists in the U.S. are debating what the approach should be to all of this. Nowhere is that discussion more serious and critical than within the Black liberation movement. Workers World has made space in its pages to share that discussion. This issue includes a statement by the Black Left Unity Network as well as an open letter by Black activist and director U-Savior.

Many important activists are coalescing around the independent presidential campaign of former Georgia Congressperson Cynthia McKinney and her running mate, Rosa Clemente. McKinney reminded us at an antiwar rally in Denver before the opening of the DNC that, “The Democratic Party’s national leadership didn’t even mention Hurricanes Katrina and Rita survivors in their congressional agenda for the first 100 days.”

Obama and the legacy of Dr. King

The Black working class is more likely to understand that Obama’s candidacy and his election, if such is the case, will signify an achievement that is mostly symbolic. Some may have expectations that Obama will do something to improve the conditions of Black people should he become president. But having expectations is how the working class learns what works and what doesn’t work in its development as a class. This is an unavoidable and inevitable part of the process that leads to class-consciousness, struggle and ultimately revolutionary consciousness.

Symbolism tends to conceal the underlying truth instead of revealing it. However, in the struggle of oppressed and colonized people, symbolic things have some value before they are rightly cast aside for want of real things.

It is possible, even probable, that in November, just as in the primary elections, millions of whites, along with [email protected], Asians, Arabs and Native Americans will join the millions of Black voters in electing Barack Obama president.

However, even if the wiser heads in the U.S. ruling class agree that—given the trouble that their system is in—Obama would give U.S imperialism a desperately needed face lift, an easy Obama electoral victory shouldn’t be assumed.

More important than the policy differences between the two capitalist political parties is the partisan struggle over control of the vast U.S. capitalist government, its treasury, its state apparatus, and all of the privileges, wealth, favors and power that come with it.

For such a prize, both parties and their backers in the ruling class will spend a fortune. And the Republican Party, or, depending on the circumstances, the Democratic Party will use racism and whatever other reactionary garbage they think might help their cause.

They will use racism in their campaign over the next two months and maybe on Election Day they will disenfranchise a large enough percentage of the Black or [email protected] voters, or both, who come to the polls to make a difference. The ruling class at every level of government is good at this.

This much is certain: the contradictions in the Obama campaign pose a challenge to all on the left who want to move away from the capitalist parties, especially those who are struggling to revive a revolutionary, struggle-oriented, multinational working class, socialist, anti-imperialist and internationalist perspective.

The questions posed by the 2008 presidential elections, along with other world developments, are going to force the political movement, especially within the U.S., to develop politically and numerically. This pressure is not only good; it’s an absolutely essential part of the development of the working class and its movement.

It is much more than ironic that Obama made his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march and rally led by Martin Luther King Jr. Obama’s acceptance speech was part of the class struggle over King’s legacy. The working class and the capitalist class have been fighting over who has claim to King’s legacy.

Both classes want ownership so they can more effectively use it in their class interests. That struggle has never been more critical than it is today. Obama’s speech was an important and serious effort to firm up the grasp on King’s legacy of the class that Obama serves.

Obama’s hand is stronger if one has a selective memory of King’s work and legacy and no memory of the final chapter of his life. Notice how the ruling class never remembers that King said the U.S. was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”? The last year of King’s life was his most transformative. That transformation led him to call for the Poor People’s March in 1967. King’s programmatic goals were evolving from fighting to end legal racist segregation or apartheid in the U.S. to encompassing the demand for jobs at a living income for all. The capitalist ruling class pretends to revere King, but it wants everyone to forget about this.

In that last year, King was grappling with the contradiction that is at the heart of current events. He understood that in the freedom struggle, there was a place for victories that were either limited or symbolic in nature. However, he had come around to the understanding that merely altering the appearance of the capitalist system would in a short time amount to little more than a cruel betrayal of the fierce urgency to change the system.

This contradiction pushed King towards the fight for economic justice, the working class, the class struggle and an anti-capitalist struggle.

The combination of the deepening crisis of the capitalist system and the historic yet essentially symbolic progress that Obama represents, along with highly interconnected developments, is bound to elevate the class question, clarify the necessity for class struggle, and compel a wide resurgence of the working class struggle in the U.S., with Black workers occupying a critical position in its leadership.